The first major task facing the filmmakers was to cast the film’s central character, the young woman named Martha who becomes Marcy May (and sometimes Marlene) as a member of a cult family — and then becomes Martha again, in a courageous bid for a new life on her own. Casting director Susan Shopmaker, part of the Borderline Films’ circle of collaborators, surprised everyone when she suggested Elizabeth (Lizzie) Olsen, who had never made a movie before, for the role. To the filmmakers’ awe, Olsen proved ready to dive fearlessly into the darkest corners of a young girl’s mind as she confronts confusion, paranoia, shame and defiance, as she fights for her future.
When Sean Durkin saw Olsen audition for the first time, he knew he’d found exactly the right person to take this challenging journey. “Lizzie is so interesting to look at, so unique and beautiful. She has a depth to her, and an emotional strength. I just sensed it was all there when I first met her,” he remembers. “I could picture her walking down a driveway, picking up a rock, and shattering a window – as someone who could carry that boiled-up anger but also have the strength to let it fly.”
In turn, Olsen found the story riveting and believable, and right away felt she could intuit all that was going on underneath Martha’s skin, as her strange past bleeds into her present. “This is the first script I’ve read that got me really excited,” says Olsen. “It was something very different and I could see the character so clearly. I understood her psyche and in a weird way, I really liked Martha.”
She goes on, “I especially loved that Sean didn’t ever cede information to the audience. He treats the audience as intelligent and allows them to make discoveries as the characters do. I was also amazed that such a good script for a woman was written by a man. It’s a really cool, special thing. Martha is the type of character I hope more filmmakers will write for young women. She’s not a stereotype and her struggles are very real.”
Martha’s struggles began long ago in a troubled home life, which Olsen believes made her easily vulnerable to the appeal of a commune offering her the sense of family and meaning she’s been missing all her childhood. “At first, Martha thinks she’s found her sense of purpose in this family, which she’s never had her entire life,” says Olsen. “Patrick is the first person to ever make her feel truly loved and important. That’s what leads her to stay on the farm, but once she starts to question what is going on morally inside this family, that’s when problems start. She starts to wonder, just how far are they willing to go to be self-sufficient in this seemingly happy, pleasant place?”
It was clear to Olsen from the beginning why Martha was unwilling to tell her sister, or anyone else, about what she has been through. “She really feels like she can’t talk about it and she’s still living in a state of extreme paranoia, unable to trust anyone,” she explains. “Martha turns to Lucy only because she has nowhere else to go, but they don’t exactly have the closest relationship. Lucy has just gotten married and though she tries to help Martha blindly, it creates a lot of friction in the house.”
A lot of that friction stems from Martha’s inexplicable behavior. “She can’t really remember how she is supposed to act in society,” explains Olsen, “and she still believes in the cult way of living. She wants to be selfless and not materialistic, but those ideas have become twisted up in her mind. She doesn’t understand little things, like the way people sit down for dinner – she hasn’t sat down with another male in years, so she really can’t eat in front of a man. She doesn’t even know when it’s normal to be naked and when it’s not. She is a stranger in a strange land.”
Once on the set, Olsen developed a rapport with Durkin that was key to her ability to be so exposed in the role. “Sean is so caring and sensitive and no BS, that it was like being directed by a good friend,” she says. “You can share your secrets with him, because you know he’ll keep them. He was always answering my questions – and I asked a lot of them – and everything he said clicked.”
Olsen admits the darker sequences at the farm were frightening to her, but she dove in anyway. “I think Martha is completely devoid of any understanding of sexuality when she gets to the farm and what happens to her is scary for anyone to face,” she says. “It was a difficult thing to portray but I really trusted Sean aesthetically and he gave me all the space and time I needed.”
Josh Mond was impressed with how positive Olsen was able to stay under the circumstances. “She definitely had a lot of challenges,” he says, “but Lizzie has an infectious energy that kind of set the tone for everyone. Just watching her had the rest of us very excited.”
Adds Antonio Campos, “Lizzie was the biggest discovery of the film. We all watched her audition tape a million times and the consensus was that she had incredible potential. Of course, it’s always a bit of a gamble and you never really exactly how it will turn out, but we soon saw that no one works harder than Lizzie. She just didn’t stop getting better.”
Working with John Hawkes further gave Olsen the trust needed to go to some very perilous places, as Patrick “initiates” Marcy May into his forced version of shared intimacy with his family. “We were in a lot of compromising positions,” she says, “but I never felt uncomfortable with John until I was supposed to. He always made me feel like everything we were doing was safe.”
Safety throughout was essential, because Olsen spent much of the movie in a kind of naked state — emotionally and literally — often dirty, without makeup, clothes or even defenses. “The film is about raw human reactions, raw life,” she observes. “Nothing is manipulated.”
That was really the only way it could have worked, given that Martha’s story hinges on pulling the audience into her fear and uncertainty. “It’s funny because we had such a great time filming and it was great to play Martha . . . but I still find her life completely terrifying,” Olsen sums up.