Olesya Rulin made her initial mark on the silver screen as Kelsi Nielsen in Disney’s wildly popular “High School Musical” franchise. With her latest film, “Apart,” this blossoming actress has spread her wings and soared into much darker territory. The film focuses on the journey of the tragically star-crossed Noah and Emily who are linked by a rare psychological disorder classified as ICD-10 F24, madness of two. Drawing from actual case history, this richly evocative and unsettling mystery holds a love story that will haunt you long after the final scene. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Olesya Rulin to discuss her journey in the entertainment industry, the making of this amazing new film, her evolution as an actress and what the future holds for her in the months to come!
We always like to start by giving everyone a little background. Where did you grow up and what made you pursue a career as an actress?
I was born in a little village in Russia and we moved to America when I was 8 years old. I grew up in Utah. I started acting when I was 12 as a different kind of outlet. I used to be really shy! My mom was like, “That’s it! We’ll fix this!” I enrolled in some acting classes and met some kids that were unique and shared some of the same interests as I did. It turned out to be an amazing creative outlet. I started working for Disney, Warner Brothers and ABC, basically everything that Disney owns ever since! [laughs] I live in Los Angeles now, I moved her when I was 20 years old. It has been a wonderful ride!
Who was the biggest influence who helped shape the actress we see today?
Honestly, it was my grandfather. When I was little, we didn’t have much money when we lived in a little village in Russia. We didn’t have a television. I am still behind in films because I didn’t have the opportunity to see them growing up. My grandfather would show me a slideshow of a film titled “Rose Sails,” when translated. It is an old black and white film about a girl who becomes a woman and believes a prince will one day come for her on a boat with rose sails. He would project it right onto the wall and showed it to me just about every week before we left for America. I never really knew why, until recently. I was able to get a DVD copy of the film and it blew my mind! It is all about believing in your dreams and never giving up, no matter how obscure your dreams may seem to other people. When I grasped that, I understood that he was the one that taught me to not only dream big but to pursue it. He ingrained that into my subconscious and for that, I will always be grateful. There were also a lot of actresses that I still look up to and that list goes on and on. Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep top the list but more than anything, I think it is my family that has influenced me so much. My parents never allowed me to have a normal life — ever! At times, that was really frustrating because when you are a teenager, you want to be normal and fit in. I never fit in! I was never normal! It was very frustrating but now that I am older and I have had time to reflect on that, I am so thankful for it. I was always doing random stuff. I didn’t go to parties, I went to acting class, I went to a painting class, horse camp or jockey seminars — random stuff like that! People were like [in a condescending tone] “What? You are weird!” But because I was able to have so many different experiences, I get to do what I love to do, the only thing I am great at and that is acting. That is why I love it. I am at my best when I am on-stage, when I am on set, when I am in my trailer preparing or on set talking to grips, that is where I know I belong. If I didn’t have those early experiences and those awkward moments where I didn’t fit in when I was younger, I don’t think I would be able to channel the characters as well, quite frankly.
Your latest project is “Apart.” How did you get involved with this unique film?
I was sent the script two-and-a-half years ago, which was right after I did “High School Musical 3.” It was two months after we had wrapped and I found myself in a place where I was searching for material that was a little more serious. Everyone is always like, “Oh, you are trying to break out of Disney!” and I say, “Not at all!” I will work for them until I die! I love them! But I did want to do something which would give me a second to play with some layers of character development that I hadn’t had a chance to yet. The script was sent to me through my agents and they said, “Just read this. It is a little indie flick. See if you like it.” I read it and I feel in love with it! Partly because it scared the crap out of me! [laughs] I thought, “I don’t know how to play a schizophrenic! I have no clue!” [laughs] I wasn’t sure that I could go that deep, be that dark, be that unstable for that for a long period of time and if I would be able to cry on set every single day. The idea scared me so much that I knew it was something that I would have to do! I called the director Aaron Rottinghaus to say hello. We never got a chance to meet, I never had a chance to audition, so we just talked about the concept of the film and we got along so well, they hired me! The next thing I knew I was doing wardrobe and meeting Josh [Danziger] and it went from there.
What was the biggest challenge in bringing this character from the script to the screen?
I studied psychology in college as my minor, so I understood a lot about mental disabilities, disorders, dopamine malfunctions and things of that sort. I understood the technological aspects of the disease. The hardest part of the role for me was not getting into character but getting out. It took me, and I am not kidding, a solid four months to get out because she is so confused and dark. There are so many things going on in her brain that to a logical person wouldn’t make sense but to her it did. I just didn’t question it, that was just Emily and that is the choice that she has to make and it makes sense to her. It was up to me to rediscover who I was again. Everyone has those doors in your mind that are conveniently locked. To play a part like this, I had to unlock those doors and go to those dark places to have it show on camera.
What was it like working with director Aaron Rottinghaus and what do you think he brought to the table on a project like this?
Aaron was amazing. I have trusted directors in the past but this film was shot in 20 days — 16-hour days, six days a week. With that type of schedule, I didn’t have the option not to trust him, especially since my mindset for the character was not in a healthy place. I would look at Aaron after some of the scenes and say, “Was that good?” because my brain was not turned on in a way that I could reflect on myself, if that makes any sense, Oleysa wasn’t there. It was very method in that way. The trust relationship with Aaron was very deep. Not only that, but he pushed me in ways that I didn’t know I could be pushed but he was gentle. He was very protective of me and he knew the scenes where we would need a closed set and made sure that no one was bothering me. I cried every day! He knew that, “Oleysa is about to cry. People, be quiet!” We shared music as well which would help me get into character or to provoke a certain emotion. It was nice to have that sort of best friend relationship because when it came time for me to break down in front of him, I could, easily. When it came to any block that I had and needed assistance with, he knew how to nurture that and get me to project it on-screen. He is a great director and he taught me a lot!
Another big component on this film is obviously your co-star, Josh Danziger. What can you tell us about that relationship and how it played into your work on this project?
Josh and I are really good friends to this day. He actually lives about five miles away from me. He is such a sweetheart and really talented! I never got a chance to meet him until we got on set. He was really nervous and said, “Oh! We are shooting in a week and I don’t know who Emily is yet! How can you make a Romeo & Juliet-esque film without knowing your Juliet!” When we met, I found that we got a long really well and that we have a lot of the same characteristic traits. For example, we both have a very dark sense of humor! [laughs] That works out really well! We are both really sarcastic and witty, sometimes! [laughs] It was the first film that he had done as an actor to the depth that he had to go. We met up at a Chili’s in Texas and hung out for eight hours and said, “We need a bond.” We drank margaritas, ate chips and salsa as we poured out our hearts to each other because we really needed a special bond. We were about to play people who had grown up together and love each other. That was the kinda the journey of the film. On a lot of films you obviously grow closer during the duration but we didn’t have that luxury, so we had to become best friends on day one!
This film is definitely an emotional roller coaster for the audience as well as for you as an actress. What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?
There is a scene in the film where we burn a building down, it is the home of Josh’s character. It was a night shoot and with a scene like that you have the fire department and the police involved, as they approve those burnings. That night, I was leaving the residence that I had been staying during the shoot and I got into a car accident. I got T-boned by a kid who ran a stop sign! We didn’t get physically hurt but both cars were totalled! The police were called and the ambulance had to come, keep in mind this is an hour prior to my set call! The scene we were shooting called for the house to burn down and for me to cry, a huge pinnacle point in the film. In the meantime, I am in the ambulance on a stretcher being taken to the hospital! The whole time I was thinking, “Oh great! This is going to work out fantastically!” [laughs] I got to the hospital and I was having muscle spasms in my back, so they gave me a prescription for some meds but I couldn’t take any of it because I was about to act! I finally got to the set and Aaron knew that I had been in a car accident but I didn’t tell Josh or anyone else. We had this great production assistant who would run back and forth with ice packs for my back! For that scene, I remember going into the field where we were doing this scene. I knelt down and said, “Grandpa, I need a little assistance! I am not sure how to pull this one off right now.” There was so much pain and so many things going on in my brain, I had a slight concussion and I wasn’t focusing. We ended up shooting it all and thank God it went well. I really believe my grandpa was kinda getting me through that scene! After we shot the scene, I told Josh and he said, “WHAT?!!” and I explained it all to him. Once the work was done, I was able to go back to the hotel and drug myself up! [laughs]
How does the process of making an independent film like this compare to doing something on the Scale of “High School Musical?” Are there any similarities?
Yeah, I think there are similarities. I think any set that you are on, you have that same family-esque feeling. Every set is a family and that is why I am so happy there! There are the grips, the actors, the guys who do lighting, on and on. It resembles a beehive, where everyone works really, really hard and at the end of the season or the shoot, you have something beautiful. To see everyone in their element of creativity, it gives me the best high! The grips are doing what they do, the director does his part and the decorators do what they do and when you look back, it is a masterpiece that couldn’t have been completed if just one element was missing! I really believe in humanity and to see 200 people working together to create something beautiful and see them succeed, breeds more of that hope in me. No matter what is going on in the world, seeing people come together like that for a common goal makes me think, “See! We can do it! Look at us create something great together!” That essence is the same whether you are on an indie film or a big budget project. The directors yell at the crew, the actors freak out and there is always a huge amount of Diet Coke, so it is pretty similar aside from the budget differences! [laughs]
Each project seems to be a learning experience for an actor. What did you learn from your time on this film and with this cast?
Oh my gosh! I learned so much from my time on this film, so it is hard to narrow it down. I guess the biggest thing I learned was I respond to music really well. It is funny because I have done so many projects since “Apart,” which is just now coming out. I listened to music in between takes to stimulate certain emotions. If I needed to cry, the best way for me was to slip on my headphones and the rest of the cast and crew just fade away. it was a good way to focus or regroup. That is what I learned on this project and now I make a playlist for each character and it helps me get where I need to be, especially in moments of chaos. It is hard when you are about to do a crying scene about your mom dying and you have to channel all of that emotion when there are 600 people talking at the same time, craft services are over there, walkie talkies are over there and the sound department is trying to mic you all at the same time! To top it all off, you have only five minutes until the director says, “Show me something!” So, music keeps me from going crazy! [laughs]
Do you ever take a moment to look back at your body of work and reflect on your evolution as an actor?
I feel I have evolved drastically, to be quite honest. I will look at a previous part and think, “Holy crap! I don’t do that anymore. I do this better now.” There are so many things I see. With “Apart,” I was 23 when I took the role and I am turning 26 this month. You can look back and see yourself grow and of course, you don’t look the same. It’s funny because in that part, I am still a teenage girl and now I feel I have the essence of being a women, so it is interesting to reflect and see how I have evolved physically as well as in my craft.
You career has been very diverse already and it is just starting to take flight. Is there a role or genre you haven’t tackled yet you would like to take a stab at in the future?
Yeah! Something I just started this year is doing voice-over work for animation. Obviously, I have worked with Disney for many years and I love their films! Anything animation, whether it is Disney, Pixar or you name it, I am into it! “Ice Age,” for example, I would love to be Scrat! [laughs] This year, I have been talking to Disney and going out for different roles for them to see if I can use my voice for something. It is so difficult! People often say, “Oh, acting is hard!” Yeah, it is hard but when you take away an actor’s ability to use their eyes, their face and their expressions and everything falls solely on their voice, it is a completely different realm! It is really challenging and I am excited to have the opportunity. I am also doing a comedy this year. I like drama and I am really good at it because it is fun and I enjoy the layers. However, it is one thing to make someone cry and it is another to make them laugh! It is a different beast, so I am excited to be doing both!
What other projects are on the horizon for you that we can get excited about?
There is a film called “Family Weekend,” which will be coming out in the fall. It stars Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Modine and Shirley Jones. In the film, I play a speed jump-roper, which is an Olympic sport by the way! [laughs] I kidnap my parents for the weekend in an effort to make them better parents! It is a really dark, dark comedy and it is hilarious! Like I said, you will be able to check that out in the Fall!
You are so spirited and a terrific role model for aspiring actors. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to someone who might be interested in following a similar career path?
My best advice would be something that Angelina Jolie said, so I will steal it from her. She said, “Stay active in your life.” In that sense, I feel this business can wear you down because you get rejected so often. You often pour your heart and soul into something and you never hear back. I have found what keeps me sane and productive is giving back with my time. If you find yourself with a month or two off, rather than sitting home saying, “Oh my God, I haven’t worked in two months,” why not spend that two months by joining the cleanup crew at the beach? Or looking at it as, “Now I have two months to go paint or to help out at an animal shelter or at a retirement home.” The more you give back, the more stable you feel. That way you aren’t diluting your talent by your lack of experiences. You can add more layers to your character and the more you experience, the more you can put on film. I feel sometimes people get a little stuck. I know I have in the past.
I know you have done a lot of charity work and have an interest in many global issues both home and abroad. Are you working on anything in those realms at the moment?
I am a big proponent of banning shark finning. People can go and check out Wild Aid (www.wildaid.org). I am trying to raise awareness for them and what is happening in regard to shark finning as much as possible. They are killing millions of sharks a year, in the cruelest way imaginable, for shark fin soup, which is bad for you anyway. So yeah, go check out www.wildaid.org and help ban shark finning, please!
Very interesting! How did you get involved with that program?
My parents have always been involved with the World Wildlife Fund. I own 30 acres of a nature conservatory in Russia that my parents operate, so I have always been in the loop naturally. They are both great organizations worth looking into.
Where are the best places online for fans, both old and new, to catch up with you?
One of the best places is Twitter. I am a Twitter fiend! [laughs] It is easy for me. I have to admit, I am horrible with technology but I am getting better! [laughs] I also have a blog that is about to be launched and I am redoing my website. You will be able to get all the links from my Twitter as they happen. I plan on getting much better with technology this year and to befriend it! In the past, we have had a love/hate relationship!
Thank you for your time today, Oleysa. We look forward to seeing much more of you in the months and years to come!
Thanks so much! I look forward to it. Have a great day!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.