Consider Brit Marling an indie jack-of-all-trades. Just a few years out of college, Marling rose to prominence in 2011 with two much acclaimed films, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, which she co-wrote, co-produced, and acted in, along with college pals Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. Recently, Marling tried her hand at a new medium, television, with The OA, Netflix's popular mystery drama, which the actress co-created with Batmanglij. It makes perfect sense, then, that the 34-year-old describes her high-school as something of an overachiever. "I had braces, and was awkward, skinny, strange, and trying to run for too many organizations," Marling says. "I wanted to be the head of the newspaper and the class president and in the drama club. I was super nerdy." Here, Marling waxes poetic on fictional high-school life, including her love for Mean Girls, discovering what it means to "sub-tweet," and the challenges of being a woman in the creative field.
Who are you named after?
My mom's side of the family is Norwegian, so I was named after her grandmother, who was also Brit, which I really like now, but when I was a kid and dressed like a tomboy and had short hair, people thought I was a boy, and that was rough for a period. When I was younger, I was always the shortest kid in the class, so people called me Bitty for a long time. There are still some people who call me that, actually. I think in their minds, they have some impression of me still as itty bitty.
Were you a big TV watcher growing up?
I should be able to say yes, but no. I was into 20/20, which came at the end of the "TGIF" lineup on Fridays. It was like Family Matters and Step by Step, and it would always end with 20/20, and for some reason, I was obsessed with that program. "Around the world and into your home, the stories that will touch your lives, with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters." I was obsessed with Hugh Downs. I thought I was gonna marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Didn't it just feel like everything was gonna be safe and all right, because Hugh Downs was gonna tell you the important story you needed to know this Friday? And there was John Stossel, who would do the investigative reporting. He had the mustache and was sexy. Between the three of them, it was just like a one-stop news shop. They don't do news like that anymore.
Did you have any other TV crushes?
I was really taken with My So-Called Life, and I was taken with it much later. I should've been taken with it when I was a teenager, but I didn't find it until I was in my late 20s, and I was just like, "Oh, this is exactly what life feels like." Ray Ann on that show, I thought, was brilliant. She had those amazing braids and the painted nails. She was always getting into trouble, but she was great and had a lot of energy. She was living life dangerously, in the fast line. I appreciated that about her. I had a crush on the whole situation. I wanted to insert myself into that high school.It's such a distilled microcosm, and it's so obvious there, and then we end up repeating all that stuff later. Life is kind of just lunchroom politics all over again, but on a bigger stage, and America's kind of the jock—slightly, slightly a big bully that thinks it knows more than it does. There's something about high school politics that are appealing 'cause they're so distilled. It's like when you're watching Mean Girls. It's a great film.
Were you popular in high school?
No. Let me just take you back to the late '90s, when I had braces, and was awkward, skinny, strange, and trying to run for too many organizations. I wanted to be the head of the newspaper and the class president and in the drama club. I was super nerdy. Jordan Catalano would not have been interested [laughter], for sure. Neither would Ray Ann. Ray Ann wouldn't have been interested either.
Do you remember your first kiss?
The first serious kiss was at a construction site. It was so good. It was in high school, and it was late at night, and we snuck onto this construction site. The building was like half built, and we went on top of the second floor and figured out a way to get onto the roof, and then just rolled around on that roof until we nearly fell off. It was good. It was definitely my idea. I'm still waiting to meet the guy where it is his idea. Let me know if you find any who are like, "Mm, wanna go to the top of this construction site and hopefully not get punctured by a loose nail?"
And you went back to high school for research before doing The OA, right?
We did. I think we realized right away when [director Zal Batmanglij] and I started to write the series that we didn't know anything about what it was like to be in high school now because we'd both been outside that world for a while. So we spent some time traveling around the Midwest, and we sat in the back of classrooms and hung out with kids after their soccer practice and went home with families to their houses. It was fascinating. Social media has really changed that landscape, and in some ways that are really beautiful and in some ways that are insane.
There are some kids who are so afraid of being bullied on Twitter and this thing called subtweets, which is where somebody writes something about you nasty but they don't tag you and everybody in the school knows who's being talked about, so the administration can't really ferret it out. I met this girl who had been so bullied in this series of subtweets and felt so humiliated that she literally couldn't leave the front door of her house, because she was so afraid to go to school and face the classroom the next day, which is really intense. I think in some ways, kids are really struggling right now to reconcile everything that's like in the palm of their smartphone with coming of age. It's really tough stuff.
How did this show come to be, versus doing it as a feature-length film?
We started really telling The OA as a story just orally, back and forth to each other over a year and a half, and we felt like if we were gonna make something that was a mind-bender and long format and could potentially last for many seasons, we had to sort of find a mystery that would sustain us, so that it felt like it was worth potentially a decade of our lives invested into one story. We spent a lot of time upfront sorting that all out. Sometimes I'm still sort of shocked that it was made and that it was made in such a pure form by a handful of people. There's something sort of raw and unfiltered about it, and that's because Netflix, as a company, if they hear something and it moves them and they like it, they really give the creatives freedom to follow that to its end.We had very few notes on scripts, and had nothing but help and encouragement and their enthusiasm.
Do you find it difficult as a woman navigating the creative terrain thing? Do you find that people immediately make assumptions that you should wanna be an actress or underestimate you as a creative person in some way?
I think we're in a really beautiful time in which we're starting to see more women write and produce and create, and that's starting to change the landscape of storytelling, and that's so exciting. Watching Issa Rae's work or any number of young women who are creating the stories now, it's really exciting. At the same time, I think there's still a huge gender bias in things. I know, because I'm even guilty of it, you know? Zal and I used to do this thing where we would go into pitch meetings and we would try a version in which we'd both pitch something 50/50, and always, everybody in the room would just ask him the questions at the end. And then we tried a version in which I pitched everything, and he said nothing, and still, they would direct their questions to the man. We would laugh about it, because Zal is a genuine feminist, so he could see it all, and but it's heartbreaking.
It's inside the cultural milk we're all raised on, so it's hard to divorce that later. I even find myself doing it sometimes. A young guy and a young girl will come into work at the same time at the same level, and you'll find yourself giving assignments to the girl that are more feminine, or she'll more naturally fall into a care-taking role, whereas the guy will more naturally rise through the ranks quickly and be given more space to try bold things. We socialize girls to be polite and to wait their turn and to not ruffle any feathers, and I think we have to do the opposite of that.
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