"Chekhov was my savoir when I was in high school," admitted Elizabeth Olsen, who was introduced to the work of the classic playwright at age 15. "I read The Seagull and laid in bed and cried for two hours. I was thinking, 'This is the best play I've ever read!'"
Olsen's love of the classics continued to grow, especially during her theatre studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She joined the cast of Broadway's Impressionism as the understudy to Margarita Levieva but never performed onstage, and her first major film role was the title character of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a young woman who escaped from an abusive cult.
Olsen, whose film credits also include "Silent House," "Liberal Arts" and "Kill Your Darlings," is now taking on the role of Juliet in the Classic Stage Company's production of Romeo and Juliet, which marks her official New York stage debut. Previews begin Sept. 28 prior to an official opening Oct. 16.
Directed by Tea Algeric, Olsen stars opposite the Romeo of Julian Cihi, a fellow graduate of Tisch School of the Arts. The cast also includes Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence and Daphne Ruben-Vega as the Nurse.
Olsen, who first approached the role of Juliet in a reading at Classic Stage Company in March 2012, said she was initially reluctant to take on the part because she is usually drawn to characters who are "more obviously broken."
"I guess I kind of jumped to the conclusion, 'Everyone knows this story. No one's going to be surprised by anything,'" she said. "And that's not what it's about."
One of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays, Romeo and Juliet, which is currently being revived on Broadway, has been adapted for film, most recently in 2013, opera and ballet. The Last Goodbye, a musicalized adaptation featuring Jeff Buckley songs, is currently in performance at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
While working on her interpretation of the Capulets' daughter, Olsen developed a new respect for the teenage girl, recognizing her determination and strength of will, characteristics she thinks have been overlooked in previous performances. "It was so fun to realize how brilliant of a woman Juliet is, and how strong she is, and how determined and fierce," Olsen said. "It's like she's obedient to anyone she chooses to be obedient to."
Olsen described Juliet as "the most active person for the entire play," adding, "She doesn't let fate happen to her. She's controlling. She's making all of her choices, and she's following them through fully."
Juliet, Olsen explained, doesn't realize how protected and closed off to the world she is until she is exposed to something beyond her world.
"Once that's offered, then she starts to realize that she's been trapped. I never think of her as being petulant [although] I think she's been portrayed that way many times."
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