If you’re eager to see movies about strong women who might actually exist in the real world, check out anything starring brainy actress Brit Marling
, who plays yet another sharp role in Toronto world premiere and acquisition title “The Keeping Room
,” a Civil War drama that mixes a character study with the home invasion genre.
Marling has been charting her own course ever since she broke out at Sundance 2011 as the writer-producer-lead of two indies, Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth” and Zal Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Own Voice.” She went on to play smart daughters in both Robert Redford’s “The Company We Keep” and “Arbitrage,” opposite Richard Gere; she collaborated again with Batmanglij on eco-terrorist thriller “The East,” and with Cahill on twisty science film “I, Origins.”
(Watch: TOH! Marling video interview on “The East.”)
This time, a friend sent Marling a script from an unlikely source, schoolteacher-turned-screenwriter Julia Hart, which was so compelling that the actress read it through a second time without leaving her chair. “I was riveted,” she tells me in a phone interview. As the sun was coming up, she called her agent, saying, “‘We have got to get this! I’ve got to do this part!’ I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this in such an intense, visceral way. It’s a story of a woman, written by a woman. She’s strong in an inherently feminine way.”
When Marling doesn’t write her own scripts, she picks projects that either move her or make her want to work with the director. But this was the first time that “I felt my heart beating in my chest, like a visceral thing,” she says. “I felt that I had already done the part and had to take steps.”
So Marling jumped on board the project with Hart and her producer husband Jordan Horowitz and WME, who assembled Gilbert Films, Anonymous Content and Wind Dancer Films to finance and produce the movie with Daniel Barber. The up-and-coming UK director had shot “Harry Brown,” a vigilante film starring Michel Caine as an 80-year-old man living in a crumbling community who takes it upon himself to avenge the death of a friend. “It was not in a impossible superhero way, but in a real way,” says Marling. “That’s why producer Jordan and Julia gravitated toward Daniel. There’s something good about the genders balancing each other out, nailing both the feminine and masculine, the yin and yang. You end up being able to say something cleanly and accurately and get a more balanced perspective.”
The movie opens in 1865 on a young woman, Augusta, moving stealthily through the forest, hunting for game. The story is set in the South at the end of the Civil War as a house full of three women –Augusta, her young pre-teen sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their house slave Mad (Muna Otaru) are waiting for the men to return, try to eke out a meager existence from subsistence farming and hunting–and wary of strangers, especially wayward soldiers. When Augusta rides to a store seeking medicine for a gash in her sister’s leg, she manages to escape on horseback from two threatening soldiers, but one (Sam Worthington) is not willing to let her go and tracks her down.
“The story is born from Julia’s idea of the keeping room on the property, where the hearth is moved away from the big house,” says Marling. “It’s a feminine space that women occupy, where they make the food. When you’re under attack you retreat to the keeping room, where everyone congregates in the kitchen, where the food is, where it’s small and you feel safe and you can defend it. The keeping room becomes the historical bedrock of the family as they defend the nucleus of the house.”
The three actresses worked with dialogue coaches on Hart’s southern dialect. And Marling was drawn to the action. “A lot of what we’ve seen so far are women in action movies taking over the masculine impossible role of action hero,” she says. “It’s a starting point for special effects and fight coordinating that is not really possible for most women. I’m excited and moved that women are heroes of films. Here she’s strong and still hasn’t lost her vulnerability. It’s difficult to pull that trigger. With this film you get that it’s hard to do that, particularly for women. You’re biologically designed to create life and not take it away.”
The women endure an horrific experience that transforms them. “So many war movies are set in the trenches with men,” says Marling. “We have not come home to the house and seen what happens to the civilians, the women and children, when this violence comes home to roost. That’s what Julia is basing this on.”
Marling researched Sherman’s March and read first-hand accounts of the brutality. “Sherman was a diabolical genius,” she says. “The only way to win this war was not on the battlefield man to man, but by breaking the back of the civilian population by terrorizing them, burning, raping and pillaging everything in sight all the way to the coast. It’s horrific and it’s what’s turned the tide of the war.”
“The Keeping Room” was an intense film to prepare and shoot. “I knew it was going to be physically hard,” Marling says. “Augusta is physically starving and exhausted, surviving on little food, doing a lot of riding and hunting. I arrived physically depleted from doing psychological preparation and the Civil War diet. I’m a girl who loves food, I’d never really paid that much attention to physicality for a role. I had a wiry frame, a bit like a man.”
Marling’s dance background served her well, “but athleticism had never played such a part in storytelling for me,” she says. “I was training every day on horseback in the brutal hot Romanian summer, shooting guns, wielding axes, packing a rifle with gun powder. It was really intense even in the two weeks up to shooting. Midway through the film, some moments were so tightly wrung on set that when Daniel called ‘cut,’ we all burst into tears, holding all this weight on the pressure of believing we’re on the edge of survival.”
The actress was so engrossed in the role that when she sustained a serious burn on her arm, she didn’t pay it much heed until she got home to Los Angeles and realized how bad it was. “I’d gotten to a place where I feel like I’m living through the Civil War,” she says. “My job is only effective at creating an illusion if you believe the illusion, and are taken into that zone. Then the burn doesn’t matter. The adrenaline is so high, I’m so obsessed with the story, that I can’t see anything but the role clearly, on location in the middle of the mountains.”
Marling simply can’t accept a role that makes her uncomfortable with the way a woman is portrayed. “The more I do this the more I learn that if you do have anything of value to offer you have to protect it,” she says. “The moment you start doing jobs because they are jobs, politically, strategically or for a paycheck, the poetry inside you collapses. I have no family yet, so I get to make choices based on that I think storytelling is provocative and important and shifts the dial and needle in our culture.”
Men are “curious about women too,” she says. “Men want to get to get to know their wives and sisters and lovers. But a lot of the scripts for any young actress have one male protagonist and a girlfriend or wife or sex object. The main thing is that women are bored of that. It’s what makes this kind of movie exciting. Things are moving. Hollywood may be a beat behind and catching up, but the audience and the creators are there. Demand on both sides is really strong. It’s more necessary than ever before. I keep doubling down on that instinct, making movies and telling stories that are inherently political. You gotta know what side you’re on.”
Next up: Marling plays young Abraham Lincoln’s mother in Sundance indie “The Better Angels,” and a month ago she wrapped “Babylon,” Danny Boyle’s six-hour miniseries in London. “It was intense and cool to spend that much time with the character,” she says, “a super-ambitious PR girl who gets poached by the head of the metropolitan police to reform internet communication in a transparent post-Snowdon world. When there’s no such thing as privacy or secrecy, what does that mean for law enforcement?”
While the actress-writer-producer expects that one day she’ll meet a story that she has to direct as well, she’s still inspired by “the challenge of acting,” she says. “I find it properly overwhelming. It’s a strange profession. I arrive on set feeling like I’m doing it for first time, with no gain in experiential knowledge. It’s not like surgery, you don’t have that as an actor, you start fresh. There’s something wildly intimidating about that, there’s so much more to learn from it.”
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