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Brit Marling: Hollywood multitasker

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She couldn’t find the smart roles she wanted, so she went and wrote them herself Stylist meets Brit Marling.

A conversation with Brit Marling can make a girl feel 10 times smarter. She answers your questions with more of her own, and you can almost see the thought processes going on behind her blue eyes. Throw in a flawless complexion and tresses that would make Kate Middleton envious, and it’s easy to see why Brit has been described as “a beautiful intellectual” – a concept she seems to find embarrassing, if not verging on the ridiculous. “Really?!” she laughs, her cheeks flushing slightly. “First of all, I’m not very smart, and I’m certainly not pretty!” But, doll-like in a pair of tailored black trousers and a high-necked lace blouse, she is of course being charmingly self-deprecating.

Chicago-born but raised in Orlando (and with some Scandinavian heritage on her great-grandmother’s side to account for the flaxen locks), 29-yearold Brit studied economics at Georgetown University, where she met and dated her now-writer/director collaborator, Mike Cahill. Post college, she turned down a plum position in investment banking at Goldman Sachs to follow a more creative career path.

She went on the road for a summer, train hopping cross-country and living on organic farms, where she fell in with anarchist collectives and practised freeganism (eating discarded food). These real-life experiences were the genesis for her latest project, The East. As well as co-writing the script, she’s also brilliant in the lead role of Sarah Moss, an ex-FBI agent hired by a security firm to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group called The East (played by Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård). Her strongest work yet, it’s an intelligent and entertaining watch that makes you question your own morals.

leading the way

Now recognised as an accomplished writer, producer, director and actress, Brit joins Tina Fey and Lena Dunham at the vanguard of a new all-female assault on Hollywood’s old boys’ club – where, she admits, when she was first starting out, “I was like, ‘how do you navigate this space as a woman and not get raked over the coals?’”

It’s why Brit started writing in the first place: to create roles for herself that she wanted to play. Roles like the lead in not one, but two 2011 indie hits; Another Earth, her Sundance award-winning sci-fi debut about an ambitious student, and Sound Of My Voice, her dramatic thriller in which she plays a cult leader. “When I started out, I did it out of necessity because I couldn’t figure out ways to act that didn’t involve… being bent over the back of a car slathered in Italian salad dressing! So I started writing. And I completely plan to keep writing while I’m acting.”

She acknowledges her industry can be sexist, and it’s something even she’s guilty of on occasion. “There’s a terrible cliche where I walk into a room and see a beautiful woman and assume she doesn’t have anything to say. Which shows you how much we’ve all been drinking the same cultural milk – and there still aren’t many examples of women that are all things. Sometimes in a pitch meeting we’ll play a game where I do all the talking, but still at the end, the women especially are guilty of looking to Zal [Batmanglij, her co-writer on The East] to answer their questions.”

But things are starting to improve. “The more women making movies, the more great parts there are for women,” she says. “The idea that your career is over when you turn 35 seems absurd now. Half the audience is women and not only that, their husbands and sons want to watch movies that explain women to them. The success of Bridesmaids and Girls has changed the landscape. Kathryn Bigelow is another example. There’s no need for her to explain why she does what she does, she’s just leading an action film like a man leads an action film. We’re starting to shake things up.”

taking action

Tackling controversial issues is something Brit’s certainly not afraid of. Eschewing female-centric rom-coms for grittier subject matter, she appeared as Richard Gere’s ambitious yet moralistic protégée in 2012’s Arbitrage. After The East, next year, she’ll appear opposite Shia LaBeouf in the Robert Redfordproduced The Company You Keep. A fast-paced political thriller about members of left-wing anti-Vietnam activists the Weather Underground, it’s subject matter close to Brit’s heart.

“It’s like this collective coma has taken over and we’ve been desensitised to violence to such an extent that watching images of war on TV doesn’t have the same effect. The Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring are examples of people rebelling, and maybe social media will become an interesting part of that. But it’s hard to say why there isn’t the same level of outrage. And one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, it just depends what side you’re on. The East is about an eco-terrorist group trying to figure out how far is too far. If the corporation takes a life, do we have a right to take a life back?”

She’s committed to telling stories she believes we need to hear: “I’m not very good at working just to make a pay-cheque,” she says. “I don’t have a family and while I only have to make decisions for myself, I don’t need much money to be happy, so I’ve been able to just take on the projects I want to do.” Does she see herself having a family? “I feel split about it,” she says. “On one hand I can see myself adopting. There are so many kids who don’t have homes and so many people on the planet, do we need more? But then I’m like, is that just an intellectual idea? As somebody who’s deeply interested in the human experience, not getting to see what it would be like for your body to change, and for your perspective to change, it seems like a tremendous experience to miss out on.”

Currently single, she still works with her ex-boyfriend, Mike Cahill. How did she navigate the tricky transition from lovers to colleagues? “Lots of people marry their college sweetheart and have a great life, but we felt we had a lot of growing up to do. So we became best friends, incredible collaborators and creative partners instead, which has been a really rich and rewarding way to know each other.”

Despite loving the collaborative process of film-making, lately Brit’s started thinking about going solo and writing a novel. “There’s something appealing about holing up in a cabin and writing a book that you have such control over. Instead, I’m an actor, which is the most out of control thing. Writing [scripts] puts things more in your hands, but it’s hard to get a film made and you never know if it’s coming together or falling apart. That can be disconcerting but it’s the true nature of existence; you can’t get too attached to anything because it’s always changing.”

Does she feel she made the right decision, ditching Goldman Sachs for filmmaking? “We make so many choices in a day, I find myself plagued by the idea of ‘what if?’ There’s something overwhelming about all the possible outcomes for a lifetime. If I’d stayed in investment banking, my life would be so different. In American culture there’s this idea that you have your career, but your real life is lived on the weekend, and how you make money isn’t connected to who you are. I fell out with that. What you do day-to-day, over decades of your life, eventually shapes the kind of person you become. And as an actor there’s always that challenge not to be a fake, and that carries over into your life, trying always to be present and not be a phoney. So I think it was an OK choice to make.”

The East is in cinemas on 28 June.

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