The fact that Marling is doing stardom her way will probably ring true to her classmates at Georgetown, where she majored in economics and studio art. (She grew up in Chicago and Florida.) After a summer interning at Goldman Sachs, she turned down a job offer at the investment bank, telling them she wanted to be an artist. As class valedictorian, she told the assembled students, faculty and parents that she doubted getting straight A’s was something to aspire to. Rather, it might be a sign of not being a rebellious-enough thinker or not taking enough risks.
“I think some people liked it,” Marling said of the speech during a recent visit to the Tombs, where she once snacked on french fries on her way from the darkroom to the library. “Other people, I think, thought it was a little too provocative.”
No training, no agent
Let it be noted for the record that Marling’s advice paid off, at least when she took it herself.
After graduating, she moved to Los Angeles with her best friends, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, who had cast her in their short films while at Georgetown. The three rented a house in Silver Lake, and Marling began trying to break into the business — with no formal training, no representation and no resume.
“I was trying to go on auditions for things and trying to get an agent, but you can’t get an agent until you’ve done work, [and] you can’t do work without an agent,” Marling recalled. “It’s truly an insane, impenetrable system. Unless you start acting in Huggies commercials when you’re 2. . . . I don’t know how people do it.”
Marling — who possesses the classic blond, blue-eyed beauty that’s at once compelling and all too common in Hollywood — received offers to star in Z-grade horror movies.
She routinely turned them down. “You felt like you were going to have to give up some piece of yourself that you weren’t going to get back,” she said. “So then I thought the only way to do this is to start writing. And then that turned out to be so much harder than I thought. It took us three years just to figure out how to write a script.”
Working at public libraries, taking the odd cinematography or editing job to get by, Marling eventually co-wrote scripts she and her collaborators deemed worthy of making into movies. In 2007, Marling and Cahill began filming the speculative drama “Another Earth” in New Haven, Conn., (where they stayed in Cahill’s mother’s house). In 2009, Marling returned to Los Angeles to film “Sound of My Voice,” a futuristic psychological thriller about a mysterious religious cult.
In November, as she was flying to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with her parents, Marling received the call telling her that both films had been accepted to Sundance. Fox Searchlight Pictures — the studio that made “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” big hits — picked up “Another Earth” at Sundance in January. It acquired “Sound of My Voice” at South by Southwest in March. (No release date for it yet.)
Marling received career-making notices for her mesmerizing performances in “Another Earth,” as a young woman longing to redeem a fatal moment in her past, and “Sound of My Voice,” about a serenely charismatic spiritual leader.
Sundance senior programmer Shari Frilot recalled watching both films, several weeks apart, and realizing that they starred and were co-written and co-produced by the same actress. “I said, ‘We have a star here,’ ” Frilot said recently. “I came to the next meeting and said, ‘This is going to be a major talent that’s going to break out of the festival this year. . . . This is a talent coming out of Zeus’s head.’ ”
Nancy Utley, co-president of Fox Searchlight, recalled a similar reaction when she and her team saw “Another Earth” at Sundance. “We’d had a disappointing round of festivals where we felt we weren’t seeing that many new voices or faces that were exciting,” Utley said. “Then we saw Brit on screen in ‘Another Earth’ and we let out a collective ‘Wow.’ [She] just leapt off the screen as somebody who was definitely going to be an important person in the world of movies.”
A unique autonomy
In person, Marling doesn’t project the kind of “look at me” presence one usually associates with a diva. She’s petite and pretty but doesn’t attract unusual attention at the Tombs, even dressed in a raspberry-colored daytime dress that makes her fair complexion glow.
But on screen, she projects a startlingly different physical presence, at once ethereal and commanding. In both “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice,” she seems taller than her petite frame, and she speaks with solemn assurance, not her natural post-collegiate cadence, which tends to make her sentences sound like questions.
What makes Marling stand out from other breakout Sundance stars is that she writes and produces her own material. It’s as if Diablo Cody didn’t just write “Juno” but took on the lead role as well. Or if Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t just delivered a star turn in “Winter's Bone” but had written and produced it.
Being a triple threat, Frilot said, is crucial at a time when “collaboration is back” and the do-it-yourself ethic of independent film has given way to do-it-yourself-with-others. What’s more, it gives Marling unusual power in an industry that prefers its young actresses hungry, ambitious and pliant. “Whatever Brit’s doing, we’re interested,” Utley said. “This is somebody who’s going to have a very productive, creative life.”
Marling has already noticed that being able to write and produce has given her a distinct sense of autonomy. “My mentality’s a little off from the typical actor mentality,” she said modestly. “If I read something and it isn’t good, if it doesn’t stir me, I never think to myself, ‘Well, I’ll just do this until I can do the thing I want to do.’ I always think, ‘If I could write something better than this, then I shouldn’t do it.’ ”
She likes a challenge
So Marling has been pickier than most actresses might be in her position. She recently wrapped an independent film called “Arbitrage,” in which she stars opposite Richard Gere; Fox Searchlight is circling “The East,” a D.C.-set thriller she wrote with Batmanglij.
But don’t look for Marling in the next “X-Men” movie anytime soon. “When I read a script, I never look at the cover page first,” she said. “It always has who’s picked it up, who’s involved. You get a feel for how much money’s behind it. I always take that page off and read the script and go by that. If the story’s great, it doesn’t matter if it’s being made for $500,000 or $100 million at a studio.”
That detachment comes as no surprise to Cahill, who was with her when she turned down the Goldman Sachs job. They were co-directing the documentary “Boxers and Ballerinas” in Cuba. When she e-mailed them back, she wrote, “Thank you, but no thanks, I’m going to be an artist. Brit,” Cahill recalled. “I thought it was so brave.”
“She definitely doesn’t aspire to fame or fortune or any of those things,” Cahill continued, “but she is someone who likes a challenge. [At Georgetown], everything she applied herself to, she was exceptionally strong at. She rose to each challenge with such rigor and determination. . . .
I get the sense that she thinks acting is the greatest challenge . . . because you have to dial into such authenticity, you have to work on a level of vapor, on a level of nuance and subtext, something that’s more complex than the most complex math she did for econometrics.”
As the heat rose around “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” at Sundance, Marling’s voice mail began to fill up with the inevitable come-ons from studios and agents back in L.A. She didn’t listen to them. Instead, she signed with CAA agents whose clients include Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. “They really seemed to be interested in longevity in an actress’s career and how [that’s] a lot more important than short bursts,” Marling said.
“I think it’s a very dangerous thing to come into acting in your 20s,” she continued. “Because it’s like you’re this commodity on the market that just gets devoured, and then they move on to the next new commodity.”
Somehow it’s difficult to see Brit Marling — straight-A economics student, Wall Street refusenik, filmmaking triple threat — as a commodity in any market.
opens July 29 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema
and Bethesda Row.