Calling us from her car, parked curbside in Los Angeles, Brit Marling, 28, has struggling-actor problems in mind. “If you’re a young girl in your twenties and you come out to L.A., the roles available to you are…I mean, it’s pretty bad stuff,” she fumes. “Even if you take on a horror film and you’re a guy, you’re at least driving the film and not getting tortured or raped in some dungeon."
Marling, a willowy blond with a brainiac’s intensity, made that journey herself in 2006, under different circumstances than most aspiring starlets. She was valedictorian of her Georgetown University class, with dual degrees in economics and studio art, and had previously left a cushy situation at Goldman Sachs for the uncertain thrills of filmmaking. “I remember having an actual moment when I was sitting in my cubicle, part of this massive system that was profoundly broken, and feeling my mortality smack me in the face,” she recalls, laughing at how cosmic that sounds. She’s deadly serious.
In addition to her OWS spirit of abandon (the car is a Prius, by the way), Marling yearned to be in charge. She wanted to write the scripts, not merely act in them. Setting up shop in the neighborhood of Silver Lake with college classmates Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, two enterprising filmmakers who had gravitated to her drive, Marling now has an unusual accomplishment to her name. At 2011’s Sundance Film Festival, she was coronated It girl of two invited low-budget films, both of which she starred in and coscripted. In Cahill’s poetic Another Earth, Marling reckons with a looming mirror image of our planet that appears in the sky. For Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice—out this week and an even stronger showcase for Marling’s acting—the Chicago-born performer plays a suburban cult leader who might be from the future.
"I’ve never had anyone say, ‘It’s interesting that you’re a woman and into science fiction!’ ” replies Marling (to our admittedly sexist inquiry). “These were just the kind of films we were drawn to.” She mentions Chris Marker’s legendary 1962 sci-fi short “La Jetée” and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 thinker The Double Life of Veronique. “Is that science fiction? Does Veronique really encounter her double? It’s hard to say. Speculative fiction opens the door to different kinds of interactions between people. It pushes them to the extreme. Is our world mundane and ordinary, or is there the possibility for extraordinary things, like a woman who’s a time traveler living in a basement in the Valley?"
Marling invests her Sound of My Voice character, Maggie, with a scary intensity: half Mansonite manipulator, half potential prophet. The role will no doubt lead her to the substantial Hollywood work that’s eluded her; there are upcoming parts in Richard Gere’s business thriller Arbitrage and a forthcoming radical-activist drama by Robert Redford, The Company You Keep. But Marling says that her off-kilter writing has become more important to her than merely a means to an onscreen end, especially in the context of today’s voice-of-a-generation Girls debate.
"We’re finally starting to see stories where the women are not replaceable, stories from a uniquely feminine perspective,” she says. “I think it’s really cool to say that Lena Dunham is representing part of the millennial generation’s voice—and why can’t that be from a woman? Women are always accepting the fact that men speak for them. Bridesmaids wasn’t just a great female comedy; it was a great comedy."
Though never less than charming and modest, you sense that Marling is used to going her own way; she’s taken some big risks and watched them pay off. Giggling in her Prius, she still thinks like a former number cruncher. “I don’t actually need that much,” offers Marling. “After coming to that realization, I felt pretty fearless about what had to be done. The moment you say that to yourself, you’re kind of wildly free."
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Sound of My Voice opens Fri 27.