Brit Marling: True Brit

Not everyone would turn down a lucrative job offer from Goldman Sachs and teach themselves to screenwrite. But then, not everyone's Brit Marling – guerrilla filmmaker-turned-Hollywood actress

The first thing Brit Marling does, upon entering the suite at New York's Crosby Street Hotel where our interview is to take place, is to walk right over to the large promotional cut-out for her movie Another Earth – on which she is depicted staring dreamily at the camera in front of a large milky planet – and turn it back to front.

"We can't have a serious conversation with this looming over us," she says. "Remind me to turn it back when they come to get me."

Take it as a sign of her newness to the Hollywood hall of mirrors. Six months ago, 27-year-old Marling was just another hopeful, living in shared digs with two screenwriter friends, trying to find a distributor for two micro-budget movies which were all that stood between her and a role in torture porn. Then both films, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, got accepted at Sundance where they were picked up by Fox Searchlight. Overnight, Marling became the festival's breakout darling: a brainy, beautiful poster-girl for soft-knit, eco-conscious, indie fabulosity. Which is how she finds herself in a hotel suite in New York, staring at a cardboard cut-out of herself posing in front of the planet Earth. No wonder she flips it.

"The thing that is so crazy about it is that you are the same person before and after," she says. "Your skill set hasn't changed. You are the same person who could not audition anywhere in town and nobody would hire you to do anything, and now suddenly you can read some of the best scripts that are being written. What is that all about? I'm still trying to wrap my head around that."

To get the obvious out of the way: she is extremely beautiful, with sky-blue eyes and long, fine, blonde hair of the kind rarely seen outside ads for conditioner, exuding a kind of alt-rock singer-songwriter vibe that pulls her towards paisley and floppy hats. She's like a Manhattan-era Meryl Streep, reinvented for the Wikileaks generation, holding forth on a variety of subjects – from the invention of the light bulb to the macro-economics of the paper napkin in front of her – with the high-flying radicalism of youth and consistent bookworm-in-the-limelight amazement that the world is paying her any attention at all. A beautiful intellectual! And in the movies, no less! What a thing!

"What sets her apart from so many actresses is she is unafraid of the unknown," says Mike Cahill, her co-writer and director on Another Earth, in which Marling plays Rhoda, a brilliant young woman, recently accepted on to Massachusetts Institute of Technology's astrophysics course, who kills someone's family in a drunk-driving accident. Crippled by guilt, she dreams of escape to the second planet Earth that has been discovered, where there are exact replicas of every single person. An unabashedly cerebral film which takes on some chewy subjects – guilt, atonement, self-absolution – it nevertheless casts an undeniable spell, not least in the consonance it establishes between that second Earth hanging there in the sky like a vast pale moon, and the yearning in Marling's beautiful, upturned face. "The fascinating thing is that so much of the earlier part of the film plays silently without dialogue," says Cahill. "She can carry so much in her facial expression. Once I realised that, I totally took advantage of the power in her eyes, the power in her looks, her glances."

The idea of the double Earth came from Cahill. Then they tried to figure out who would stand the most to gain from such a thing. That came from Marling.

"When I was growing up there was a girl in my community," she says. "She was the golden girl, the Daisy Buchanan that everyone loves, the straight-A student, really bright, with a beautiful singing voice, and I remember she got in an accident one night driving home from a party. The woman driving was paralysed and her son was killed. I didn't know this girl but I watched her from afar. I was so preoccupied with what happened to her. It wasn't in the end that the community didn't forgive her, or that even the victim's family didn't on some level eventually come to terms with it. It was that she couldn't let go of it. How could you? How could you let go of it?"

It might seem a morbid train of thought for someone blessed with her talents and advantages in life – the daughter of happily married property developers in Chicago, Marling went to Georgetown University in leafy Washington DC. But she remains fascinated by the idea of alternate selves and forked paths, as if guiltily haunted by some shadow self for whom things did not pan out. "You are the sum total of the choices you make every day," she says. "I think about what my life would be like if I had stayed studying economics or if I hadn't gone to Georgetown at all. I remember a friend saying to me once, 'You don't lose your religion overnight, you lose it slowly'. A couple of compromises in a row and suddenly you're very far way from the person you thought you were. And by religion I mean whatever your morality is, your convictions. That keeps me awake at nights."

Her own life has seen one such seismic wake-up call. At Georgetown, she studied economics and in her junior year took an internship at Goldman Sachs. She was one of their best analysts, on course to a lucrative job on Wall Street. Sitting in her cubicle, crunching numbers day in day out, she experienced what she calls a "profound break. I just began to question everything". She picks up the napkin on the table in front of her. "The price of this napkin is wrong because it does not reflect the fact that we're committing environmental suicide. So the way I treat this is not... proper. I don't know why but I suddenly felt very clearly that we're just not around for that long. Your life goes by so quickly – and what will I have done with it?

"Then I just threw it all to the wind. I was like: 'I really don't care what happens to me'. The only thing that's important is that every day I'm waking and doing something that I really love to do."

Earlier that year she happened to attend a student film festival where she saw a short co-directed by two film students, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. "It was so beautiful, so thoughtful and beautifully made," recalls Marling. "They shook me up." Once the film was over, Cahill remembers Marling leading the standing ovation. "This blonde, skinny girl popped up from the crowd leading the charge. Saul and I were like: 'Who is that girl?' She was the brightest girl at Georgetown, she was valedictorian 4.0 [graduating top of her class], and she wanted to be involved in film, eager to help in any way she could. We ended up casting her."

Over the course of the next few years, the three friends made a number of short films together – "totally illegal, running-and-gunning-it filmmaking, where we'd go into the national gallery, shoot a scene incognito, guerrilla-style," says Marling. During this time, she and Cahill started dating. The couple were in Cuba, shooting a documentary together, when Goldman Sachs finally made her a job offer. "We were in this internet café in Havana," remembers Cahill. "She goes, 'Mike, look at this e-mail', and I read it. Everything was laid out on the table: 'We want to offer you this job, we want you when you graduate, you're going to make a ton of money, and all this other stuff'. She goes, 'They want an answer right now...'.

"She wrote back: 'Thank you but I'm going to be an artist. Best regards, it was wonderful, take care, Brit'. The guy wrote back, and his e-mail was one word: 'Wow'. The bravery with which she approaches life is amazing. The idea of a meaningless life is much more terrifying to her than a failed attempt at a meaningful life."

You wonder how such a combustible combination of talent, looks and idealism will fare in the fleshpots of Hollywood Babylon. "I'm still a bit of a romantic and an idealist and hopelessly naïve," admits Marling, with some saving irony on her side. The three friends moved to LA in 2006. They drove all the way from DC, rented a house in the trendy suburb of Silverlake, and within a few months Marling found herself reading for roles in torture-porn movies playing Third Disembowelee From The Left. "People kept telling me: this is part of it, you pay your dues. I was more than willing to pay my dues. I just wanted to pay them in a library reading screenwriting books instead of being in some torture-porn movie being kidnapped, held hostage, and tortured."

For two years, she read screenplay-writing manuals while working on scripts with Cahil and Batmanglij. In the mornings she wrote upstairs with one, in the afternoon she went downstairs to work with the other. "It was like a summer camp 24/7 for a couple of years," she says. "I cannot even begin to properly describe the doubt that you are plagued with."

The breakthrough came when they realised that there would be no breakthrough. "The recession had just happened," she recalls. "The five-million indie feature was gone. Who was going to give money to a first-time director and an unknown actress who had never done anything before? Impossible."

So they just started to make the movie. They travelled to Cahill's mother's house in Connecticut where they didn't have to pay rent, or buy food; they used his mum's car for free, her school as a backdrop, and its employees as extras, and they began to shoot Another Earth. They were halfway through when they secured funding, from micro-budget producer Hunter Gray, and still editing when they filled out their application for Sundance. "Every time I see those programmers I get down on my knees, and I go 'I am truly not worthy'," says Marling.

Post-Sundance, she has already been snapped up for a Richard Gere thriller called Arbitrage, in which she plays the daughter of Gere's Faustian stock market analyst. To prepare, she spent a few weeks shadowing a woman who worked in a hedge fund. "It was fascinating because there aren't many women. It's a shockingly male space. And of course I said to myself: 'Oh, I wonder how I would have turned out if I had stayed the course'."

And? "It would have been much more stable and secure, but... stability and security are not worth that much to me. I'd rather ride all the way to the bottom and the top. I don't want to play it safe. Every time I take something on I want to think to myself, in the privacy of my room: 'Oh my God, can I really do this? I tricked them all, but can I really do this?'."

'Another Earth' is released on 9 December

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