‘I felt like it was calling out to me’ – the cast of Brit Marling’s daring, mysterious multiverse recount how they tumbled down the show’s spiritual rabbit hole
Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
It’s tricky territory describing a tv show as ‘like nothing else’, at a time whent the small screen offering is wider than ever and plotlines are constantly picked up, memed, then discarded by the news cycle. But The OA, created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij might just make the cut. Debuted in 2016, the series follows Prairie Johson (played by Marling) a formerly blind young woman who returns to her adoptive parents after having gone missing seven years prior. There, she assembles an odd crew of local schoolkids and their teacher, to tell her story which, in a nutshell, contains near death experiences, interdimensional alter egos, and experimentation at the hands of a scientist with a questionable moral code.
The series received favourable critiques, but divided audiences. It is hard to summarise, even after several watches, and hard to categorise. But, even as Netflix’s black sheep, the series inspired a loyal fanbase, with everything from its signature, dance-like movements (created by Grammy-nominated choreographer, Ryan Heffington) to the costumes and sound design pored over in dedicated Reddit-threads. Reviews often call it sci-fi or fantasy, but “I’ve never heard Brit and Zal refer to it as that,” says Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays private investigator Karim Washington in the second series, which premiered this spring. “Maybe it’s a spiritual thriller? And then season two is film noir.” Its storylines, too, are blink and you miss it – a bold choice in an era where every genre of entertainment is in competition for the viewer in the attention economy. “It doesn’t conclude as satisfyingly as other things,” says Patrick Gibson, who plays the high-school bully-turned-interdimensional group leader, Steve. “We (the actors) get told exactly what we need and no more than that. But (the writers) know exactly where the show starts and where it ends, which makes it easier, as an actor and viewer, to invest in it.”
Here, shot in Kim Jones’s winter 19 men’s collection, its male leads reflect on how they got into the minds and worlds of their OA characters and what’s in store for them next.
How Ian Alexander got the part of high-schooler Buck Vu is the stuff of Gen-Z Hollywood legend. He saw a post on Tumblr calling for 14-15-year-old Asian-American trans males to audition and, with only community theatre experience to his name, submitted a self-shot tape. “I felt like it was calling out to me because it was so specific,” says the actor, who also appears in season two as Buck’s mysterious doppelganger, Michelle. “I didn’t know what I was doing; I had no professional experience at all.” Fast-forward four years and the Utah native is settling into life in Los Angeles, having moved there completely independently a year ago, aged 17. “It’s a stark difference from being one of the first openly trans people in my high school to suddenly having friends who are all trans and on T (testosterone).” Besides the part that felt hand-crafted for him, Alexander was attracted to The OA’s world of sci-fi-meets-spiritual drama. “My parents are both total sci-fi freaks. I was very young when we watched Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was four years old. I might be biased, but The OA really is one of my favourite shows.”
Before The OA premiered in 2016, series co-creator and star Brit Marling tweeted that “we did a worldwide search to cast (the character of) Steve... We found him in Ireland. Patrick Gibson will break your heart.” Watching Gibson in-role, it’s easy to see what she meant. “I’m interested in characters who, on the surface, seem completely in control, but underneath there’s a need for something much greater,” says Gibson, who kept a diary for Steve through filming. Originally from Dublin, Gibson made his television debut as a teenager in The Tudors. This year, he’s taking on his first role on London’s West End in Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about racial tensions in the Pennsylvania rust belt. “With film I’ve always relied on instinct... I’m a lot more conscious now that nothing should be by mistake.” A sense of the unknown, of answers being just out of reach, is a core building-block of The OA. “We live in a strange time of certainty,” says Gibson. “I think that The OA can remind us of what we don’t know. It pulls away the safety blankets we surround ourselves with, confronting us with profound weirdness.”
To prepare for the part of private investigator Karim Washington, north London-born Kingsley Ben-Adir spent some time with real-life PIs, learning the realities behind one of cinema’s most mythologised professions. “They told me how boring and isolating the work can be,” says the actor. “It’s a lot of spending time on your own. It’s rare for someone my age to do the job – (there are) a lot of retired police officers.” Washington is drawn into The OA universe in season two, his investigations into the disappearance of a teenage girl leading him to a mysterious online game and, eventually, to Marling’s character. “The audience see the world through Karim’s eyes. What he finds strange, they find strange. Then, by the end, he believes.” Having recently relocated to New York, Ben-Adir is now working alongside Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield in upcoming romantic drama The Photograph, and with Zoe Kravitz on a TV adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. “The way TV is made, scripts are constantly changing. Whole scenes can change. I don’t think that’s a bad thing – you have to really trust the people around you. The OA is my biggest exercise in that.”
Hair Kei Terada at Julian Watson Agency using Bumble and bumble., make-up Thomasin Waite at Julian Watson Agency using Laura Mercier, photography assistant Federico Gioco, styling assistants Jordan Duddy, Isabella Kavanagh, hair assistant Lucrezia Dani