Bag-lady chic. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when Elizabeth Olsen enters Il Buco on a balmy afternoon in July, but not for the reasons one might expect. The 23-year-old actor and budding fashion darling, who is currently between apartments, walks into her favorite upscale Italian restaurant carrying a paper shopping bag from Pamela Rolland, which tears in half just before she sets it down next to our table. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” she whispers to herself while expeditiously gathering its quotidian goulash: a stick of deodorant, a pair of gym sneakers, an empty water bottle, the latest issue of Whole Living magazine, and used copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, both emblazoned with Oprah’s seal of approval.
A week earlier Olsen was in Serbia, where she spent two months channeling the eponymous heroine in filmmaker Charlie Stratton’s adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel-turned-play Thérèse Raquin. Yesterday she started preproduction on Very Good Girls, the story of two recent high school graduates (Olsen and Dakota Fanning) who fall for the same guy. “This has been the fastest I’ve had to shift between two projects,” she says, before ordering a glass of 1997 Burlotto Barolo from the restaurant’s hideaway wine cellar. “Actually, that’s a lie. When I filmed Martha, it overlapped with another movie I was doing at the same time.” She is, of course, referring to Sean Durkin’s award-winning Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which she played a troubled drifter who escapes from a Spahn Ranch–type farmhouse where she’d lived under the lecherous rule of a magnetic cult leader (John Hawkes). As a bruised and rough-hewn shell of a woman on the verge of a paranoia-fueled breakdown, Olsen’s nuanced performance managed to combine very adult terror with teenage petulance, and it’s the reason she’s been busy ever since. “Truth be told, I feel a little crazy right now,” she says of her frenzied work schedule.
It doesn’t help that she’s still two humanities courses shy of earning her undergraduate degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I’m a six-year college student, which is so embarrassing,” says Olsen, whose academic career has been stalled by her recent onslaught of movie roles, including, ironically, Liberal Arts, a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy written and directed by Josh Radnor, who also stars as Jesse, a thirty-something college admissions officer who returns to his bucolic alma mater and crushes on Olsen, a sophomore theater student. “Liberal Arts is special to me, because it was the first movie I was in the position to choose,” she says. “I’d done three psychological thrillers back-to-back—Silent House, Red Lights, and Martha—and I wanted to do something more like me, something that had a sense of humor.”
Although she hated her actual first-year campus residency (“It was terrible! People should avoid it”), there was something comforting about living in the dorms of Kenyon College, where the majority of Liberal Arts was filmed. “Everything smelled like beer, just like in college,” Radnor says. “I think some people were a little freaked out when they walked in, but two days later they were blissed out and wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else.” Says Olsen, “It was really fun, actually. I had lots of days off to take these long bike rides on a converted train railway. I’d ride over these creeks and when the sun was setting, when it was almost too dark to be riding, I’d pass an infinite cornfield and millions of lightning bugs would sparkle across the horizon.”
In Radnor’s second directorial offering, Olsen plays Zibby, an opinionated young woman who seizes every opportunity to debate the merits of anything from Monteverdi to Bella Swan. “I wrote Zibby as an old soul in a young person’s body. Lizzie brought all that to the part and more. She’s wise and sophisticated but she’s also young and energetic, and can be really goofy in the most charming way,” says Radnor, who was impressed by how intensely prepared Olsen was when she arrived to set on the first day of shooting. “You’d be surprised by how many young actors show up not knowing their lines,” he says. “Lizzie isn’t one of them. She puts a lot of thought into her characters, but she doesn’t show her homework.” Olsen’s portrayal of a woman who views the world as an endless tangle of possibilities is perhaps so authentically lived-in because it mirrors a similar stage in her own life. “It’s this awesome time when teachers encourage you to change the world, literally, with your intellect,” she says. “There’s something about being in college and having theories about life and the world that exists ahead of you. It’s a really fun phase to go through until, you know, everything gets shit on.”
While the film centers on Jesse’s willful but temporary regression from experience to innocence, it also shows, in subtler ways, the twilight of Zibby’s teenage years—specifically in one scene, when she offers Jesse her virginity. “Being 35 and taking a girl’s virginity? That’s crazy,” says Olsen reasonably, although she admits that she’s always had a thing for silver foxes like George Clooney and Frank Sinatra. “If I were an older man and I saw a girl my age, who maybe didn’t know herself that well, I would find her so unappealing, because if you’re in it for sex, the sex won’t be that great. But when I see a woman in her 40s and up, I think, God, you know a lot. One day, I’ll get to be desired like you.”