Top image: Brit Marling from HEROINE 1. Photography by Tetsu Kubota, fashion by Daniel Edley. Turtleneck, trousers and coat all by Proenza Schouler FW14.
Been looking for ways to fill that Stranger Things-shaped hole ever since the hit show ended? Well don’t panic, Netflix has provided a cure in the form of mysterious new show The OA. Starring Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson, who returns home seven years after she disappeared without explanation (WTF twist number one: when she went missing she was blind, now she can see), The OA is described as “a powerful, mind-bending tale about identity, human connection and the borders between life and death.” And that’s all they’re teasing us with.
To mark the release, we revisit our HEROINE interview with star of the show Brit Marling, where we get all existential and delve into ‘what it all means?’
It’s easy to think of Brit Marling as a paradox. As the Valedictorian of her class at Georgetown University, Marling spent her college years in the library poring over economic projections. As a top new recruit to Goldman Sachs, she spent her post-grad years analysing financial systems for billionaires. She has credited seismic shifts in her life to epiphanies about the real versus nominal economic cost of a piece of paper. And yet, she paired her economics degree with a major in studio arts.
She spent her weekends working around the clock on short films with her new friends, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanlij. She has starred in six films that have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (the majority of which were directed by those same college friends). She has been named to ‘most beautiful people’ lists far and wide; she sits front row at fashion shows; she knows how to rock an avant-garde designer pantsuit. Her first plays were “Janet Jackson dance routines I’d seen on MTV with things I’d borrowed from summer workshops in Shakespeare.”
To understand Marling is to see that these apparent contradictions aren’t contradictions at all. She approaches her art like a scientist, and thinks about science by making art. Lose one, and you lose the other; she is an old-fashioned intellectual, a searcher, a studier. It’s clear five minutes into a conversation, when you realise that she just doesn’t do small talk; this is a person who is pushing herself as hard as she can to find new ideas that inspire awe and wonder… even if she’s on her way to pick a premiere dress. Example: in between press junkets and photo shoots to promote her latest film, Marling posts a photo of an Aristotle quote: “A poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.”
Alicia Van Couvering: Hey Brit, how are you?
Brit Marling: I’m good! I’m just back in LA and I’m just trying to like, remember how I get around here. I’m going towards Santa Monica but if we started this earlier we could’ve just had a coffee.
AVC: I could have done that thing where you go, “Brit Marling sips her coffee…”
BM: [laughs] That’s the worst, right?
AVC: I have a journalist friend who does a lot of profiles, and he says that you have to say what the person ordered and what they ate. He’ll get emails from his editor demanding the information. It’s like that’s why people read profiles of actresses – to be like “What do they eat?” and “How do I look like that?”
BM: I remember reading something once and I was like, “Oh wow, this is really only just about what you wore to the interview and what you ordered off the menu and whether or not you have boyfriend.” That’s really all anybody’s interested in.
AVC: Well what I always want to know from interviews – sorry I have a cold – I want to know exactly what time do you get up in the morning… like how are people effective? Basically what you eat for breakfast. Like, “I’ve been washing my face the same way since I was thirteen but at some point I decided to do this other thing like I keep my conditioner in for a long time.”
BM: [laughs] I guess people are interested in the mundane details. That cold sounds so bad, ouch. I heard recently about oil of oregano, have you tried that?
AVC: No, but I saw it at a juice place, like all this oil of oregano all over the place, and I wanted to know what it did.
BM: If you get the right kind it really burns, so you really need to have it with a lot of water. It’s not for the faint of heart. But every time I feel something coming on I take that and it always reduces the severity.
AVC: We were just making fun of people talking about what they were eating and now we’re talking about oil of oregano.
AVC: So where are you driving to?
BM: I’m going over to Santa Monica for a fitting actually, which is the funny part about all of this. I don’t know, there are so many parts of doing this job. I really didn’t realise how much you need to commit to a nomadic nature, how you really don’t know where you’re gonna be a week from now. You can feel like you’ve really got your life really planned out; you’re gonna do this certain set of things, you’re gonna take the time to write, and then some project drops in your lap and all of a sudden you’re off in London for six months. I just got back from being in London for about… yeah, six months.
AVC: I can hear a tiny British accent in your voice.
BM: Oh my gosh, I’m sure I probably have. I’m too much of a sponge.
AVC: I like it.
BM: The more you start to do this work, the more adept you become at like peeling away all of your exoskeleton, you know? You try to be more and more open, to take things in, the way you used to when you were a kid, when somebody could say something to you and it would stay with you forever. I mean you want to get to that place of openness, but the more you do that the more you find yourself just absorbing things that you don’t even mean to be absorbing. Like a vaguely British accent, oh lord.
AVC: Well, as an actor, you have to be totally where you are when you’re there. Just totally in the relationships that are happening around you. You do a couple of movies and you’re like, “Well, I can’t stay in touch with whoever my best set friend was four movies ago, I’m somewhere else, I’ve got a new set of friends right now.” It’s weird.
BM: It is really hard, and it is particularly hard because you can’t really take your real friends with you into this imagined realm. You’re so immersed in this imagined world, there’s just no way to get someone else as invested in it as you are. How do you explain over Skype that for the last fourteen hours you were playing make-believe with a bunch of other grown-ups and you’ve all convinced yourselves that this fictitious story is the most important thing in the world? And you have to convince yourself that this story is the most important thing, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to survive the physical of duress of it, let alone the emotional and mental duress. I remember doing this movie about the Civil War. You get worked up into a place where you feel like you’re living through the Civil War, and then you call people at home and try to talk about the sort of quotidian every-day stuff, and you can’t, because you’re living in the Civil War… which is totally imagined. So, yeah, it’s strange.
AVC: Do you feel like everybody gets that immersed? That everybody ends up straddling that divide of real-life reality and movie reality? Because a movie set is also filled with everyday, quotidian stuff; people walking around with jeans on eating snacks.
BM: I think some people have an easier time of going back and forth. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because I’m sort of newer to this, I need to keep that sort of focus.
AVC: It’s so good to be that way. When you’re younger working on indie sets, you try and be cool… one of the crew. Like “I’m the writer too, oh I don’t need a special room,” you know, “Don’t worry about me guys,” but then you learn what you actually need to do the work.
BM: Yeah, it’s so funny – I think the more you do it, the more you learn that you ask people for what you need. And people can also start to tell. Like there are times where you go into a place where you can’t talk in between takes, you know? You’re just gone. And when everyone’s in sync with each other they start to respect each other’s process. Likewise, you can see when the DP [Director of Photography] is doing something challenging under a lot of pressure and you need to give them the space to turn around the lights really fast, and you can feel each other. You become this organism together, everything functioning like the parts of a cell.
AVC: I’d say that’s true only if everyone is trying to make the same thing. If everybody is not trying to make the same thing, then the cell explodes.
BM: Yeah, but you can always feel that moment on set when the story wins everyone over, like, “OK, we’re working on something good, I just got excited.” A scene that will happen where the lighting and the production design and the costume and the weather and the performance and the story will just sing through everybody. Everyone gets hypnotised. I love when that moment happens on set, because everything changes on the other side of that.
AVC: I know exactly what you’re talking about, and it’s so funny to talk about in the middle of your press tour, which I’m sure is filled with fittings and dresses and premieres. But that moment can justify everything. Not that it’s curing cancer or anything, but do you know what I’m talking about?
BM: No, no I know exactly what you’re talking about!
AVC: [laughs] It’s very hard to talk about seriously.
BM: That’s whats so strange about it! You convince yourself that this is all-important but you can’t ever take it seriously – it’s the strangest paradox. At the end of the day, even the greatest movie is just one little plastic DVD, one file on your computer out of hundreds. A handful of them of course really move you and change you and open your perspective, and that’s what you’re always hoping to make every time you set out to do something. But even then, you have to remind yourself it’s just storytelling. We’re just around the campfire, entertaining each other, trying to make sense of our lives. And the best narratives are just the narratives that make the most sense of our strange experiences, in the strange time we’re living in, you know?
AVC: With movie acting, you’re always moving from the minutiae to the great mystery. You’re laser focused on “How do I move my eyebrows in this moment?”, “What colour should my fingernail polish be?” because that tiny minutiae of human experience is really what movie acting is all about. But then you have to find some way to elevate it, you have to find some inexplicable non-textual thing to bring to it.
BM: I remember there was this moment when we were shooting. There was this big bay window in the lab that sort of overlooks the bridge. At first [in the scene] I was making lists of species [trying to find the one that contains a specific gene] on a clipboard. And then I was like, “I’m going to write these on this window,” and I started writing the species on the window glass, all over it. What’s lovely about working with Mike [Cahill, director of I, Origins] is that he’s not just looking to do his shot list, he’s looking for the thing that’s going to tell the story better than anything he planned. Like filling the whole window is going to be the image system that’s going to help the audience understand how exhausting the work is.
AVC: My first thought it that it sounds like a continuity nightmare.
BM: Total continuity nightmare, but I mean Mike isn’t afraid of that. He really lets go, you know? [On other sets] I’ll forget people will just have a heart attack if you put your hair up with your hands in the middle of a scene. They will have a meltdown if I decide to splash my face with water out of nowhere in the middle of a take… “The actress has taken all her makeup off!”
AVC: Well, it’s like, you can find this purely emotional, elevated reality is in the mundane, quotidian thing of splashing the water on your face. Like, that’s how you’re actually going to get closer to real meaning.
BM: And you’re fighting against the idea that the audience is thoroughly brought out of a movie if somebody’s hair changes from take to take.
AVC: I hope I’m using the word quotidian right because I haven’t used it probably in like ten years.
BM: I haven’t used it in ages either, yeah maybe we should look it up. But we know what each other means, and isn’t that what language is for anyway? [laughs]
AVC: So I’ve been reading a lot of your interviews and I feel like maybe you can relate to this: you know how you’re in your twenties, working in this industry, and all you’re asking yourself is, “Can I actually do this?” You’re super ambitious and work incredibly hard and kill yourself, you get to the film festival and you have the movie and the movie comes out and you realise that you can do it, and then you’re like… “Wait! Why am I doing this? Do I even like it?”
BM: Oh wow, yeah!
AVC: It’s like you’re at a party and everyone says, “Welcome to the party, what do you want to drink?” And you’re like, “…I didn’t think that far ahead.”
BM: Yes, totally. What I have found is a lot of people have a pretty good first reason about why they start doing this, then when they meet with any level of success, those become second or third reasons. They get a bit polluted, they get connected to money and security and not being forgotten. What I have found is that I’m really still doing it for the first reason, and I hope that if it ever becomes the second reason, that I have the good sense to just walk away from it and just do something else. The first reason gives you a kind of strength to walk away from anything at any point, to say no to people, to make decisions quite easily. If you start doing it for reasons of ego or vanity, you start to feel that in the work. I think the thing that is so funny about life is people don’t realise that they haven’t asked themselves what they actually want. It’s one of the hardest questions to answer.
AVC: Well yeah. I find the question of “What do you want?” completely paralysing. Instead I think about, “What do I actually like?” not “What am I supposed to like?” or “What do I wish I liked?” “Do I like crazy dancing at parties?” Yes, so I’m gonna do that. “Do I still like working with this person?” No.
AVC: I guess it’s all about embracing risk, to do something just because you like it. Not because it’s the bigger movie or the ‘right step.’ It’s simply, “That’s the one I like the best.”
BM: Yeah, I guess it’s the question of, are you gonna live a version of your life that is the version that makes other people think you’re the most happy? Or are you gonna live the version of your life that actually makes you happy? I find that a lot of people are living in the gap of, “Oh, I’m living this version of my life and everyone around me agrees that it’s great, I checked all the boxes, everyone would say this is the happy life.”
AVC: Yeah, if happiness is even quantifiable. Once, a friend of mine, who’s very smart about religion, was talking about belief, and he said, “Belief is just a system, it’s just an anchor you can hold onto and be like, OK, these are my ethics and this is what is important to me, rather than splashing around in an ocean of your moods and reactions.” It’s like having a point zero that you can put your hand on.
BM: Yeah, and a zero is zero on the graph, like that XY chart. A point of origin. I’ve searched and I’ve found that in my life. Storytelling has that power, you know? Because if you tell a story really well, it’s like the audience puts their faith in this story. The movie theatre, when it’s really done properly, is kind of a cathedral. Something holy can transpire there where a group of strangers sit together in the dark and don’t look at one another necessarily or talk to one another, but they are in a kind of communion with this story that they all, as individuals agree to surrender to.
AVC: Yes. So this is actually bringing me to a theory I have about all your work. Which is that almost every film you’ve made is about someone looking for BIG answers to BIG questions, in the face of our small little world. So you get up, you drive somewhere, you have a cold, you look for the oil of oregano, but you’re still always balancing that part of life with these huge questions. I, Origins is definitely about that – all these scientists wondering if they should even look for spiritual truths.
BM: I think about this a lot, especially in between when you get off shooting something for a while and the pace of your life slows down so dramatically. It’s like you’ve sort of been living this experience where every moment has so much value, because you spend every minute trying to make the story as good as it can be. And then it stops and you’re thrust back into the pace of real life, and now it’s slower, and the meaning of it is more open to interpretation. It’s terrifying in the first couple of days. So this time, I came back [from London] and my car was covered in like, three inches of soot and leaves and branches and dead things. I just moved into this new place so everything’s in boxes, so I try to find a towel to wipe off the windows… couldn’t find a towel. All I could find was a dustbin broom, so I’m like scraping the car, then I get in it and of course it doesn’t turn on. Do I know anyone in this neighbourhood who can jump this car? No, because I’ve just moved here. I call for a tow. And this guy Omar comes to tow the car, and he’s playing this amazing salsa music, like next level salsa music, and we started dancing together. [laughs] And he’s telling me I had missed the World Cup game the night before… And you’re just thrust back into what it’s all actually about, which is putting one foot in front of the other and sometimes, man, that is really lovely.
AVC: Is that where you find the answers? Or do you look for the larger patterns, the big meanings?
BM: Is the meaning of two people salsa dancing in the driveway? Is it [as in the movie I, Origins] looking into a microscope in a lab together, determined to prove a spiritual concept in the data of an iris scan? The best thing I can come up with is that it’s in both, that the poetry of one informs the poetry of the other. The insight that you get in the world of the microscope looking at the petri dish is part of how you move in the salsa dance, and how you move in the salsa dance opens up what you decide to put under the lens of the microscope. Are we getting a bit too abstract?
AVC: No! The larger questions contextualise the smaller experience. I’m nodding my head vigorously while you’re talking. And the answer to those big questions can be this tiny little thing – love, basically.
BM: Exactly, right, it all becomes human in the end. It’s a bit like everything is everything. The cosmos, the bright dark, the universal guru… whatever. The smallest fragment of that is a fractal pattern. And if you just look at one piece in the fractal pattern you’re right to say that, for a moment, it contains the great mystery. Then you let it go again. You know, falling in love, really madly falling in love with someone for the first time and loosing all of your rational thought process and logic and entering some weird space with somebody… you let go of the fractal for a second, you’re in the infinite, you’re suspended in the infinite with someone else.
AVC: Here’s a continuation of my theory: all your movies – The Sound of my Voice, Another Earth, The East, this one – are about a rational person surrendering to fate.
BM: I think that’s a good fucking theory. I’m a logical, practical person, I studied econometrics at school, and probability statistics. I like a perfect proof, I like how elegant it is when you reduce any of the extraneous variables. A perfect proof is like a piece of music – you work it all out and you get this one right answer and it’s so satisfying. And then life just isn’t like that, you know? There is no perfect proof for life and there’s no one right answer. It’s all complex and in the grey. I feel like in these movies I’m wrestling with a deep desire to abandon logic, wondering if there is a more beautiful profound intelligence. That maybe you’re guided better by intuition, or by the unseen, or by things you can’t fully explain. Trying to get an answer is a lovely effort, but you can also kind of live the questions. I mean I guess that’s what faith is, saying, “I’m going to live the questions.”
AVC: I guess so. To me, science is actually living the question.
BM: But they’re so connected, those two, right? That’s what I kept finding in the research for I, Origins. I was reading a lot of Einstein’s ledgers, God he was such a fucking amazing writer! You think this person is filling one side of their brain, like how can he also actually be a poet? Even his scribbles – the lovely stuff he was saying and the ideas he was wrestling with – it makes you realise that science and spirituality are seemingly going in opposite directions, but they meet up at the same place. Like joining a circle. And the things that mystics, or even alchemists, were trying to approach through a more spiritual path hundreds of years ago… quantum physics is starting to describe similar things now. They’re all just like a different scalpel for dissecting, different languages for trying.
The OA premieres in eight parts on 16th December via Netflix.