Brit Marling Went Back To High School To Prepare for The OA
The OA actress talks about her love for My So-Called Life, discovering the definition of sub-tweeting, and the challenges of being a woman in the creative field.
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.
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“In the show I play an abused woman, and I felt very exposed and deeply humiliated. I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the end of a difficult scene, and I wouldn’t get up between takes. I was just lying there, basically naked in half-torn underwear, and Jean-Marc Vallée [the director] would come over and place a towel over me. It was very hard.”
Kidman wears a Miu Miu dress and coat.
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20—especially with the coanchor Hugh Downs. I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Everything was going to be all right because Hugh Downs was going to tell you the important story you needed to know that Friday night. They just don’t do newsmen like him anymore.”
Marling wears a Prada dress.
“My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her. Every time I meet someone, I compare her to Jessica Lange in Tootsie. That’s probably why I’m not married.”
Skarsgård wears a Cleverly Laundry robe; Schiesser Revival shirt.
“The Americans mostly takes place in the ’80s, during the Cold War. Anytime you’re wearing clothes that are unlike yours, it just heightens the moment. When I wear heels and silk shirts, slacks and blouses, it makes me feel like an adult. On the show, I wear a cat eye with black eyeliner, and it makes me feel like a panther. It’s so unlike me as Keri—this tired mom in flip-flops and jeans. And I love that transformation.”
Russell wears a Michael Kors Collection top; Philosophy briefs; Manolo Blahnik shoes; Louis Vuitton bracelet.
“For Homeland, I made an audition tape with a point-and-click camera and sent it in. The ratio was off. It was out of focus. I was also wearing the wrong thing, and I filmed it against a door that they later told me made it look like I was in a mental asylum. The producers were like, ‘Where the hell is this kid?!’ In the end, I did seven separate audition tapes of the same scene. They finally said yes.”
Friend wears an Hermès sweater; Sunspel boxers; his own ring and socks.
“I went to work on The Crown four months after giving birth. The queen didn’t wear a corset, but I did in the beginning. Now, in the second season, I have to wear a significantly padded brassiere. In the first season, it was all my own breast work, but now it’s ‘Ha! Where have they gone?’ The queen would be so ashamed of me.”
Foy wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Messika Paris bracelet.
“I usually get stopped in the U.K. before I board a plane. What’s funny is that Heathrow is in a heavily South Asian neighborhood, and the kids working at the airport are fans of mine. So while they’re swabbing me for explosives, they’re asking me for selfies. While they’re going through my underwear, they’re quoting my raps back at me. It’s quite a surreal experience that speaks to the insider/outsider status I’ve felt all my life.”
Ahmed wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Jeffrey Rüdes pants.
“Even with the show, I still live at home in Liverpool. I can’t bring myself to leave just yet. My brother is 21 and he’s still at home, too. I said to my mom, ‘We’re going to be 30-, 40-odd years old and we’re still going to be living in the kids’ rooms.’ I’m hoping I will be able to leave the nest at some point.”
Comer wears a Marc Jacobs dress; Jennifer Meyer necklace; Larkspur & Hawk ring.
“During the screen test for Stranger Things, one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘Bzzz,’ over my head. He then asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘To cut all your hair off!’ The next day I got the job and I cut it. My hair was down to here, but it’s only hair. After that, I was called ‘boy’ a lot.”
Brown wears a Balenciaga dress and tights; Chanel shoes; Jennifer Meyer ring.
“I worked at McDonald’s for a few months, and I got a couple of dates from taking orders at the drive-through window. I was enrolled in an acting class, and I would practice different accents. I was really bad, but people believed me. A young lady would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to order the strawberry milkshake’ and ask me about my Italian or Irish or Brooklyn accent. We would go out on a date, go back to the McDonald’s parking lot, and make out. Eventually, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t Italian or Irish or from New York. The girls would usually end it right then and there.”
Franco wears a Prada shirt.
“In playing Albert Einstein, I found out that he was not the archetypal absentminded professor. He was an energetic, slightly rebellious, rakish, sort-of-bohemian poet. And he was quite amorous—he had many lovers. Einstein wasn’t exactly a ‘player,’ but he enjoyed women, and when his first marriage fell apart, he became what you would call a ladies’ man. He gave up on monogamy.”
Flynn wears a Calvin Klein Jeans Established 1978 jacket and pants.
“My dad, Stan Lathan, was one of the first black TV directors. He used to direct Sesame Street, and he blindfolded me once, and when he took the blindfold off, I was on the set. I got to meet Big Bird. It was my birthday, and the whole cast sang to me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Lathan wears a Lanvin coat.
“I’m not a big crier. But family stuff gets to me. Fathers and brothers and children. If I wasn’t on This Is Us, I’d be a wet noodle watching the show. I’d be crying along with everyone else.”
Ventimiglia wears a Current/Elliott shirt; his own chain.
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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Brit Marling wears Rag & Bone jacket; Lanvin top and dress. Eddie Redmayne wears Belstaff jacket; T by Alexander Wang shirt. Emayatzy Corinealdi wears Chloé dress.
J. Crew cardigan; Nina Ricci dress; Falke socks; Louis Vuitton boots.
Beauty note: Keep blonde locks vibrant with Matrix Total Results Blonde Care Weightless Conditioner.
From left: Dries Van Noten shirt; Miu Miu top. T by Alexander Wang shirt.
From left: Boss trenchcoat; Donna Karan New York gown; Jimmy Choo boots. Nili Lotan jacket; Carolina Herrera gown; Falke socks; Louis Vuitton boots.
Belstaff jacket; T by Alexander Wang shirt.
Beauty note: Baby-soft skin won’t get razor burn with Aveeno Active Naturals Men’s After Shave Lotion.
Acne Studios jacket; Calvin Klein Collection dress.
Chloé dress; Jimmy Choo boots.
Beauty note: Keep skin glowing with Iman BB Creme.
Hair by Jimmy Paul for Bumble and bumble; makeup by Aaron De Mey at Art Partner; grooming by Amy Komorows for Axe at Celestine agency; manicures by Emi Kudo. Production by Jill Roy at 3 Star Productions. Photography assistants: Gareth Powell, Lex Kimberly, Seth Gudmunson. Fashion assistants: Felicia Garcia-Rivera, Lacey Lennon, Mecca Cox.
Brit Marling and Eddie Redmayne on the cover of W‘s April 2013 issue.
Hair by Jimmy Paul for Bumble and bumble; makeup by Aaron De Mey at Art Partner. Grooming by Amy Komorowski for Axe at Celestine Agency. Fashion: Brit Marling wears Dries Van Noten shirt; Miu Miu top. Eddie Redmayne wears T by Alexander Wang shirt. Beauty: Covergirl Outlast Stay Fabulous 3-in-1 Foundation in Creamy Natural; Eye Enhancer 1 Kit in Champagne; LineBlast 24HR in Enduring Black; Clump Crusher by LashBlast Mascara in Black; Covergirl + Olay Simply Ageless Sculpting Blush in Rich Cinnamon; LipPerfection Lipcolor in Sultry.