Elizabeth Olsen is used to waiting in the wings. When she was an acting student at New York University, she landed an understudy role in the Broadway play “Impressionism,” starring Jeremy Irons. The show ran for 56 performances. Olsen didn’t take the stage a single time.
That sort of lost opportunity could mess with an actress’s mind, but Olsen was never in any hurry to seize the spotlight. Years later, when she was cast as the reality-bending witch Wanda Maximoff in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” her character was more of an ancillary Avenger than the main event, and in three subsequent Marvel films — each with a more overstuffed ensemble of superheroes than the last — Olsen never rose higher than 10th billing.
But a funny thing happened after biding all of that time: “WandaVision,” a sitcom spoof about Wanda and her android husband, became an unexpected phenomenon when it made its debut early last year on Disney+. This month, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which counts Olsen as its co-lead and pits her troubled witch against Benedict Cumberbatch’s goateed sorcerer, has proved even more major. The movie collected $185 million in its first three days of release, ranking 11th among the biggest domestic opening weekends of all time.
For Olsen, who initially made her mark in independent films, this is the equivalent of turning a comic-book page to find yourself the subject of a massive splash panel. During a video call last week, I asked how it felt to come to the fore as a blockbuster leading lady.
“I’m totally mortified!” she said. “I won’t watch it.”
Hours after we spoke, Olsen would walk the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but she planned to flee the theater as soon as the movie began. “This is pressure I’m feeling for the first time,” she explained. “I have a lot of anxiety with ‘Doctor Strange’ coming out because I’ve never really had to lead a commercial film by myself.”
She coughed, unwrapping a foil package: “Sorry, I have a lozenge.”
Olsen, 33, is casual and friendly, exuding a California glow so powerful that you would hardly know she had been sick for days. “It’s just annoying,” she said, swigging water from a Mason jar. “I think my body really wants to chill out.” She embarked on this global press tour the day after wrapping a seven-and-a-half-month shoot for the HBO limited series “Love and Death,” the sort of packed schedule that also required her to film “WandaVision” and “Doctor Strange” back to back.
Because her “Doctor Strange” director, Sam Raimi, had not yet watched all of “WandaVision” when shooting began, it fell to Olsen to thread the tricky line through the two projects. In the Disney+ series, Wanda is so bereft after the death of her true love, Vision (Paul Bettany), that she invents an elaborate sitcom reality where he’s still alive, then adds two kids to complete the illusion. But in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” she takes a much harder turn: Corrupted by a demonic book of spells, Wanda breaks bad and throttles a cast of good guys while on a multiverse-spanning trip to find her children.
Olsen “is scary not because of her destructive powers or her diabolical ambitions, but because she is so sad,” our critic AO Scott wrote. And if you still feel sympathetic to Wanda as she makes mincemeat of our heroes, it’s because of Olsen’s efforts to ground the character in something that feels specific and intimate. When Wanda issues a deadly threat, Olsen lets her voice go soft, and fill her eyes with tears and regret: There’s a real person in there. (Though other actresses in the supervillain realm tilt toward camp, Olsen understands that when you’re hovering in midair and wearing a red tiara, things are already arch enough.)
But six Marvel projects in, is this the kind of big-screen career she expected? Not exactly.
“It took me away from the physical ability to do certain jobs that I thought were more aligned with the things I enjoyed as an audience member,” Olsen said. “And this is me being the most honest.”
OLSEN HAD KNOWN she wanted to act since she was a child, but she also knew she didn’t want to act as a child. Any curiosity she might have had about fame was quieted by growing up alongside her sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley, who were cast in “Full House” before they were even a year old. The life-warping scrutiny of stardom could wait.
Anyway, she felt far more comfortable in a group. Olsen played high school volleyball and sparked to the team’s camaraderie: Everyone could have their solo moment, but they had to work together to succeed. Even in college, when she started to audition for movies, she was in no rush to leave the theatrical ensemble she had come through school with.
But film acting isn’t always as egalitarian. In 2011, Olsen stormed the Sundance Film Festival with a pair of star vehicles: “Silent House,” a single-take thriller that keeps its lens trained on her for 87 minutes, and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which cast her as an ex-cult member struggling to move on. That one-two punch led people to dub her the “it girl” of Park City, but as movers and shakers queued up in the snow to meet her, Olsen didn’t trust a thing they said.
“It really felt like everyone was speaking through both sides of their mouth,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is a bubble.’ It felt like I was literally in a snow globe.”
She came out of that experience knowing just two things: She didn’t want to be typecast as the crying indie girl, but she didn’t want to be thrust right into big-budget movies, either. “That looked scary to me, that kind of pressure,” she said.
Still, sometimes it’s nice to be invited to the party. A few years into her acting career, after a streak of low-key indies, she asked her agent why she was never in the running for higher-profile movies. The reply: “People don’t think that you want to do them.”
Did she? That’s a question Olsen had to ask herself then — and still does, from time to time. She decided she needed to put herself out there more, and signed on to a 2014 remake of “Godzilla,” reasoning that at least it was directed by Gareth Edwards, who until then had been an independent filmmaker.
And then came the role of Wanda, and with her, entrée into Hollywood’s biggest franchise. As Olsen mulled Marvel’s offer to star in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” she listed the pros: It would defy her indie typecasting. She’d once again be part of an ensemble, albeit a superpowered one. And her “Godzilla” co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson was willing to come aboard as Wanda’s brother, Pietro, ensuring she wouldn’t go it alone. They signed on to “Ultron” as a pair.
But Pietro was killed off at the end of that film, and as a shaken Wanda continued on through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, wondering if she really fit in, Olsen pondered the same question. Because of her Marvel commitments, she had to turn down a starring role in the Yorgos Lanthimos dark comedy “The Lobster,” and it didn’t take a multiverse for Olsen to imagine how that film would have propelled her down an entirely different path as an actress.
“I started to feel frustrated,” she said. “I had this job security but I was losing these pieces that I felt were more part of my being. And the further I got away from that, the less I became considered for it.”
Her initial contract with Marvel covered two starring roles and a cameo, though Marvel movies are so mammoth that the studio could have deemed the five weeks Olsen spent filming “Captain America: Civil War” a brief appearance. And while her rising profile helped get indie films like “Wind River” and “Ingrid Goes West” financed, she still wondered whether Wanda’s spell-casting was worth it in the end. Had she become typecast in a totally different way? And was it all building to something that mattered?
Wanda was killed off at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” satisfying Olsen’s three-film contract. “The power to choose to continue was important to me,” she said. And around the time the Marvel Studios head, Kevin Feige, brought Olsen in to discuss a resurrection for “Avengers: Endgame,” he pitched “WandaVision” to her. At first, she wondered if it was a demotion: TV, really? But the more she wrapped her head around it, the more she realized it was her wildest screen opportunity yet.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” was supposed to be Marvel’s first Disney+ series, an old-fashioned, down-the-middle action show in which the superheroes punch evildoers in every hourlong episode. “WandaVision,” by contrast, was a half-hour sitcom parody; the most significant fights of the show were marital squabbles, leavened by an eerie laugh track.
“We thought what we were doing was so weird and didn’t know if we had an audience for it, so there was a freedom to it,” Olsen said. “There was no pressure, no fear. It was a really healthy experience.”
But after the pandemic pushed Marvel to rejigger the order of its Disney+ series, “WandaVision” went first and became the unlikely standard-bearer. The show spawned countless memes, crashed the streaming service multiple times, and earned 23 Emmy nominations, including a best actress nod for Olsen.
More important, “WandaVision” helped her fall in love with Wanda — a character she had played for years — for the very first time. The show offered a dizzying array of variations on the role — some sitcom-sparkly, others modern and morose — and the first episode, shot in front of a live audience, required all of Olsen’s theatrical training to succeed. She wasn’t sure it would resonate with a wider audience until friends sent her video clips of a Minneapolis brunch where drag queens had dressed as all of Wanda’s alter egos. “If you make it to that stage,” Olsen said with a laugh, “then you actually are part of culture.”
With Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow out of the picture, Olsen is now the Marvel actress with the most hours clocked. Does she feel reinvigorated enough, after “WandaVision” and “Doctor Strange,” that she’d be willing to star in a solo film about her character?
“I think I would,” she said. “But it really needs to be a good story. I think these films are best when it’s not about creating content, but about having a very strong point of view — not because you need to have a three-picture plan.”
Now that she feels more comfortable in her signature role and in her own skin, Olsen wants to be more deliberate in her choice of roles and what she does with them. But she also told me a story from her understudy days about Jeremy Irons, who didn’t fully learn his lines until opening night of “Impressionism”; even through previews, he would muck around in front of the audience, exit the stage to peruse his pages, then come back on to muck some more. Maybe acting wasn’t something you trapped, pinned down and obsessively studied, Olsen realized then. Maybe you could embrace it as a fluid thing with an unknown destination.
Olsen knows now that a Hollywood career can take turns that you never could have predicted, so you might as well enjoy where it goes. Over the weekend, she popped up on “Saturday Night Live” to support her co-star Benedict Cumberbatch; she played herself in the sketch, while the show’s Chloe Fineman played Olsen’s understudy. Sometimes, things happen to come full circle like that. Sometimes, it even feels like magic.