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Brit Marling

The actress and filmmaker on her move from financial analyst to cinematic activism

Taken from the June Issue of Dazed & Confused:

Chicago-born filmmaker/actress Brit Marling’s work grapples with identity, doppelgängers and alternative lives – ideas perhaps she feels a special kinship with. After majoring in economics and being offered a job at Goldman Sachs, Marling turned her life 180 degrees, throwing herself into film work with friends and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij.

She flew to Cuba with Cahill to make the documentary Boxers and Ballerinas (2004) on the fly, and followed up seven years later by co-writing, co-producing and starring in Sundance-approved indies Another Earth (directed by Cahill) and The Sound of My Voice (directed by Batmanglij).

Those roles clearly caught the eye of Sundance founder Robert Redford – he’s cast her in The Company You Keep, his thriller about former members of the Weather Underground, the 70s radical activist group infamous for bombing the Pentagon in protest against the Vietnam war. It’s a neat counterpart to Marling’s other new turn, in the Batmanglij collaboration The East, which follows a modern-day anarchist collective carrying out subversive “jams” (protest actions) from a hideout in the woods, targeting malevolent pharmaceutical giants, oil companies and banking empires. Speaking from her base in Los Angeles, Marling told Dazed about her search for the modern face of rebellion.

Dazed & Confused: Did your research into the Weather Underground for The Company You Keep resonate with protest movements today?
Brit Marling: I was fascinated, because the film follows a group of radicals who have lived for decades under these cover identities and are now having to re-examine the politics of their youth. They’re looking back and wondering, did we push things too far? Should we have done things differently? Were we right? The movie wrestles with a lot of questions about activism and change and young people’s role in that. I wanted to be a part of it because I’m very interested in that subject today, with this generation.

D&C: Could you understand the Weather Underground’s decision to use violence in order to be heard?
Brit Marling: Oh, absolutely. Vietnam was the first time young people were seeing images of what these wars abroad were really like. Friends were coming home in bodybags, and television was providing a window into what was happening. At the same time Black Panther radicals were being gunned down – there was so much violence going on. What was amazing about the Weather Underground was that for the most part they were middle-class kids living in affluent circles. And yet they felt a responsibility, even though it wasn’t necessarily them across the other side of the world fighting. I don’t know if you see that from young people now, that we take the same accountability for what’s going on in the world.

D&C: Is that something you wanted to address when you wrote The East?
Brit Marling: Well, regardless of what you think of The Weather Underground’s politics, it was one of the most successful underground radical movements of that time. I mean, they made some noise! People paid attention. So when we were writing The East, our question was, where does that radicalism go now? With the modern movement, the conflict has become less obvious and more diffuse and we’ve all become more complicit. It’s a little harder to wake up from the coma of your daily life because things seem pretty good. We wrote the oil spill ‘jam’ that opens the film (in which an anarchist collective leaks crude oil through the water supply of a petroleum executive’s house) and, right after, the BP oil spill happened. Then WikiLeaks happened, and then literally we were on the ground doing pre-production a week before shooting and Occupy Wall Street blew up. So this undercurrent that we had sensed turned into Occupy, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, all trying to give a voice to this question of, what is the modern face of rebellion?

D&C: In 2009, you and Zal Batmanglij had a ‘buy-nothing summer’, during which you train-hopped, ate from dumpsters and met freegans and anarchists. Did The East grow out of that experience?
Brit Marling: When Zal and I came out of college, we couldn’t find a voice for some of the things we were feeling. It seemed like for radical kids back in the 60s, there was more space to rebel – it was more ‘popular’ to rebel. So we spent a summer on the road, trying to figure out an alternative way to live that felt more responsible with all that’s going on in the world. We fell in with these groups, spent time on permaculture farms and learned how big agriculture is slowly poisoning the planet with all these genetically modified, pesticide-ridden crops. It’s hard to talk about without it seeming like cocktail-party banter. But we had this tremendous experience where we met other young people who were asking the same questions, like, how do we get food that isn’t poisoned? How do we feed people that have fallen below the poverty line? How do we take care of the planet and take care of ourselves? Hard questions. Writing The East came from trying to make sense of that summer and how it changed us.

D&C: What part did technology play during that summer? Were you off the grid?
Brit Marling: It’s interesting – there was a real war about that among the people we met. Some envisioned this techno-dystopian future in which technology runs awry. That the new addiction instead of nicotine is constant interfacing with your smartphone. I mean, science-fiction novels from the 70s talked about a chip being implanted in people’s skin, which really is not that different from carrying it around in your pocket. It might as well be underneath your skin! And instead of the 1984 version of Big Brother as a fascist state that spies on everybody, we’ve voluntarily given up our privacy by uploading our lives to Facebook and Twitter. So the culture of hacktivism becomes a new way to rebel and make change.

D&C: Was the dialogue in The East inspired by real conversations with anarchists?
Brit Marling: Writing it came out of verbal storytelling – first we envisioned a group of young people in Echo Park trying to make their mark on the world. Then it evolved into an anarchist collective in the woods. An outsider enters in the shape of a corporate spy, because we’d been reading about how a lot of espionage that used to be done by the CIA or FBI is now farmed out to private companies – which is a little scary because obviously there’s no democratic oversight for that. With corporate espionage companies it’s about making profit every quarter. That our generation is choosing to become both corporate spies and anarchists who drop out and live in the woods felt like a particularly honest juxtaposition of our time. And my character, Sarah, the corporate spy, and Benjy (Alexander Skarsgård), the leader of the anarchists, have a lot in common, which also seems to be the weird situation of our time.

D&C: How does an analyst at Goldman Sachs turn into a Hollywood actress?
Brit Marling: When I was eight I was making up plays and casting the kids in the neighbourhood. I’d mix Janet Jackson dance routines I’d seen on MTV with things I’d borrowed from summer workshops in Shakespeare. But I thought I was supposed to get a proper job, so I was going down a different route. And then some strange things happened and I thought, maybe you can do child’s play for a living... and maybe you should!

D&C: What was the epiphany?
Brit Marling: I was working as an analyst (on an internship) at Goldman Sachs and my friends Mike and Zal came up from Washington DC to do this 48-hour film festival. I said, are you kidding me? I’m working the hardest job of my life, I’ve slept maybe four hours a night, I’m not spending the weekend awake for two days making a movie. They said, yes you are, and we’re shooting in your apartment. I went to work on Monday exhausted, but with this energy, because we had made something. That juxtaposition did something to me. I realised if I’m going to be obsessed with my work, I’d better make sure that work is something my heart is on board with.

D&C: Did you bring anything from that economics background that’s helped you in your new life?
Brit Marling: Oh my gosh, yes! Just the sheer discipline. I mean, the hours I spent in the library doing econometric progressions and doing very badly on econ stats exams, trying to get my brain around it. It’s actually great to have studied economics, because that’s the big crisis of our time! That system, and its failure. The East, The Company You Keep, at the end of the day they’re both talking about the growing inequality between people, and what happens next.

Photography Alexander Wagner