Brit Marling and Issa Rae on Feeling a ‘Moral Imperative to Write’

Brit Marling and Issa Rae sat down for an interview for Variety’s Actors on Actors” series. For more, click here

Issa Rae: What do you feel about “The OA” resonated with your audience, just people in general?

Brit Marling: It’s such a good question, I’m not sure I really know. Sometimes I think it’s funny. We make these things, and we put them out in the world, and then we just have to see what connects. But something I’ve heard people describe about it is that it has a kind of unfettered quality — that it seems like drinking milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. And I think that’s because it was very handmade by a very small group of people, especially Zal Batmanglij, who is the show creator. I think it has a quality that doesn’t usually manage to find its way onto television.

Rae: It does feel wholly original. It does feel distinct.

Marling: I wonder if it was the same for you. What was it like for you just even beginning to become a storyteller? How did you carve that space out, and did you try anything else first? It’s so hard to find interesting roles for women in Hollywood, even now.

Rae: Completely. I came from a place of trying to submit traditionally just via contests and writing spec scripts. I found constantly, even when I was afforded the opportunity to get into the rooms, that my work didn’t have an audience. So I started creating content online, and that’s when I found I had direct access to an audience. And that journey led me to continue creating content online, and then I got the attention of other networks. But it was definitely a rocky journey. I’m sure you can imagine. You came from Sundance initially, right?

Marling: Yeah, I think it was a similar thing, where I felt at first when I came to L.A., I wanted to act, but that’s not a job that you can just …
Rae: No, you can’t just show up and say, “Hey! Cast me!”

Marling: I also found that I started to feel just icky standing in a line in the Valley to go in to read for something that, even if I got the part, I would feel sort of morally complicated about playing.

Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety

Rae: What parts were you getting cast for?

Marling: They were the things you could find at open-call auditions. You know, usually horror films, usually the character has a name with a number in it, like Girl No. 3. And I would go and read for it, and even as you’re sitting in the parking lot and think [you were] good, you’re also thinking, “God, if I got this role, what would I feel about young women watching this portrayal of a woman yet again?” And at some point I started to feel a moral imperative to write — that there was no way to be an actress in the way I wanted to be if I didn’t teach myself to write. And I was really not good at it in the beginning. I wrote some really bad things that my friends would read and be like, “Pfff.”

Rae: Bless your friends, though, because that isn’t always [what friends do]. So you wrote to actually be able to act.

Marling: I wrote to act, yes. And I think it’s only now, with “The OA,” that I’ve started to feel like I like the writing part as much as I like the acting part.

Rae: It’s reversed for me. I wrote to put an image out [in the world] that I wasn’t seeing. I talked so much about why aren’t other people creating roles that are diverse and [instead] are stereotypical. And so in writing roles for other people and directing and being behind the scenes, I accidentally cast myself. I didn’t want to. I just felt like I needed to because the person I wanted to cast is actually on the East Coast, and I felt like I was running out of time. I wound up saying, “You know what, I’m just gonna play this role.” But even to this day I still feel like I appreciate writing more; I appreciate the behind-the-scenes elements more. I’m falling more in love with the acting [though], given the people that I’m able to perform with.

Marling: That’s so interesting because I feel like there’s something that comes with acting — this intense vulnerability, like you really are putting yourself on the line. And when you merge acting and writing, then the vulnerability is overwhelming because there’s some version of you up there. It’s a character you can’t hide behind. … You can’t be like, “Well, I didn’t write it or I didn’t direct it.” You have to be like, “No, I’m OK with every part of this.” And that’s an intense place to be in, especially when the work meets an audience. There’s no place to hide.

Rae: Is that why you prefer to act in other people’s projects?

Marling: Yeah, I like that because I feel like ultimately there’s a limitation to my imagination. I’ve had a set of experiences and I draw from that. … And there’s something about when you’re acting in an incredible play and you’re given the confines of someone else’s imagination and the landscape of their brain and heart to play in that I find really intoxicating. But those parts for women are still so few and far between.

Rae: There seems to be a renaissance just in terms of a heightened awareness about “Oh, there are no women directors,” and so now people are paying attention. People like Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay are actually making a concerted effort to employ people behind the scenes, and that makes me optimistic. On our own set, that’s what we’re trying to do as well.

Variety’s “Actors on Actors” Season 6, presented by Shutterstock, premieres June 13 on PBS SoCal. You can watch the full interview above.

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