I first became aware of Brit Marling a year ago, when I had coffee with the writer and actress to talk about her breakout films The Sound of My Voice and Another Earth—both of which had premiered side-by-side at Sundance, making her the first woman writer/actress to have two films at the festival. Since those auspicious beginnings, things have only spiraled upward for the actress. She was cast as Richard Gere’s daughter in the financial drama Arbitrage, and appeared alongside Robert Redford and Shia Labeouf in The Company You Keep. On May 31, Marling and writing-partner Zal Batmanglij return with an eerily resonant political thriller of their own—The East, about a renegade Anarchist collective taking vengeance on corporate hotshots. When we meet this time to talk about her work, it’s high up in a midtown hotel. As we both acknowledge, there’s something bizarre about talking radical politics in a corporate suite, but it’s indicative of how far—and how quickly—she’s come since her breakout Sundance season two years ago.
So I saw The Company You Keep and The East on the same day.
No way. What was that experience like?
It was fascinating.
What did it make you think? They’re such interesting companion pieces.
It made me think a lot about our generation’s relation to the ’60s. It must have been crazy to work on one film and then the other. It’s like the year of political radicalism.
It’s funny because Zal [Batmanglij] and I had been researching and writing The East when I got the script for The Company You Keep. And so I had seen the Weather Underground documentary as part of the research for The East. And I had watched it and had been really moved by them, and particularly been moved by the idea that they held themselves so accountable for things that were happening in their time that weren’t necessarily happening to them. They were rebelling for their brothers and sisters in the Black Panther movement and for what was happening in Vietnam, but they weren’t actually the people who it was happening directly to. And yet they felt the responsibility to create the beginning of a—which is totally what the group in The East is wrestling with. It’s the same question. Is it okay to hurt people if you think the end leads to a greater good? And then there’s the whole idea of an eye for an eye justice. This corporation poisons us, we’re going to poison them. This corporation spies on us, we’re going to spy on them? And does it really end up leading to a better world?
If you’re so convinced of your position, what stops you from using force? When are urgent means appropriate? When is sacrifice appropriate?
Exactly. And I don’t think either movie knows the answer to that question. But it’s certainly interesting to pose it in this time when so much shit is going wrong and so much of the system is obviously broken and young people really do need to stand up and rebel. I love that young people got Obama elected and then they just went back to their normal lives. If Obama is really going to create change, that can only happen if young people take to the streets and say, we’re not reporting to work today, or tomorrow or the next day, until these demands are met. And so, yes, these movies are very interesting.
And it’s great that Redford is returning to ask these questions in his own work. You can really sense that this is film means a lot to him. How did you first come to his attention? Did you audition for the role?
I didn’t actually. Robert had seen Another Earth and Sound of My Voice at Sundance. And there was a Sundance fundraiser where I gave a talk about the experience, and what it was like and why Sundance was so important. And we met there again. I think he felt from having seen those films that I could do this part and that I would be very interested in these ideas. So he just asked me if I wanted to do it. And I read the script and signed on right away.
You must have been excited.
I was incredibly excited. Robert is an example of someone who has really had an incredible career as an artist and yet has also been very politically active. A lot of people reject actors getting involved in politics, becoming mouthpieces for political things because they feel like—oh you’re not properly educated in this world. But I think that Robert’s approach has been just to take initiative and start things himself—the Sundance Institute, those labs, and then the festival so that what came out of the labs would have an audience. And now he’s redoing cinemas so there’s a place for them to be seen—like the new Sunset Five in Hollywood. He’s not just talking about it, he’s literally going out and doing those things. If he hadn’t created that safe-haven for independent filmmaking, where would it be now? All of the auteur filmmakers we admire, many of them have come out of Sundance.
Did you ever think you would go into politics instead of movies? I know you went to Georgetown. I’m sure that must have been thrown around a bit.
A lot of my friends were doing internships on Capitol Hill. I was studying economics. I was going in a different direction. I was thinking about that recently, because for some reason I had been reading Hillary Clinton’s commencement speech, the speech she gave when she graduated from Wellesley. And I was thinking, wow, she was incredibly passionate about change and wanted to do different things. I sometimes wonder if now, it seems hard to do that in politics. It’s seems like politics is a locked-in world. What’s appealing about arts and entertainment is this idea that you can put really interesting ideas, cultural ideas, into stories and that the stories are something that everybody can take in. Everybody wants to be moved to laugh and to cry, and to feel more connected.
Your career has just blown up, but there must have been a few years when you were struggling.
Oh my god, all the time. Still. [Laughs]
When was it that you said, okay I’m going full on into this?
A couple years ago, Zal and I spent a summer traveling. We had ideas about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how to go about doing it. He had gone to the AFI, but how do you start directing? I was interested in acting, but how do you begin to do a job like that? There’s no linear approach. [Laughs] We felt interested in a lot of the ideas that both of these stories are wrestling with. We spent a summer on the road and—
Where’d you guys go?
We traveled everywhere. We learned to train hop. We fell in with a group of people. We went from a sustainable permaculture farm to living with different anarchist collectives.
Was this out west?
This was all over. We bounced all across the country—Virginia, Detroit, just everywhere. And it was an incredible experience. Maybe their approach is different from the Weather Underground and the radicals of the sixties in that today, instead of talking about it, they go out and do it themselves. If we think the grocery store is filled with genetically modified foods that are covered in pesticides, then let’s just go build the farm. And if we think that we shouldn’t be driving these SUVs with this gas everyday back and forth then let’s go find a job that we can walk or ride a bike to. They’re very radical in that they’re taking it upon themselves, and we were really moved by that. We ended up back in LA and started writing Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. And we made them very much in this tribal way that we had experienced by living with these groups, which is just that everyone is wearing a whole lot of hats. You’re scavenging from dumpsters. You’re getting whatever you can get for free, and you’re just making something for the love of making it.
It’s really interesting. I’ve gone through some periods off the grid, dumpster diving and the rest of it. You know, there’s this new exhibit in Chelsea that follows hobo kids. And what’s interesting is that if it wasn’t for that exhibit a lot of adults or middle-class people wouldn’t even know that subculture existed. I can imagine that with The East when you first proposed this idea—and you ended up getting some pretty prominent people to sign on—but did you have to educate them a bit about it? Did they think it was a fantasy?
It’s really true what you’re saying. It’s so interesting that you had that experience. And I really wonder what people from that community are going to think about it, because I agree with them that there’s a very interesting question of what does it mean to make a movie about this subject matter within a system. Is that it’s own culture jam or not? I don’t know the answer to the question. The script was a real litmus test for people, because people were either totally drawn to the script or not. But a lot of people were just like—I have to do this. Ellen Page was like that, for instance. I know she spent time on a permaculture farm in Oregon. And the same with Alex [Skarsgaard]. I don’t think Alex knew as much about the culture, but he was incredibly fascinated by the idea of portraying somebody who is operating in this anti-hierarchical system. But of course there is this quasi-hierarchy. How do you avoid the natural, charismatic leader that always comes up in these groups even when they’re anti-hierarchy? That was I think an interesting challenge for him.
There’s an authenticity for sure—especially the trains, the dress, the banjo. I was like, wow, it’s so weird to see this. I saw it a little bit in Wendy and Lucy. But this must be getting wide release.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think it depends on how much people come out and support it, honestly, because I think it’s a different movie to decide to make. And we live in a culture where if things don’t work opening weekend, they disappear. They have these platform releases, and if they come out in New York and LA, and they do well, then they keep going. So honestly it depends on the activism of the audience. People need to go see it and say, “I want more of my entertainment to be like this.” You really do vote with your dollar now. If there’s a democracy at all, that’s what it looks like. You vote with your dollar. And then Hollywood goes, “Oh there is a space for a smart political thriller that has something to say.” But if it doesn’t do as well, then Hollywood turns around and is like, “Well, it’s back to the young adult franchise.” I hope it does have the potential to connect broadly. We certainly tried to make it in a way that puts the ideas out there.
Your character is a spy and goes back and forth between the “straight” world and the off-the-grid life. I felt the film totally captured what it’s like to be in a different country or a different culture and then—just like that—you’re back home. I loved the sequences when you’re back with your boyfriend, sleeping on the floor. You feel just totally disoriented. Did you connect to that? All of this must be disorienting for you—the last couple years. What do you do?
Totally. I mean, doesn’t it feel unnatural for instance that this is where we’re having this conversation? Why couldn’t we have it outside in Central Park. And I don’t just mean so we can put our feet in the grass like I’m some tree-hugging hippie, which I probably am. It’s weird that those words have such a disparaging quality in our culture, by the way. Like if you love trees it’s a bad thing. It’s all so weird. But I agree with you. Why are we in this air-conditioned strange space talking about these ideas here? I don’t have the answer to it.
I was just talking to Antonio Campos and Brady Corbet this morning. It does seem that there is a young generation emerging that can feel as at home in alternative spaces as in a hotel like the one we’re in.
I love what you’re saying. I think you’re getting at something that The East is about, which is the millennial generation is doing something really weird. You and I both feel like we’re operating in this space, and we’re also dumpster diving and we actually don’t see those things as being that dissimilar. And Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin—their club is doing that too. And I think it’s in The East. There’s Sarah who’s a corporate spy—that’s about as mercenary and ambitious as you can get. And then there’s Benji, who’s the leader of an anarchist group living in the woods and scavenging everything. Maybe these two people are actually not that dissimilar. Benji and Sarah have a lot in common, and you could very easily see them switching positions—Benji being the corporate spy and Sarah running the anarchist group. I think what you’re saying is so interesting because our parents—or even like The Company You Keep—I’m not sure that generation was having that dualism. And I think our generation is having this dual identity where we’re straddling it, and we’re trying to figure it out.
So I noticed a big birthday’s coming up. You’re turning 30. I just turned 30.
Is it a good age?
I kind of like it.
I’m excited to turn 30.
What are your thoughts on that?
This is the funny thing. I was having this conversation with somebody the other day. Somebody was talking about the shelf life of actresses and how it’s different for guys and girls. They were saying how guys start doing their best stuff in their 40s and 50s while women start peaking around 35. And I was like, bullshit! It’s just because women have been writing, and directing and producing for less time. But they’re catching up and they’re writing stories that are interesting to both genders. I mean look no further than Bridesmaids or 30 Rock or Girls. Women are going to be doing all kinds of interesting stuff, in fact their best work, as they age. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. My god I hope that I manage to get better at my job.
I’m sure you will. And surviving your twenties nowadays is no easy feat.
Brutal. Oh my god, I feel like we should have t-shirts that say “I made it to 30 and I’m okay. I’m still alive”
Photography by James Orlando