"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."
Olsen noted that the two lovers have only four scenes together, two of which are very brief. It is the time they spend apart, she said, that demonstrates their devotion to each other and their conviction that they should be together.
"You see them when they're together and also when they're apart," she said. "It's the willingness to make sure they can be together when they're not, that goes into the chemistry."
The Classic Stage Company's production is not the only Shakespeare play, or even the only Romeo and Juliet, currently being performed in New York. The aforementioned modern-set production of the star-crossed lovers is currently playing Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, and a double bill of Richard III and Twelfth Night and a production of Macbeth will open later in the fall. In Brooklyn, an all-female cast will perform Julius Caesear at St. Ann's Warehouse, and a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Julie Taymor, begins performances at Theater for a New Audience Oct. 19.
Shakespeare's continued popularity led Olsen to reflect on different cultures' portrayal of classic works.
"There's something about when Western theatre takes on Shakespeare, takes Chekhov, takes a classic text. We feel we have to put it on a pedestal and honor it instead of making it our own. Then you go to Berlin, you go to Russia, and people are using from the text what they need to tell their story." Olsen said the Classic Stage Company's production approaches the work from an angle similar to that used in Russia or Berlin — the actors are given the opportunity to take ownership of the characters and story they are telling.
"I feel very lucky that I'm doing this play because every day I get to prep myself and I get to be infected with love," she said. "That's a really lucky thing, as opposed to the most existential, 'We have no hope' situation. The good thing about Juliet is she has hope until she kills herself. It feels really amazing to be infected with that kind of energy for the amount of time we're going to be running the show."
Olsen, who was exposed to fame at a young age, via her successful older sisters Mary Kate and Ashley, said she is drawn to work that challenges her, and she chooses her roles carefully.
"I realized I would be happiest if I worked on things that gave me some sort of pleasure, some sort of learning experience," she said. "Now I can really choose what's going to be worth the effort and experience."
Some of the roles she would someday like to tackle are Lady Macbeth and Mary Tyrone, but she said, "I really have time to wait. I'm always attracted to the characters I couldn't play right now...I feel so lucky to be working on a play right now…It really brings me back to the detail of the time and the never-ending mentality of working on a character."