We’ve been following Brit Marling’s career since she broke out at Sundance in 2009 with the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Another Earth, a movie she co-wrote after leaving a life in finance behind. Since then, Marling has been etching one of the most unpredictable and challenging bodies of work in the movie business, padding her resume with smart thrillers like The East (which she also co-wrote) and Arbitrage, along with more experimental art house fare like her latest, A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels. The impressionistic, black and white film explores the childhood of Abraham Lincoln, as the boy who would grow to be president comes of age in the backwoods of Indiana. Marling plays Nancy, the young Lincoln’s beloved mother, with a sensible grace befitting of a man who would grow into the embodiment of virtue. We spoke to Marling about playing a mother for the first time, why she has yet to make a blockbuster, and her favorite way to slack off.
What’s it like making a film that is lyrical and visually poetic as opposed to some of your past films that are more plot driven and dialogue driven.
There was a really strong script for this. There was a really clear blueprint about what A.J. wanted to do, which was a biopic and not talking about the glory days or the really well chronicled part of someone’s history. But instead to go way back into the past towards childhood, and then just stay in childhood. There’s not very much written about his childhood, he didn’t talk very much about it himself. As actors we’re all sort of detectives on this mystery of what was it really like to live in this time. A.J. built the log cabin to be exactly of the dimensions and the materials of that space. The costumes were all made from fabrics that you really could have had then, so everybody put on these clothes and walked onto this set with all natural light and it was like time traveling to that period to kind of excavate together what those formative years were like for Lincoln.
Was it surreal being around this young kid who was supposed to one day be Abraham Lincoln?
It was surreal, but also one of the things I thought A.J. did so well was that he didn’t cast child actors. He went and found these two kids in Kentucky who grew up in rural Kentucky who just had a willingness to play pretend and who were open and telegenic and wanted to have an experience. And A.J. was always filming. As a result, it was a real experience to get to the place where you were playing pretend and make believe as well. That doesn’t mean you don’t come well prepared. I think we all did as much research as we could on the time period and the conditions and about Lincoln. Both Jason and I listened to the Bible on tape because Nancy Lincoln was illiterate but the parables of the Bible were a huge part of where she gathered her strength and meaning from. I think we’d try to come prepared, but when you’re on set with these kids you really try to let go in the way that they do and get lost in playing pretend again.
Was this your first time playing a mother on screen?
It totally was and it was awesome to do that. Friends of mine have kids and you see the ways in which they change, and you see their lives suddenly become totally about keeping this human being alive and giving this human everything they can in order for it to live a good life. That total switch in point of view and perspective is the end of narcissism for a lot of people. It was really cool to find that in Nancy even though I haven’t had kids yet in my life. The moment that I met Braydon it was like I just adopted this maternal energy to him and even if we were on lunch break I was thinking, ‘What is Braydon eating, has he had his vegetables?’ and he’s just eating donuts.
This is the story of a boy who grows up in a poor environment only to become a great, historical figure. That seems to be one of the principles that America was founded on. Do you still see that as the country we live in today, that somebody from those humble roots can grow up to be that kind of person in the world?
That’s a really, really good question. I don’t know the answer to it. I think Lincoln’s story is part of the great mythology of this country. I think it is the American dream embodied, this idea that you can come from this pioneer life of hacking an existence from the wilderness, you know, barefoot, running around, trying to get an education and come from that space of real poverty and then find yourself to be the President of the United States. That’s a massive journey in one lifetime.
That’s what’s so amazing about that opening shot of the Lincoln Memorial, because then it takes you back to this boy and you’re reminded that he went from a scrappy youth in the woods to immortality.
You can’t believe it, it’s the stuff of myth and legend that has been the engine of this country for so long, this idea of genuine equal opportunity that you really can come from anything and have any experience and drive yourself forward. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. I guess there are a handful of success stories that we still hold up. Like, Hey, this pop star came from nowhere and made herself from the ground up. I think we still find those ways to try to tell that but I’m not sure it ends up applying to as many people. I think people feel dispirited by where public education is and if you go to college can you even get a job afterwards, or can you even get out of debt? I think it’s all feeling a bit more like quicksand, so it’s interesting for this movie to even come out right now in this climate and sort of remind you about what is so important and what used to be the fabric of this country.
Do you think Lincoln’s greatness is a preordained thing, something that’s in his DNA?
AJ said something really interesting on that subject earlier today. He was like, ‘You know in that time, if you survived, if you lived to 18 in those conditions, you definitely sort of felt like, Well, I must be here for something.’ Because you died of milk sickness or the ox ran over you or you just didn’t make it through a hard winter because there wasn’t enough food. I think there was a feeling that if you survived then you should be doing something with your life. Maybe there was a force greater than you that was protecting you and ensuring your survival, and maybe you were meant for something, and I think it shows you how strong belief can be in that regard. It can lead you to these seemingly impossible things.
You broke out in 2009, but have yet to make a big studio film yet. Is that deliberate?
I think it sort of has to be the right thing. For me, acting is a really ephemeral and amazing thing, I don’t know if I’m interested in doing it unless I feel it. I think there are other crafts that you can sort of call up for any reason, but there’s something about acting. You have to really want to wake up and do the job every day. It has to mean everything to you. It can’t mean less than that, at least for me. I’m really excited about doing studio films, I’m sure that something is going to come along where the part will be feel really meaningful and the story will be exciting or it’ll be a filmmaker that I’m dying to work with and then off we go. I think that making The East was in the studio system, we made that at Fox Searchlight, and it was an awesome experience and allowed us to do more things than we would have been able to do with that movie independently. I think movies are reaching a really exciting place. Birdman was astounding and Interstellar really blew me away the other day. I was so moved by it.
Is it an indictment of studio movies to say that none of them are speaking to you? Or are you just not connecting with the work?
Well no, because there have been a lot of great movies recently. Interstellar is an amazing example. It’s a massive blockbuster movie but it’s also a work of high art. It’s continuing a conversation that the original Solaris started, talking about stuff in quantum physics that are profound and have really interesting ideas for making sense of the time we’re living in. So no, I think that studios are making really interesting movies. Maybe they’re making fewer than they were a decade ago and a lot more of them may be more franchise driven, but i think really good stuff is coming around the bend. So I’ll jump in at some point.
Are you working on a script right now?
I am, yeah. I’m trying to take some time in the fall to not take on another acting project and just sit still and write for a bit, which is hard to do sometimes because you feel like you’ll do anything to not sit and face the blinking cursor.
What are your procrastination tactics?
My biggest procrastination tactic is when I’m like okay, I’m going to start writing this scene but I should probably go back and watch that scene from Basic Instinct first. So then you go and watch, and now it’s really easy because it’s all streaming, so you go back and watch the scene and you’re like okay, I’ll just watch until the halfway mark. Then you’re like, I’m only watching until the climax. Then you’ve watched the whole film and you’re like, okay now I’ll do it. But then you’re like, now I’d like to watch The Pelican Brief. That is my favorite procrastination strategy. Whatever is streaming on Netflix.