Brit Marling on Writing, Anarchists, and the Need to Get Her Heart Broken

The star and co-writer of 'The East' also explains why she prefers acting in other people's movies

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Myles Aronowitz

When actor Brit Marling called, fresh from taping the Craig Ferguson show — where she was publicizing The East, the new espionage thriller she stars in and co-wrote — I had just happened upon the most absurdly grotesque headline I have ever seen in the UK’s Daily Mail (this is saying a lot). Because it involves her, I felt obliged to share:  “I Ate Out of a Dumpster … Brit Marling reveals desperate lengths to make a movie… as she displays her toned tummy in vintage outfits for Glamour magazine.”

This is how our interview began: with the typically uncommonly graceful Marling snorting with hard laughter about how her time exploring freeganism had been spun into something that sounded like a new diet.

“Doesn’t it just show the willingness of capitalism to straddle the divide?” she said. “It is always able to co-opt even the extreme left and turn it into something that you could make money out of. Bikini body, in time for summer!”

In The East— which Marling, 29, co-wrote with her college friend, director Zal Batmanglij — she plays Sarah Moss, a private security-firm investigator who infiltrates a group of anarchists. Led by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page), the group carries out attacks (“jams”) on various corrupt corporate entities (big pharma, oil companies and other polluters, etc.), including some of Sarah’s firm’s clients. There is an aspect of Wikileaks-style mischief making in the pranks, which start out clever and harmless then turn increasingly dangerous.

TIME: You’re sort of the anti-ingenue. Educated at Georgetown, had an internship at Goldman Sachs, then went out to Hollywood, auditioned for some lousy movies and decided if you wanted good roles you needed to write them yourself. Working with Batmanglij and another friend from Georgetown, Mike Cahill, you’ve co-written some very cerebral movies, Another Earth, Sound of My Voice and now The East. Whenever I see styled magazine photo shoots of you I wonder if you’re uncomfortable doing that very Hollywood thing.

BRIT MARLING: Sometimes, a photo shoot can feel a lot like a movie set, where there is a wonderful photographer and you kind of create a character and just pretend for a couple of hours. Then, it can be kind of fun. More often than not, I find that shoots have been like that. But there are those where you suddenly feel like you are there to sell the clothes…where you feel surrounded by phoniness and artifice. There is this whole world that attracts incredible artists, then there is this whole other side of it that is just about commerce. It’s like movies, there are those that are high art and beautiful. And then there is a part of moviemaking that is just paint-by-numbers. One wishes that we could just draw a line in the sand. The truth is, the times are really muddled.

Remember when Sarah Polley rebelled and wore her own clothes for the Vanity Fair Young Hollywood cover?

And who was it, Sharon Stone, I think, who wore that black Gap turtleneck to some awards ceremony? [Ed. note: It was the Oscars in 1996] Now, there is so much attention on actors that, of course, that becomes a new place for commerce. But think about it, there was a time when actors were in the town square and people were throwing vegetables at them if they didn’t like the play. Surely this will be a passing phase and the limelight will move somewhere else. But it is interesting you bring up Sarah Polley. Have you seen her movie Stories We Tell?

I have. I loved it.

There is something so fierce and brave about her and the exploration of her story and her family, which could so easily, in less intelligent hands, have been so narcissistic. Instead, it is so full of feeling. I literally, for an hour after that, was just crying. There are people like that, I certainly look to her, or to Samantha Morton—they really do just draw a line in the sand. I think I am still sort of negotiating that.

(READ: TIME’s review of Stories We Tell)

In 2011, the New York Times ran a profile of you headlined “How to Succeed in Hollywood Despite Being Beautiful.” How do you respond to pressure like that?

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Myles Aronowitz / Myles Aronowitz

I suppose there should be some pressure there. But maybe because I came to this so ass-backwards, I feel like I am bound to fail and make a fool of myself. And those things will be things of value, that is, when I will actually push myself and grow as an actor, in having to understand the failure. Maybe this is some sort of strange defense mechanism, I don’t know, but to me, success is the thing that can be troubling and dangerous. I feel it’s healthy to have a dose of self-criticism and to not take it all too seriously. It is, at the end of the day, just making movies.

Do you feel more comfortable when you’re making a low-budget movie with Cahill or Batmanglij, that you’ve co-written, than you do when you’re shooting someone else’s project like Arbitrage or The Company You Keep?

I honestly get a lot more pleasure in acting in other people’s stories. If you are part of the writing you sometimes feel like the writing is more flexible. Instead of doing the work to get beneath the words you have, maybe you’re rewriting as you go. That high you get from acting comes out of erasing yourself and really feeling for a period like you are walking in a foreign land with a stranger. It’s easier to get there when someone else comes up with the story and the character.

Like Sound of My Voice, which involved a cult, The East focuses on this idea of infiltrating a group. I’ve read theories that this is because you and Cahill and Batmanglij felt like such outsiders in Hollywood, outsiders who needed to infiltrate. 

[Laughing]. A lot of it is very subconscious, this business of outsiders infiltrating. Maybe there is something to it, honestly, but at the same time, it’s hard to know, because whoever tells the narrative suddenly becomes in control of it. What the person says suddenly seems like it is real…We [Cahill and Batmanglij] all tell the story of meeting at Georgetown, but, of course, it is a grossly simplified version of it. I just went back to Georgetown and gave this speech at convocation about how you can meet two people who become your best friends. Whose work you are going to admire for the rest of your life. And how lucky I was that I met these people, how it completely changed my life. But even within that history, Mike and Zal and I all have different ideas. Was it Zal’s idea to come out to LA? Or Mike’s? Was there a conversation that I wasn’t even privy to? So the speech both is, and isn’t, the truth.

Your first two movies had strong elements of science fiction.  A planet filled with doppelganger versions of ourselves in Another Earth, and in Sound of My Voice, Maggie, the cult leader you play, claims to be from the future. Has that been a passion of yours?

I feel, like, we just don’t know what is going on. Our perception is so limited. It wasn’t that long ago that people felt that the earth was flat. When you think about that, what we have been off-base about, it all starts to seem like kind of a fiction. It is just our best guess at what is going on. The feeling of what is unknown, the sense of awe or bewilderment, the sense of wonder that can be evoked by the idea of is Maggie from the future? We talk about time travel like it is science fiction, but will it someday be science fact? It sounds absurd, but everything sounds absurd. Science fiction is such a cool way to get at those feelings. For me there is something sci-fi and high-concept about even an espionage movie.

(READ: TIME’s review of Sound of My Voice)

Let’s get back to the Daily Mail and dumpster diving. Is it true that in 2009, you and Batmanglij hit the road without any money—not deliberately, but because you just didn’t have any—hopping trains and such. And met up with a group of fregans, who inspired the anarchist characters in The East?

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Myles Aronowitz / Myles Aronowitz

That is the truth. I feel close to doing that again too. The truth is we were just young people trying to cobble together some kind of life that had meaning to it. I had had this internship [at Goldman Sachs] where I kept hearing this Baby Boomer message from everyone, like “Oh, it’s all going to work out, you just need to work hard and you’ll succeed” and thinking something seems totally off here. What are all these lovely, charismatic, bright people doing in this room, what are they really making or creating? How does this make sense with the dwindling resources of the planet and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor? It was so unsettling. It didn’t feel good. How does one feel good? How do you live an accountable life now? How do you get through a day and not feel that it is at the cost of people you have never even met?

I don’t know any of the answers but I was really moved by the bravery of people from our generation who were just dropping out. The refusal to participate in this—there is a lot of integrity in that. They were living these meaningful, full lives.

What do you think the freegans you hung out with would think of The East?

I am really curious to know. One of the things that I found that was so beautiful about these people was their openness to teaching you things—”Sure, we’ll show you how to dumpster dive, or get on the roof to sleep.” When so many people have been so generous in teaching you things, you’d like to think some of that spirit is in the film.

You’ve got four projects scheduled for release in 2014, and one more in 2013. But none of them are projects you’ve written. Will you get back to screenwriting?

I am going to do this film in Romania, and then I really hope to take some time go and live my life. Maybe do some writing, maybe make a mess of things, maybe get my heart broken. I think sometimes there is a danger when you go from one project to the next, that you are living and working in some pretend world. If you are not careful, you can start to think that the pretend life is real.

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