You may have seen female cult leader Brit Marling luring her special flock of followers into her creepy basement in indie darling Sound of My Voice. But this two-time scifi screenwriter (Sound of My Voice and Another Earth) is more than just an actor and the face of indie SF.
It's only a matter of time before Marling has turned all of Hollywood into her own vomit-filled basement of acolytes. We spoke with the rising star about why we never see female cult leaders, and her fascination with science fiction. And we can't help but ask, is this science fiction's next big star?
Why are you drawn to science fiction?
Brit Marling: I've always loved science fiction. As a child, they were my favorite books. I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time and just being awed with the world of possibilities that it opened. And also, I think that a lot of science fiction ends up becoming science fact. Human perception is pretty limited — we thought that the Earth was flat, and then we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. We're always modifying science. I think it's interesting to think about the imagined future as where science will go. I think that time travel might be possible in the future. Maybe we can't articulate it, or understand it now, but that doesn't mean there couldn't be time travelers wandering around 6th Avenue. So for me, I think science fiction opens up a sense of wonderment that you have very naturally as a child. Where you take in the world and you really believe in the possibility of extraordinary things.
When I was interviewing the director, Zal Batmanglij, I commented that the character Klaus [who isn't really in the movie that much but you see him organizing things and is basically Maggie's number 2] seemed like he was up to no good. And Zal mentioned that a lot of people had been saying that to him and perhaps that is because many people don't buy into a woman in power, so they assume there's a man behind her. What did you think about that?
I heard somebody say that about Klaus, and I think it's really funny because I think it shows you how much we look to the man in the room. Which is odd, because, Zal and I will sometimes go into pitch rooms together and pitch a story. And even if I'm talking, people will look at him, and answer him. Zal will be the first person to point that out, because he's incredibly sensitive to that. I don't think we realize how much of the cultural milk we've been drinking off of for decades. Women as second class citizens, or women in their relationships to the man in the room. You are the wife, you are the girlfriend, you are the daughter [of the man]. I think it's starting to change as more female writers, female producers come into the system and bring those stories. But it's still in a place where it's radically underdeveloped.
There weren't even any female cult leaders to draw from. We were just making it up as we went along. What does a female cult leader look like? How does she lead or entertain or hold a group in a way that's different from a man and uniquely feminine? That's fascinating to execute, because you're making it up as you go — and you're borrowing on tropes of femininity. Maggie's motherliness and compassion, and then her insight and ability to cut you at the ankles, and then in the next moment she's innocent and sort of the ingénue. So she's playing with all of these moments of femininity. But I never, in the writing of it or the acting of it, I felt like Maggie was manipulating Klaus. That she's using Klaus to move things around or do things that she doesn't want to deal with.
How did the lack of female cult leaders inspire your character Maggie?
There probably have been some, but there certainly weren't any that have been significantly documented or talked about. You think of David Koresh and Jim Jones and all those well documented and well researched worlds are men. When Zal and I write [the two wrote Sound of My Voice together] sometimes you find yourself in a passive position. And you have stop yourself: "I set out to write a story about a strong woman acting with agency. And now here I am having her be sexually assaulted by somebody so she can achieve something else." You have to tell yourself to stop.
And you realize that so much of this stuff is the same narrative being recycled over and over again, because a lot of it is happening unconsciously. We consume, we watch, we take it in, we create, it's this negative feedback cycle. When I see things like Bridesmaids I get really excited. That film was really subversive and widely consumed and entertaining, but also saying really interesting things on female friendships and weddings. It was making fun of it all, that was refreshing, I hope we see more of that.
I'm glad you pointed out the sexual assault, I'm so tired of seeing that in media over and over. There are other challenges women can overcome.
As an actor, that's why I started writing. I came out to LA and I would read these things, you are hard pressed to find a script where the girl is not sexually assaulted or raped or manipulated or a sex toy — an object of affection. It's always about the way men are looking at her. And cinema, traditionally has been about how men are looking at women. I do think we're breaking that up now with more female directors, I think we're starting to see the female gaze.
So about your character from the film specifically, if your character knows who she's going to be with in the future, why does she need them all to break down and change in order to be with her?
We always felt that Maggie was (whether she's from the future or not) but that she felt that she was preparing this group of people to survive a kind of future that isn't post-apocalyptic but it's certainly not the civilized world as we know it. She's teaching them to use guns, and how they need to know how to grow gardens in their garages. It's more important to be able to identify different types of plants than brands of jeans [in Maggie's future]. I think she is saying that you will not survive this future unless you've dealt with your stuff. In this future, you need to know who you are and be centered. In the civilized world, there's so many distractions to keep you entertained and distracted that you never really have to go inside. She imagines she's training this group as almost warrior-like people for a kind of future where the training will be essential.
Clearly Maggie doesn't think she's in a cult. And yet, she employs cult leader tactics to avoid questions, to ice out problematic members of the group. I know you guys were going to ambiguous but, in the world of the story, why is she doing this?
For a long time I really struggled with the acting part. We wrote this character who is so intense I felt very intimidated by Maggie. So while doing the acting homework, I sort of came at it from that external perspective. And it made me very uncomfortable. Why did she need all of this attention and devotion? People kissing her hand, plumping her pillow and giving her their blood. You look at Maggie and you want to know [her].
She has this effect on people, so you have to wonder: How do you become this charismatic person? How do you hold people's attention? Eventually I had to stop thinking about it that way, less about her effect and more about what was going on inside of her, just was a human being that required [that devotion]. The funny thing about time travel is, we often look at time travelers as these extraordinary people of the future. But what if a time traveler… if the US Military developed time travel a decade from now, and they sent a soldier back (as a test subject) that's just a pretty ordinary dude. Sure they would be specially trained, but maybe they like video games and pop music, but not all pop music. Whether Maggie is pulling an elaborate con or not, Maggie is very human. Her need for the love and attention of this group ultimately comes from a place of insecurity, doubt, and anxiety. I think she behaves in ways like we all do, just to an extreme.
So if she's from the future, it's possible that there's someone else with an anchor tattoo with the number 55 who is just working at McDonalds?
Totally, totally. I just love thinking about shit like that. What if you get in a cab and the cab driver makes change for you and there's an anchor tattoo with a 64 on there? That seems fun.