Elizabeth Olsen on What She Learned Filming Wind River
The actress opens up about her dark new thriller, learning to fire a weapon and Avengers: Infinity War.
In Wind River, Elizabeth Olsen plays Jane Banner, a rookie FBI agent who is thrust into an eerie murder investigation involving the death of a young woman on a remote Native American reservation in Wyoming. She is assisted by a game tracker named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who knows his way around both the vast, frozen wilderness and the poverty-and-crime-ridden reservation. Before their search for the killer is over, both Banner and Lambert will get more than they bargained for and discover terrible secrets hidden in the reservation and deep in the land.
Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplays for the brilliant Hell or High Water and the intense Sicario. Olsen was reportedly the director’s first and only choice to play Banner, adding another memorable performance to Olsen’s growing repertoire. The movie also partnered her with her teammate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jeremy Renner, both of whom will be back early next year in Avengers: Infinity War.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Olsen and speak with her about Wind River, Infinity War and her other new movie, the dark satire Ingrid Goes West, in which she plays a shallow “social influencer” who is stalked by an obsessive fan played by Aubrey Plaza.
Den of Geek: This FBI agent, Jane Banner, is competent, professional, but she’s also in a situation that she’s very unfamiliar with, and that also makes her more human. You start to see her frustration and determination at the same time.
Elizabeth Olsen: Well, Taylor and I, when we were discussing Jane’s background, he was saying that he believes that she is someone who probably went to law school and while in law school decided to go into criminal law and became interested more in becoming a federal agent as opposed to someone living at the court, but she’s probably top of her class in weapon training and she is aligned to be incredibly successful and good at her job. And she’s a woman. And young.
Part of, I think, people’s strengths is knowing their own limitations and knowing when they need to ask for help. I think she comes onto the reservation completely ignorant of where she’s putting herself and going into a world that doesn’t follow the rule book that she has learned. It tests her to have to bend some rules, kind of. She doesn’t really want to at first. The best thing she does is ask for help from Jeremy’s character and admit that she doesn’t really know how to handle something like this in this situation.
When she asks for help from the reservation police, it’s when we as an audience can also see how poorly funded it is and that the difference between reservation and federal law in the jurisdiction is set up so that the reservation will fail, essentially. There’s a lack of materials, a lack of support, a lack of tools, a lack of financing.
In the way that she gets her eyes opened to all this, when you’re making a movie with a subject like this do you feel like you’re learning something? That statistic about disappearances among Native American women is so chilling and yet it’s something people don’t know about.
Well, they also don’t care. That’s the problem with our culture. I grew up in California and I know that we had a genocide on our own turf and that’s why we’re here and that’s about it. I don’t know what a reservation life is like. I don’t know if they go to school. I had a girl I went to college with who told us that she was from a reservation and the first thing in my head was, like, “How’d you get into college? Do you have a school system? Do you guys go to college?” I didn’t know anything. We’re completely ignorant. You don’t realize that it’s kind of a subculture of living in poverty and having gang violence, especially on reservations that have an old history of two tribes hating one another who our government decided to put them all on one plot of land.
So, every movie there’s something to learn. This just happened to be like a really big learning lesson every day. I also got to learn how to shoot a gun. I also learned that I wasn’t scared of guns, of shooting a gun. There’s a physical learning curve that I went through during this film that was interesting, because now I would love to do gun fu and something like John Wick. I actually found it to be an interesting new sport in some weird way. I don’t want a gun, I don’t want a license, I don’t want to go to a shooting range, but I enjoyed learning a new physical ability, I guess.
Was the location shooting the most challenging aspect of all this physically? I imagine filming four months up in Utah in the early part of the year has got to be trying.
Yeah, I mean it is. I think you just know what you’re getting yourself into and we were as prepared as possible. I’m with really masculine dudes who wouldn’t complain. Taylor, if it was 35 degrees, he would be wearing a white T-shirt. He’d be like, “Oh, it’s warm.” Like, you’re an insane person.
I think the number one concern I had was to not look stupid shooting a gun and not look stupid screaming things like, “FBI. Put your weapons down.” Things that I only see in movies, I’ve never seen up close. But that’s why I just put in a lot of time into the training, and training with people who were former law enforcement officers or Green Berets and have done tours and have seen horrible, traumatic things and what their mentality is like towards government, towards crime, towards gang violence, whatever it is. Their sense of humor, the way they walk, the way they interact with people in a casual manner. Those kinds of things end up all informing, I guess, you just kind of soak it up and it somehow informs the character.
Taylor Sheridan has written some great scripts. When you get a script like this, does it pop off the page to you?
Yeah. Absolutely. There’s more to it in the script than what’s on the screen, as I guess most scripts are. He has a lot of poetry and as authentic and bleak and direct and straightforward as these characters are and raw, there’s also an element of insane amount of poetry and themes and ideas that are larger than just the story itself. The literal story itself. So to get to read a script like that after reading script after script that you’re like, “No, no, no.” Then to know that he wanted me to play this, which is so funny still to me based on what I’ve already worked on. I just got lucky.
We’re also seeing you in Ingrid Goes West this month.
Yeah. These two characters are so much alike (laughs).
Tell me about humanizing Taylor in that movie, because that’s a character that could be a complete caricature if you wanted to go that route. But you didn’t quite go that way with her.
I think the humor comes from this idea that Taylor is someone who cares more about someone’s perception of her. So if she were in a conversation, she’s thinking about how she’s coming across from this perspective. I think when the humor is from when it seems like Ingrid’s showing her cards and saying she’s obsessed with her and loves her and that she’s the funniest, best person in the world, she’s her best friend, that she takes it like a compliment and says, genuinely, “Thank you.”
I have one close friend who is almost like a parody of herself, but it’s so genuine, and she’s such a sweet person. She means well, but she does become a parody of herself and she can poke fun at it. And then there are people who are just completely delusional, so you just try and figure out … It is this world of people wanting to be acknowledged, people wanting to be seen — that’s why hateful things happen in the world, because people want something they do to be seen and noticed. Whether it’s an extreme of like, “love me,” or extreme of, “you see me and now I’m heard,” kind of thing.
When do you go back for more Avengers filming and, in general terms, can you talk a bit about Wanda’s arc in these next two movies?
I’m grateful that the writers are writing me things to do, because they don’t have to. There’s a big ensemble and you can have a small arc or a big arc and they keep writing things that I can do, that I can have fun with. This time it has a lot to do with working with Paul Bettany and the Vision and their relationship. That’s a new, fun arc we’re exploring. I think even for Avengers standards, there really hasn’t been that kind of an arc in a film yet, in the Avengers franchise yet.
I’ve already filmed a couple months in Scotland and Atlanta and then I’ll just be in and out ’til the holidays, basically. We’re filming two, so we’ve almost finished one of them. They’re on a hiatus right now. I haven’t even seen a single page from the next one, so I’m not really aware of what’s going on.
Has there been any one scene where there were like 40 of you all on the set at the same time?
I can’t say that.
Wind River is out in theaters this Friday (August 4).