As the horror community continues to celebrate Women in Horror Month, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Maria Olsen who has made a name for herself in the genre, to say the least.
Leaving her home in South Africa for Los Angeles to pursue her dreams, Maria found success when she landed the role of Mrs. Dodds in the major motion picture Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Applying her talents to her love for horror, this actress has gone on to appear in well known titles including Paranormal Activity 3, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem and the critically acclaimed television series American Horror Story. See what she to say about all of this as well as her upcoming role in the highly anticipated direct followup to Meir Zarchi’s controversial ’78 film, I Spit on Your Grave!
SCIFI.radio: Hi, Maria! Thank you for taking time to speak with me.
Maria Olsen: Absolutely! My pleasure.
SCIFI.radio: So, when did you first realize you wanted to pursue acting for a career?
Maria Olsen: I grew up in quite a small town called East London in South Africa. And I wanted to pursue acting back then, but I was aware that there wasn’t enough opportunities in South Africa at the time. There just was no film industry. However, there were two rival theater companies and I joined both of them. And I did as many shows as I could for them. But other than a couple of radio commercials, this was all that I could do in South Africa even though I desperately wanted to act. When I made my way to Los Angeles in 2005, I did theater for a year. It was in 2007 when I got an offer to do a play on Broadway in New York. So, I resigned from my job, I went there for seven weeks and jumped full-time into acting! That was when I could finally start, for real (laughs).
SCIFI.radio: That’s great that you had that opportunity! I know you had a significant role in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as Mrs. Dodds. How did you become involved with that production?
Maria Olsen: When I got back from New York in the same year of 2007, I got a whole bunch of auditions and sought out L.A. representation. A couple months later, Bonnie Howard from Howard Talent West contacted me and asked if I would like to come in for an interview. I did. She signed me across the board. And a couple months later, she got me an audition for Percy Jackson. In April, we found out that I had booked the role and we shot the film soon after! So, it was the first big audition that she got me, I booked it and it was like this fairy tale coming true, you know (laughs). It was very exciting!
Krypton Radio: Very cool! What was it like working on such a big production?
Maria Olsen: We shot the film in Vancouver, which happened to be at the same time the second film in the Twilight saga was shooting. We were at the studio located at the bottom of the mountain and they were about half way up the hill shooting exteriors. We all stayed in the same hotel as well! So, it was crazy. And this was a huge production! I did my stuff in a soundstage. I was not on location anywhere. All the sets that we used were built in the soundstage or reused. We actually reused the set from The Night at the Museum. We just redressed it to look like The Metropolitan.
Originally, I think the set was the Smithsonian in The Night at the Museum 2. They just gave it a facelift and suddenly, it’s The Metropolitan. And there we were! So, it was far from a small production. It was awesome! The second assistant director followed me everywhere and took me to where I needed to go. I wasn’t allowed to go a whole lot of places because it was such a big production and so much was happening. I would go to set to do my part, go to stunt training or the CGI studio. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was in my trailer reading a book. So, that’s pretty much all I saw! (laughs) But it was an amazing experience and absolutely wonderful!
Krypton Radio: Even with limited places you could go, I’m sure you still saw quite a bit! Obviously, you have developed a name for yourself within the horror genre since then. Are you personally a horror fan and is it the genre in which you prefer to work?
Maria Olsen: I’m a HUGE horror fan. Ever since I was a little kid! We’re talking when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. My mother would discuss Dracula stories and movies with me. I love the genre! I watch horror movies and I read horror books. Speaking of which, I’m currently working my way through the full collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories. I also read horror comics and watch horror shows. You name it! I’m totally into the genre. Also, I have a very intense acting style. I think it might come from my theater background. So, I naturally gravitate towards those projects where you need, shall we say, bigger emotions. Creature work is another thing I do quite a bit of. Physical theater training comes very much in handy when I do that type of work in horror. And I’ve noticed that when I’m on screen, I have a very intense screen presence. And it just makes sense to me to do horror because I know that type of intensity can be well used in that type of genre. It would be dumb for me to audition for romcoms and bring that intensity … it’s like no … don’t do that. (laughs) In film, you try and book as much as you can because we’re all just as good as the last project we book. And audition in the genre that works best for you. And that’s what I do.
Krypton Radio: And I would say that you’re quite good at what you do! One of the first horror franchises you became involved with was Paranormal Activity in their third installment. How did this opportunity come about?
Maria Olsen: I had done several acting workshops at a local acting studio about a year or two before Paranormal Activity 3. And I had worked with a casting director who eventually was put in charge of casting the coven women for the film. And she remembered me. And she remembered my intensity. So, she found my agent and I was brought in for an audition. I had no clue what I was auditioning for. They would not tell us the actual name of the film. They just told us that it was something called “Sports Camp” and they had us sign a nondisclosure agreement even before bringing us in for the audition. So, we could tell nothing to anyone. I learned a couple of days later that I had booked the job and I ended up on set about a week later doing some scenes in a garage late at night with a couple other creepy ladies, eating jelly babies and having a good time. We were all thinking we were still shooting “Sports Camp.” We didn’t know until about a week or two after we had wrapped shooting that we had actually just shot Paranormal Activity 3!
Krypton Radio: That’s crazy! You filmed your scenes and you didn’t know it was for Paranormal?
Maria Olsen: We didn’t know. We had no idea. About 10 days later, Karen Teliha, one of my friends who was also in it, emailed me with the news of what we had actually shot! And then one of the other creepy coven ladies and myself were recalled for Paranormal Activity 5. We spent an entire day on set shooting a coven scene with a bunch of witches. But they used an alternate storyline and our scene was not part of the final cut.
Krypton Radio: Oh no! I’ve heard of that happening for various reasons in the filmming process, unfortunately. But I’m sure it was still a good experience! Did you know that you were shooting Paranormal Activity 5 this time around?
Maria Olsen: Oh, yeah! It absolutely was a good experience. And yes, we did know what we were filming this time around. We were specially requested again. We even got to go to the screening at Paramount for the film!
Krypton Radio: Very cool! So, I’m aware that you also had a small role in Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. How did this opportunity come about?
Maria Olsen: I had originally auditioned for one of the witches, which was a great experience with the casting director, Monika Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, I did not get cast as a witch. But then I saw that they were casting for the descendants of the lords of Salem, which was an open call. It stated that nudity was required, but I’ve done nudity before and it’s not a big issue for me. So, I submitted for that and I was booked! I think I had five days on set. One day, I was not used. But the other days were spent filming the end theater scene. So, we got to work in the Los Angeles Theatre, which is absolutely gorgeous! And this was with Rob Zombie, Sheri Moon Zombie and, a personal favorite of mine, Patricia Quinn from The Rocky Horror Picture Show! And it was just a great film! It was a great experience. I have memories of Sheri standing on top of a chair that stood atop of a table surrounded by naked witch bodies. I remember her saying something like “I’m going to fall off this table any second!” (both laughs) The things that happen behind the scenes are hilarious sometimes.
Krypton Radio: As a whole, what was it like working on a Rob Zombie film?
Maria Olsen: Oh, Rob blends into the background when he’s working. He’s just a normal dude … quite short, actually. He’s just this normal dude dressed in denim jeans and a denim jacket. He’s not the public persona that you see in his music videos. He’s just a guy working on a film. And it was overall a really great experience! All except Halloween 2, I think I have seen all of Rob’s films. And I really like his work! So, it was really an honor to work with him. And his process was very interesting! Visually, I find him to be a very interesting filmmaker. Things like 31 and definitely The Lords of Salem, you see things on screen that you don’t normally see. I remember working with one of those really tall priests with the face coverings for The Lords of Salem and he looked so creepy! I’ve done so many horror movies and special effects makeup doesn’t really phase me. And when I saw that, I was like “Oh sh*t! This is truly creepy!” (laughs) So, Rob has a very good eye for things like that. And I’m really looking forward to seeing Three from Hell!
SCIFI.radio: Oh, as am I! I find it ironic and absolutely hilarious that everyone in the horror community use to joke about Rob Zombie coming out with a sequel to The Devil’s Rejects because he can’t come out with a sequel since the Firefly family is dead … and then he announced that he actually is coming out with the sequel, Three from Hell! (both laughs) So, you have also appeared in the critically acclaimed TV series, American Horror Story. Again, this is no small deal. So many people in the horror community, including myself, love that series! How did this opportunity come about and what was it like working on such a well known series?
Maria Olsen: Again, there was an open call for background people for season 2, the Asylum series. I submited and I was called in with about 30 other people. And then the group got smaller for the callback. After that, we were called to set one day for a two to three day engagement to work on the third episode, which was called Nor’easter. And, funny enough, tying this into Rob Zombie, I worked alongside Mickey Faerch who is the mother of Daeg. And, of course, Daeg portrayed young Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s Halloween!
Krypton Radio: Oh wow!
Maria Olsen: I’ve known Mickey for quite awhile and it was so cool to work with her! And everyone on the American Horror Story set was just so friendly. Jessica Lange is the friendliest! She was amazing to work with as was Lily Robbie and Zachary Quinto. It was just a lovely cast to work with! And the set was superb! You couldn’t believe that it was actually a set and soundstage! It was a fully contained building that we were working in, yet it was on a soundstage. It was just a great experience! And Jessica was so gracious to us. You know, there is nothing that says the stars of the show must speak to us. Yet there she was! Talking to us, saying good morning and asking how we were. So, that was really nice of her.
Krypton Radio: That sounds like another incredible experience! So, I know you can’t say much about this next one. But you have a pretty big role in the upcoming, highly anticipated film I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu, which serves as the first direct sequel to Meir Zarchi’s controversial ’78 film, I Spit on Your Grave. How did you become involved with this production?
Maria Olsen: I am so grateful that Meir and his son, Terry, published the casting call on L.A. Casting. They opened the casting up for anyone who was interested rather than go through a casting director who would have probably made it a little more exclusive. So, I was able to directly submit to the role, myself. And I got an audition! I remember taping it at my manager’s house and sending it in. I didn’t hear anything for the longest time! And I thought “Oh well. I tried. It would have been cool.” Little did I know, they were having funding issues, as many films often do. But they had to put the shoot off for about a year.
After that year, I received a phone call saying that they really loved me! I was like Sally Field. “You love me? You really really love me?” And they asked me to come in for a callback, which was in person. So, I went into the office with many others who were reading for various roles. And that’s when I saw Jamie Bernadette who was reading for the role of Christy. Of course, I knew Jamie for years and I was overjoyed to see her! It also helps when you know someone who you’re reading with. You can trust them, you’re familiar with their style and you can feel free to experiment more than if you’re reading with someone who you don’t really know. So, it was great to run into Jamie there! I think we went through two rounds of callbacks. And then there was silence for another couple of months. We didn’t know what was happening! (laughs) But Terry Zarchi kept phoning me every now and then just to give me an update on what was happening with the film. It was very unusual! I wasn’t cast in the film? But they’re telling me what’s going on? So, maybe they like me? I don’t know what’s going on? But okay! (laughs)
I remember that it was Father’s Day and I was taking my father out for supper when I got the call. Terry told me that they were finalizing casting and asked if I would like the role. My question was … what role? Meir had me read for about three different roles even though my heart was set on Becky. Meir likes to change it up when it comes to casting before making his final decision. And Terry told me “Oh, Becky, of course!” I was ecstatic! The role of Becky is such an amazing and interesting role! It’s such an opportunity to play with the viewer. As in, I get to do some pretty godawful things, but I want to elicit your sympathy for doing it. And to me, that’s a huge challenge! And it’s something fun to play with for me as an actor.
Krypton Radio: That sounds very intriguing! I’m familiar with the overall plot and I’m very excited to see this film. How was your experience shooting this film, which has already sparked so much interest in the horror community?
Maria Olsen: Meir is a darling! I love him. At lunch time, we would sit together and sing show tunes from the ’50s. And Camille Keaton, who reprises her original role from the ’78 film, is awesome! She’s older than me, but physically, she ran rings around me! She was even running down hills barefoot. She is so brave when it comes to things like that! I remember nearly killing her during one of our takes, actually. I was suppose to throw a book at her while holding onto a knife. I was like “I can do this! No problem!” No I couldn’t. I threw the book and the knife (both laughs). So, I ended up giving her a hand knitted scarf to say “I’m so sorry that I nearly killed you.”
And Jamie, who of course got the role of Christy, was awesome! She gave such a brave performance. We were both feeling so blessed to be on that set. And she goes through so much in the film. As an actor, she went through so much. Physical stuff as well as emotional stuff. I remember one scene that we shot outside at sunset into twilight. And it was a difficult scene for the technical side of things. So, it took quite a few takes to get the camera tracking just right as well as the shadows and the lighting. We did that about 20 times! I had to walk behind a tree. Walk down a little hill and walk up the road with my cohorts behind me. It wasn’t very difficult for me. But Jamie, all this time, was sitting inside a hollowed out tree. She was scrunched up in this tree hiding from us through all of those takes. When she got out of that tree, she was so stiff that she could hardly stand! It’s that kind of physicality that we went through almost daily. In one of the fight scenes, my sparring partner kept missing my stunt pad. So, I had a bruise as big as a football on my back. (both laughs) So, lets hope everyone enjoys this film!
Krypton Radio: Especially with this being the first direct sequel with Meir returning to direct, Camille reprising her role and great actors attached to the project, such as yourself and Jamie, I think this one will be one to see, for sure! I know some details are still being kept under wraps, but what else can you tell me about the film and your role?
Maria Olsen: It’s pretty common knowledge that I play the character of Becky who is the wife of Johnny, the ringleader from the first film. We’re now 30 years later and she believes that Johnny and the other boys were innocent. She belives that Jennifer, Camille’s character, concocted this story of rape. She believes that it isn’t true and that Johnny could never have done it. And she believes that Jennifer has ruined her life by taking her husband away from her and her children. So, she’s going to do something about it. And that’s the beginning of my character’s mindset in the beginning of the film. I cannot go into the details of what my character does (laughs), but I do a lot. Let’s put it that way.
It was an interesting role for me because I had to bring the very genuine emotion of missing Johnny. What would have happened if he had been there. How his kids missed him growing up. And all that stuff, which could be or can be very grounded, human and sad. I had to put all of that in a package with the thought of having to get revenge. And make it work within the character. And that’s something that I really really enjoyed.
Krypton Radio: The complexity of that character makes me want to see the film even more! I’m also aware that you have experience on the production side of film as well. Do you prefer acting or working behind the scenes?
Maria Olsen: I will always prefer acting. I got into producing simply because it gave me more chances to act because I acted in every film that I produced. Producing is fun and can be interesting, but acting is what truly engages my mind, my body, my heart and my spirit. And that’s the one thing that I could not live without. I had to take a year off in 2016 because of personal stuff. And not being able to act was the most miserable year of my whole life! Yes, I write, I direct the stage, I cast and I love casting. But acting is really the thing for me. And it always will be.
Krypton Radio: I’m glad you weren’t out of it for too long. And I’m aware of a few upcoming projects that you are apart of including Hear No Evil with co-star Jamie Bernadette and award-winning director Darrell Roodt in South Africa.
Maria Olsen: Oh, yes! Funny enough, Jamie and I have been signed together on several films ever since it became common knowledge that we both are in I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu.
Krypton Radio: Oh, really! So, people must have realized that you two likely worked well together in Deja Vu?
Maria Olsen: (laughs) I think so. Or they’re so excited for Deja Vu that they want both of us in their films. Which is fine by me! Really, it is.
Krypton Radio: And that works for me as well as other fans who are familiar with your work! And another film you have coming up that is currently in pre-produciton is Inverted.
Maria Olsen: Yes! We are shooting that one in July. I originally saw a casting notice for that one on Facebook. And I just messaged them and asked if they might consider me for a part that I could be right for. They mentioned a character that came to mind. It was suppose to be a guy, but they decided to have me read for it and see what happens. And I received feedback almost immediately. They thought I was amazing and offered me the role!
Krypton Radio: That’s very cool! And it makes sense since Inverted is suppose to have some influence from The Lords of Salem. Are there any other projects that you have coming up that you would like to mention?
Maria Olsen: Absolutely! In the last week of March, I will be shooting the horror feature Sweet Dreams in Tuscan, Arizon. And the script is amazing! And I’m very much looking forward to that. In April, I am shooting two more features. One of them is called Desert Shadows, which will be shot in Reno, Nevada with Tyler Bourns directing. And then I will be spending at least two weeks in Placerville, which is located in northern California, where I will be shooting The Crumbs. I have a leading role in that film and I will be literally appearing in over 70 scenes! And I’m just now beginning to learn my lines. This is a huge undertaking, so I’m trying to get as much under my belt as I possibly can and as early as I can. So, I’m very much looking forward to that one! Currently, I’m completing scenes for Danni and the Vampire, which is a horror comedy feature. And the first of March, I go straight into a shooting a short film as well as completing scenes for a post-apocalyptic thriller called BAB that same month. And I have numerous other films coming up throughout the year. I’m just waiting on confirmed shooting dates for them. I think this year, we will also see the release of Beasts of Our Fathers, Ashes, The Sunday Night Slaughter and Ghost in the Graveyard, which are all nearing the end of post-production. And we just released the short film, Michael Rodriguez’s Jack Incarnate. That is going to become part of his anthology horror feature. And that was awesome! I loved my shoot with him and his team. So, I’m pretty much busy all of the time for which I’m very grateful!
Krypton Radio: It sounds like you have quite a bit on your plate! I look forward to see all of this and more. Thank you, Maria, for your time!
Maria Olsen: You’re welcome! Thank you for the opportunity.
Maria is a sweet and wonderful person to speak with and I thoroughly loved discussing our shared passion for the horror genre! With countless projects ahead of her, she is another name in horror that will be reappearing time and again. And I am excited to see where her career leads next!