Brit Marling is the anti-It Girl.
The 27-year-old actress and screenwriter emerged as a Sundance Film Festival breakout this year after starring in two popular low-budget films that she also co-wrote, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. Both of those movies were acquired by Fox Searchlight and will have theatrical releases; Another Earth on July 22 and Sound of My Voice next year.
But Marling didn’t decide to write scripts because she wanted to change the portrayal of women in media and culture. She wanted to be able to cast herself in roles that wouldn’t require her to play the typical parts offered to young actresses, the perfunctory girlfriend or a crime victim. She also was looking for control.
“How terrifying to surrender your life to being chosen all the time,” Marling said. “Having to be chosen and re-chosen. Writing so that I can act became a way of having not more control over my future but not having to wait for permission. You can choose yourself. Hmm, who should play this part? I nominate me!”
It’s courageous to take charge of an artistic career, but Marling has been doing that since she was a little girl. The daughter of real-estate developers who moved a lot, following projects, said her nomadic lifestyle as a child influenced her choices as an adult. Back then, theater was her only constant, and she grounded herself by writing and directing her own plays and casting her friends.
“They were very silly and also very dance-heavy,” she said. “I always found a way to work dancing to Whitney Houston into it. I would imitate Janet Jackson’s moves. I would charge a lot of money for people in the neighborhood to come and see. I was a capitalist entrepreneur at age 7. I’d be like, ‘It’s $20 for the Saturday night performance.’ And just because we were so bold, my parents’ friends would actually pay to come see these ridiculous Janet Jackson-inspired plays.”
Maybe it was that business sense that eventually led her to double major in economics and studio art at Georgetown University after graduating from a performance arts high school in Florida. Marling said she actually doesn’t know what prompted her to torture herself with statistics and economic proofs. Perhaps her mother’s investment-banking experience had something to do with it. More likely, it was because she knew no one who made a living out of making art and had no idea where to start.
The summer before her senior year, while she was interning at Goldman Sachs, two young filmmakers she had befriended on campus coerced her into participating in a 48-hour filmmaking challenge (the movie had to be conceived and completed in that period). Even though she was exhausted from her long days at the bank, her friends, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, would not take no for an answer.
“The movie was not very good at all,” she said. “It was very bad. But something happened that weekend. I thought, you can be a workaholic doing something you feel passionate about or you can be a workaholic doing something you don’t feel passionate about. After that, I didn’t want to go back to school anymore.”
She dropped out, and she and Cahill moved to Cuba for a year to film a documentary, Boxers and Ballerinas, about young athletes faced with the question of defecting when they get an opportunity to travel abroad. After they finished the documentary, Marling’s parents convinced her to finish college and she graduated as valedictorian in 2005. The following year, she and Cahill moved to Los Angeles, where Batmanglij was studying at the American Film Institute.
The trio lived together in a house in Silver Lake, where they did nothing but write, read textbooks about screenwriting, and analyze films. They supported themselves with odd jobs, but their time was entirely devoted to their dreams of making movies. Marling would spend half a day with Cahill writing Another Earth, which he directed, and the rest of the day writing with Batmanglij, who directed Sound of My Voice.
“The whole while I was thinking to myself, OK, I’m trying to figure out how to be a good writer,” Marling said. “What if I get to a place where I’m OK enough as a writer that we make something but I haven’t spent any of this time learning how to be an actor? How am I going to catch up with that? There were so many doubts. It all seemed so impossible.”
But it wasn’t.
Another Earth, Cahill’s feature-film debut as a director, stars Marling as a promising astrophysics college student whose life takes a drastic turn when she’s in a car accident on the night a planet where there is a doppelganger for everyone on Earth is discovered. Part science fiction and part love story, it also stars William Mapother (Lost) and won the 2011 Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance. Another Earth has a quiet, philosophical context that is representative of the woman who co-wrote it.
“There’s something that happens in all of our lives—whether they’re thrust upon us or we’re making them happen—there are moments or choices that happen that you’re going down a new road that you’ll never get to go back from,” Marling said. “You’re letting go of versions of yourself that can no longer be. Once I had that experience of the 48-hour film festival, there was no going back for me. A version of myself was gone.”
As the engaging and self-possessed Marling stands at the threshold of stardom, she is pondering which version of herself—writer or actor—might figure more prominently in her future. She appeared in one episode of NBC’s Community last season and recently completed filming on her first big-budget movie, Arbitrage, with Richard Gere.
For the answer, she said, she looks to the Tina Feys and Kristen Wiigs of the world.
“I always started writing in order to act,” Marling said. “I don’t know that I could have the discipline to sit down and write if I was going to give it away. That would be too hard. But I love to act in stories that are outside my imagination because I can only conceive of so many things from my point of view. The thing that’s intoxicating about being an actor is that you get to live in someone else’s world for a while and I hope to do more of that.
“But I think I’ll never stop writing now because I’m wondering why there aren’t more representatives of women that are like the women we know,” she said. “Where’s the film with the women who are complicated and strong and beautiful and sexy and interesting and of all body types? You don’t get to see enough of them. So there’s something important in attempting to write them for myself and for the insanely talented women out there.”