But she didn't want to take roles "in small things, like direct-to-VHS movies" (something her sisters, incidentally, had no problem doing, in twin-tastic movies such as "It Takes Two" and "Passport to Paris"). When producers asked if she wanted in — and it happened regularly, Olsen said — she often turned them down.
"She could have piggybacked on her sisters' success, maybe gotten a producer to cast her in a movie with them," Paulson said. "But she didn't. You couldn't even find a picture of her on the Internet until recently."
Added Hawkes: "I think the word is 'grounded.'"
Instead, Olsen would understudy Broadway shows and even went to Moscow on a theater exchange program. It wasn't until she was an upperclassman at NYU that she began auditioning for films.
She has since made up for that restraint by shooting five independent films, including a comedy directed by actor-filmmaker Josh Radnor and a Bruce Beresford film, "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding," which was coolly received at the Toronto Film Festival.
She's also tried to avoid the route taken by Selena Gomez and other contemporaries — she's stayed off Twitter ("your personal space is your personal space"), and she auditioned for the Disney movie "Prom" and found herself laughing about it. "I just couldn't take it seriously," she said.
Olsen says she's annoyed by most of the roles written for young women. "They're supposed to be either as perfect as how they're portrayed on Disney or as mean as they're portrayed in high school movies. And in real life it's neither of those."
Hawkes, nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the gritty 2010 drama "Winter's Bone," called Olsen "tireless" in toggling at one point between the "Martha" and "Peace" sets. "I worked with Jennifer Lawrence [on 'Winter's Bone'] not that long ago and saw her phenomenal performance — and it felt like it was happening again: a young, unknown woman was carrying a movie."
Durkin took a "Winter's Bone"-like approach in crafting "Martha Marcy May Marlene." In writing the script, he wanted to break from stereotypes surrounding cults (he was careful not to even use the word); he shot some of the cult scenes on a farm belonging to an uncle of one of the filmmakers. The location fit with the film's micro-budget.
With its meditative tone and ambiguous ending, the movie isn't an obvious blockbuster, and Olsen has been doing her part to help promote its release. But a life spent watching her friends and sisters has given Olsen a lukewarm attitude about publicity.
"I used to think publicists were just a wall between you and the public," she said. "What I'm now realizing is that you need to put yourself out there, and people are going to want to know about your movie, but they're also going to ask you about fashion and about your life and your family.
"When I was in high school I started to get a little insecure about [questions about the Olsen twins]," she said. "And if I started acting professionally [then] I might have been scared or gone about it differently. But now I feel like I'm a realized person," sounding, like many in her generation, 22 going on 40.
She's also changing in another way, showing an actor's penchant for letting public expectation translate into private pressure.
"I am a little worried that if the first movie that's coming out is so [well regarded] then people expect everything to be good," she said.
"It's a good problem to have," Durkin reassured her.
"I guess," Olsen replied. "But you can only go downhill."