"It's scary to go to acting school," Elizabeth Olsen admits.
"You're always getting criticism — constructive criticism. It's never 'Good job.' Never. Your teacher will never tell you 'That was great.' And if they do, you know that's the only praise you're going to get from them for the rest of the year."
Olsen is explaining why a lot of former child stars are afraid to step back from the business they got their start in and try college. She might be talking about any child star, or even her older sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, known as The Olsen Twins on TV and film since the '80s.
"You're vulnerable, putting yourself in that position," says the younger Olsen, an alumna of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "If you were a child actor, maybe you don't want to go through that."
Her sisters talked about doing it. But Olsen, 22, who got her start on the same TV show ("Full House") as her siblings, is the one who did it and has been reaping the rewards. Since the beginning of the year, her name has turned up on short lists whenever a film project calls for a beautiful young woman with serious acting chops. Her breakout film, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," became the talk of this year's Sundance Film Festival. And she got that role and made it pay off because she went to college.
"Acting school made me better able to do the work and to communicate with Sean [Durkin], the director. 'Look, if something sounds false or dishonest or not right, you can just tell me. I'm used to it.' And Sean took me up on it. As sensitive as I can be, he did. And the movie was better for it."
If reviews of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," opening at the Enzian on Friday, are prophetic, Olsen could be Hollywood's next big thing.
In the film, Olsen plays a young woman who falls in with a cult, a tale told out of order as we meet her when she shows up at her sister's home, on the run from that cult. It's a role that required Olsen to veer from guarded and paranoid to naïve and trusting, and in that order.
"She knows things the audience doesn't," Olsen says of the film in which her character is known to her family by one name, the cult by another. "It was remarkable to find a young woman character written in a way that has her run the gamut of emotions, from fear to rapture and everything in between."
Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday praised Olsen's "open, unadorned face that allows feelings to emerge and recede with quicksilver mutability."
Olsen is the first to admit she had movie career advantages — and not just because her sisters were TV stars, almost since birth.
"I grew up in L.A., attending private schools," she says. "Every single person in my class, with the exception of just a couple of kids of doctors or lawyers, was the child of somebody in the industry. I was raised in an environment where getting to work in 'the industry,' was a goal."
She learned from her sisters to approach acting as a child "as work. They started going to Friday meetings at their company when they were 13 years old. You grow up fast."
But the younger Olsen, seeing "the industry" lose interest in her siblings, had her doubts about her own possibilities.
"When I was about 15 years old, I said to myself, 'This is so silly. I can't believe I'm still saying I want to be an actor. … What's a realistic job?' It was this frustrating moment in my life when I thought this acting thing was out of reach."
But an acting teacher pointed the younger Olsen to acting conservatories, "this tangible way of getting to be an actress that I could grab hold of."
As she steps into the spotlight, the comparisons to her sisters are fading. But most every reviewer and interviewer notes another comparison, a physical one, to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal.
"That never came up in my life until I was on-screen," Olsen says, laughing. "But Naomi Foner is Maggie's mother, and Naomi wrote and is directing 'Very Good Girls,'" which will co-star Olsen and Dakota Fanning.
"Even Naomi says I look like her daughter. When you've got the MOM telling you there's a resemblance, you know there's something to it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times