Instead, Marling is a politically engaged auteur, documentarian and valedictorian of Georgetown University. After leaving college, she worked as an investment analyst for corporate giant Goldman Sachs. Wedged deep in the money machine, she found herself searching for meaning, bringing her back to her passion for film and acting. For the next several years she wandered through the creative wilderness, pursuing ideas and concepts that she was passionate about and even spending time in a community of freegans. Rather than accepting the generic stereotype roles she was offered left, right and centre in LA, Marling has dedicated her career to producing unique and thought-provoking films, from sci-fi art house work Another Earth to politically charged The East.
Now Marling has brought that independent and norm-defying creative approach to a wider audience, creating and starring in cult Netflix series The OA. The show has garnered huge acclaim for its originality and has left its avid audience with a lot of questions wanting more. There is no doubt that Marling is now playing in the big leagues but she remains just left of the spotlight, a place we all hope she stays.
You created The OA with Zal Batmanglij, who has been your creative partner since meeting at Georgetown. I imagine you have honed your creative process together by now?
I guess it has been so many years of working together that I think the process we have finally worked out is just spending a lot of time telling each other the stories in our heads out loud and then it takes shape eventually. The stuff you tell each other that you remember just sticks and the parts with less staying power just naturally fade away. We have spent a long time to make the story that way and then eventually we start outlining and writing, and we share in all that work.
We thought about this as a novel, where each season would be a book in a series of books. It’s a bit like writing a novel every other summer and then adapting the novel into an 8-hour film and shooting it… That’s why I think we are very lucky to have each other because if we didn’t it would be very hard to keep that pace going.
There is so much mystery in the story of The OA and a lot of people have taken away different meanings from the first season. Do you like leaving the message open to interpretation or is there a definitive meaning you want to convey?
I think about it as an accordion, because we thought about the beginning, middle and end – so there is the front end and the back end with several pleats throughout it, which you can stretch as far as you want.
When we thought about making the mind-bender we knew we really had to work out the mathematics of the labyrinth, so we could understand for ourselves what is at the centre of this labyrinth before we even write the first chapter. There’s nothing as frustrating as spending so many hours writing a story and then having it come alive with nothing that is meaningful. That’s why we wrote the entire story before we even pitched it to anybody, which was probably somewhat ludicrous and risky but now it seems kind of ok that we did it. It could have just as easily not been picked up by anybody and then we would have just been sitting here with this massive universe that we created and no way to make it.
Netflix is obviously an incredible platform. As soon as something is released it has the potential to become a cult series. Did having that instant globality change the way you thought about the story?
I think I’m still coming to terms with what it means. The story telling possibilities now with a platform like Netflix are genuinely global, instantaneously global and I’ve never experienced anything like that as a storyteller. The films that Zal and I have made in the past have been played in the art house market, which obviously has an audience everywhere, but this is very different because the sheer breadth of the audience is dizzying.
I think it’s a good thing that we didn’t think about any of that. We were in this little bubble, but it definitely appealed to a much wider audience than we initially expected.
The OA has a lot of different genres at play but there is definitely a big sci-fi element. There seems to be a growing mainstream interest in sci-fi culture recently. Do you think that’s a reflection of the boom in science and tech and all the new possibilities we are foreseeing now?
I think that’s part of it for sure. Technology is changing our lives so quickly that we can’t really keep up with the psychological and philosophical implications of it, so I think we are constantly looking for storytellers to try and explain what it is we are experiencing. At least with the people I talk to, I find that they want to put their smart phone down but they don’t know how because their lives have been somewhat hijacked by technology. We truly are in an adolescent relationship with all of it – we’re not running the show. The OA is using science fiction to talk about what deeper feelings we have, a metaphor or the poetics that science fiction can spark around you.
"The OA is using science fiction to talk about what deeper feelings we have, a metaphor or the poetics that science fiction can spark around you."
The OA's deeper meaning
I liked the idea of The Movements, that something as simple as moving the body can express emotion or have a certain power. I heard you say previously that you thought of that as a reminder of our humanness?
I think that The Movements come out of something on the other side of technology, that is maybe more ancient and primal, coming from the knowing intelligence of the body rather than that kind of divorced intelligence of the mind. It was in response to a feeling I was having that modern life is so good at telling you to live from the neck up – everything is in your head and it’s all about a certain kind of intelligence that is logical and reason-based. That is all really valuable but it feels like it’s missing the other half, which is feeling and intuition, what we might think of as the more feminine side of thinking, but I think it is really more just the yin and yang of what we need to think cohesively. You need both logic and reason to be guided by emotion.
Do you take into account what is going on in society and the political climate when you are writing? There were a few moments in the first season, like the school shooting, that felt very relevant now.
Yes and I have this image of someone licking their finger and holding it up in the air to test the weather. I guess it’s kind of like that, checking the barometric pressure of the time we are in. You try to soak that in but not think too literally about it, rather just tell a story where that atmosphere is imbued in the plot structure. It’s funny because a lot of people look down their nose at plot, saying that it is too genre or not serious but I think plot is very serious because what happens in the narrative, what characters choose to do or not to do, is really an economic proof in some ways; just saying what you think or feel about the world and what is or isn’t possible. So yes I think about it both consciously and subconsciously in equal measure.
You also play the lead character in The OA, and you have acted since when you were a child if I’m right?
Yeah, I did a little bit of acting in school but I had this worry that I was going to end up being siloed in the world of acting and theatre. I felt that I would have read all of these plays and played all the characters but I wouldn’t actually have any life experience or perspective, so I wouldn’t have much to offer to those classic stories – what am I going to bring to a character like Nina in The Seagull that someone else hasn’t brought before?
So I thought it was important to get a wider education and I ended up doing a lot of other things for a while; I studied economics at school and worked in documentaries. I think I naturally gravitated back towards it. Whenever I meet younger people now who are thinking of pursuing acting, I tell them to do something else like study philosophy or have an adventure and then come to it. I think we have the tendency to just be stuck inside that one discipline without the life experience to draw on.
Definitely. Does that universal experience help with the other aspects of your creative work, like the writing for example?
I think it’s inside everything and maybe especially the writing. So much of writing is the point of view or perspective, and what you think it means to be alive right now, which I think would have been hard for me to achieve if I had stayed solely within the theatre world.
Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in The OA
I have heard you talk about the lack of sufficiently complex and interesting acting roles you have found as a woman. This is something that is being much more openly discussed in the industry now. Do you have that in mind when you are creating these roles for yourself to play?
Absolutely. Sometimes I think that if I had come to LA wanting to be an actor as a young man then I never would have become a writer because there are plenty of wonderful roles for men and an abundance of great male actors. You just have to look at the economics of it. There are plenty of young women who are wildly gifted and there are literally no stories for them – they can be the girlfriend character, the ‘wife of’ or the daughter, and in the best case scenario they maybe have a clever line or two, but mostly they are just props being moved around to support the man in a story that has generally speaking been written by men.
It is mainly down to the fact that there haven’t been many women writing, directing or producing. We are starting to see those numbers change but they are still appallingly low. I think that we are generally struggling to work out what a genuinely feminine narrative looks like. It’s not just taking a male story and switching the gender, putting a woman in the place where there has traditionally been a male hero. What is the structure and form of a female story?
It’s an exciting time to be a part of it because female writers and filmmakers are in a kind of dialogue with each other, learning and borrowing, and I think that’s really beautiful.
Considering that a large part of the demographic for The OA is probably teenagers or a young audience, do you think it’s important for them to see something produced from this female perspective? It changes the expectation of how women are portrayed on screen.
I think that’s really true. A friend of mine who works at the American Film Institute was saying that even 2 or 3 years ago there were maybe 2 women in the directing class and in the past year it is almost at 50 percent. I think it does jump up like that when a young woman sees that a woman can write, produce and act in a show then they believe that they can too. That’s when you start to see real change happening. I certainly still feel like that when I read something like Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”, which is so moving, just this story about two female friends and their journey of making art as they grow up together in Naples. What’s amazing about it is that when you first start reading it, it’s beautifully written and the story is so compelling, and you think, “Wait, is this chick lit?” You realise that you are only having that thought because you, as a woman have somehow ghettoised these stories written about women by women because for so long we have been told that they are not important or secondary. Of course, by the time you are half way through the book you realise that this is high art and is rigorous, elevated and meaningful writing that just happens to be about women. The moment you realise that the top of your skull just blows off and your heart is just racing because it’s so rare that you read a book and feel like your gender is in a first class position.
"There are plenty of young women who are wildly gifted and there are literally no stories for them."
On the lack of diversity in Hollywood
The power of fiction can be undermined sometimes. You have obviously written documentaries before, and they are a really powerful way of getting your story heard because they are visceral and real. But do you think that you can relay a message as powerfully through a fictional story?
Oh yeah, I think fiction is so important. Especially now because I think fiction can tap into the power of myth, and myth is so awesome because it is timeless, and it can hold the ethical fabric or the morality of a culture outside of time. I think that’s why it is so interesting in terms of carving out space for those populations that have been marginalised and giving shape to what the thrust of a life can look like.
Documentaries are really important too, but I think culturally we are struggling with a lack of myths that can help us understand the time we’re living in and how to respond to that. At least that’s what preoccupies me right now. I’m kind of obsessed with fiction.
So the second season of The OA is out next year. What is it like revisiting the story?
It’s exciting to continue the story, and I think one of the most rewarding things about making the first part was having this tremendous group of actors coming together – Phyllis Smith who plays the schoolteacher Betty is a force of nature and Patrick Gibson who plays Steve… everyone is just so talented. It’s a really exciting thing when you are writing and you know who the actors are and how wildly capable they are, so you can try fun new things. The writing process this time around will be fun, we’re not as in the dark as we were the first time around.
Feature Image: Photography by Tetsu Kubota