Neither Elizabeth Olsen nor Jurnee Smollett are strangers to having to really stretch their imaginations to dive into complex characters and even more complicated worlds.
Both have superhero films on their résumés: Smollett portrayed Black Canary in DC’s “Birds of Prey,” while Olsen stepped into Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch’s shoes for Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise and then some — including Disney Plus’ first Marvel series, “WandaVision.” They are both now Emmy-nominated for projects that tasked them with jumping through time, blending genres and telling epic love stories (Olsen with “WandaVision,” Smollett with HBO’s “Lovecraft Country”). And, even though they are up in different categories (Olsen in lead limited series/TV movie actress; Smollett in lead drama actress), both of these shows are one-season wonders, leaving the performers and their audiences wanting more.
Olsen and Smollett dissected all that of when Variety brought them together post-nominations to talk about their celebrated roles and surreal playgrounds.
You both had a lot of magical or otherwise surreal elements to interact with on your shows. What did you actually have in front of you to react to on set?
Jurnee Smollett: We were very fortunate on “Lovecraft Country” because the whole VFX team worked so hard to create an atmosphere that was also practical in our space. I remember on Episode 3, the exorcism scene, we shot it over a course of three days and, while there was not a man in real life with a baby head on him, you’ve got the wind machines and the pictures are blowing and all the special effects makeup is being touched up. Atticus [Jonathan Majors] has pretty much turned into a rabid dog and I’m doing this spell with my ancestors and whether they were shooting behind us or shooting the elements, we were at our max capacity regardless because that’s just how we approach the craft. It was such a big sequence to shoot that that’s when the actor in you has to advocate for your instrument. I did go to the director and say, “Can you jump in and cross shoot Jonathan and I?” As an actor it is our job to shoot however many takes, however many angles you need, but then it is also our job to advocate for yourselves. And I love playing in this space because you get to use your imagination you get to go to crazy places. Because even while the practical elements are there; you get to go to crazy places. But I was grateful for the practical elements because it’s just so much easier.
Elizabeth Olsen: Did they have pre-viz so you knew what some of the supernatural elements looked like?
Smollett: With the Shoggoths they not only had a pre-viz for us, but for some of the scenes they had massive sculptures, like a dude standing there in a green suit with a Shoggoth head. The pilot we didn’t have this puppet, but by Episode 8, maybe we got more of a budget or something, but eventually we did get a puppet — which was really cool because you could see, “This is the moment his mouth is opening.” But also, Misha [Green], our showrunner, she just wants more blood, more dirt. She’d try to get them to blow spittle at us.
Olsen: That’s so gross!
Smollett: This concoction of Shoggoth spit, throwing it in front of this wind machine. I find the more practical stuff we have to work with, it just helps so much. And then there were the moments where it’s like, “No it’s just a green tennis ball and an X, and go.” How about you?
Olsen: For all those little things in the air and stuff in the ’50s, it was really important to our director [Matt Shakman] that we did everything ala “Bewitched.” It was all camera tricks, it was all wires. Our head of special effects had a lineage of a father who [did] special effects before him, and so puppetry and wire work and stuff like that were things that were already in his vocabulary, but we would have our special effect guys who are used to blowing things up and putting things on fire just balancing and making sure things aren’t swinging but they have to move. Even in the ’70s when she’s pregnant and everything’s in chaos, we really had a picture on the wall going in circles; they just figured out things with magnets.
When we were filming the finale, it was during COVID, during the fires last summer, and we shot Kathryn [Hahn’s] side at the beginning of the episode when she has my boys with her magic — we had to shoot them out because you always have to shoot the side with the kid out and also Kathryn was doing wires for the first time and of course it was with a corset and it was really hot and really bad air quality and so she had to be sent home by the medic at the end of the day. And so, on my side we were running out of days, and I think we had 35 minutes to shoot my side and my reactions to all of that, and there’s quite a bit of back and forth and throwing myself to the ground and hitting a different mark that will then stitch with the stunt double being pulled. I did a weird one-woman show sans kids, sans Kathryn. Our stand-ins were such a huge part of our show and I was so grateful to have them they’re reading lines with me, and our director, Matt Shakman, was like, “If you feel like you can’t do this, we’ll just do this tomorrow.” That gave an adrenaline rush to me and it just became, “I’m just going to do it.” There’s a lot of fear when you’re like, “Oh I don’t have the elements and I am on my own, literally.” But I’ve had to do this before and I’m just scared to do it because I feel stupid. But I already look kind of stupid — I’m shooting things out of my hands — so why don’t I just lean into it as full as possible and just do it and find it in some core, guttural space of desperation? That day was bizarre, but I was actually very happy that I didn’t put it off. I feel like sometimes as actors when there are things that make us nervous it’s like, “Oh we don’t have enough time to explore so let’s do it the next day if we can,” and then you’re in your head all night about it. And so, it’s nice to just do it, even if it feels silly.
Smollett: I’d imagine surrendering and using the fear and all that that you were feeling probably served you so well in it.
Olsen: And don’t you feel that, though? When you feel unsupported you just want to break down in tears and you’re not supposed to break down in tears or you’re not supposed to have those it’s those feelings in the moment, but there are other times where it is really useful and there’s something freeing about channeling it in some way.
Smollett: Yeah and it’s that word you just used: freeing. Being able to surrender — leap and the net will appear. And you’re right, if you would have gone home, you probably would have come back the next day and you would have overthought it. There’s something about using the adrenaline in that moment that I don’t think you can really teach an actor to do; it’s just experience. Because we go and we prep and we do all these things, and then you get to the set and there’s one distraction, two distractions, and those are the elements that just through experience you’ve learned to use.
But I have to say, when I was little, I used to go to sleep every night watching Nick at Nite and “Bewitched” was one of my favorite shows. I did not expect you guys, at all, to go to land of “Bewitched.”
Olsen: I didn’t either. I’m so grateful to it. I felt like I like forgot my body as an actor. You’re a very physical actor, so I feel like you probably don’t have that experience because you just seem so connected and free whether it’s on stage or doing action. And I really felt disconnected from my body until “WandaVision.” I was like, “Right, I have posture; I can walk; I have legs — all of these things are going to be telling the story and it’s period and so I get to move differently.” It’s been a while since I needed to create quite a different character, and it felt so good to wake up my body to the full character work.
Just watching you in the first episode on stage, I was like, “God damn, I want to feel that free on stage with a song and with an audience.” I’m a self-conscious actor when it comes to extras and things like that. There’s something about it where the crew’s the family, and with extras, I feel so vulnerable. And you seemed so at ease and in control and confident. It made you understand her fierceness and how fearless she was.
Smollett: Thank you so much! It’s so interesting that you point that out because, for me, singing in front of people terrifies me. It truly is one of the things that terrifies me the most. The thing about Misha’s writing is, she finds a way to teach you so much about a character in such a small amount of time. And in that first sequence we learn so much about Leti, from that fearlessness you talk about, the ease that she has in herself and in her person, but then you learn so much about her hypocrisy and the contrasting ideas that are at play inside. She’s a very complex one. In the scene with her sister where she’s talking about having dreams of pioneering into an all-white neighborhood in 1955, but she can’t afford to may for socks. [Laughs.] She didn’t come to her mother’s funeral, and yet she’s here yearning for some sort of family connection. And so, I just remember reading that and feeling so drawn to her and feeling like it’s a side of myself that I needed to unearth — there’s a Leti in me that I desired to actually be, but sometimes am not. And it’s interesting because through Leti, she really forced me to do so many things that I hadn’t done before and really become more fearless, become more unbound. It was just such a very cathartic experience for me.
Olsen: I felt that way with getting to do this sitcom comedy part. I felt like I was touching my childhood version of myself who was a ham doing children’s musical theater, who just who just like played for the laughs or whatever — that part that I don’t access at all, really, when filming. And Kathryn Hahn was such a force and Paul Bettany raised to the challenge, as well, of these comedic performances that were really physically funny. I started to get more comfortable — in the ’60s, ’70s, really got comfortable — and it was so much fun to touch that child that maybe was told too many times, “Oh, you’re such a ham” or you just felt like your big personality as a kid was not OK or wasn’t as appropriate. And so, getting to play with that was really freeing and very fun. As you were saying, there’s a release I needed to have, and through the comedy I was able to have it.
How did this sense of empowerment affect how you carried your own characters’ power? Was there something your character that inspired you to advocate for yourself or did advocating behind-the-scenes inform in-world behavior?
Olsen: I felt very lucky coming into this, because this is a world I know. And so, where my voice of advocacy came in was for actors who are coming into the world — like Teyonah [Parris], wanting to make sure that she had everything that she needed to understand where her character was going because this was a character that’s going to continue [and] if she had everything she needed for stunts. And then similarly with Kathryn, she didn’t realize there was someone who she could use to teach her hand gestures for her magic. And so, she was feeling nervous and lost, like, “How do I do this thing?” And I was like, “Oh, how do you not have that information!?” And then having a conversation with whom you need to on the crew up top and figure out how to keep everyone else feeling like they had everything they needed. And luckily, because this was a show with characters that Paul and I had before, the pieces came together and it was a situation where your voice is welcomed and heard.
From “Sorry For Your Loss,” the TV show I did with Facebook, I now have a producer voice that I can’t shut up. I now just need to talk to ADs a lot, and I need to talk to line producers a lot. I realize that I like having — especially if I’m No. 1 on the call sheet; if I’m a primary part — all of the information so I can understand why decisions that seem weird are happening, or else I’m going to get in my head about, “Why are we doing this this way? I just let people know that off the bat now because it makes me less of a control freak, having information. And it is a team effort and I think the actor’s value has changed in that in that respect. There’s a lot more opportunity for women to be vocal now, and so I’m just really seizing that opportunity.
Smollett: It was a very personal growing experience for me. It was time of transition [and] I’m still going through that transition in my life. In order to truly surrender and do the text justice, there was so much I had to bring to the altar every day to sacrifice. I remember talking to Jonathan about that, and he would refer to it as allowing your heart to break and hoping that the Holy Spirit would put it back together. She was essentially a woman trying to navigate her womanhood but she was never actually allowed to have a childhood. She was habitually abandoned by her mother and didn’t know her father and there’s something in that parental-daughter split that I found myself really relating to. Oddly enough like Leti, I was estranged from my father for years. He eventually passed away, really before there was that healing and so, oh man, it brought up so much shit with Leti. How does she see the world? She sees the world through the eyes of an abandoned child. With Leti, that made her overcompensate; with Jurnee, it made me shrink a lot. When you talk about that artist child, those of us who have been in this business for so long, you take on all the sensors. And I found myself just trying to love her a little more. One of the things I admired so much about Leti is this desire to love herself — this real desire to own herself unapologetically in a world that told her she was too Black and female, to exist in her entirety. It’s still a transition that I’m in, but I definitely feel so grateful to have been able to walk through some of that and navigate through some of that with Leti. But that’s, I think, the blessing and the curse of being an artist. You’ve got to be willing to bring your whole mind, body and spirit to it; nothing’s off limits.
Jurnee, the last time you spoke with Variety we were all assuming you’d get to return to this character, but now that HBO has said it’s not being renewed, do you have unfinished business with her?
Smollett: It’s no secret I’m heartbroken. I loved Leti and of course would have loved to continue playing her. But I am so incredibly proud of the work that we all created together — it feels so special and unique — and I am finding peace in that. We’re artists and there’s an endless well that dwells inside us— and there’s so much that’s out of our control. And I think I’ve done this long enough and I’ve experienced enough heartbreaks to know you don’t get attached to the results too much; you just try to stay in a moment. And I feel just so proud and blessed to have been chosen to go on this ride with these collaborators, so I am more so in the place of gratitude than loss.
On the other end of the spectrum, “WandaVision” was a limited series but Wanda Maximoff is a character you have been coming back to for years, Elizabeth. How do you approach that longevity — the changes in her, the changes in you and the interest in revisiting her at all?
Olsen: I’m 32 and I was 25 — so seven years ago — when I did the first one. There’s so much change that I’ve had, even as an actor and how I approach work and, I think, honor work so much more in the last five years, four years of my life. [Jurnee’s film] “Birds of Prey” feels like such a female-empowered thing, so I feel there’s a really incredible energy to beginning it, but then with me you hear people make comments about Marvel movies and it affects your own process. “WandaVision” really shook that up for me and made me reinvest.
Smollett: I so want to know your process with that because the comic book space was new for me. I’d been a fan; I’d seen all your movies and the other movies. How did you navigate all of those voices? Because they can be very loud.
Olsen: Luckily and also frustratingly my character was always this emotional anchor to a piece of the story. It was like the heart, if there’s a heart. Paul and I were the only romance that was really fleshed out in those movies. And so I just treated it like I would anything. And then, we have a really fun time filming “Avengers” And so it’s really goofy and the Russos are great. And so we, it feels light-hearted, and it feels like we have the last laugh at the end of the day. But when it comes to the reinvesting, that’s the whole mind game, right? Because you just hope that it continues to have this quality control, but the more the more things get made, you’re worried about that. Especially because I did a show on Facebook that was scripted, and I didn’t love the way they handled it. And it was hard. And so second season, we went back and we literally, as a team of producers, had meetings with people who ran Facebook Watch about where we thought they could improve. We had a whole presentation for them. And then eventually, they were like, “We’re not doing scripted anymore.” And so I didn’t have the greatest experience being a part of the launch of another streaming service. And so, the Disney Plus part made me nervous and then bringing these characters that are so big to television made me nervous. But Kevin Fiege explained to us that that they were not going to cut corners, and they’re going to try and create the same attention to detail, and they did. And I think it was really important for them to have that care for these first three shows that they were putting out because it was defining a new thing for them. And so, we were taken care of.
I think more for me with this with the reinvestment moving forward, I never had a six-movie or nine-movie thing; it was always two or three at a time — those were my contracts. And so, it’s always a really conscious decision. I wrapped “WandaVision” on a Wednesday and flew to London on a Friday to continue playing this part [in “Doctor Strange 2”]. I could have used getting out of the mindset, though, because they were totally different utilizations of the character and people would have had more time to understand “WandaVision” had we not just wrapped. And so there’s just a lot of, “We covered this in ‘WandaVision…’” It’s bigger than me, there’s lots of threads that are continuing on after me that I’m not aware of, and so it’s always about, “What can I get from this journey with this character that maybe I haven’t tapped into yet with her?” That’s where I keep approaching things from, so that I feel like I have some sort of strap-hang — that I can know that there’s going to be growth of some kind, even though it all maybe looks the same to other people. There is that conscious decision to learn a new element of this woman, or even of myself as an actor — something that I want to explore that I can bring to it.
Your passion for acting is apparent and you both produce as well. What about directing?
Smollett: I would love to one day. I find myself currently being incredibly excited about producing and ushering new voices and excited voices. I don’t know that I would want to direct myself — that’s a whole other skill. I remember watching Denzel Washington, who directed me in “Great Debaters” but he was also in it, and at that point he had such a command of his instrument that he was able to do that. But it’s a lot. And I remember him telling me, before directing himself, he went and made himself watch all his films just so that he could stomach this idea of watching himself in the editing room. And so, I love the idea of storytelling; I’m obsessed with just telling stories, but I don’t know that I would self-direct.
Olsen: I find myself still loving producing so much because I love asking questions and poking holes and thinking about reorganizing of storylines, things that I feel maybe need more structure. I loved writing essays in school so much; it was like something that I found creative because it was about putting so many different sources into a braid that could maybe create this larger conversation or thought at the end. And so, that’s how I look at scripts. That’s really satisfying enough for me, to play that role. I think one day I’ll think about it more honestly, what it what it would mean to be a director. I fear that if I were to do it anytime soon, I wouldn’t have the tools that I would want. I do ask lots of lens-y questions because I’ve really only been working for 11 years and only recently have I tried to really understand the art of what lenses to choose and why and what it makes an audience feel based on what you’re choosing. I want to have a better, more holistic understanding of [that] before attempting [directing] because I do think it’s such an art and just because I understand the structuring of a story or how a set works, I want to be able to provide the the image in my head. I don’t know if I have that skill yet, but I am curious about feeding it and nurturing that.