I Origins: Brit Marling on Sex and Tic Tac Toe

I Origins expands into more theaters this month, and you didn’t really think I’d wrap up my coverage of the film without interviewing Brit Marling. I’ve been following Marling very closely since I saw Another Earth and Sound of My Voice both at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. I interviewed her for both as Fox Searchlight released them the following years, and again for The East and even at Sundance for I Origins. I’ve seen the movies she acted in in between too, and her appearance on “Community.”

We have running themes now, like following her on Twitter and my fan casting her as Supergirl. Marling graduated from Georgetown as valedictorian in 2005 and worked in finance before deciding to become a filmmaker with her Earth and Origins director Mike Cahill and Sound/East director Zal Batmanglij.

Some spoilers for I Origins follow because it would be a shame to discuss this movie without getting into specifics. Since it has opened in some cities, hopefully this interview will be interesting to those who have already seen it, perhaps considering a second viewing, and encourage new audiences to seek it out too. Marling plays Karen, a lab assistant to Ian (Michael Pitt) studying ocular genes. Seven years later, they are married and expecting their first child, when their discoveries open up connections between new life and past lovers. It’s deep food for thought, but when I met Marling in a suite at the London Hotel, she was fixated on a metal Tic Tac Toe board and wanted to play a game before we got started.

Related: Watch an Exclusive Clip from ‘I Origins’

Brit Marling: Do you want to play tic tac toe?


It’s impossible to win Tic Tac Toe.

Impossible to win? Oh no, I’m going to beat you right now. Watch. Watch it happen. You’re X, I’m Os.


Let’s see if I remember how to do this. You want to go first?

No, that’s fine.

[I go corner. She goes middle. I go opposite corner.]

God, I think you did the one move that’s going to kill me. I can’t believe you know this game better than me. 

[I go to a third corner and I have two ways to win.]


Now you can’t block me.

I know. Shit, Fred. Okay, okay, okay.


You go first this time. Let’s see if I remember how to block you.

[She goes corner, I go side middle.]


This I’m not sure I remember, so you may beat me.

You got it right, by the way. You totally got it right. I cannot believe you got it right.

[We get to the stalemate.]

Shit, Fred. I thought I was going to be able to pull a cool trick on you. You’re too fuckin’ smart.


So “Community” got a sixth season for Yahoo. Could Page come back?

I hope so. I hope they write Page back in. I would love to go hang out with them again, in particular Gillian. She’s a great girl.


Do you think after that encounter with Britta, Page might have actually started exploring her sexuality?

I don’t know. I feel like if Page comes back, it should be something, maybe Page should’ve become some sort of rebel and she tries to convince Britta to do something illegal with her, something nefarious.


Oh, something activist like The East. 

There you go, something activist.


Maybe Page was just one of Jane’s identities.

Exactly right. That’s actually a really good interpretation of events. It’s all connected, Fred.


Mike got you singing again in I Origins with the lullaby. Mike and Zal just want you to sing, don’t they? 

It’s a peculiar thing since I’m not particularly good at it. I mean, I know why Mike wanted it, because he wants to create this haunting ethereal mood there, feeling of this woman singing this song to her unborn or about to be born baby. It’s really quite beautiful, but I don’t consider myself a singer. I sing really well in certain stairwells with amazing acoustics and in certain showers, I sound amazing. Outside of those spaces, no.


Was there a song in The Better Angels too? I think I remember.

I do, yeah. I did hum a little diddy in that one too. It’s always more diddy humming than it is belting out show tunes.


Mike reminded me about the part when you talk about when you discover something late at night and you’re the only one who knows you’re on the forefront. Was that a really important aspect of I Origins for you?

Yeah, it was. I think Mike and I were talking about a lot of things there. We loved that. We were both really into that scene and Mike was really particular about the performance of that. He was really paying attention and wanted it to feel a certain way, and I know the feeling he wanted to capture was that this idea of a girl, a woman, who is living in a time when we’re all really obsessed with credit and validation and likes and retweets and postings on the wall, here is a woman who doesn’t care about that.

She genuinely is just obsessed with the work. She’s just in the world of the microscope and the petri dish and she just wants to make the discovery, have the feeling of making the discovery. She doesn’t care about what comes after that, if the research paper has her name on it, if the work enters the world and people love her or don’t love her. I think Mike and I were both really interested in the idea of that kind of humbleness, that sort of nobility. 

I think our generation seems not to be that interested in that. Our generation has for some reason decided that we’re okay with a certain kind of narcissism of self-marketing and self-promotion. And Karen is the antithesis of that. She would never do any of those things, so I think we were both really interested in her and telling that story.


Well, I certainly wasn’t consulted on that and I wouldn’t vote for narcissism either.

I don’t mean to make a blanket statement. I don’t think everybody in our generation would. I just think that culturally it’s somehow become more acceptable. It’s like because you give it the name “the selfie” and it’s a cute name, somehow the constant posting of oneself all the time has become not only acceptable, but even desirable. And if you don’t post those things, then you’re not sharing and if people can’t follow every moment of your life on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, then you don’t exist anymore because the only real life that exists is the life that exists in social networking. That seems really dangerous to me.


You seem to be really battling that. I think we talk about it every time.

Do we? Oh my Gosh, Fred, I hope I’m not boring you.


No, the only reason I want you on Twitter is so I can talk to you in between our interviews.

Yeah, I try on Twitter and sometimes I get really into it. This is what I’ve been thinking lately, Fred. Tell me if I’m wrong. What thought do I have in a day that is valuable, that is for anybody? That the head of a studio can read, my first grade teacher, my mother, my ex-boyfriend, my best friend? What thought do I have that is deep and important and interesting or valuable for all of them? I don’t know, and how often do I have those thoughts. And if I have a really great thought and it’s worth digging into, then I should make a movie about it.


I think the fact that you’re thinking about it means you’re doing it right. You will take care with what you share and not just blurt out anything in the moment. And if you have something with the potential for a movie, you’ll save it.

That’s a really good analysis. I hope that’s the truth.


Back to I Origins, seven years is a big jump in the movie. Do you think Karen and Ian began as a rebound and then became real? 

No, I think that what I love about this movie is that it allows for the complexities of loves and different kinds of loves at different times in your life. It’s not saying, “Oh, the first person you fall madly and passionately in love with, the person who teaches you about love, that’s the most important love. That young, wild, passionate love.” And it’s not saying, “The person you meet later where your love is mature and tested and under duress, doesn’t buckle, that’s what true love is.” It’s saying you meet different people at different times in your life and they bring you different things that you need and you have different experiences, and that’s a beautiful complexity to just revel in.

There’s no judgment or qualitative difference. These are two very different women that had one man in common. They shared profound relationships with one man and it brought out different sides of him and they both saw him differently. I think love is a lot about how someone sees you and you liking the way that they see you. Because they see you so clearly one way, you desire to move towards that particular reflection in your own life. That is a portrait of yourself that you’re desiring to move closer to. I think that when Ian and Karen come together, it’s because Karen’s portrait of him and of what their life could be like is a reflection he wants to move into. And they live it together and it’s beautiful, and I think it’s a really fresh husband and wife relationship. 

I think a lot of times we watch movies and the supporting wife role is underwritten. She’s a nagging, complaining, “Why aren’t you home?” wife? In this it’s like, “The best way to test our experiment is for you to go to Indian in search of your ex-lover. Go do it.” When was the last time you saw a movie where a wife was sending her husband off in search of his ex-lover in the name of science?


Was the masturbation scene the first time you’ve done something that sexual in a film? 

In The East there’s a sex scene between Sarah and Benji that’s really intense and moving and was probably even more graphic in the shooting than it ever was after the cutting room. Even this, we cut out of the film, after they find that and go through the argument, Karen and Ian have sex.


I already thought it was pretty bold to have a husband and wife talk about masturbation in a movie.

I think it’s cool and I think it was really cool when they had sex afterwards because it was like this moment happens where a wife discovers her husband masturbating to photos of his former lover. It should be the thing that tears their relationship apart but instead they get honest with each other and they end up telling each other things that are fundamental things that haven’t been working in the relationship that they’ve never admitted to before. And as a result, they become more intimate. And in the shooting of it, it becomes erotically charged and all that fear and anger becomes instead genuine passion. They have sex and their water breaks and then she gives birth, but I don’t think that made the final cut.


No, I would remember that.

But honestly, I think it was for time reasons more than anything else.


The four movies you did with Mike and Zal have been very dramatic, and even the ones you’ve done in between have been very dramatic. Except for “Community,” does anyone offer you comedy? Do you want to do comedy?

It’s funny, I just got done doing this miniseries with Danny Boyle in London. It’s a drama but it’s really funny. It’s written by two writers who tend to do a lot more satire, dark comedy. It plays as a drama but there are some really funny moments in it. I love comedy and I’d love to do more comedy. I find them the same. I think they’re the flip side of the same coin. In comedy, it’s just that instead of anger, it’s frustration. I think comedies really work when if you were living that situation in real life, you’d be terrified, but because you’re watching it as a comedy and the actors’ experience in it is just like “I can’t believe this is happening,” you laugh, but I think they’re the same thing. I don’t think they’re separate. I think really great comedic actors are also really good at drama and vice versa.


I think so too and people are always shocked when a comedian does something dramatic. How many Robin Williamses and Jim Carreys does it take for people to get it?

Yeah, totally. I think it’s weird that people put people in those boxes. Either you’re good at playing pretend and make believe or not. How high the stakes are and whether those are funny or not funny doesn’t really matter.


Is that “Babylon,” the miniseries?



I’ve noticed the more press you get, the more of your movies come out, everyone wants to claim they discovered you.

You think?


It’s usually a headline or first paragraph about how they discovered you. You told me I was the first person who saw both of your films at Sundance and I hold onto that.

You were.


But do you notice that when every film seems to be your discovery, every magazine profile is your discovery? It’s been six films now.

To be honest, I don’t read that much stuff.


But you collaborate on it when they’re doing the interview and photo spread.

Yeah, you talk to people and you have really interesting conversations, and if the story is interesting, hopefully it provokes an interesting conversation. It’s hard because I think you’ve got to be really careful not to somehow get separated from reality. Because this is a culture that puts so much value on things like attention, magazine articles, you have to be careful because you’re living in a culture that does that, that you don’t absentmindedly absorb some of that influence.

So as an actor, it’s your job really, your job description is to be really deeply human. That’s all you’re being hired for. If you start living a life that’s in the ether where you’re just getting off of one plane onto another and being ferried from this and that with dark sunglasses on, and like “Oh, I’m being chased.” That’s not a real life. That’s a fantasy life. I think you’ve got to be careful about letting other people’s perceptions of you [define you]. You’ve got to draw a line there and hold onto your understanding of yourself in it all.


It seems to come back to that same thing as social media, and I’ll try not to be part of the problem and stop focusing on who discovered you, but you’ve been discovered and let’s go to the next level.

Yeah, Fred, are you going to take me there? It’s on you. What is the next level though, Fred?



I don’t know, is that the next level?


I get the impression you’re very kind to humor me on that, but maybe that’s not really what you’re interested in.

I’m open to that kind of thing but it’d have to be really good. I told Mike that if they ever did He-Man that Mike Cahill should direct it, Michael Pitt should play He-Man and then I would do She-Ra.


I asked him if you would be She-Ra but he says he’s not doing the movie.

Oh, he’s not. Well, then, there we go.


When you were working in finance, did you ever see any Wolf of Wall Street type of debauchery?

I did, yeah. Not quite to that level, but yeah, it’s real. I think it’s unfortunate when you’re making that much money, you start to live this life of excess that’s just impossible. That movie’s a good example of how wide the spread has become between the uber rich – it’s not even rich, you become in a class that doesn’t even have to do with money. It’s some other nether world, and then everyone else. I think what’s really dangerous is that people seem to be admiring that life. I watch that movie and that lifestyle and insanity and emptiness of it makes me nauseous, but I think other people watch it and they want to celebrate it. They think it’s a celebration.


I’m with you. I’m like, why don’t you stop wasting all of this and make something, create something, do something useful?

I think the movie is really useful for that. It’s a good litmus test of where your values are.


In The East, am I one of the only people who picked up that her name was Jane before she went undercover? Everything I read only called her Sarah.

Yeah, you’re the only one, Fred.


No, no, I know some people got it too. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy. She was called Jane, right? 

Other people maybe, but you pay close attention to things. Yeah, she does say Jane. There’s one or two mentions of Jane before she goes undercover but most people don’t get that.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.