Brit Marling, with her sharp, patrician features and poreless skin, doesn’t look like a Dumpster diver. But as research for the taut thriller The East, both director Zal Batmanglij and Marling, who wrote the film together, spent a summer entrenched in the freegan movement, hopping trains and foraging for food in the trash. In the film, Marling plays Sarah Moss, a corporate spy who infiltrates The East, an anarchist, ecoterrorist collective—with a notably charismatic, handsome leader played by Alexander Skarsgård—that argues its dirty methods are in service of noble, anticorporate ends. Whether Sarah truly comes to agree is a question The East doesn’t answer until the last possible moment; as with Marling herself, it’s more complicated than it looks.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I wanted to start by talking about otherness. The title of the film has a lot of associations—you might think about things like Orientalism—and for the eco-terrorist group to name themselves that, at least for me, seemed to speak to this idea of all of them as people who had purposefully othered themselves from what they would see as the normal world.
BRIT MARLING: We tried to make the group somewhat diverse—Doc is supposed to be from a very middle-class background, probably went to school on scholarship. Luca is probably more of a runaway, and Thumbs an ex-soldier in Afghanistan. You pick up on hints of that, but definitely I think in the plotline of the story, you’re hearing more about Izzy or Benji’s backgrounds. They come from a certain world of privilege. You see a wide range in those communities—direct action or freedom groups or anarchists. Some of them are kids who left home and dropped out of high school, some of them are kids who dropped out of their banking jobs or law firms. I think you’re sort of seeing more of that now—people who are going out to start an organic farm or living collectives who were formerly working at a hedge fund in Boston. We wanted to include that group, too.
One of the things that was interesting about the Weather Underground is that most of those kids came from solidly upper-middle-class families and were rebelling for… it wasn’t their experience. They were seeing what was happening in Vietnam and they were seeing what was happening with The Black Panther movement and civil rights, and they felt compelled to act on behalf of people around them that were being oppressed and suffering more than they themselves were directly experiencing. I think there is that question of the millennial generation: What are we going to do to stand up? What is the activism of our generation going to be like?
Then there are all these debates about, how far is too far? Are you willing to do a wrong thing to get to a right end, or do you believe in only doing right? I think everybody is wrestling with these ideas right now—even if you’re not leading an activist life, there’s a question of how to just live an accountable life. When the boomers were rebelling, they were seeing all that imagery from Vietnam for the first time, and it was so shocking to them. Now it’s like we’re protected from what’s really happening, or it’s so distant that it’s hard to be awake on a daily basis to how much oppression your existence requires. It’s a lot of intense subject matter [laughs] as we’re talking about it right now. But whether you’re on the right or the left, everyone seems frustrated by the sort of lack of accountability in corporate culture—that the BP oil spill can happen and they just get slapped on the wrist with a fine and they can pay it with a week’s worth of revenue or something. It’s interesting to watch the response to this film, because whether you’re Republican or Democrat or so far to the extreme that you’re not even on the spectrum, there’s something of a kind of wish-fulfillment: “Well, I’m going to bring the impact of what you’re doing home to you, to your house.”
SYMONDS: And with punishments that are very specifically tailored to…
MARLING: To the crime, yeah.
SYMONDS: I don’t necessarily think that the group’s methods are evil, but I was thinking a lot about Hannah Arendt—especially in that that really affecting scene where Patricia Clarkson, who plays your character’s boss in the corporate-espionage firm, takes your face in her hands and says, “You could live with a group of Neo-Nazis, and you would end up identifying with them.” This idea that morality is influenced in way larger part than we realize by context.
MARLING: Oh my gosh, totally.
SYMONDS: Do you think Sarah is, in general, more suggestible than she realizes, or you think that this specific group of people and these specific causes that were going to be what made her turn?
MARLING: I wonder, would she have been as easily swayed by another group with a different agenda. We tried to imagine a character that’s sort of like a thoroughbred racehorse—I see a lot of people like that in our generation, so well-built and exercised and so excited to just like run around the track; but the blinders are on. And she has this experience where the blinders kind of get ripped off, and it’s like, “Oh, wait, I’m running in circles, and there’s an open pasture over there—how do I leap over the fence and get to that pasture? What would that freedom be like?”
In the beginning, when she’s like, “You think I’m not tough enough for the truth,” and Benji says to her, “No, I think you’re not soft enough for it”—I think that is this thin, perfectly designed dart that navigates its way through all of her defenses and hits home, because there’s truth in it. Because I think she has, to succeed in a masculine culture, divested herself of a lot of her more feminine qualities—qualities that are in men and women, the intuition, feeling your way through things while you think your way through them. And I think that she begins to see that that is valuable and in fact that it’s been missing from her life, even missing from her relationship with her boyfriend, missing from her sense of self.
I can’t imagine another collective that would have opened her in the same way. Though she disagrees with their methodology, there’s something about the way that they’re seeing the world that is provocative and interesting to her. And I think she also does really retain her sense of self, ultimately, in the end. One of the ways we tried to show that is she doesn’t give up her religiosity, she’s still sort of a person of a spirituality and faith that she didn’t see in the other kids in that group that she sort of held onto.
People are porous, and when a group of people decides that a certain thing is normal, when you join that group, that becomes the new normal for you. The fact that we all agree that this is a way to have a conversation [gestures to the hotel suite in which the interview is taking place] seems normal—but also, if you think about it, is weird. Why aren’t we just meeting up outside and going for a walk? What are we doing in this over-air-conditioned place?
SYMONDS: To get at the idea of not losing her sense of self and also how well-trained she is—a lot of the film hinges on bluffing, and on Sarah being able to identify every possible reaction to every possible action that she could take and then choose the best one, even when it’s risky. She threatens to leave, knowing that’s what will make them let her stay. I wanted to ask about the difference between writing that and acting it.
MARLING: When we wrote it, of course it’s all fun, and the character’s telling you what the character wants to do. And then when you put the script away, and Zal goes to think about directing it, and I open it for the first time as an actor who’s going to play the part—I was like, “Fuck!” There’s so much that’s in the subtext. Sarah’s always thinking and feeling something, and nobody allows her to give voice to that. She’s lying to her boss, she’s lying to her boyfriend, she’s lying to the guy she’s falling in love with, it’s like layers upon layers of deceit.
We really felt like, Okay, a really good spy would know that the best way to infiltrate something is for you to pull away from the group and for the group to be like, “Oh, she must be the real deal, because she’s not espousing all the anarchist philosophy, because she’s challenging us, and someone that’s a spy would have read all the anarchist text and agree with everything we’re saying.” Too much consent means that you’re not actually thinking in real time or having your own opinion. We were hoping people in the audience would be able to pick up on that, since Sarah is so good at her job that she realizes that the most effective way to infiltrate a group is to abandon it and then be invited or pulled in.
SYMONDS: It seems like there is a really fundamental loneliness to Sarah. I wondered whether her shrewdness or canniness about people—knowing what it is going to make every single person around her react the way that she wants—kind of gives rise to that loneliness. And then what’s able to surprise her is when Benji doesn’t. That’s what she’s been searching for, and she doesn’t realize it—someone who can…
MARLING: Who she can’t manipulate. It’s true. The loneliness and alienation thing—for all of our ability to communicate with each other now, all this Skype and Twitter and Instagram, it’s actually really distancing. Looking at photos of what my friends are doing all day in different parts of the world—you think it brings you closer to them, and yet there’s something that makes it farther away. They’re like a TV show you’re watching or something. I think the most provocative thing, honestly, about anarchist and direct action groups is they have found the antidote to the alienation of modern life: they’re banding together in small communities and doing everything locally and taking care of one another locally. So much to the extent that a lot of these groups don’t do photographs of things. Why would you take a picture of a moment you could be living inside of? Why would you remove yourself?
SYMONDS: You mentioned, before, baby boomers watching Vietnam on TV, versus how our generation feels about everything that’s going on in the world. We have, if we choose it, so much access to that.
SYMONDS: It’s 24 hours a day; whereas during Vietnam, you’d sit in front of your TV from 8 to 8:30, and that’s the window of access you have.
MARLING: Which was more impacting.
SYMONDS: Yeah. You kind of sublimate it, when you’re able to know what everyone you know is doing all the time—and when that kind of extends to the world at large, too.
MARLING: Now the news cycle is so fast—everything is a story for a half of a day, a day, two days; then it’s on to something else. It’s hard when the culture is moving so quickly and everyone feels like they’re just trying to keep up. You’re just trying to keep from getting crushed by your emails and texts and Tweets—it’s a massive ball, and you’re running away and hoping not to get crushed by all this communication.
SYMONDS: You should just play spin the bottle with five people for two hours instead.
MARLING: Exactly. Which, by the way, seems so at first immature. I remember when we played that on the road [while researching the film]; at first, your arms are crossed and you’re like, “this is dumb and totally middle-school.” And then you have the experience. The same thing happened on set: We shot it according to the script a couple times, and then Zal was like, “Just play the game for real.” We played the game for real, and it wasn’t about sexual charge so much as it was about the charge of contact with people, kissing and hugging, harmless ways to become close to people and physically intimate and emotionally intimate. On the other side of that, it’s like we really became a tribe. The bonds that I have with those people from that film are really different and much more profound than any other film I’ve worked on, even when I’ve spent more time with people. Something about that experience was… we actually came together as a collective, and in some ways, once you do that, you never really break that feeling.
THE EAST IS OUT IN SELECT THEATERS TODAY.