Brit Marling ‘The Better Angels’ Exclusive Interview

Brit Marling Interview on The Better Angels
Brit Marling stars in ‘The Better Angels’ (Photo © 2014 Amplify Releasing)

I have known Brit Marling for a long time now. I saw both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice at Sundance 2011 and she said I was the first person to see both. I’ve been interviewing her for multiple websites and features, so she remembers me and our continuing discussions. And I’ve been pitching her to play Supergirl. You see it, right?

This weekend you can see Marling in The Better Angels, the directorial debut of A.J. Edwards. It tells the story of young Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney) growing up. Marling plays his biological mother, Nancy Lincoln. When she was in Los Angeles to discuss The Better Angels, I got a chance to speak to her again, and we pretty much picked up right where we left off.

Brit Marling: “Tell me some stories, or I’ll tell you some, whichever you prefer.”

Showbiz Junkies: I do have a story. I saw the film Christopher Denham directed, Preservation.

Brit Marling: “I haven’t seen it yet.”

It was great.

Brit Marling: “Oh, good. I can’t wait to see it.”

Did you know he was a director when you worked with him on Sound of My Voice?

Brit Marling: “I didn’t know. I knew that he was interested in directing and I think Chris is capable of, my goodness, anything. He’s so smart and so talented. I’m really excited to see this film. In Sound of My Voice, he just blew me away. I think we’ve talked about this before, that scene where Maggie breaks him down.”

The apple?

Brit Marling: “Yeah, when they’re all sitting in that circle about throwing up the apple. Chris was just like right there every time. Every take on his side, every take on my side, just this full unrestrained feeling. That’s not easy to cull up even once, let alone 24 times in a row. So I think he’s a magnificent actor and I’d love to see what he’s doing as a director.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there is going to be a Supergirl TV show.

Brit Marling: “What?”

I know this is different than I had planned. I thought it would be a movie.

Brit Marling: “Doesn’t matter.”

I know TV is a much longer commitment, but would you audition for the Supergirl pilot?

Brit Marling: “Who’s making it?”

I think Zal should direct it.

Brit Marling: [Laughs] “Let’s talk to Zal. We should give Zal a call and we should be like, ‘Hey, Zal. What do you think about this?’ I think TV’s really exciting. I’m fascinated by that landscape. There are so many awesome things on right now and really great characters that can develop over time. I’d be totally open to doing the right thing in television, the right story.”

I think this is the first time we’ve spoken for a film you acted in without writing. As an actor, are you good at memorizing lines?

Brit Marling: “You know, I am very good at it. I did this job with Danny Boyle in London recently in which it was six hours of storytelling. Sometimes the lines would come overnight and it would be a lot. These characters talk very fast. It’s a British comedy so it’s lots of dialogue and lots of speeches. You would have to look at it that night and in the makeup chair in the morning and just be ready to go because there wasn’t time to do more than two takes. That was really intense and by the end of that six months, I was in a place where I could read a scene twice and just be ready to go. My memorization skills have seriously improved, yeah.”

Is it easier when you’ve written the script?

Brit Marling: “Certainly, because you’ve been with those words for so long that they’re kind of second nature, but sometimes it’s harder when you’ve written the script because you’ve spent so much time in the writers world, which means you’ve lived the story from every character’s perspective. When you come into act, you have to let go of all of that information. You have to let go of all of those points of view that you once occupied to write the story in order to just live in your own, so that can be tricky.”

As an acting gig, did you audition for The Better Angels?

Brit Marling: “I didn’t. I read the script. Hilda, my agent, sent me the script and I thought it was really beautiful. Then I spoke with A.J. [Edwards] on the phone and I was so moved by what he wanted to do and how clear it was in his mind. I was really moved by the fact that he’d found these kids in Kentucky to play Lincoln and his sister and that they were untrained kids he’d cast at drama workshops in public schools, living in rural parts of Kentucky. I loved the idea that he was going for a kind of authenticity and realism and then also that he just wanted to look at this slice of life that was so early on. I’ve never seen a biopic do that. You’re so used to the biopic being all about the accomplishments and the glory. This biopic was like no, I’m going to take you to a time that very little is known about and I’m going to give you a really impressionistic understanding of what happened in those mysterious formative years that made this man who he was. Yeah, I was gung ho from the beginning.”

Was A.J. doing it like Mike and Zal did, making their own movies?

Brit Marling: “I think every first time director has a different approach. I think one of the things that was really exciting about A.J. is that he had spent so much time with Malick that he was incredibly confident. He just could see exactly what he wanted. Sometimes he would even camera operate himself. He just had an idea in his mind of what it was and he was able to communicate that to everyone around him and get everybody on board for this vision. And he created a really safe space on set. It felt like you had time traveled to that period and were living there. There were no lights. There was almost no apparatus. There were no trailers or tents. You could barely even see where craft services was, it was so lost in the woods. So every day you came to set, if it was freezing rain, you were in the freezing rain. You’re barefoot in almost every scene and you had to really connect with nature and live in this space. Then A.J. was there very unobtrusively, witnessing and capturing it all with a D.P. who’s wildly talented.”

I had a chance to speak with Diane Kruger and she told me how they basically never stopped filming. So she was in character in between takes and if she decided to get up and sweep the floor, she did that in character and I think that’s in the movie. Was it like that for you?

Brit Marling: “Yeah, especially because the relationship with the kids was so important in this and the kids weren’t trained. So for them, action and cut didn’t mean anything, so it stopped meaning anything for you as well. Like, I was Braydon’s mother from the first moment I met him, all the way ‘til the day I left. That was the relationship that you felt even at lunch. I felt like I needed to make sure he was eating his vegetables. That’s a maternal instinct that I haven’t had in my real life yet but you found it there in that space and certainly lived in it and tried to make the kids feel that this imagined world was a bubble that we were all gonna just stay in until the last day of shooting.”

Was The Better Angels the first period piece you had ever done?

Brit Marling: “It was. Keeping Room was the second.”

Are they similar periods?

Brit Marling: “That was the Civil War and that was set in South Carolina, but interesting in that they were both wanting to be really true to the world. Both of them, the directors were really interested in the accents not being what people think it sounded like then but actually being what it sounded like then, which isn’t always the most pleasant sound. It’s certainly stranger than what you think of as a more common Southern accent, stranger and more specific.”

Is the accent the key to doing a period piece, or are there a lot more factors?

Brit Marling: “I think it’s about a real surrender and about letting go and about using the space to help you let go. Like, I remember feeling during both of those movies that I didn’t want to be on my phone too much, and I stopped checking my e-mails often. I didn’t want to have a relationship with my computer because it felt anachronistic to where you were all day long. I think also A.J. was really good about creating a space that allowed for that kind of time travel. I mean, that log cabin was built to specification and it was only with materials that they would’ve had them. The costume designer was wildly talented. A lot of it was hand sewn. This corset that she made must have taken her days to do all this hand stitching and the actual reeds that they would have used as a corset in that period underneath the fabric. Nobody ever saw that corset, but every morning when I put it on, I felt like I was being cinched into that character. Those things help you time travel.”

Your 2013 convocation speech for Georgetown is on YouTube so I watched it. Did you give a speech when you graduated as valedictorian?

Brit Marling: “I did, yeah. Hopefully nobody filmed that.”

What did you talk about in that speech and no one filmed it? No one anticipated this might be worth something?

Brit Marling: “It’s somewhere in the archives, maybe. If I remember, I think it was a bit of a provocative speech. I think some people really loved it and some people didn’t like it so much, because I think I had said that I felt that perfectionism was really dangerous.”

It totally is!

Brit Marling: “And getting straight As can be dangerous.”

“Perfect” is a corrupt concept.

Brit Marling: “It is a corrupt concept and it also can mean that you’re not challenging the system enough, that you’re sort of accepting it wholesale. So I think I talked about that a bit which I don’t know if people enjoyed it or if it ruffled some feathers.”

I want to hear that speech, but in 2013 you talked about how important the relationships you form in college are. It breaks my heart when I hear kids saying they’re going to skip college because they’re going to miss out on those relationships. Have you felt any impact in encouraging kids to go to college and form those relationships? What do you think of this rejection of college?

Brit Marling: “It’s such an interesting question. I think kids on the whole are in a really challenging time. I think with my generation there was more of a linear path that you thought you could follow. Work really hard in high school, get good grades, go to school, go to college, try to get into the best university you can, get a really good GPA, get great summer internships, get a good job. It will be meaningful. I think a lot of our generation walked through those steps and realized that meaning wasn’t in the places that it had been promised to us. I think that the generation underneath us, the 15, 16-year-olds right now are looking at college and being like, ‘Wait, how is this all going to work if kids with undergraduate degrees are having a hard time finding jobs?’ Even kids with graduate degrees are and what are the careers and jobs that are even meaningful? Does everybody have to go into finance to survive?

I think there’s just a lot in question right now about how to construct a meaningful life and what that looks like. I don’t think the relationship between hard work and solid work ethic and leading a good and fulfilled life is as clear or obvious or true as it used to be. I think we’ve had a hard time recovering probably from what has happened in the economic collapse and what continues to happen. So I don’t know. I feel for those kids and I hope that they find ways to make those relationships, because the one thing I think is for sure true is you need people. It’s hard to achieve things on your own and there’s this great mythology in America in particular about what the individual is capable. But usually for every individual ‘success story’ you look at, there’s all kinds of people that were behind that. It’s never just one person.”

After college has certainly changed, but I hope people still go to college, however they apply it differently now. I think you nailed it. It’s about the relationships you form. I wonder if there’s just some nefarious mastermind trying to sabotage people forming those relationships by planting the seed of skipping college. Yet I was lucky my parents paid for college. College is expensive.

Brit Marling: “It is and it’s hard to be sure you’ll get out of that debt later. No, I agree with you that community is a really big deal. I think people desire meaningful community. I think you feel that you’ll find it online, Instagram or Twitter, all these different ways in which people form digital communities. But I think that that doesn’t have the same import or it’s not as solid as real relationships in real time. Certainly college creates that.”

Some wonderful connections can happen online. Kevin Smith just made a movie based on a Twitter campaign from his podcast, but it’s not a substitute.

Brit Marling: “No, it’s not a substitute. That’s a really good way of thinking of it. It’s an interesting addition but it’s dangerous if the addition is mistaken for a substitute.”

I also learned from that speech that the original title of The East was The Daydreams of Spies?

Brit Marling: “That was actually a different story. That was a different story of a film we did not make, have yet to make. That was the first film Zal and I wrote together, a film called The Daydreams of Spies.”

What sort of spy movie was that then?

Brit Marling: “Well, Fred, if I tell you…”

Oh, you might still make it one day?

Brit Marling: “Yeah, we will make it one day I hope.”

Are you writing anything now?

Brit Marling: “Yeah, I’m actually trying to take some time this fall to finish writing a couple things. I like to try to do a couple things at once so that if you hit a wall with one of the stories and you can’t quite figure out where to go with it, you can give it a break and go look at another story instead. They kind of have a way of cross-pollinating each other. The East, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth were actually all written around the same time. It just took a while to get them made.”

I’ve never told you this before, but I’m Franchise Fred.

Brit Marling: “You’re Franchise Fred?”

That’s what they call me because I believe there should always be sequels to everything, indefinitely.

Brit Marling: “I agree. I agree with you. Any good movie, I just watched Basic Instinct the other day for the first time and I was like, ‘I want the Basic Instinct sequel.’”


There is a Basic Instinct 2, you know. With Sharon Stone.

Brit Marling: “What happens in it?”

Catherine Tramell’s still up to her old tricks. Unfortunately it’s not very good because the story behind it is they were going to cancel the film, but Sharon Stone sued them so they decided to just make the movie rather than settle the lawsuit. That’s the movie that came out.

Brit Marling: “Was Michael Douglas in it?”

No, they couldn’t get him. It’s a new guy, David Morrissey.

Brit Marling: “I don’t think I can watch it, Fred, because I was so into the first one. I thought her performance in it is breathtaking. When he first comes down and finds her there by the water, that look she gives him, she was occupying a place of really interesting female confidence. It wasn’t an obvious femme fatale. That performance was really something else.”

That’s amazing that you just saw that for the first time.

Brit Marling: “But you know, I’m sort of like that. I started watching movies really in college. That’s when I really got into film. I watched movies growing up but not with the attention or rigor of somebody who wants to make them. It was only in college that I started to think, oh yeah, I’m interested in filmmaking. Then I was trying to play catch up but I’m behind.”

But just because Basic Instinct 2 wasn’t good, I still think they should make Basic Instinct 3 and keep trying to tell good stories about Catherine Tramell. There’s always another good story to tell.

Brit Marling: “You think? You really think that’s true? I know what you mean about sequels to things that don’t full resolve.”

No, I think if something resolves, those characters have more adventures.

Brit Marling: “I’ll tell you what I would like a sequel to. Princess Bride with Robin Wright-Penn now. What happened to Princess Buttercup.”

Yes! So where I was going with Franchise Fred, is there any news on the Sound of My Voice trilogy or Mike’s script to I, the film he wrote before I Origins?

Brit Marling: “I don’t know. We’d have to talk to Mike about that but you’re right, that’s certainly a movie that could use a sequel. So it’s waiting in the wings for us.”

Can we ever see The Recordist?

Brit Marling: “You know, Zal just brought that up the other day. I think that that’s out there somewhere. People are seeing it. I think it’s at the AFI or something. Let me get on that for you, Fred. I’m going to tell Zal. I’m going to be like, ‘Fred would like a copy of The Recordist.'”

Follow Us On: