how elizabeth olsen transformed herself into your worst instagram nightmare
In ‘Ingrid Goes West,’ Elizabeth Olsen plays Taylor Sloane, a pitch-perfect satire of a matcha-drinking, peace-sign-popping professional Instagrammer, stalked by a manic follower named Ingrid.
The first scene Elizabeth Olsen shot for Ingrid Goes West was also the scene that made her the most uncomfortable. Elizabeth's character, Taylor Sloane, is at an aesthetically pleasing desert gas station and asks an attendant to take a photograph of her and her new "friend" Ingrid Thorburn. (Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza, has in fact moved across the country to orchestrate a seemingly spontaneous meet-cute with Taylor, her Instagram obsession, initiating a dark plot reminiscent of The Talented Mr. Ripley.)
"Maybe if you got a bit lower?" Taylor instructs the man, dissatisfied with the angle. Then, "Ok, even lower? Lower!" Soon, he is lying flat in the dust as the two girls flash peace signs in coordinated earth-tone outfits beneath a futuristic 50s sign. "I still feel horrible watching that sequence," says Elizabeth. "But I really wanted to lean into the ewww thing."
Ingrid Goes West is the best (possibly only, but still best) movie about Instagram to date. It gets the duality of social media just right: the sunny aesthetics and darkly obsessive compulsions it fosters. Director Matt Spicer, who co-wrote the script with David Branson Smith, wanted to make viewers feel "disturbed," Elizabeth says, "And I think they did that." I confirm to her that when I left the theater, I wanted to delete Instagram from my phone and purge my apartment of succulents.
Elizabeth was herself freaked out at times while playing Taylor Sloane. Taylor is a glowing and golden-haired composite of every Californian Instagrammer whose photograph of Joshua Tree you've scrolled past (and maybe liked). She posts pictures of Joan Didion books and writes pseudo-spiritual captions inspired by macrobiotic food and string lights. Her Instagram bio is "Treasure hunter. Castle builder. Proud Angeleno," a tagline that Elizabeth borrowed, with consent, from a friend.
Taylor is also, Elizabeth diagnoses, "deeply insecure," and has not in fact read The White Album. (In one of the film's later scenes, Ingrid uses torn-out pages from her own recently purchased copy as toilet paper.) "She comes from a place of wanting to come across as smart and brilliant and creative and intellectual and spiritual, and just wanting to tick every box," Elizabeth explains, "But she doesn't really have an understanding of what truly provides joy."
To help Elizabeth get into the role, Matt set up a working Instagram account for Taylor Sloane and had Elizabeth try to emulate her visual world, posting pictures of cacti and southwestern rugs. ("The password was something like, 'Ilovebeaches,'" she remembers.) Going method was not easy, though. "I'm terrible at taking photos on my phone and probably just in general," the actress says. Matt also gave her a list of people to follow for inspiration.
That is perhaps why Elizabeth's portrayal of Taylor is so wincingly accurate. She shops at the brands beloved by IRL Los Angeles Instagramers, lives in their favorite neighborhood (Venice Beach), and channels the blissful unawareness of someone who would utter the words "another day, another avocado toast" (one of Taylor's photo captions).
"I also became fascinated by their businesses," Elizabeth says of following professional influencers. "It gave information as to how she, Taylor, might be able to make a living." Early in the film, Taylor introduces herself as a "photographer" who is occasionally paid to Instagram products. Later, it emerges that she has recently coerced her husband into giving up his less picturesque but reliable day job to become "an artist." He now paints found canvases with the words "SQUAD GOALS" and "#SELFIE" in neon-pink paint.
The script, which won Matt and David the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, is full of details like these. "The script was just really funny and clever," says Elizabeth, "It put something that was culturally and generationally so specific in a very interesting, dark, comedic platform as opposed to wagging a finger like, 'Get off your phone, Johnny!'"
"I also think I found Instagram fascinating because I just didn't get it," she continues. Prior to shooting Ingrid Goes West, she had no social media presence at all. "[The movie] began my relationship with social media, which is a really seemingly unhealthy start to a new relationship," she laughs. Before that, she says, "I never thought I'd ever be a part of it. I'm really old school in that I thought you should communicate with people in privacy. I think I was also just hoping that it was going to go away and it hasn't."
Filming Ingrid Goes West, she says, "knocked me off my high horse of being like, This is a narcissistic platform. I think working with Aubrey I understood that it's also an incredible platform for people who support you and who are genuinely interested in what your work is."
Now, Elizabeth has her own account, but she remains suspicious of it. Among photographs from the red carpet, she posts unflattering mid-chew paparazzi shots (captioned #feedmefridays) and goofy family photos. "I think if you poke fun at it as much as you can it makes it more comfortable for me. But who knows? I might decide to delete it in a month, because it's still kind of strange."
"I also think I already have limitations on how much credit or power I want to give to someone else's opinion. I've already had to work that out," she adds. As a public figure, and one who grew up as the sister of two of the most watched women in America, it's understandable she would have reservations about offering up more of herself for public scrutiny. "I think the thing that's scary is people like Aubrey's character, Ingrid, people who don't have tools for how to deal with it. You have to create boundaries."
The film conveys a similar ambivalence about the possibilities of social media. The final scene feels more like another snapshot in an endless scroll towards insanity than a solution. "I don't think [the writers] wanted to teach a lesson, or create some sort of moral compass," Elizabeth considers. "I think they wanted to create something representative of how we're interacting with this thing now. I think it's supposed to make people confused afterwards, and talk about it." On Twitter and Instagram, people are already sharing their thoughts using the eerie hashtag #IAmIngrid.
'Ingrid Goes West' is in theaters across the US from August 11.