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Keeping things 'In Secret,' Elizabeth Olsen gets an adrenaline rush

EntertainmentMoviesOscar IsaacOldboy (movie)Martha Marcy May Marlene (movie)Inside Llewyn DavisNew York University

When writer-director Charlie Stratton decided to dust off "Thérèse Raquin," Émile Zola's scandalous 1867 novel of love, lust and murder, and make it accessible for modern film audiences, he had to find the right actress to embody the complicated heroine.

But he didn't have to search very long to find the Thérèse for his adaptation, "In Secret," which opens Friday. Stratton had been mesmerized by Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of former "Full House" stars-turned-fashionistas Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, in her critically acclaimed turn in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the 2011 indie about a young woman who flees an abusive cult.

"There was a stillness about her which I found enchanting and complex," Stratton said. "It was something that was really important for me to find for this character. There is so much going on in her eyes, and that is really what took me to gravitating toward her. She was at once very young and had a very old soul."

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Luckily the timing was right for Olsen, who has also starred in such indie films as "Liberal Arts" and Spike Lee's "Oldboy." Olsen was completing her studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts when she received Stratton's script.

"I didn't know the story," said Olsen, 25, over the phone from London, where she is preparing to play Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, in "Avengers: Age of Ultron," Joss Whedon's eagerly anticipated sequel to the 2012 blockbuster "The Avengers." "The script ended up kind of haunting me."

As fate would have it, after she read the script, her first assignment in her theater studios class in realism and naturalism was to read the book and the play. Olsen had been interested in doing a period piece in which she could play someone "functioning in a world with limitations. It was fun to explore that."

Set in the French countryside and in lower-class neighborhoods of Paris, "In Secret" plays out as an 1860s film noir in the vein of James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

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Olsen's Thérèse is sexually repressed and unhappy in her marriage to her sickly cousin (Tom Felton of "Harry Potter" fame), whom her domineering aunt (Jessica Lange) forced her to wed. When the trio move from an isolated home in the countryside to Paris, she falls madly in love with her husband's dynamic friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac of "Inside Llewyn Davis").

The two embark on a heated affair and are soon plotting the demise of her husband. But as is the case of most noirs, their actions have tragic consequences.

Thérèse, said Olsen, "is very primal. She is kind of like a wild animal. She has all of these impulses and instincts, but she doesn't quite have a moral understanding of the world because she has never been exposed to anyone except at the small house they exist in and the small life they created."

Olsen described Thérèse and Laurent as "adrenaline junkies. Eventually it gets carried away and they have to deal with their actions."

Lange, Olsen said, set the bar for everyone on the film. Of a particularly dramatic scene she did with the two-time Oscar-winner, she recalled: "At the end of the day, it felt so awesome that I got to do a really kind of crazy scene." She laughed. "It was one of those moments where I went home and I was, like, wow, I just went head-to-head with Jessica Lange."

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Olsen graduated from Tisch in January 2013. "It took me forever," she said. "But it was important to me. I love being at school. The hardest thing this year is trying to figure out what you do in between jobs when you don't have school."

Not that she's really had much downtime.

After making a name for herself in indie films, Olsen is branching out into major studio productions. In addition to "Avengers," she's one of the stars of the reboot of the classic monster flick "Godzilla," directed by Gareth Edwards, which opens  May 16.

Olsen said she has long wanted to get a chance at studio features and didn't know why she was never approached to do one.

"I went around and met with different  executives and people who run the studios," Olsen noted. "One of them said, well everyone assumed that you are choosing to do these independent films because that is all you want you to do. That was kind of funny to me."

susan.king@latimes.com

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EntertainmentMoviesOscar IsaacOldboy (movie)Martha Marcy May Marlene (movie)Inside Llewyn DavisNew York University
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