In Wind River, a Native American woman’s dead body is found frozen in the snow. The latest crime drama (and directorial debut) from Sicario and Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan follows Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent attempting to solve a murder with the help of Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert, a local animal tracker.

Olsen’s Jane Banner arrives on the reservation without a jacket or winter boots. The locals immediately dismiss her, being a blonde white woman and a rookie. But Jane quickly proves she can handle herself, and later steals one of the film’s best scenes when she takes control of a tense standoff.

I caught up with Olsen over the phone last month to talk about playing a sharp and steely female character in a genre often overcrowded by hyper-masculine men. Olsen told me about shooting the “nerve-racking” standoff scene – “Lizzie would rather just disappear into a wall,” she said with a laugh – and working with Sheridan to develop her character. Olsen also told me the one thing she’d want to see in a Scarlet Witch solo movie if her Avenger ever got her own MCU film.

I really enjoyed your performance in this. It’s rare to see such a confident female character in a genre that’s often so macho.

Yeah and I do know that that was Taylor’s full intention.The same way that he did that with Sicario with Emily. And also just visually, I think, it’s interesting to have a white blonde young female as a federal agent on something on a reservation, a job that’s so important where people can very easily write her off and her abilities, because that’s what we’re used to.

Completely. The racial dynamics here are really interesting. Were you very familiar with the tensions that exist in real life on native lands?

I don’t think that I’ve had any authentic experience with what it’s like – and still haven’t – to be a part of a reservation or to live on a reservation and what that would feel like. That’s something that we obviously talked about a lot about. In a Q&A last night, someone asked Jeremy if he now had the sense of what it means to be a part of a reservation. And Jeremy was just like, “I don’t think I know what it feels like to have a heel in my neck, in my DNA, for generations.” So I don’t think we live in a world that tries to explain or show, or provide information for people that live within our country with us. It just kinda seems like we place them as “the other” and we don’t really engage with that world.

This film closes with a title card revealing that there have been zero reported incidents of native women who’ve have gone missing. Do you hope that a movie like this will help bring that issue and topic more to mainstream audiences?

It’s kind of like a “Yes, absolutely,” but I think there’s such deeper issues with how our legal system works with reservation law versus federal law. It’s a flaw in the system where the reservations, based on how much we provide them with help from our government, they are set up to fail. There’s so many deeper issues that I think we try and show, especially with Jane coming into this and trying to figure out how to be of help, but also knowing that technically she shouldn’t even be there. She should even be helping them on a certain amount of time because that’s not how the system’s set up. She tries to follow the rulebook and then realizes that if she wants to be of help, she has to toss this rulebook out and figure out how to make it work on her own terms while she’s there.

The Weinstein Company

Yeah, she says that any other FBI agent would probably leave, but she stays and is committed to solving this crime. Did you discuss the character’s backstory much with Taylor to understand why she’s so determined to help?

It’s funny with backstory because you have to understand it yourself as the actor. You just hope that whatever information you understand from it, it definitely informs how you play the character, but you also hope that the audience just gets a sense. And I think Taylor’s biggest priority with how an audience would perceive Jane is that she’s good at her job. It happens to be her first investigation without any other investigation, [but] she knows how to defend herself. She’s great with her weapons training, she probably finished top of her class, she’s highly capable of doing this job, and she also happens to be someone who can do her job in this situation where anyone else would be like, “This is the wild wild west. I’m not gonna continue to engage in this. This isn’t protocol.”

So, it’s about that her backstory like something happened to her where she’s personally invested in bringing justice. It’s more that she believes in justice and she probably went to law school and became interested in criminal law, and then became interested in being a Fed so that she could be a part of this solution. She probably just has a very strong morality. Something that I thought about a lot is what her relationship to men would be because in such a male-dominated society. Like, did she grow up with a lot of brothers? She decided that she’d be one of the guys and she can hang. Those kinds of things you always end up talking about with your director even just for yourself, just so you can navigate how you interact with the world and with people.

That’s interesting you thought about that because she really has a good handle on the men in this movie. I love the scene where she de-escalates a standoff between a group of eight or nine trigger-happy guys who pull their guns on each other.

That was a nerve-racking day on set. [Laughs] I was just so nervous to try and be the biggest authority figure in a room – it’s not a room, it’s out in the open, but just like within the pack of aggressive, testosterone-heavy men. That was kind of a little daunting. I was like, “Eh, I’m going to have to be the loudest, toughest one.” [Laughs] And Lizzie would rather just disappear into a wall, but yeah that was an interesting day.

The Weinstein Company

The cold is such a pivotal character in this film. What was it like to shoot in those conditions?

I projected in my mind that it was gonna be so much more brutal. Obviously, it wasn’t easy and it’s hard to move an entire crew and it’s hard to move equipment. It’s hard to turn around on the scene and move the set, and you’re trying to also not mess up the pristine fresh snow so it doesn’t look like a huge camera crew has been treading all over the snow. But that aside, we were dressed for it. I now have a newfound love for the snow and for the mountains. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be. I think it just propelled us to be really active and move forward. Every day we were just trying to keep everything moving, whether it was from a creative standpoint of trying to figure out how to make this scene better or just because we were literally losing light. It was just a very active set to be a part of.

One last question. If Scarlet Witch got her own solo movie, what’s one thing that you’d really want to see happen in that movie?

The problem is that I want Scarlet Witch to do House of M. And that’s not possible because we don’t have the X-Men territory. I would love to scream “No more mutants!” but that wouldn’t make sense.

Hopefully in future phases it can happen.

Maybe.

Wind River is now playing in limited release.