Brit Marling on Painful Performances and Her New Film ‘The Keeping Room’

Photo from BlackBook, August 2011

As an actress, writer, and producer, Brit Marling is carving out her own narrative in cinema. “I’ve been able to develop writing along the way as a way to make the waiting more possible. It would be hard to be that patient in your art,” she tells me when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. As we’ve noted, “Marling first emerged on the independent film scene in 2011 when she co-wrote her debut performances in Mike Cahill’s sci-fi moral tale Another Earth and Zal Batmanglij’s mystical thriller Sound of My Voice—both Sundance hits that showcased the kind of dynamic female roles Hollywood wasn’t offering.” Since then, she’s gone on to appear in films like The Company You Keep, I Origins, The Better Angels, and her latest starring turn in Daniel Barber and Julia Hart’s The Keeping Room. But whether she’s working behind the camera or strictly in front of it, there’s an ineffable grace, strength, and emotional intelligence to Marling that makes her one of the most fascinating women working in Hollywood.

Part feminist Civil War western, part home invasion action movie, The Keeping Room is a wonderfully bare bones re-imagining of a well-worn genre. The film follows Augusta (Marling), a Southern woman fighting to keep herself and her family alive after an encounter with two violent soldiers determined on destroying everything in their path. Living with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and Mad, their female slave (Muna Otaru) in their rundown farmhouse in the woods, the three must fight to protect their lives and and their home, fending off the encroaching terror of the drunken soldiers whose blind rage leads them to stop at nothing to get what they want. With visceral and raw performances from its stars, the film gives a vicious depiction of what it was like to be a woman in 1865 and the harrowing struggle you had to face just to keep on breathing.

With the film out in theaters today, I chatted with Marling to find out more about her immersion into this period, the artists that inspire her, and how the world is opening up for female actors.

You’re currently co-writing a show for Netflix with Zal Batmanglij—how has that experience been so far?

As it turns out, writing what’s basically an eight-hour feature, is a lot of work—but we’re having a great time doing it. It’s been an unusual challenge doing that and getting to talk about this film at the same time. 

Are you enjoying the challenge of having to write something long-form and evolving?

Yeah, I am. But it’s definitely so different now the way that people binge-watch things. You want to make something with a beginning, middle, end or chapters, but you also learn that if you binge-watch, all the episodes have to hold up. So to create something you’ll  experience at once is really challenging, but also cool because there are no rules right now. Back in the day you would have to come up with a pilot that represented everything and the kitchen sink about the show within an hour or half hour, and now it’s different. Now you have to think about: how do you begin something where the first hour doesn’t have to feel like a pilot, but instead you can enter it the way you would a great novel. 

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With everything else you’re working on how, what attracted you to The Keeping Room?

A friend from college sent me the script and said it was by someone she went to high school with and that had been on the Black List. I read my friend’s email after midnight and didn’t think much of it, but then I started reading the script and within the first ten pages I turned back the cover page and said, “Who wrote this?” The opening scene of the movie was so intense and breathtaking. It was so unique and so realized. In some ways it’s a period piece, a drama, a home invasion genre movie, an action movie—it’s so many things breaded together and yet all of those pieces disappear when you’re in it. It hits you as something truly original and without precedent.

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Where other movies have tried to glamorize or gloss over the daily struggles of existing in this time, The Keeping Room exposes them in a really brutal and terrifying way. I thought your performance was wonderful, but it also incredibly exhausting because you seemed like you were in really in pain the whole time, as your character would have been.

It’s so interesting to hear you put it that way, no one has really expressed it so cleanly: it was a painful performance—not just emotionally, but also physically, it was kind of impossible. I look back on it now and I don’t even know how we did all of that. There’s the emotional content of the movie, but then you add to that the horseback riding and the sprinting through the woods and the shooting and the chopping wood. I remember getting to the end of the shoot and feeling like I didn’t know how to return to the real world; I had just spent all this time in 1865. At one point I was even burned really badly on set and didn’t even think about it, then later when I came back home I was like, wait a second why didn’t I tell anybody about that? In your mind you think you’re surviving The Civil War, so getting burned is par for the course. It’s hard to explain to people that you do really go there psychologically and you allow yourself to go a bit mad to really believe you’re in the time period. 

So when you’d go home at the end of the day were you able to look at your email and do normal things are were you just totally in it?

It was hard because by the time we drove back to the hotel you had two hours to play with before you needed to eat and sleep, or else you just weren’t going to survive the next day. So with those two hours, you’re like, okay, I could try to wash some of this dirt out of my hair, I could try to repair the skin that’s coming off my elbow, I could look at my scenes for the next day, I could call people back, but you can’t do it all. So you pick and choose what you’re going to give yourself, and it’s usually looking at the scenes that are coming, which is why when I got to the end of it and came back to LA, I felt totally adrift. I felt so out of touch and unable to communicate with people what you think you’ve just been through. 

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In the past we’ve spoken about the importance of paving new space for women in Hollywood today and developing these strong female characters. How do you go about choosing the projects you work on and the roles you write for yourself with that in mind?

That’s such a good question. You have to be patient and wait for those roles. I think that every actor feels like, if you’re really lucky, there’s one or two or three really great stories that will come to you that you just know you’re ready to give yourself over to play. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to develop writing along the way as a way to make the waiting more possible. It would be hard to be that patient in your art. I imagine, like, a painter having to audition to get the paint or canvas to do what he or she loved. But one of the things that’s really exciting, is that more women are starting to write and direct, so the more female storytellers there are the more parts start to come around. Women are flooding into the space of storytelling. Even everyone being so excited about Elena Ferrante’s books, everyone has such an appetite to understand women better, it’s so interesting—and it’s not just women, some of the interesting conversations I’ve had about Elena Ferrante’s work have been with men. It’s a really exiting time to be an actress because I think it’s all opening. 

What was the last thing you saw or read that really struck you and inspired you?

I have so many answers but I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s books. The Argonauts, oh my god it’s so great, and also Bluets. The Argonauts is just breathtaking and the voice is so particular and so insightful. Her writing is so clear, she has this way of making you understand really complex things effortlessly; she makes it seem so easy. So her work as been really inspiring. I’m also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me right now. What a gift to have given the world, just to give a voice and give language to a space that has been hard for people to talk about. So reading that book, that’s just blown me away. Sometimes I have to just put it down and just pace around the room a bit. 

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