Behind-the-Scenes with Mary-Kate Olsen
Published February 11, 2009
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On January 20, the United States got a new president, and the billions who were not watching on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., were gathered around television sets and computer screens to witness the changing of command. Mary-Kate Olsen was among the billions watching via satellite. She spent the day cooking in her downtown New York apartment with friends. It was that rare kind of day that suggested we might actually be able to cut through all of the bullshit of the past decade and enter a kinder, less trigger-happy age. But a trip through one of the gossip websites that very evening already revealed a picture of Mary-Kate, dressed in a long black coat and sunglasses, descending from her house with bodyguards, the caption reading, “President of Bohemia Surrounded By Secret Service.” So much for kinder and less trigger-happy.
No question, the public’s fascination with the 22-year-old actress, fashion designer, author, and co-president of the company Dualstar Entertainment Group is warranted. Mary-Kate and her (older by a few minutes) sister Ashley were beamed into American households from their infancy on the television series Full House, and since then they’ve brilliantly maneuvered their charm, beauty, and wit into a multimillion-dollar industry. But in the last few years, Mary-Kate has transformed herself from a child star and adorable twin into something far more rare: a hauntingly gorgeous young woman with serious acting talent and a remarkably individual, articulate fashion sense that speaks more of classic New York and haute Paris than it does of breezy L.A. The paparazzi can’t get enough of Mary-Kate. Maybe because she’s not easy to get. She doesn’t party all night. She doesn’t make stupid comments, act up in public, fail to show up for appearances, or parade around with an aura of star entitlement. She’s genuinely serious about what she does, and she seems to want us to take her seriously, too. This must infuriate hardcore gossip junkies. All of that beauty, all of that style, all of that intelligence: Why isn’t she self-destructing and throwing it all away?
The Mary-Kate that most of us don’t know is a very thoughtful, intelligent woman with a blistering sense of humor and an enterprise that makes even hard-working friends feel like they aren’t doing enough with their days. She walks quietly into rooms and gives you her full attention when you talk to her. And you always leave kind of wishing you’d hugged her more. Lately, she’s been focusing on acting, and won kudos for her delightful performance as a weed-smoking Phish fan in last year’s love letter to New York in the ’90s, The Wackness. She and her sister are also hard at work on their two clothing lines, the higher end The Row and the more contemporary Elizabeth & James (the latter named after their other two siblings), and they are launching both shoe and men’s collections later this year. The two even teamed up to publish a book of interviews last fall called Influence (Razorbill), in which they interviewed other artists and designers who have inspired them.
Mary-Kate has been calling New York home lately, and it’s a world away from her childhood of riding horses and being cute on cue in Full House. She has already lived so many lives and accomplished so much, it’s hard to believe she’s just begun her twenties. I phoned her at home from Milan about an hour after President Obama’s inaugural address. We were pretty happy about life that day.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Where are you?
MARY-KATE OLSEN: I’m in New York. We just made a big breakfast for Obama’s speech.
CB: I wish I were in America today. It sucks to be in Europe on the day when the country is changing.
MKO: It’s pretty powerful. I thought his speech was great.
Until we were 13 or 14, if my sister and I did an appearance, we would be wearing the same outfit. It would be the same dress and we’d fight over who would wear it in red and who would wear it in black.Mary-Kate Olsen
CB: Even here in Milan people are very excited. So maybe it doesn’t matter where you are.
MKO: I was curious about that when I was watching it. The streets are so quiet here. We went to pick up some coffee this morning and it was dead. The coffee shop that’s by my sister’s place is usually super-crowded and the guy who works there said that because of the inauguration, nobody’s there. Everyone’s at home.
CB: I was thinking about you while being in Milan this week. You sit at a fashion show in another country and you watch all of these paparazzi swarm around a celebrity, only they’re a local celebrity, maybe a soap opera star, so you don’t have any idea who they are, you just know they’re famous to a bunch of stunned Italians. It’s weird, because when you can’t identify who a celebrity is, they can just look like overslicked stand-ins. That might sound awful, but what I mean is, when you think about most actresses, even in Hollywood, they really aren’t that fascinating or glamorous in their own right once you strip away the flashbulbs. But you’re one of the very few actresses of your generation to cultivate your own style, totally original and authentic. When did that start for you?
MKO: For me, it really started by looking at people. There are just some really beautiful people in the world. When you’re walking down the street, or you’re at a restaurant, someone catches your eye because they have their own look. It goes way beyond what they’re wearing-into their mannerisms, the way they smile, or just the way they hold themselves.
CB: So you’re more inspired by the street than you are by Hollywood.
MKO: Some people are natural beauties, some have great style, but sometimes it comes from talent. Take Kate Winslet: I was listening to her speech at the Golden Globes. That woman has so much intensity. She’s amazing to watch and to listen to. With some people, it can even be their voice that makes them attractive.
CB: Do you remember the point in your life when you first got interested in fashion? Were you 16 and suddenly tearing through Vogues?
MKO: I didn’t look at magazines until a couple of years ago, to be honest. I never really knew anything about fashion. When I was young, clothes were really just about what fit, because Ashley and I were so tiny. So I understood fit before I understood style.
CB: Did you buy your own clothes as a kid?
MKO: I never went shopping. That wasn’t my thing. I grew up horseback riding. That was my passion. I didn’t start shopping until about 16 or 17, whenI could drive myself to stores and explore on my own.
CB: When you’re that age, clothes become a way for you to figure out what kind of adult you’re going to be. It’s a testing ground for your personality, a way to show up as an individual. Your body is the first thing you stake claim to. Do you think that because you are a twin, interest in dressing your own way was even more amplified?
MKO: Well, until we were 13 or 14, if my sister and I did an appearance, we would be wearing the same outfit. [laughs] It would be the same dress and we’d fight over who would wear it in red and who would wear it in black. That was obviously for work. But ever since I can remember, we dressed completely differently. Ashley would wear really baggy clothes and shoes that were too big for her, and I think my first favorite clothing item was a pair of spandex shorts with fringe on them! Leopard and white spandex. Ashley was more into florals and baggier clothes. So, I guess things don’t change that much. [laughs] But I remember the first time we were really able to choose our own clothes for an event was at the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle  premiere . . .
CB: You were in that, as a future angel.
MKO: Yeah, the second one. But for the premiere I chose to wear this Zandra Rhodes dress-now I’ve collected a lot of her pieces-and I put a diamond butterfly brooch in my hair. You know, that’s still one of my top favorite looks. But I think that started at an age when it was okay for Ashley and me to look different. It was still about pleasing our audiences and making that connection between seeing us out in person, but doing it in a fashionable way . . . Or trying to anyway.
CB: So it wasn’t a matter of thinking, Okay, I need to be Mary-Kate now, not Mary-Kate and Ashley?
MKO: We’ve always been very different. And we’ve always had the same goals. But yes, that happened. At a certain point, we probably just started to vocalize it. When we decided to go to college, we figured we’d be able to take a break and just figure out what we wanted to do and what we loved . . . just by being able to step away from the work world.
CB: The work world must have been intense. As a kid, were you aware that you were acting on a hit sitcom? Or did you just think you were having fun and there happened to be cameras around?
MKO: I would have to say it was probably a mixture of both. I mean, we basically learned how to talk in front of the cameras by copying somebody else’s words or movements.
CB: Is that how you did it?
MKO: Yeah. We would get little gummy bears-like a gummy bear cut into three pieces. And we’d crawl to the gummy bear or reach for it . . . The outtakes of Full House are pretty funny.
CB: You and Ashley played the same character, Michelle, on the show. How did they decide who was going to be Michelle for a scene?
MKO: When we were younger, it was basically who wouldn’t cry in front of the camera. As we got older, it would be split up by fun scenes. Like, say there was a cake-eating scene or riding an elephant . . . We’d split it up that way.
CB: Were you pissed that Ashley got to ride the elephant?
MKO: No, because I probably got the cake scene or got to ride on the motorcycle. They always tried to make sure it was fair.
CB: Do you ever watch Full House now? Can you? I feel like I can barely watch a family video of myself as a kid without wincing.
MKO: Full House is on all the time. Really. I see that it’s on. But last year, Ashley spent the night at my place and I woke up to the theme song at seven in the morning. I was like, “What are you doing?” [laughs]
CB: How did that song go? I can’t remember.
MKO: I don’t know the exact words.
CB: I feel like if you give me the first lyric I’ll be able to sing the whole thing.
MKO: It starts off like, [sings] “The milkman, the paperboy . . .” [laughs] There you go. That’s my singing for the day.
CB: Obviously you’ve spent your whole life in front of a camera. But now, as you approach acting as an adult, do you rely on the same techniques you’ve learned? I don’t mean candy as rewards. I mean, does the acting you did as a child apply to roles you want to take on as an adult? Or did you have to reassess your skills?
I have to say, it’s easier to live in New York than in L.A…It’s freezing in New York right now. In L.A., it’s sunny. But I would choose freezing over being followed.Mary-Kate Olsen
MKO: You know, I was never challenged. The movies we did after Full House were written for us, they were made for our audience. I knew that there was something I liked about acting, but by the time I went to college it had been forgotten. So I enrolled at William Esper [Studio for Acting] in New York, and I loved it. It takes you back to the basics. That’s when I knew I wanted to keep doing that.
CB: There was a moment, then, when you really didn’t want to act again.
MKO: Oh, for sure. When I was 16 or 17 I said, “I’m done. I’m exhausted.” But then three days go by and you’re ready to work again.
CB: I was looking through the inventory of movies that you and Ashley have made, and they aren’t simply light, teenagey productions. You’re all over the world. In one there’s a jewel theft that forces you guys to go into the witness protection program. In another you track down Caribbean smugglers. They seem like pretty arduous films to make.
MKO: Yeah, and we filmed each one in something like two weeks, never more than three. We had to be prepped. It taught me a lot of discipline . . . It taught me to be present, because when you’re rushing to get a movie done you can’t spend all day on one scene. We’d go over the lines to memorize them, and we’d get a point whenever we got them right. When we’d get to a hundred points we were allowed to pick something from a gift shop. Say we were in Canada at a hotel. I always chose a pack of gum.
CB: I get the feeling from you that your parents were very supportive-not typical Hollywood parents who were ruthlessly running your careers.
MKO: They were really great, making sure we got the same amount of attention and had after-school activities, and they also made sure we went to a regular school. And I’m grateful for that because I feel like . . . Well, there are a lot of memories there that you would miss out on.
CB: I know you also have a place in L.A. and you go back and forth a lot, but do you think you’ve made New York your place?
MKO: I’m definitely bicoastal, but I have to say, it’s easier to live in New York than in L.A. I feel like people respect other people’s space a bit more here.
CB: I was worried that New York was becoming like L.A.-no more just letting everyone alone.
MKO: Everyone has the right to that freedom, right? Everyone has that right. It’s freezing in New York right now. In L.A., it’s sunny. But I would choose freezing over being followed.
CB: It’s kind of impossible not to ask you how you feel about the world prying into your personal life. How do you deal with it? Do you just say, “Okay, I’m not going to take any of this personally. Fuck them.”
MKO: I definitely don’t take any of it personally. You learn how to have a sense of humor pretty quickly. I honestly don’t keep up on it unless it’s something that would hurt someone else. I can take care of myself, that’s not the problem. But it’s just not fair to bring anyone else into the picture.
CB: I was going to try to go the whole interview without asking you about the media. But of course I Googled you to check what the gossip had going. I saw a recent one that actually speculated when you and Nate [Lowman, the artist and Olsen’s current boyfriend] were going to get married. It said, “Can we expect the marriage vows soon?” I thought, Jesus Christ, that’s dating pressure.
MKO: [laughs] And you know Nate . . . It’s one thing after the next, the most far-fetched thing that could possibly be said has already been said. There’s nothing I can do about it really. They have the freedom to write whatever they want.
CB: Yeah, it’s the first amendment.
MKO: I don’t know. I wish it weren’t so abused.
CB: When I saw you last summer, you were in a new apartment in New York. You were saying that you like to keep moving, that you haven’t found one place yet that you want to stay in permanently. Do you think of yourself as an itinerant person?
MKO: I like change. I’ve never really had much consistency in my life, you know, from everyday work to my living situation to whether or not I’m going to be in L.A. The one constant thing in my life is my friends and family, which is all I need. But I’ve been in the same place for a while now, since last year, so that’s a start. I kind of settled there and I’m happy for right now.
CB: You’re a renter, right?
MKO: Yeah, I rent. It’s hard for me to figure out where I want to be. But it’s definitely in New York. I feel like New York throws different challenges at you and you can be more creative.
CB: You’re a big fan of art. You really like Richard Prince, for example. But has dating Nate brought you into the young art scene here a bit more?
MKO: Not necessarily. It’s always fun to welcome new people into your life. When dating anyone or becoming friends with anyone who has a different profession, a different life, it opens doors. All my friends here do such different creative things. It’s so awesome.
CB: Well, you do a number of creative things. I hear that your clothing lines, The Row and Elizabeth & James, are breaking into menswear. Was that a natural progression?
MKO: I think that was our strategy from the beginning. We also have shoes coming out-they’re going to be beautiful. Everything’s looking pretty solid.
CB: How do you find the inspiration for a season?
MKO: An idea will come, whether it’s from a movie or a person or a character or a place . . . Then we go through color, silhouettes, and fabric. We sort of put it all together, finding the common threads.
CB: Was there any iconic man you were referencing for fashion with the menswear line?
MKO: For E&J, we found a picture of a man from an old magazine and started from there.
To read the full Mary-Kate Olsen interview pick up a copy of Interview magazine’s March issue.