In a dark corner of Manhattan's Gramercy Park Hotel, Mary-Kate Olsen sits alone smoking Marlboro Reds. Her blue eyes are the size of salad plates, her lips almost too large for her face. A black fedora is perched low over her shock of tangled blond hair. She's impossibly small, her garden-hose legs bottoming out into a pair of ridiculously high black Balenciaga ankle boots. When asked how often she wipes out in those, Olsen cocks a foot out from under the table and laughs agreeably. ''Oh, I fall all the time,'' she says, her little hand ashing her cigarette into a tiny silver pail already filling up with butts. ''But I could be in flats and fall.''
If she looks just like the overaccessorized doll from all her paparazzi shots here drinking a latte! here wearing a silly scarf! the surprise, then, is actually hearing her speak. Despite her being half of the Full House duo and the monstrously lucrative Mary-Kate and Ashley franchise, a 21-year-old who, as she'll repeat over and over again, has been working for 21 years, little is really known about Olsen. And if spending an afternoon with her is a trip, her ''evil eye'' rings and bracelets glinting up at you as she tells a story about an insomnia-induced hour of solo interpretive dance in her unfurnished apartment the other night, wait until she gets stoned and straddles Silas on the first of her 10 episodes on Showtime's Weeds (her arc premieres Sept. 17).
''If you look at our career,'' says Olsen, as if sister Ashley was sitting alongside her, ''from 21 years ago to today, it was about entertaining a specific audience. It wasn't about acting. It was about pleasing other people and making kids smile.'' When she was a freshman at NYU (she went for two years and holds out the possibility of returning to graduate), Olsen started taking acting classes, thinking of it for the first time as a creative pursuit instead of a business. Today, she admires young actresses such as Evan Rachel Wood and Ginnifer Goodwin, and hopes to slowly start booking supporting roles in independent movies. (In Jonathan Levine's just-wrapped The Wackness, she plays a young hippie who shares an onscreen kiss with Ben Kingsley, an experience Olsen calls ''very surreal and cool.'')
Being accepted into the Weeds family is Olsen's first real stab at credibility. ''To say that I got to work with those people with Mary-Louise Parker! is a great thing,'' she marvels. When series creator Jenji Kohan heard that Olsen was interested in playing the role of Tara, a sly Christian girl new to the neighborhood, she remembers worrying that Olsen's celebrity would be distracting to viewers. But Olsen's ease and chemistry with costar Hunter Parrish during the audition won her over. ''The truth is we're so protective of the show,'' says Kohan. ''We don't stunt-cast. She earned that part. It's weird to say that she's trying to break into the business, because of her status, but she is and she should have her shot. We did have to change our signs, though,'' she says, with an amused sigh. ''When we were on location, we couldn't have Weeds signs up because we would get stalkerazzi.''
There's a reason that Olsen looks so glum in every tabloid shot. ''I don't want my picture taken,'' she says simply. ''The only time I think it's okay is at a red-carpet event or a photo shoot. So every time I see paparazzi, I cover my face so they don't get a picture, and I'm just 'the mean person who doesn't smile.''' To maintain some semblance of privacy, she makes ''conscious decisions every day of my life.'' Don't get out of the car, keep the bodyguards close, steer clear of certain stores, invite friends over for dinner instead of meeting them at a restaurant, stay indoors. ''I would love to be able to swim in the ocean in Malibu,'' she says without bitterness. ''But that is asking for a bikini shot. That's inviting something that I don't want to happen. I don't need to be on a 'Who's Skinny, Who's Fat, Who's Looking Healthy, Who's Not Eating?' list.''
Three years ago, spurred on by the media's tickled horror over her rapidly diminishing figure, Olsen removed herself to a Utah rehab facility in order to treat her anorexia. ''There's definitely been times in my life when I just turned to people and said, 'I'm done, this is too much for me, this is too overwhelming,''' she says. She treats a question about her health today with genuine thoughtfulness. ''Mentally, physically, I feel pretty on top of my game right now,'' she says. ''Talk to me next week, I don't know. Today, I feel good.''
And with that, she stamps out her last cigarette and drapes herself around her interviewer in a girlishly exuberant goodbye hug. Back into the bright world she goes, wobbling away on her giant heels.