In the independent thriller Sound of My Voice, actress and screenwriter Brit Marling plays Maggie, the leader of an underground cult, who draws in new members by telling them she is a time traveler from the future. When two members, Peter and Lorna, join the group, Maggie calls upon them to help her solve her mysterious background.
During an interview with me, Marling, 29, talked about the theme of doubt she presents in the film and whether she ever thinks about what the future holds.
Sound of My Voice is currently playing exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Theatre.
Where did you find inspiration to play someone as enigmatic and influential as Maggie? She really is a profound character.
It’s interesting because we wanted to write about a female cult leader, but we didn’t know what that would really look like. In a lot of our research on the Jonestown massacre and David Koresh, we found there are many more famous male cult leaders than there are women. It was fun to daydream on that and think about how a woman might hold a group together in a way that would be different. A lot of it came together when I realized how multifaceted Maggie is. There are moments where she is motherly and tender and in the next instant she is vicious. You can never really get a handle on her. Writing the character and then getting the opportunity to play her was a lot of fun and actually quite intimidating.
Like your film last year Another Earth, Sound of My Voice allows audiences to come to their own conclusions at the end of the film. As a writer, is that a conscious decision you make during the writing process?
Actually, I think this movie has a very closed ending. I think this is Peter’s story and he goes through a very traditional arch from being one way and then having a deeper revelation. I think this movie is about faith. With faith you have to decide to believe or not believe without proof. That’s sort of what faith is. We have to stay true to that.
Do you believe doubt is a natural human reaction when we’re presented with new or unusual ideas?
Yeah, I think [director] Zal [Batmanglij] and I were feeling a lot of doubt when we were making this. I think that worked its way into the script. We’re in L.A. and I want to act and Zal wants to direct, but we didn’t know where to start. It’s better to just start writing if you want to act and direct. I didn’t know if we were capable of doing it. We were filled with doubt and anxiety all the time. Also, this is a story about a cult and I think independent filming has sort of become a kind of cult. I was working with a group of people who are all devoted to this one story that is like this higher power and everyone surrenders to it. You’re together in a very intense way for a period of time. I think we really get a sense of purpose by connecting with one another. So much of modern-day life is so profoundly alienating. I think in a cult you can surrender the loneliness and be part of a collective group. All of those ideas worked their way into the story.
Do you think about the future and what’s in store for all of us or do you choose to live day by day?
I think about the future all the time. I think I may think about it a little too much, actually. I’m worried for us. I think that’s an undercurrent that is everywhere in our society. I think everybody is looking at how the world is structured right now and thinking, “Well, this is obviously unsustainable.” We can’t keep growing indefinitely on a planet with dwindling resources. How is this gap between extreme wealth and poverty going to keep going? It’s such a strange time to be alive. I think even though we all feel the world is sort of immaculately constructed, it also feels like a sweater where you can just pull on one thread and the whole thing unravels. We could find ourselves living in a reality where you can’t just get into your SUV and drive to the grocery store anymore and load it up. As Maggie says, “We may be growing gardens in our garages.” She seems to be preparing people for a very different future. But maybe the other side of it isn’t as bad as we think. When I think about the future, I always think about a soldier going across the battlefield in WWI and all of a sudden coming across an iPod. He would think it was a device from an alien race. He probably couldn’t even conceive of the idea of turning it on or that music would come out of it. So, I can’t even conceive of some of the things we will be capable of five years from now let alone three decades from now.
Since following your career over the last couple of years, it seems like you are breaking out in a really big way. I just saw you on the cover of Vanity Fair’s April issue alongside Academy Award-nominated actresses Jessica Chastain (The Help), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) with the words “Introducing the Fresh Young Stars of 2012.” In your next three movies, you'll be working with the likes of Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Robert Redford, and Oscar nominees Tim Roth, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson, just to name a few. That has to be surreal for you after only two indie films.
What is most exciting to me about all that is that there are an incredible number of really talented, unusual, young leading ladies. Five years ago the landscape seemed open. Then, suddenly, these young interesting women are popping up and they seem very different from how we generally think of actresses. They seem like they're from a millennial generation. I’m not sure what that means yet exactly, but maybe they will all tell us from the roles they choose and the stories they will be a part of. I feel moved to be in the company of these women. I’ve been inspired by a lot of their work.