A fresh voice: Stylist discovers the truth behind Brit Marling's latest creation

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Helen Bownass
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Brit Marling doesn’t just sit around waiting for roles to come to her, she just goes ahead and writes them. Stylist talks to the co-writer and star of your next TV obsession, The OA

This is the story of a girl from Chicago who was supposed to work in an investment bank but gave it up to become an actress – when she couldn’t find the parts she wanted, she wrote spirited and important roles so she could play them. This is the story of a woman who has experimented with freganism (colloquially known as ‘dumpster diving’), hung out with anarchists and uses expressions like ‘hyper-objects’ in the correct context. This is also the story of Brit Marling, the woman who co-wrote and stars in your new TV obsession.

The phrase New TV Obsession is bandied around way too easily these days, but when it comes to The OA, it’s justified. It’s the sort of show that made me cycle home 10% quicker so I could watch it. It’s a mind bending and beautifully shot mystery that turns storytelling on its head. “We’re in a new frontier – The OA isn’t a TV series, it’s not a film, I think it shares more DNA with novels,” Marling tells me over a slightly dodgy phone line between balmy LA and frosty London. “You can read two chapters one night, half a chapter or read it all in one sitting.”

So what is it about? All I’m allowed to tell you is this: “Prairie Johnson, a missing blind girl, returns to the community she grew up in with her sight restored. Some hail her a miracle; others a dangerous mystery, but Prairie won’t talk about her seven missing years with anyone except four teenage boys whom she tells in order to recruit them for a mission.” It’s really about so much more but because I don’t want to ruin the experience I’ll leave it there. Even the internet knows very little, but that’s a big part of the magic. Go into it with an open mind and get ready to fall hard.

Also prepare to spend a lot of time thinking about Marling. You might have already given her some thought if you’ve seen her in indie films Another Earth, I Origins and The East (written with her long-time collaborator Zal Batmanglij who also co-wrote The OA) or Danny Boyle’s Channel 4 drama Babylon, but this is different.

Thirty-three year-old Marling grew up in Illinois, graduated from the prestigious Georgetown University with a degree in economics then turned down a job at Goldman Sachs for a different narrative. Since then she has embraced storytelling as well as acting; while talking to her I quickly realise she has a way of listening that makes you feel like she thinks everything you’re saying is special and interesting. She often says, “As you’re saying that, it’s making me think of...” It’s a compelling habit. Equally as compelling as her new show...

I’m four episodes in to The OA and totally enthralled...
That is so nice to hear! We only just finished post-production literally a week ago, so nobody outside of a small group of people has watched it. I have no idea whether it will move people or mean anything [to them]. It’s like making eight films then one day you come out of hibernation.

It’s impossible to find anything online about the plot – was that a deliberate move to increase the hype around it?
The thing that’s delicious about a mystery is the less you know, the more delicious it is. We spent a couple of years developing and solving all the answers to the riddles so it felt natural to protect the audience so they have a genuine sense of not knowing. We all consume so much narrative now. I was talking with my grandfather who said, “We used to see a film every three months,” whereas I’ll watch a film twice a week. It’s up to storytellers to be inventive, to try to push the form forwards. Audiences want to be kept on the edge of their seats. Or at least I do.

Why do you think that now, more than ever, we are so intrigued by mysteries?
Life is the great mystery. It’s anybody’s guess what we’re doing here, what it means to be alive. We all try to be masters of our universe, but at every turn something happens that thrusts us out of our comfort zone. The gap between what you thought was coming and what actually happens next is a rush of insight, of ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to be alive’.

Do you think it’s even more pertinent in 2016?
With Brexit and the US election, I think there’s the sense of things taking a turn that wasn’t anticipated but when it happened we can see the threads have been there for a long time. Certainly in The OA where these boys are in the mid-West suburbs, you can feel their confusion and the question of, “What world am I inheriting?” We all have something in us that can identify with these lost boys who are figuring out how to construct a meaningful life and what that might look like.

How did you prepare to play a blind character in The OA?
I met this wonderful man, who’s been blind since college. I would put on a blindfold and he taught me how to use a cane around New York. At first it was terrifying, you quickly lose your grip. You’re always asking for help. Afterwards I’d take off the blindfold and think about the fact that he has to keep that on. It’s hard to understand how to live life in a proper state of gratitude, because so many of the things – like seeing – you do effortlessly. I tried to hold on to that sense of gratitude, but of course gradually it slips away.

Are you ready for The OA to follow in the footsteps of a show like Stranger Things?
I loved that show, the episodes were so delicious. It really hadn’t occurred to me [The OA] would reach that audience [via Netflix]! Who knows what that means when you just drop it on an international audience.

You started writing scripts largely to create parts that weren’t there for women. Do you think Hollywood has moved on enough?
I think there’s still some way to go. Part of the problem is putting your finger on it. There’s a version of feminism that’s consumerism in a different guise or that doesn’t make you feel liberated. We’re still struggling to articulate what it feels like to be free as a woman and all the ways we’re held back. It isn’t just rebooting a male franchise and putting a woman in the lead, but that’s a start. It’d be great fun to write with a woman. There are stories that spring from a place of exploring the unexplored terrain of the feminine. I just read the [Elena] Ferrante book series and she seems to be giving landscape to a space that women have long felt but had difficulty articulating.

You’ve previously said you never wanted to reach 40, wake up and feel like you hadn’t been courageous. Do you feel you’ve lived courageously thus far?
I do feel like I did the right thing in leaving a job at an investment bank because it feels like the creativity of people was being harnessed to make them a lot more money. I’m trying to be brave. I feel like with The OA we bit off a lot more than we thought we could chew. There’s a moment in [episode] five that’s very risky. It’s like entering into the wildness where there are no constraints. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to acting: it’s an invitation to break free of yourself, the constraints of yourself, of who knows you and what they’ve said about you.

How else do you tap into that wildness?
Any time I get to explore. I don’t just mean travelling but even going to a neighbourhood in a city you’ve never been to before. Wierdly, the other way to experience this wildness is through heartbreak – in the aftermath of having my heart broken my senses become wildly alive. You’ve been living in concert with another human being and then suddenly you’re on your own again and you’re navigating life differently. Colour is sharper, music is more intense.

Where’s on your travel bucket list?
I’d love to go to Russia. I’ve heard about this railway line off the Trans Siberian Express that goes into the wilderness in the North. But I’m also dying to go to Japan. The fashion, the storytelling, the imagination and the respect for wisdom and older people. I’m so curious about it.

We’re in the middle of the festive period, what do you love the most about it?
The best thing about the holidays is the feeling you can get away with not looking at your phone for 72 hours and being with family and watching Christmas films. I know it’s not a traditional Christmas film but I love Edward Scissorhands. There’s that fantastic scene where he’s ice-sculpting and Winona [Ryder] is twirling in the shavings of ice. I love that idea of an unusual creature coming to the suburban landscape. My parents will come to LA, which will be interesting because coming from Chicago, we don’t know what it means to get a Christmas tree and have cocoa when it’s 75 degrees (24°C) outside.

Are you the type of person who sets goals or aspirations for the New Year?
I feel a great desire to become a better storyteller and actor. Every time I act it feels like the first time and I’m just as bewildered and terrified. I can’t think too much beyond that, it’s not like I look around and think, ‘I want that job or want to be there’. Only unhappiness can come from that. I think we’re all trained with this idea that there’s a thing we could finally get that would make us happy. But it doesn’t work like that. You can be unhappy in any situation. You usually realise that as you stumble through your 20s there’s not a secret room that once you’re there you suddenly feel serenity. There’s nothing that will make you OK outside of you figuring out how to make yourself OK.

The OA is released on Netflix on Friday 16 December

Photography: Rex Features, Netflix