Elizabeth Olsen has starred in movies as an FBI agent (“Wind River”), a social media star (“Ingrid Goes West”) and a superhero (Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise). But in her latest project, she’s juggling two roles simultaneously: actress and executive producer of “Sorry for Your Loss.”
The new television series, which debuts on Sept. 18, also stars Kelly Marie Tran, Mamoudou Athie, Jovan Adepo and Janet McTeer.
The show centers on Olsen as Leigh, a young widow who is struggling to put her life back together after her husband’s unexpected death.
The episodes — which switch between uplifting and devastating, but are always honest and human — see her attending group counseling sessions and yelling amidst helpless frustration, but also include related experiences not often shown onscreen: discovering a late loved ones’ secrets, butting heads with surviving relatives, and talking openly about joyous memories.
It’s all changed how Olsen handles loss in real life: “I thought avoiding conversations [about those who have passed] was the best way to go, but there’s something really comforting in being able to have an open dialogue about it.”
Amid the crazy chaos of the Toronto International Film Festival, Olsen took a moment to chat about dealing with grief, trying out television as an executive producer and actress, and why it’s serendipitous that this show is streaming on, of all platforms, Facebook Watch.
The Lily: Tell us about your character, Leigh.
Elizabeth Olsen: I admire anyone who’s trying their best to get through an impossible-to-understand task. No one really knows how to do loss or grief elegantly and I admire her bluntness and her directness. I also think she is largely a person who loves being a caretaker — that was her role with her husband, that’s her role with her sister (Tran) — and we are witnessing her in a reversed experience during this show.
TL: What does this show aim to say about grief?
EO: What we’re trying to explore is the experience of grief, and the monotony of trying to get through something that’s already so confusing and a strange concept to grasp. I’ve heard people say that they can’t actually wrap their head around what the idea of death means, especially without some sort of religious or cultural connection to it. And this idea of nothingness is terrifying. I feel like it’s such a reactive experience, it’s a process that is such a shock to the system.
For example, it always just seemed like such an odd concept to divide someone’s entire life. That is the closest person to you, the person who you know as a warm living body, but you have to then divide all their things into “keep,” “toss” and “giveaway” piles — everything in this place is a shared object and I don’t understand what relationship I’m supposed to continue to have with just these things. It’s such a bleak thing to wrap your head around.
But I do feel like we tried to balance what is sad about loss and death with humor. And if you’re going to tell a story about how sad it is to lose someone, you’re going to also tell a story about how lucky we all are to be here, and to be alive. And I hope that’s also what people get out of it, is a feeling of hope. When I watch the season as a whole, I see that that even with the loss, we’re all very lucky to even have had that connection with that person, whoever made such a big impact on your life. If you can get to the point of gratitude, then that is, to me, the best place you can get to.
TL: After filming this, what have you personally learned about grief?
EO: After doing the show, I started communicating more with the people in my life who’ve had significant loss, and have felt so much more comfortable talking about the people they’ve lost. I realized I’ve never really explored how to be there for someone who’s going through loss in a way that maybe they need. I always felt like it’s a thing to try and avoid. I want be supportive and say, “Reach out if you need me,” but that’s putting something on their plate to also have to deal with. But you’re allowed to reach out too.
And then, I also thought that after a certain amount of time, maybe it’s not best to not bring it up. But what I’ve learned from doing a lot of reading and talking to people who have all been a part of this is, people don’t want to lose the conversation about the person that was one of the most important people in their lives. They want to continue the conversation; to bring them up and remember them actually creates joy for them.
And not in a way of, “How are you holding up?” because then it makes them feel like something is broken. You will always have that relationship.
TL: As an executive producer, you’ve watched this show form from the pitch room. What’s the most surprisingly enjoyable part of the process?
EO: I just tried to be of help wherever I could, but I loved post-production. And as an actor, I’ve worked with a lot of directors who were very welcoming of my opinion, so I’m already used to giving arc notes and writer’s notes. But when we wrapped picture, I was really hoping to just work remotely, and I ended up being as hands-on as possible in the editing room. I really enjoyed being able to have had the experience on set filming something, watching an edit, and vaguely remember doing something that I wanted to just try and see. Making these little adjustments along the way of your own performance is a very cool thing to get to do.
TL: How do you feel to be part of a major project that’s helping to launch Facebook Watch?
EO: Well, I don’t personally use Facebook. I’m a dinosaur when it comes to how I use technology in my life. The idea of having an Alexa in my home sounds like the creepiest thing in the world. But I love the fact that all the content is free, which is unique for a streaming service.
To be the first is terrifying, it definitely felt like a risk to me, but it feels like the perfect way of watching this. With every new thing there’s also a negative — trolling, how the government and companies’ advertisements use our information, it’s all very creepy. But there’s also a community aspect that exists on Facebook. I’ve heard about teachers passing away because a friend saw it on Facebook; I’ve heard about [funeral] services that I wouldn’t have known about because of Facebook.
That’s the goal: to create conversation, create empathy, move someone, make them feel something. And I do feel like if this show stimulates people wanting to communicate with one another, and use Facebook as that source to communicate if they choose, that’s really unique and powerful.
TL: How does making television compare to film so far?