News Story

Ready For Her Close-Up

May 6, 2013—On May 31, emerging film star and alumna Brit Marling’s (C’05) newest movie, The East, will hit theaters nationwide.

A double major in economics and studio art, Marling graduated valedictorian of her class. Her academic achievements and successful summer internship at Goldman Sachs led to a job offer from the investment banking firm. But she decided against a career in financial management and instead moved to Hollywood to chase her real dream: making movies.

Her interest in filmmaking began when she saw a short film at the student-run Georgetown Film Festival. She was so impressed that she tracked down its creators, Zal Batmanglij (C’01) and Mike Cahill (C’01), and asked for a chance to collaborate with them on future projects.

“I saw Zal in a supermarket and I followed him around the store. I tapped him on the shoulder [and said], ‘I really loved your movie, and I’ll do anything in your next one—lights, sound, whatever,’” Marling told the New York Times. “He looked at me and said, ‘Well, maybe you can be in it.’”

In her junior year, a documentary she co-wrote and co-produced with Cahill, Boxers and Ballerinas, was released to critical acclaim in both the United States and Panama. The film told the story of four struggling young people in Havana, Miami, and Santiago de Cuba—two of them fighters, two of them dancers.

After producing this film, Marling moved to California to live with Batmanglij and Cahill and pursued a career in acting. Dissatisfied with the roles Hollywood offered, she studied screenwriting techniques so she could star in movies of her own creation.

“I knew it was going to be very hard to become an actress. I wasn’t prepared to be Bikini Girl Number 3 or star in Return of the Chainsaw IV,” Marling explained to W Magazine. “Most of the storytelling in movies is by men, so I wanted to write complex narratives about women.

“Nothing terrified me more than acting,” she continued, “but fear can be very motivating.”

Eventually, Marling brainstormed two film ideas with Batmanglij and Cahill that became full-fledged movies. Both films premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and, following several award nominations and wins, were released by Fox Searchlight Pictures within a few months.

The first was Another Earth, produced and written by Cahill and Marling, in which Marling plays a young woman who develops a relationship with a man whose family she accidentally kills at the same time scientists discover an Earth-like planet.

This was followed by Sound of My Voice, a psychological thriller directed by Batmanglij, co-produced by Marling, and written by both, in which Marling portrays the enigmatic leader of cult who claims to be from the future.

Marling recently returned to Georgetown for a screening of her latest film and spoke with students in the Film and Media Studies Program. For The East, Marling again teamed up with longtime friend Batmanglij—who directed the film—to devise the story, in which a talented government agent (played by Marling) infiltrates a group of eco-terrorists. It is their first film to feature A-list actors, including Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson.

To research the film, Marling and Batmanglij traveled the country for several months, living as “freegans.” Freeganism is an anti-consumerist ideology in which people reject modern services like electricity, indoor plumbing, and professional medicine, and subsist solely on food they have grown themselves or that has been discarded.

Many pivotal moments in the film are inspired by actual experiences for Marling and Batmanglij, who train-hopped and dumpster-dived with real-life freegans while researching.

“For The East, Zal [Batmanglij] and I spent a lot of time on the road, meeting anarchist groups and different kinds of self-organized communities,” Marling revealed to W Magazine. “When I write or act, I always try to make sure that I’m not using fantasy to avoid doing homework. To come up with a genuine insight based on something real is not easy.”

Marling chalks up her success in Hollywood to the work she has invested in becoming an emotionally intelligent screenwriter, as well as the rhythm she has developed with Batmanglij.

“When I’m sitting writing, I know that something works if I’ve made myself cry, or laugh, or have a visceral emotion,” Marling told the New York Times. “Also, I work with collaborators, and I think we’ve gotten very good at editing each other’s work.”

—Brittany Coombs

See Brit Marling’s previous interviews with the New York Times and W Magazine.