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The East: from Goldman Sachs to freeganism, Brit Marling is a Hollywood conundrum
The economics graduate, the bin-rummaging freegan, the producer; indie cinema's latest enigma is all of these things by Tom Seymour, The Guardian, published on Friday, June 28, 2013 - 14.00 BST
A fortnight before the American opening of The East, its star, co-writer and producer was wandering the streets of New York in her pyjamas. "Can't sleep," tweeted Brit Marling. "Feeling something extreme but on what side of the spectrum?"
It's a typical question from an atypical actor. Two years ago, the then-unheard-of 27-year-old from Chicago stole Sundance with a double whammy of sci-fi mumblecore. Robert Redford saw Marling excel in Sound Of My Voice and Another Earth (which she also co-wrote and produced) and instantly signed her up to star in his directorial return The Company You Keep. She now has six studio features on the go.
"I'm ill-equipped for this interview," admits Marling, her soft hazy wisp of a voice drifting down the line from Bucharest. She's been flown out to Romania at short notice to replace Olivia Wilde on civil war epic The Keeping Room. "It's been a very aggressive physical and emotional endeavour so far."
Her candour is not entirely unexpected. Marling regularly opens up on Twitter, sharing insights such as: "I feel badly 4 ppl who have never had their hearts broken or been fired or had an epic fail they don't know what they are missing." Or: "meeting time sex legend: coffee = i want 2 talk but i don't want 2 have sex. drinks = i don't want 2 talk that much, i just want 2 have sex." Or simply: "Take me serious."
She talks of her career as if it were a happy accident, yet it's anything but. She grew up nomadically, her father chasing real estate work across the east coast. She majored in economics at Georgetown University, before spending her graduation summer interning as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. They were impressed enough to offer her a job, but she turned it down. "It seemed as if the Type-A life meant you had to be complicit in something," she says of the career path she almost took. "You have to put the blinders on and not ask questions. I felt I was being told: 'This is what it means to be successful. This is what it means to be happy. And this is what it looks like.' I would have been cruising for a mid-life bruising."
Marling moved to Cuba for a year, but the lure of LA brought her back; she drove there in a station wagon across America with Mike Cahill (Another Earth director and ex-boyfriend) and Zal Batmanglij (big brother of Vampire Weekend's Rostam and director of Sound Of My Voice and The East). "My parents were really worried," she revealed in a speech at her old university last month. "We were moving to Hollywood to make movies, with no contacts and no money." Six months in, they were surviving on lentils every night. She was offered roles in horror films "being chased around by chainsaws" but rejected them, preferring to co-write her own films with each flatmate.
"As a kid, I was going to the cinema and not seeing the type of women I saw every day in my own life," she says. "I think about things my little sister has to deal with, the struggle it is to be a young girl in this world, and it makes me determined to play interesting women. I have a hard time being a part of, or even thinking about, an image system that has oppressed women."
In The East, Marling poses the question of what it means to live an accountable life. She plays a practising Christian and private security operative charged with infiltrating a shadowy eco-anarchist commune. Led by Alexander Skarsgård's brooding leader and Ellen Page's committed disciple, the group only venture from their hiding place to commit eye-for-an-eye attacks against plutocratic corporations guilty of gross negligence. Marling is sent in to destroy them, but her perspective shifts and her morals align as she begins to fall for Skarsgård. "I don't think I directed their relationship well enough, actually," says Batmanglij. "The chemistry between them was so strong. They committed and believed in the characters. That really comes out in the sex scene, I think."
"There's a profound loneliness to people who live by the depth of their convictions," Marling says of The East's central relationship. "The couple recognise that in each other."
Inspiration for the film came from the summer that Marling and Batmanglij spent living as freegans: freezing their bank accounts for 10 weeks, they slept rough, hopped trains and ate from rubbish bins. Batmanglij says they did it because they felt "angry and frustrated" at the world around them. "I can't make sense of the times we live in," he adds. "It's a shallow, strange time. I don't feel nourished by it. Out on the road, I found myself shocked at how alien normal life suddenly seemed."
Marling was equally invigorated by the experience. "We spent time with people who live simpler, more community-based lives, who share things with and are accountable to each other. One night, everyone stripped naked and got into a fountain in the rain. It was a different way of seeing the world; suddenly you see everything as public space waiting to be reclaimed."
She tells another story about waking up one morning on a city rooftop, surrounded by other travellers. "It was really early. Across the way in a skyscraper was a guy in a suit, sitting at his desk on a conference call. I was rolling up my sleeping bag and we caught each other's eye. There must have been six feet between the buildings, but the gap between our lives felt massive."
But given the duo's middle-class backgrounds and obvious safety nets, how big was that gap really? How committed is Marling to the freegan cause? The East is a neat and provocative thriller, but its social message is hobbled by a high regard for youthful angst; Freud would be weak-kneed at the number of parental issues present here. At its worst, The East is guilty of other-life tourism, taking advantage of a cause without committing to it, using environmentalism and corporate crime merely as convenient catalysts for the characters' internal quarter-life crises. It's a green film by a green writer.
But The East also fits into a pattern, one that has existed since Marling's first script, The Dreams Of Spies. In each of her films, she has created relationships held hostage by questions of identity and threatened by the fear of discovery. In Another Earth, she befriends a man after killing his family in a drunken hit-and-run. In Sound Of My Voice, she plays a cult leader who seduces journalists with claims that she's from the future.
"All my films are love stories, but not obviously so," she says. The East has been interpreted as a comment on her own life the outsider infiltrating the system and bending it to her will but Marling reckons it's "more to do with the fear of revealing oneself honestly to someone. It's easier to take on a cover identity, and if that cover identity is rejected then you who you truly are remains intact. Maybe on some level it's all connected to the idea that, if you go in honestly and you're seen as who you are, that might not be enough."
Perhaps the girl who graduated top of her economics class, who told Goldman Sachs she wanted to be an artist, who thumbed her nose at Hollywood to make her own films, isn't as confident as you might think. As Marling says, it's probably best to "Take me serious".