When Elizabeth Olsen was first pitched the idea of taking her character Wanda Maximoff into the suburbs with her late android husband Vision, played by Paul Bettany, she wasn’t quite sure how to wrap her head around it, let alone understand the couple’s inexplicable reunion. The president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, and creator Jac Schaeffer had told her their plans for WandaVision to kick off the MCU on the new Disney+ platform. They also explained the concept that each episode would be set against classic sitcom tropes from the ’50s to modern day.
“I was really worried about launching a show like that,” admits Olsen. “The idea that Kevin had about trying to tell this story in a Twilight Zone-y way through sitcom is so twisted and bizarre to me that I could only be excited to see what they would come up with. Another issue was to bring these superhero characters that audiences are used to seeing on big screens onto a small television.”
But timing played a fateful hand with the WandaVision release. The pandemic allowed for people to stay indoors and wax nostalgic on entertainment that made them feel safe. And WandaVision’s creatively misleading retro storytelling not only brought a visual comfort, it also told an underlying story of one woman’s intense grief and how she needed to escape from reality. This zeitgeist-y scenario made the series an instant watercooler hit, not only kicking off an exciting new era of MCU on Disney+ but giving fans the chance to watch sidelined characters become the leading characters in their own major storylines.
“If you’re in a choir,” explains Olsen, “you’re adding a tone to the group. So, in the [Avengers] films, I always felt like I was adding a sincerity tone while everyone was being sarcastic. Wanda has a lot of heart and a lot of pain, but with this, all of that went out the window. The core of this woman is really her lack of having really understood her own grief and trauma, and she’s trying to move forward in the world. Then there’s this strong desire and need for creating a family nucleus allows for her to not be alone in the world. And then everything else, the sitcoms, even her knowledge of what’s happening is just circumstance.”
The big themes hidden within WandaVision’s deliberately forced sugary facade made it a hit among critics, too. Think pieces and fanatical breakdowns of each episode brought a level of kudos never before seen for a Marvel character. So much so, that when the Emmy nominations were announced, WandaVision scored 23 of them, including Lead Actor nods for Olsen and her onscreen partner Paul Bettany. It is the 3rd most-nominated show this year.
“Yeah, it’s odd,” muses Olsen. “After seven years of playing the same character, who would have predicted it? I got comfortable being in an ensemble, and I really liked trying to figure out what my point of view was to the story as a whole. But with this show, we just thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing we’re ever going to be able to participate in, so let’s just swing for the fences and either it will crash and burn or people will like it.’ We just had fun.”
Spearheading the fun was director Matt Shakman who brought his years of collaborating as the artistic director for the Geffen Playhouse onto the set; bringing a cohesive theater troupe feel to the cast.
“I’ve had some pretty great leaders on my films,” recalls Olsen, “but Matt is one of the greatest leaders I have ever had on a job. He had us come in for two weeks to do rehearsals and to all get the same visual vocabulary for every single episode. Everyone came out to Atlanta, even for a couple of nights, or even if they weren’t working until six months later. We literally felt like an acting troupe.”
“A lot of us, Teyonah (Parris), Katheryn (Hahn), Paul, were all trained from different acting conservatories,” says Olsen. “We are all students of acting. I mean it was so dorky, we would do vocal exercises in hair and makeup, trying to find this world together. I would look to everyone around me to figure out, ‘OK, are we really doing this cheese? Is this really what we’re doing?’ But we were all doing the same amount of cheese, and as an ensemble we were supporting and holding each other up. That’s why it felt like such a fun show to work on, because you really felt that camaraderie and necessity of all your scene partners, so it worked.”
Which made the different eras of comedy sitcoms, with its specific sets of rhythm, less of a challenge and more of a celebratory collaborative effort to work through.
“I mean it was like a dream,” smiles Olsen. “It already feels like such a gift as an actor to get to play a genre or tone or period piece or have a playful exploration of your voice. All those things are already just so much fun and then to constantly have to change and alter it, yet keep the same core of these characters. It was a joy.”
“I’m really grateful for this show,” continues Olsen, “I got to have a lot of fun showcasing in a way of being a ham. I haven’t gotten to do that in a lot of my work. You learn in life to become quiet and reserved and polite, and it’s really fun to have that opportunity to access the skills that you’ve learned throughout the years. It awoke my body up to what I love about work and I’m feeling residual effects in a positive way preparing for my next job.”
After traveling through multiple fictional settings, Olsen’s next job took her to the U.K. to continue playing the Avengers’ Scarlet Witch in the upcoming film Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Leaving behind her tight group of theater comrades and stepping back onto the big screen after two years of playing Wanda Maximoff, something felt different.
“It was great to stay in the same mindset,” says Olsen. “It was also frustrating because [WandaVision] hadn’t come out yet. I had just spent a year breaking down what family meant for Wanda. How our entire show is about family sitcoms, because it gave comfort though so many different time periods. And I knew that Dr. Strange was going to be different for this character, even though I was going into a film with a bunch of new people, to have this new huge group experience, I was completely alone again.”
Now back in the U.S., Olsen can finally give Wanda a break and take on characters outside the MCU, possibly even returning to the independent film scene where she got her break as an actress a decade ago.
“This has been a great gift from Marvel,” she says. “The longer you work for [them], the more included you are in every step of the process. And I really do appreciate that. I’m also grateful from a financial standpoint, because I’m now able to make decisions and take on opportunities not based on the potential of its commercial success.”
Now it seems that seven years later, playing Wanda has come to a perfect rewarding ending for Olsen. That is, unless the MCU needs her back for another round.