Brit Marling is leaning over a plate of fried eggs, the silver flatware in her hands clattering against the china in front of her. She’d be enjoying her breakfast were her trim frame not shaking so violently. “I feel like we’re at a pretend restaurant,” she says between fits of innocent laughter, after a bumbling waiter at the Crosby Street Hotel tries to clear her plate mid-bite. “When I was in elementary school, they had a thing called Biz Kids. One day a week for something like two months, students would go to the mall, where there was a Biz Kids store run by—oh my god, this is so f-ed up—8-year-old cashiers. This place feels very Biz Kids.”
Over the course of a balmy New York afternoon in late June, Marling, the engaging, 28-year-old co-writer, producer, and star of the virtuosic sci-fi drama Another Earth, plays fast and loose with colorful analogies. Visiting her real-estate developer parents at their home in Orlando, for example, isn’t unlike “rebooting the computer.” Georgetown University, where Marling graduated in 2005 with a degree in economics and studio art, felt like “a four-year incubator that kept the world at bay.” Acting, meanwhile, is like going fishing. “Some days you catch a fish and some days you don’t,” says Marling, who currently occupies a house in Los Feliz, a hilly neighborhood overlooking downtown Los Angeles. “Regardless, it’s important to show up, because you start to learn your own weather conditions and to understand where to go looking for fish.”
Marling saves the most hallucinatory of her many metaphors for the art of screenwriting. “Before putting pen to paper, Eudora Welty used to stand outside, where she said that poems came to her like wind blowing across the plains. She could see them moving in the grass, and so she’d turn around and start running to her house, then to her desk, and the poem would actually come through her so that writing it was like grabbing the tail of a tiger and pulling it back to her,” she says. Realizing how wonderfully unhinged that sounds, she adds, “Unfortunately, Another Earth didn’t come to me as a wave straight from the Zuma shore. It wasn’t as easy as running back to my Malibu guesthouse and opening my first draft.”
Instead, Marling’s path from Biz Kids to Sundance whiz kid (Another Earth took home the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film prize at this year’s festival) has been littered with hard work and more than a few dog-eared how-to manuals on establishing shots and slug lines. “I studied screenwriting by reading a lot of books,” says Marling, who only began to seriously entertain the idea of a film career after spending the summer following her junior year in college interning at Goldman Sachs. “I so narrowly avoided that life,” she says, humbly relieved by her last-minute career switch. “Maybe it’s naïve, but I’ve always had this weird feeling that I could learn anything if I were disciplined enough to put in the effort. Even if I wanted to be a doctor, I could just get the books and learn organic chemistry—it would be a stretch, but the switch would eventually flip.”
A flipped switch provides the emotional nexus of Another Earth, which Marling co-wrote with her friend and the film’s director, Mike Cahill. In it, she plays Rhoda Williams, an aspiring astrophysicist who causes a fatal car accident on the night scientists discover an alternate Earth. After spending four years in prison atoning for her mistake, Rhoda reaches out to the man (William Mapother) whose family she killed, from which evolves the unlikeliest of romances. The other planet becomes a receptacle for Rhoda’s deferred dreams: How would her life have been different on Earth Two? How would she be different? “I was really interested in the insurmountable chasm between where people find themselves and where they’d intended to be,” she says. “Does a cataclysmic tragedy necessarily denote a life misfiring? From there, how do you let go of the person you so desperately wanted to be?”
Marling asks these questions not as a writer sketching out plot ideas, but as Rhoda or even Maggie, the otherworldly cult leader she plays in first-time filmmaker Zal Batmanglij’s upcoming thriller, Sound of My Voice. “I don’t read scripts analytically,” says Marling, who recently finished shooting Arbitrage, a financial drama, of all things, costarring Richard Gere, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon. “I’m not looking for themes or statements about class and gender. I’m actually inside these characters. The shit that’s happening in these stories isn’t happening to someone I’m playing, or someone I might one day play—this shit is happening to me, to my actual cells.” Marling waits a beat and then, grinning, adds, “It’s just like the imaginary games I used to play as a child.”
Photography by Alexander Wagner, Styling by Shandi Alexander.