Get ready to fall in love, genre fans. The source of your inevitable affections: Brit Marling, the star and co-writer of the outrageous new indie cult leader/time travel thriller Sound of My Voice (out in limited theaters nationwide this weekend). Along with two of Marling’s best friends from her old Georgetown University days, directors Zal Batmanglij (who helmed Sound of My Voice) and Mike Cahill (the filmmaker behind last year’s Marling-led Another Earth), the not-even-30-years-old-yet Chicago native is at the forefront of a new science fiction/thriller movement that’s brewing in the independent film scene. In Another Earth, also co-written by Marling, the gifted actress stole the show as a depressed woman who seeks redemption when a second, Earth-resembling planet appears in the sky and captivates the entire world; with Sound of My Voice, though, Marling and collaborator Batmanglij have constructed a spellbinding mystery that’s nothing short of exceptional.
In the intelligently enigmatic Sound of My Voice, Marling plays an impenetrable cult leader, named Maggie, who operates out of a hidden home in Los Angeles, requires breathing apparatuses around her, meticulously breaks down her mentally unstable followers while also charming them with her cool-mom sensibilities, and just so happens to claim that she’s from the future. The story enters her cult’s environment through a skeptical journalist, Peter (Christopher Denham), and his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple determined to unravel the group’s mysteries, such as why people must be blindfolded before entering in order to keep their place-of-practice’s location unknown, and why they have to strip and shower every time they reappear in Maggie’s basement lair.
With the intrigue of the creepiest of Twilight Zone, yet also with a chapter-like segmentation that plays like a riveting page-turning with a heavy-hitting “Whoa” moment before each section’s end, Sound of My Voiceis the kind of intricately plotted gem that requires multiple viewings and never loses its ability to fascinate. It’s also powered by a clear star-is-born performance from Marling, who, in her script and on the screen, gives Maggie multiple dimensions and a seesawing quality, between likeable and menacing, that makes her the most formidable of cult leaders.
Complex sat down with the about-to-blow-up actress/writer to break down the allure of grounded sci-fi, the task of creating an inimitable cult leader, and the notion of realistic time travel.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Between Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, you’ve shown a clear interest in approaching the science fiction genre from a naturalistic and subtle angle—both movies only register as sci-fi when you sit and think about them. Is that something you’ve always been attracted to?
I think science fiction is cool because it’s about the big ideas. Mike [Cahill], Zal [Batmanglij], and I all met in college, and I think we were all really influenced by the same films; like, we were all really influenced by La jetée, the short that 12 Monkeys was based on, and 12 Monkeys and The Terminator, and also Kryysztof Kieślowski’s films, like Red and Blue and The Double Life of Véronique. So the three of us were always interested in the metaphysical and a sense of wonderment that science fiction can have, and the way you can use it to talk about the unseen or the ephemeral. Time travel becomes sort of a metaphor for all that is unknowable.
Also, it’s a thing where we’ve all seen a lot of stories with love triangles, right, and there’s kind of a love triangle at the center of Sound of My Voice, right? But how many love stories have we seen where one of the people in the triangle may or may not be a time traveler. [Laughs.] And how does that throw a fresh lens up against a traditional human drama? And how does that push the characters in ways we maybe haven’t seen before, and reveal things that are different or interesting? I think that’s sort of why we’re all into it. I hope that answers your question. [Laughs.]
Definitely. Speaking of you and Zal specifically, is the concept behind Sound of My Voice an idea the two of you have had since those college days?
You know, I think at the time we were thinking a lot about meaning, being in your 20’s and searching for ways to construct a meaningful life. A lot of us move away from the towns we grew up in, and we move away from our families; there’s this idea in this country and other parts of the world that you’ll eventually go off in search of your “manifest destiny.” We ended up out in California, which is filled with that feeling of people coming out there to do some work or pursue or some dream, or reinvent themselves. It’s a land of deep desire and terrible disappointment, and I think that’s why it’s such a hotbed for cult activity.
We were interested in those feelings and themes and ideas. And then the time travel element came from Zal; he’d had a dream where. He came to a writing session one day and said, “I had a dream where my hands were bound, I was blindfolded, and I was in hospital gown and being led down some stairs.” That image was so unsettling and vulnerable and terrifying. We started riffing together about what could bein this basement of this house. Then it was like, “What if it’s a cult that’s meeting in this basement? What is that cult protecting? Why can’t you know where this house is? What is this secret that’s worth hiding with that kind of rigor?”
Then, it became this idea of a time traveler, of, “What would it be like if a human being really came back in time? What would be the ramifications of that? Would she have time travel jet lag?” [Laughs.] It was about that kind of realism for the story.
With the character of Maggie specifically, did you first set out to do research on existing cult leaders? She’s such a unique cult leader in that she’s extremely difficult to figure out—one minute, she’s creepy as hell, but then the next minute she’s incredibly charming and disarming. She’s not like any cult leader I’ve ever seen before in a movie or read about.
That’s such a good question, and I’m so glad you said that. Certainly, we were doing research and reading about cults, and we watched the Jonestown massacre documentary and read about David Koresh and the Children of God; all those things were in the stew, you know? But Maggie really came at the end of the process; for most of the time, there was just a placeholder there, because she was the last piece of the script that came in, which sounds odd. The thrust of the story was always Peter and Lorna’s journey, and we really understood where we wanted this couple to go.
So it just said “CULT LEADER” in the script without any real identity for the character yet?
Well, at the outline stage, it would literally just be like, “Scene with Maggie.” But we didn’t know that was—how do you write charisma? [Laughs.] What is that? I think we were a little intimidated by what we were being asked to imagine, and then we came up with the moment between Peter and Maggie where she psychologically breaks him down, and after that she sort of wrote herself. Because like you were saying, and that you said so well, she’s a paradox. She’s just so many things at once; she has these moments where she’s really motherly and tender and sweet, and then, the next moment, after she’s opened you she’s cutting you at the ankles, and you’re, like, bleeding out all over the floor. You’re just like, “What? Who isthis girl?”
One of the details I love is when she’s chain-smoking menthols and also taking herbal vitamins out of a Ziploc bag, and you’re just like, “What the hell is she?”
There’s a great line in the scene where she says, after Peter looks at her funny for taking a swig of alcohol, “I’m from the future—I’m not a saint.” And that’s really indicative to how much of a paradox she really is. It makes you think that Maggie is actually a girl you’d want to hang out with at a bar or something like that.
Yeah, totally! I think normally when we see a time traveler, there’s always something that’s otherworldly or advanced, but what if time travel happened and the people who came back were just soldiers in the U.S. Army, like the way they are now? Like, the Army develops time travel and the people who come back are just soldiers. They play video games and listen to music on their iPods—they’re just human. They’re not not human just because they time travel. [Laughs.] That’s something that we wanted to really have Maggie capture, that normalcy of someone who may or may not be a time traveler.
Was the plan for day one for you to play Maggie, or was she written without any actress specifically in mind?
Yeah, it was always going to be me. I think it’s because I was always so scared of her. Zal always felt that I was going to play Maggie, and I was always really intrigued by Maggie because I found her so intimidating. As an actor, that’s always the thing that you’re drawn to: when you get nervous to play something and you think that you might fail and make a fool of yourself. That’s always when I’m like, “That’s what I want to try to do,” because then you know that you’re sort of stretching some part of yourself to encompass someone or some part of your personality that’s not a part of your own. That is fun.
Playing those more normal aspects of Maggie, like the things we just discussed, must come much easier to you than playing the scenes where she makes her followers vomit and eat worms. Were those moments especially hard for you to play?
They were really hard, yeah. I remember being on set and being like, “Oh my god, we’ve done this scene about 24 times—how do we do it for the 25th time and still hold the attention for these 13 people still in this basement? How do you keep giving something different and interesting so that you’re always this mystery that they can’t get to the bottom of?” That was totally intimidating. [Laughs.]
Were you able to maintain that Maggie person the whole time on set? Or, since you’re also a co-writer on the film, did you have flip the switch back into writer mode behind the camera and frequently abandon the Maggie mentality?
What’s really interesting is that Zal and I are so collaborative during the writing phase, but then he and I split up, and he goes and directs the movie and I’m just one of many actors that he’s working with. I’m just trying to keep within the whole macro sense of the story; as Maggie, I just go very micro-deep into my own work. I show up on set and Zal is blissfully protecting me from the, like, 45 things that have already gone wrong that morning . [Laughs.] Things that he’s problem-solving while keeping everybody located within the story and all the rest of it.
Zal is an incredible, incredibledirector, and to make this film at the budget that he did, he was endlessly taking our smallness and turning it into a strength instead of a weakness, which is an ability of his. And, also, to do all of that and keep his tone and his mood, which is so particular. His fingerprint is very distinct, and I feel very lucky to have met him and to have been able to forge such a great working relationship and friendship with him.
Your next collaboration with Zal, The East [which is due out in theaters in 2013], also deals with the idea of people infiltrating a larger, like-minded group—in that movie’s case, though, it’s an anarchist group. What is about that idea of infiltration that really strikes a chord with you?
Zal and I are obsessed with espionage, and the idea of infiltration—the lies that you have to tell, and the things that you have to keep up. And the fact that you have to be… Well, I don’t want to say that, because that’d give too much away. [Laughs.] But the idea is that we all are a bit like spies in our own time. We’re all trafficking in these codes and dressing in certain ways to communicate these things; these are all just layers that we can peel off and put on as we will. That’s an idea that I don’t think will ever stop fascinating me.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)