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Writer-director Sean Durkin was awash in unknown actresses aged 18 to 24. He was committed to casting a newcomer to headline his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman who slips away from a cult in New York's Catskills Mountains. (It opened in select cities yesterday.) He'd auditioned a sea of them, "everyone in New York, and people sent tapes from L.A.," he recalled in an interview last month.

Then Elizabeth Olsen came in, and in her first read of her first scene, she had him. "She did this subtle thing, I didn't know what it was, but it felt different," he said. "She had an intensity behind her eyes, but it was effortless, too. There was a lot going on."

Asked later, in a separate interview, Olsen remembered what she'd done. "I was trying to hold my breath," she said.

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She certainly made me catch mine. In the film, Olsen's character is a woman whose identity is as fluid as water, as evanescent as smoke. Even her name changes: She's Martha to the sister (Sarah Paulson) she hasn't seen in two years; Marcy May to the cult leader (John Hawkes) who exploits her passivity; and Marlene when the situation calls for it (to explain further would spoil it for you). Remarkably, Olsen is able to essay all these changes not just emotionally and with her eyes, but physically, too – sometimes she appears thin and fragile, other times lush, fleshy and robust. From some angles her face is wan, from others, radiantly beautiful. So exactly did she embody Durkin's idea, he said, that "it's too scary to even think about what I'd have done if she hadn't come in."

Now all Hollywood is panting after her. She co-stars with Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver in next year's Red Lights. She's currently filming Very Good Girls with Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard and Dustin Hoffman. And her performance in Martha is generating the kind of buzz Jennifer Lawrence did last year with Winter's Bone (also, coincidentally, opposite Hawkes).

Luckily, Olsen's uniquely positioned to handle the attention. As the younger sister of twin sensations Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth, 22, grew up in L.A. watching her sisters work feverishly while fending off paparazzi assaults.

"I always wanted to act," she said, sitting elegantly on a sofa, hands in her lap, hair pulled back, lips stained the prefect, of-the-moment red. She's taller and earthier than her waifish siblings, with a fuller face and a more refined-sounding speaking voice. But the family resemblance is unmistakable, especially when she smiles. "I didn't want to do it as a kid, though, because I saw how much my sisters worked, and I didn't have the discipline they did." Later, when she was 15, she thought, "I'm not going to be an actor if it means you have no privacy and people follow you in your car."

Then a high-school drama teacher "turned me on to the academic side of theatre," Olsen said. "The history of it, all the influences from Russia, how that changed American acting. I got so fascinated that I forgot about everything else that comes along with it." At the same time, she saw her sisters "navigating everything, and becoming amazing businesswomen with successful fashion lines – today is their presentation for New York fashion week. They love work and creativity and expressing themselves, and they have such big goals. They're really incredible women. Now people give them a little bit of a break. So there's nothing [about fame]that makes me scared. I'll just have to figure out for myself how to handle it."

She's five courses away from completing her degree at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and she's determined to fit them in around her expanding work schedule. "It's really important to me to get the degree," she said. "I'm such a student. I love writing academic essays. I get frustrated, but there's such a sense of relief and accomplishment when you reach some greater meaning. I really love narrative and structure, how you can carve storylines and have them twist around each other and lead to something. I really respond to architecture in writing."

The structure of Martha Marcy May Marlene resembles that of DNA: The strands of Martha's current life outside the cult and her recent past inside it are entwined, bridged by flashbacks. Information is meted out sparingly, partly because Martha's sister is determined not to pry, and partly because Martha herself isn't quite sure what happened to her. As a result, the whole movie is permeated with an air of delicate dread, which continues long after you've left the theatre.

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Though some reviewers have complained that the characters are too opaque, Durkin insists their reticence is true to life. "I've never been in a cult, but I know people with more common issues, people who deal with drug abuse, alcoholism or domestic abuse," he said. "How many people who are alcoholics actually get confronted by their families, and their families actually take the action to do something? People would rather pretend it's not happening. That was our approach." His feeling was reinforced when a long-time friend came forward and confessed that she'd been in a sexually abusive cult, and hadn't spoken of it to anyone but her family and her therapist for seven years. And still, she said, after all that time, though she knew in her head that she was taken advantage of, in her heart she didn't feel that way.

"That's another reason Sean cast me," Olsen said. "Neither of us saw Martha as a victim, or as self-pitying."

Nor did Olsen balk at the frank nudity of the film. "I had some nerves at the very beginning that I didn't talk about," she said. But after watching Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, in which Kate Winslet joins a cult, she realized, "The nudity in that film makes you feel like a voyeur when you watch it, which has this huge effect on you. And it's integral to telling our story, too – it's part of how a person can completely lose care and respect for yourself, without even realizing you have."

Olsen did one more thing to cinch her audition, Durkin said. After her reading, he escorted her to the waiting room, and they chatted for awhile. "She was such a different person, so vibrant and charming," he said. "She was going upstate to shoot another movie, and she'd just moved out of her apartment, so she had everything she owned with her in three bags. I was expecting some guy to be waiting outside to help her, but she threw it all on her back and said, 'I'm just walking down to Penn Station.' That said a lot about her as a person. Her strength, her independence."

It's probably the last time Elizabeth Olsen will ever have to haul her own luggage. But she made it count.

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