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Brit Marling on Subversive Western ‘The Keeping Room’ and the ‘Strange Metaphysical Exchange’ of Acting

Brit Marling on Subversive Western 'The Keeping Room' and the 'Strange Metaphysical Exchange' of Acting

If anyone tries to tell you the film industry has lost its integrity, they clearly haven’t met Brit Marling. When the actress came onto the scene at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, she was already fully formed: her poised debuts as both star and co-writer of two premiering features, “Another Earth” and “The Sound of My Voice,” blew critics and audiences away. No one could quite figure out where this seasoned newcomer had come from. As it turns out, Marling, a Georgetown economics graduate (and valedictorian of her class), had turned down a job at Goldman Sachs straight out of college. She moved to Cuba to make a documentary; once finished, she was off to Hollywood to pursue acting and writing. But when she was only getting offered roles for screaming co-eds in horror films, Marling took the reins and began writing her own parts.

It’s fitting, then, that Marling’s character in “The Keeping Room” is the one who takes the reins — in all senses of the word. She plays Augusta, a young woman living on an isolated farmstead at the dusk of the Civil War. Her mother is deceased, and her father remains missing in action; all that’s left of pre-war life is her younger sister and the family’s former slave, now liberated. The three women may as well be at the end of the world. Canons explode in the distance, and unless the women leave the farmstead, they won’t encounter another soul. When Augusta’s sister falls ill, Augusta rides her horse into the apocalyptic remains of the nearby town seeking medicine. A pair of drunk soldiers catches sight of the beautiful girl amidst the wreckage and follows her home. Their refuge under siege, Augusta leads a two-day battle for survival that puts the men to shame. 

“The Keeping Room” is part Western, part thriller, breathing new feminist life into both genres. It’s the untold story of history’s fierce women. Indiewire spoke with Marling about the brute physicality of the shoot, the unique challenges of acting and writing, and how she maintains integrity in an industry that rewards just the opposite. 

READ MORE: James Franco’s Movie Column: ‘The Keeping Room’ is a Feminist War Movie

What initially appealed to you about this story and this role?

The script was really exciting because it was cool to see a story with so many women. You sometimes read things where there are strong female protagonists operating in a male space, but you don’t often read things where it’s three women working together to survive. Being in conversations with women that are not about men is pretty exciting. And I love the idea of my character, Augusta, as this young girl who has been trying to survive and it’s the end of the Civil War and she has to make it through this night. It’s an impossible night and an impossible test of bravery. And they get through it, but in doing it she’s still a young girl; she’s allowed to be afraid. The girls are vulnerable and they fall apart and come together again and fall apart, and it all feels very real.

Where does your character draw her inner strength from, and how did you harness it for the performance?

I think a lot of it came from the physicality of the performance. When you do stuff in your body, it comes to the character more easily and a sense of resilience and strength comes from that. I had done horseback riding as a kid, but not on a horse for eight hours a day. Galloping across a field ten times in a take for several takes is really intense on your body. So I think I found the strength in her out of literally rising to the challenge of getting through a day of shooting and still being able to do all of the emotional work that was required in the scene. Because my character has a very harrowing adventure and everything is life and death stakes, there’s not a single scene on the schedule where you’re like, “Oh, cool, I’m going to chill and kick back and drink a lemonade in between takes.” You’re just in it from the beginning. 
How was the experience of that physical training?

When I got to set, we did a lot of training on horseback. And before even getting to set, there were woodchopping lessons and learning how to shoot a black-powdered rifle. I’d never done something so physical before. It’s basically an action movie, but there’s no CGI, green screens, or people in harnesses hanging from the ceiling. It’s all real. But I guess all of that stuff actually came naturally. Once you spend enough time riding, you get into a space where you’re sort of dancing with the horse. In the beginning, you have everything in your head about what you need to be doing. And at some point you just let that go and the horse is your dancing partner.

At one point your character says, “Women here learn to use a gun before they learn to be wives.” How does that line speak to the ethos of that specific place and time? 

It’s an interesting period because I think we’re used to watching films about war that are on the battlefront, and we don’t see films about the toll of the war at home. And these three women have been surviving in an impossible landscape for a long time with no idea of when the war will end or when their lovers or their fathers or their brothers are coming home. I think that in that space, these women have to abandon a lot of the things that are natural to coming of age. No first kiss, no first love. All of femininity falls away because they’re having to just provide for themselves and figure out how to survive another day without having any idea of how their world might return to a sense of normalcy.

Do you feel like you have a sense of normalcy in your own life between projects?

It’s really hard to reintegrate into life after working on something really intense. When I came back from doing “The Keeping Room,” it was a long time before I could even just be normal in a grocery store. Everyone around you thinks, “It wasn’t real. You were just pretending.” But I’m not sure your body really knows the difference. If you get to the space where you really start to believe it’s real, then you’re living in terror of your house being invaded for days on end in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. And when you come out of that, you are in a kind of shock over it. People talk a lot about preparing for characters, but they don’t talk as much about coming off of them. What you see is often the more glamorous image of works entering the world and fanfare around that, and maybe people don’t see as much what the actual sweat and labor of doing the work itself is. It’s very unglamorous. Especially in a film like this, where they’re spraying dirt in your face in the makeup trailer. 

You’ve made a lot of career decisions to preserve your integrity, such as turning down your out-of-college offer at Goldman Sachs and repeatedly refusing to take on empty roles for women in horror films. What is your decision-making process like?

If you’re the kind of person who gives a lot over to things, you don’t want to sign up for something where you don’t want that exchange to happen. I think in the best case scenario, when you’re really committed to playing a part, you take a piece of that character with you and you leave a piece of yourself behind. There’s some strange metaphysical exchange that happens. So I guess the feeling that I always have is the sense that time is limited. I don’t ever want to find myself on set feeling like I’m just here for a paycheck. I love the job so much and I feel so fortunate that I get to do it that I want to always feel like I’m on set because this is an experience that I’m desperate to have. If I don’t see anything like that, I try to go and create something that feels like it would be interesting.

When you do write a role for yourself in your own film, how is it a different experience than acting for someone else?

For me, it’s a lot more fun to play in something that someone else has written. I think that’s because when you’re acting, you’re always attracted to other people’s imaginations. The great pleasure of getting to be an actor is to create something in somebody else’s landscape — it’s so thrilling. When you write it, it’s very intimate to you. You’re pulling from your experience and your perception and your understanding of the world, and that’s beautiful; that’s its own kind of expression. But it doesn’t have the same sense of exploration in it. So when I read Julia’s script, I was so excited because I was like, “Wow, this is a mind and an imagination I want to dive into and I want to understand this girl as she’s written her. I want to breathe life into it.” But the folds already exist and you can’t change them. The creases of who this person is and how she speaks and what she says are there, and I find that really intoxicating and challenging. But I like both!

What kind of stories do you want to write in the future?
I’d be really interested in the idea of a female scientist. I was at this marine biology lab recently and there were all these women doing studies on deep sea creatures. And I was thinking that it is so exciting to see women in this space, asking questions that are uniquely feminine in this space that has been dominated by men. I’ve also wanted to do something that involves more physicality, like dancing and other ways of moving around. And theater, too. I would really like to try doing something in theater. So there’s a lot of stuff that I want to explore that I haven’t tried yet.

Anything other than acting?

I don’t know, but I was thinking that if I ever had to do an alternate job, maybe I would try making tiny food for a while. Just Google “tiny food.” It’s a good fallback.

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