7:40 PM EDT, June 2, 2013
Brit Marling has become something of a professional infiltrator.
In the new political thriller “The East,” which she co-wrote and produced with director Zal Batmanglij, the 29-year-old Chicago native plays an intelligence-firm operative who goes undercover with an anarchist group seeking eye-for-an-eye justice against corporate criminals. The previous film she co-wrote and produced, Batmanglij’s “Sound of My Voice,” follows two journalists’ efforts to join and expose a cult led by Marling’s willowy, charismatic leader who claims to be from the future.
Even "Another Earth," her science-fiction-tinged first feature, co-written and produced with director Mike Cahill, has an infiltration element, with Marling playing a young woman who accidentally kills most of a family in a car crash and winds up befriending the surviving father while working as his housecleaner. The tension in all three movies revolves around relationships created under false pretenses and the fear of discovery.
"I knew, of course, 'Sound of My Voice' and 'The East' had this parallel of infiltration and espionage, but it's interesting to think of 'Another Earth' as part of that too," Marling said in her soft, almost fluty voice during a recent Gold Coast breakfast. "I didn't think of 'Another Earth' as an infiltration movie, but you're right. I don't know what to make of that."
How about this: These plots also offer a parallel to what Marling, a former Georgetown University valedictorian, is doing for a living. Offered a lucrative job out of college with Goldman Sachs, Marling instead chose to immerse herself in different worlds and to take on various identities as an actress, albeit one who has written her own, meatiest roles so far.
In researching "The East," which opens Friday in Chicago, Marling said she and Batmanglij became fascinated with people who go under deep cover, "because it's like acting but with the highest stakes imaginable. You're taking on a character and identity, and you have to learn a language and learn all the rules of a certain world, and then you have to infiltrate it and then stay there without really any ties to your home or to wherever it is you came from or your sense of mission. What kind of person does that for a living?"
"You tell me," I responded.
She laughed. "I was attracted to acting because I studied economics in school, and then I was going to go work at a bank," she said. "I don't know. I think I reached a place where I thought it was very strange how we move away from qualities that we have pretty naturally as kids, like we're very imaginative and empathic and intuitive, and then you move away from those as you become an adult. And I love that acting was all about going back to that space."
Marling was born in Chicago and spent most of her childhood in Winnetka before her parents, real estate developers, moved the family of four (including a younger sister) to where they were doing more work: Orlando. Amid such transience some artistic seeds were planted.
"It's funny, someone was trying to make an argument that many actors come from divorced families, but I think it's actually that actors tend to come from or can come from itinerant families, and divorce is just a kind of itinerant family in that you're moving between households a lot," said Marling, whose parents are still together. "And so whether you're moving geographically or moving between households, you recognize when you're really young that your identity isn't solid and that you can change who you are, sort of, by degrees to make friends and enter a new school or a new community when you're moving around all the time."
Marling, it must be noted, is generating much so-called Hollywood heat right now. The one-two punch of "Another Earth" and "Sound of My Voice" at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival established her as that festival's "It Girl" as well as an exciting emerging talent thanks to her combination of writing chops, understated magnetism and porcelain-skinned blond beauty that makes you wonder why "Hobbit" director Peter Jackson hasn't cast her as a young Elven queen yet. She's one of these performers who makes you lean in, so to speak, whether she's playing someone who's quietly damaged (as in "Another Earth"), enigmatically powerful ("Sound of My Voice") or deeply probing ("The East").
On-screen Marling projects a centeredness, a stillness, a sense of deep waters flowing. You're drawn to look behind her blue eyes, and when you do, as Batmanglij noted, "there's stuff there. There's lots of stuff there."
In person she's similarly engaging, if more naturally upbeat than most of her characters. Many sentences are punctuated with a tickle of a laugh that expresses amusement, if not delight, over the various questions and wonderments presented by the world. As is true when she's acting, you can observe her thinking, processing, trying to absorb as much as she can from what and who surround her.
After the waiter came by to ask whether she was still working on her fruit-laden oatmeal (she was), Marling contemplated the exchange: "Isn't the phrase 'You're still working' funny? What does that mean? Where does that come from? Why do we feel about our food that we're 'working' on it?" She laughed.
The free-flowing conversation veered off to cover such issues as gluten allergies (she blames "genetically modified wheat seeds (that) have 500 times the amount of gluten protein as an heirloom seed from the 1950s"), cage-free eggs, antibiotics-filled cows, mercury-tainted fish, contaminated soil, melting ice caps and the ability to foster change in ways less violent than those practiced by the anarchists of "The East."
"I feel really positive and hopeful," she said. "Young people seem bright and interested. I feel like if everybody bands together, there are solutions to these things."
Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford said over the phone that he had taken note of her triumphs at his festival and her appearance at a subsequent California Sundance event where "her enthusiasm and her incredible, joyous energy were just captivating." So he asked her about taking a pivotal supporting role in a movie he was directing and starring in: "The Company You Keep," about another political-outlaw group, the '60s radicals the Weather Underground. (It opened in April.)
Redford recalled that what normally might have been a half-hour conversation went on for two hours, driven by her inquisitiveness and receptiveness.
"It was like branches on a tree," he said. "There were so many avenues we could go down together and explore and agree on. She's totally engaged in what she's doing." He later noted: "She also climbs trees."
After getting the part, Marling continued to impress the director. "She has a delicate strength," Redford said. "She's like gossamer, very ethereal, but something sits at the heart of it. She has a very strong core to her, and she's all about the truth. All about the truth."
Batmanglij, whose brother Rostam is a member of the band Vampire Weekend and has contributed music to his films, said he was similarly struck by Marling when the two of them and Cahill were Georgetown undergraduates together.
"When I first met her, she had this quality, this luminosity and kindness, qualities that I think are a version of star power," he said. "She had it. That is so rare. I'd never encountered someone like that before, so I just wanted to see her on screen."
Marling co-directed a documentary with Cahill that explored Cuba-U.S. relations, "Boxers and Ballerinas" (2004), and she starred in Batmanglij's short "The Recordists" (2007) before making features with both filmmakers, including another upcoming one from Cahill.
Inside AMC's River East multiplex, where Batmanglij and Marling conducted a Q&A after a screening of "The East," the director pointed to a mural portrait of a young Ingrid Bergman and said, "Brit has that quality."
Marling now lives in Los Angeles, but she said she still considers her Chicago-area years to have been formative. "Every time I see Lake Michigan, I feel some sort of thing," she said. "It feels like a homecoming to me, the colors of it, the sea glass that I used to collect on the beach that I still have. It's always nice to come back here, because I don't really feel like I have roots anyplace else."
She has particularly fond memories of visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art and walking to the lake to contemplate what she'd seen, which often were works by the late Henry Darger.
"He's my favorite, because he's an outsider," she said. "I love outsider art. I love when somebody's making something without the awareness of being seen or the work being loved or not loved. He was just doing that because he had to do it" — she laughed that tickle of a laugh — "to survive."
Marling has some outsider-insider tension going on herself. After breaking into the industry by writing her own independent ticket, she's now increasingly in demand as an actress (she also played the Richard Gere character's daughter in last year's "Arbitrage") while being represented by the heavy-hitting Creative Artists Agency.
So does she keep writing her own screenplays at a time she openly laments the paucity of great starring roles for women, or does she concentrate more on moving forward as a performer?
"I'm working really hard at trying to become a better writer, but I don't know that I'm maybe capable of writing the things that I could achieve as an actor," she said. "The thing about acting that's so provocative and intense is that you're walking in someone else's imagined landscape. It's like a foreign country that you enter. There's something hard to do about that and something that can be sort of transcendent about it."
Although he and Marling have been kicking around ideas for another screenplay, Batmanglij said he looks forward to seeing what happens "when she works with really great directors and gets out of the kiddie pool with us. She hasn't turned it on fully yet. I'm so curious and excited for when that happens."
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