The last time Indiewire caught up with writer/actress Brit Marling was at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where the Georgetown Economics grad made quite the first impression by wowing critics and audiences with two breakthrough turns in “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” (both of which she also co-wrote).
Since leaving Park City, she’s gone on to deliver on the hype by returning to Sundance with “Arbitrage” starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon; working for Robert Redford on his upcoming ensemble thriller “The Company You Keep,” alongside a massive ensemble that includes Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Shia LaBeouf and Anna Kendrick; and wrapping principal photography on “The East,” which sees her reuniting with her “Sound of My Voice” director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij, for an indie thriller that bears a striking resemblance to their first collaborative effort (in “Sound of My Voice” a young couple infiltrate a cult to make a documentary; in “The East,” Marling stars as a contract worker tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group, only to find herself falling for its leader).
With “Sound of My Voice” currently in theaters, Indiewire caught up with Marling to discuss her career post-breakthrough, and what to expect from “The East.”
How is “The East” coming along?
We’re in the thick of editing, which is an awesome place to be because the movie can become anything. I always feel like the editing room is like coming into the kitchen. What kind of a meal do you make from there? It can be anything.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been reading a lot of things. I haven’t quite decided yet what I’m going to do. There are things Zal and I want to write together. And Mike [Cahill, writer/director of “Another Earth”] has another movie coming up that he wrote that I’m going to act in.
I keep trying to figure out what stories it seems would be useful and interesting. I’d keep working with Zal and Mike indefinitely if I’m so lucky.
I saw “Sound of My Voice” at Sundance over a year ago. What’s it like to be doing press for this film, so long after the fact?
I really think that for some reason the film’s become more prescient. Maybe it’s the election or post-Occupy Wall Street movement. I think there is a general unrest or curiosity about what a human future is going to be like, and whether the way we’re living is even sustainable. Maggie is talking about a future that is post some kind of unravelling of the civilized world as we know it. The story taps into unsettling things that people are thinking or feeling in a very cool way. I think it’s really playing as a sort of metaphysical thriller.
I think it’s a nice happenstance. It’s maturing well [laughs].
We last spoke back at your first Park City experience, when you being touted as the breakthrough of the event. You’ve lived up to a lot of the hype. What’s this whole journey been like of you?
I didn’t expect any of this, I really didn’t. It’s so hard to properly articulate the way these films were made, which was in a total vacuum in Silver Lake.
I mean “Sound of My Voice” was shot with a camera you often see with tourists. We shot the scenes on the plane on an actual plane! We bought a round-trip ticket from LAX for San Francisco. We’re shooting on the plane the entire time. At some point the flight attendant stopped and was like, “What are you doing?” And Zal was like, “Oh, we’re just taking pictures on the tail end of our trip.” And the flight attendant was like, “That’s so sweet. Why don’t you go in and I’ll take one of the three of y’all.” And she just takes a photo and they keep go about filming.
The fact that technology has reached a place where you can be that small, that ninja and infiltrate spaces. You’re getting production value in that moment that a movie with $100 million wishes they could have.
When we were doing these, because of their smallness, we never thought they’d enter the world in this way. That has been astounding. And then the response, to have people connect to it, has been overwhelming. The idea that we can continue going about this, and make a living doing this work that we love is really amazing. It still sort of blows that mind.
How do you navigate the industry aspect of what you do? Especially as a newcomer.
I think what’s interesting is that the industry is all made up of people. It’s all about finding the right people in the industry that you have a simpatico with. People who you’re inspired by the way they see the world or vice versa. We feel that so much with everyone at Searchlight, which is why we made “The East” there. That was an incredible experience and a great collaboration. The process of making it there made the script better. It just came to life in a way that would have been impossible had we been realizing it at a microbudget.
So that part of it is exciting and fantastic. There are of course other elements to this work, maybe in particular to being an actress, that are more difficult to navigate. But I think you always just keep going back to the work. The work is so humbling because it’s so hard to do, and it just keeps getting harder.
You’re just trying to figure out how to get better at this thing that you love. I sort of feel OK about how everything’s played out so far.
How have you gotten better since breaking out? You starred alongside relative unknowns in “Sound of My Voice” and “Another Earth,” and now you’re working opposite actors like Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. How have your new experiences shaped you as a performer?
It’s tremendous working with actors who have that depth of experience. I mean working with Susan and Richard — they have had so much experience on set, they really understand how to make friends with the apparatus. They understand that space and how to make that space into what they need to unlock and let go. So watching that and learning from them was tremendous. And also, I just think they’re the kind of actors who are so good at what they do — I mean, they’re masters of illusion — so when you’re in a scene with them, you’re not working with an actor, you’re working with your dad or your mom. So that’s pretty awesome.
And about delivering on the hype, what’s living up to that pressure been like?
I wonder if this is a fair thing to say, I’m trying to speak honestly. I really don’t believe the hype myself. Because I don’t believe it, it’s hard to be affected by it.
That’s a healthy way to go about it.
I hope so. I think about acting like it’s this incredible challenge. I imagine if you’re a heart surgeon and you’ve been doing it for a decade, you’ve cut a lot of people open at this point and you’ve been around lots of kinds of trauma and you bring that awareness to every surgery you do. As an actor, you have an accumulated knowledge base. But there’s also something about it that every time you really feel like you’re doing it for the first time; you have no idea whether you’re capable of it. You almost feel a little bit like a charlatan and you don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Five films into this, I still feel like an infant.
So the hype part of it doesn’t enter that world. It just kind of feels like a lot of sound and fury going nowhere.
On paper “The East” sounds very similar to “Sound of My Voice.” Are they companion pieces?
They’re really different worlds. What’s interesting is that we wrote that script two years ago, and when Occupy Wall Street happened, it was like, whoa. Suddenly there was this movement that was talking about and giving voice to things that we had been writing about.
It’s about an anarchist collective and the story of a girl who’s a young corporate spy, very conservative, who gets hired to go undercover and infiltrate this group. This group is terrorizing corporations and has been very successful at it.
I think that the story came out of us daydreaming on the millennial generation. What is that we’re going to do? What’s our legacy? We all seem to be awake and aware in a way that perhaps the baby boomers were not as forward thinking. I think the millennial generation is looking at the future and is like, what is the future of all this? How do you make sense of it? How is it sustainable? How do you live a meaningful life?
I think the anarchist group is sort of what a possible revolutionary group can look like, and how they can go about plotting the early seeds of a rebellion.
So in that sense it’s a completely different world from “Sound of Voice.” But you’re right that there are similar themes in terms of infiltration and collectives. I think we want to believe that there’s more power in a group, and that working together is more inspiring and fulfilling. Being alone with your thoughts is kind alienating… it’s a lonely business.
It sounds like you’re taking sides with the anarchists.
I mean, the film doesn’t take sides. That’s true with “Sound of My Voice,” too. I think the idea when you’re making a film is to present a world, and let it give the viewer the space to take what they will from it. I hate being in a theater and being made feel like I’m being spoonfed or indoctrinated.
Are we ever going to see Brit Marling, the director?
[Laughs] No, thank God. I grew up with Mike and Zal, so I know what a director is. They are both born directors. Everything they do has their fingerprints on it. They do that so well on every level. I think directors have to be masters of every discipline that there’s a department head for. It’s like the biggest body of knowledge ever. I’m very happy to just deal with my micro world of pretend and make believe, and attempt to get better at that.