I Origins was picked up for a hefty price tag at the Sundance Film Festival (in addition to garnering the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) and it’s easy to see why. The film is an effective and affecting piece, gorgeously directed with some really great performances. I had a few issues with the script here and there, but overall I left the theater feeling impacted in a pretty unique way. If a movie can get to me in that manner, I’m willing to forgive a few flaws along the way (Adam Chitwood really liked the film as well).
Brit Marling is fantastic in I Origins. She plays Karen, a lab assistant to Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), who goes from introverted and cold to open and warm over the course of the film’s seven year span. It’s an impressive arc that she handles magnificently without being showy or relying on “big” moments. I sat down with Marling in Los Angeles yesterday to talk with her about the film and calibrating her character’s journey. We also chatted a bit about writer/director Mike Cahill, her upcoming projects The Keeping Room and The Grace That Keeps This World, along with her desire as a performer to maintain a sense of illusion. Hit the jump for the full interview (and check out the trailer for some added context). The film is out in New York and LA this Friday, July 18th.
BRIT MARLING: God, I love that you said that. Nobody has said that. She is. How did you notice that?
At the beginning she’s comfortable being a lab rat, she’s very inwardly focussed. Seven years later she’s more warm and open.
MARLING: That’s so true. It’s so cool to me that you felt that. Sometimes in a performance you’re feeling it out and you really want to find the arc for yourself but you’re not sure if any of it comes across. I did really feel in the storytelling that she and Ian really change each other for the better, and that’s maybe the best definition of what a great partnership or great love is. People make each other grow in a better direction than they would have grown on their own. She encourages Ian and pushes Ian and grounds Ian. And Ian introduces her to love. I think he’s the first person she’s really loved. And they have a child together. And that warmth and thawing out and the opportunity to share their reflections… in the beginning she feels very much like no one is going to understand her, so why bother? And then she meets someone who can. It’s so intoxicating the feeling of being able to connect, I think she just totally thaws.
You get that they would be a good match from their dynamic in the lab. But this thawing pretty much happens offscreen. I’m not sure if you shot in sequence or not, but stepping into those scenes in the second half of the film, how did you release that energy?
MARLING: That’s a really good question. We did shoot the lab stuff first, so that helped. We really did shoot the relationship chronologically. And costume and space help a lot. In the beginning she really doesn’t care. I actually don’t wear any makeup in the first half. And there’s a rawness to that. And then I move out of that and she begins to dress more and to think more about clothing and how she presents herself. It’s not obsession, but the idea of taste begins to occur to her. And when you put that pregnant belly on with a nightgown over it, it’s really not hard to pretend that something is in there.
Did the instinct to guard it take over?
MARLING: Totally. I remember being on set with that pregnant belly and someone backed into me and I was like, “whoa whoa whoa!” This is in between takes. It was ridiculous, there was nothing in there but stuffing but I felt like was going to back into my baby. And that starts to open you in some way.
Since she learned to love through this relationship, it has to make it all the more difficult for her to send him on this journey. She’s sending him to possibly reconnect in some regard with his ex-wife.
MARLING: Which I think is an amazing test of the relationship. As you often see in these stories, there’s the nagging wife character who is underwritten and annoying and holding the man to task. I’m so fucking tired of the mythology that women are like that. They’re not like that. I know a lot of women who are like, “you’re passionate about this thing? Go do it.” And I love that, in this story, the experiment that they’re conducting together puts their relationship to the test. If you as a woman can go, “okay I’m going to pursue this experiment and encourage my husband to go pursue his past lover who I caught him masturbating to photos of.” I think most people would wonder if the relationship was going to break under that pressure.
Certainly most women characters in film.
MARLING: Not in real life though! I think women are fucking strong and they’ve gotten a really bad rap in cinema. The things that women are capable of, they’re not cry-babies. If you go look at a mother of two who’s also working and how they deal with the flu, they just pull it together. There’s something amazing about Karen not being, “yeah I guess you can go.” She’s like, “no, go.” She really encourages him to do it and that’s a total flip from what we see most of the time.
This is your second film with Mike Cahill, what differences did you spot in him in terms of his growth?
MARLING: The thing about Mike is, he’s always been confident. He’s always had the confidence of somebody older and more seasoned than he is. During his first film you wouldn’t have known it. He’s really in charge of each aspect of filmmaking. He’s not afraid of the camera, he knows how he’s going to cut it as he shoots it. He knows music. He knows performance and his actors. You get the sense that he’s just painting with all of these different parts of his palette. He’s just in it. He’s in the trance of it. He sees it. Between Another Earth and this film, he had more money and resources so it’s just about, “how do I protect the same sense of intimacy?” We have a tribe-like bond on set. He has an incredible way of making actors feel safe on set. He listens and he talks to actors in terms of story. And he gets that sometimes all an actor needs is a cigarette break, even if you’re running two hours behind and you’re about to lose the scene. Just going outside for a walk around the block or having a smoothie or looking at the birds. Most people don’t get that. They’re afraid of the clock.
Afraid of appearing out of control.
MARLING: And control is a myth anyway. I was reading Kieslowski on Kieslowski this morning and fuck that’s a good book. I love the way he talks about directing. He was saying a director doesn’t hold the sound equipment, doesn’t hold the camera and doesn’t hold the script even. He’s the only person on set that’s empty handed. It’s an interesting place to be, there’s nothing to hide behind. You’re there to help everything come together and to make it sing. It’s the hardest job on the set and the people who do it really well are comfortable and can sit in the stillness of not having anything in their hands. The thing in their hands is the invisible thing.
You’ve got also The Keeping Room with Sam Worthington and Hailee Steinfeld, which recently wrapped.
And you’ve also got The Grace That Keeps This World in prep?
MARLING: We haven’t shot yet but I hope it comes together because there’s a really great cast forming around it.
It’s you and Glenn Close, right?
MARLING: Yeah. I don’t know who else is attached. People come in and out of movies and you don’t know where things lie, it’s kind of funny. But I hope we make it this winter. Azazel Jacobs is an amazing director and the thought of getting to work with him is exciting.
You always pick interesting roles. Do you ever feel pressure from your reps to take more paycheck roles? More commercial roles? The plucky best friend? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People have to eat.
MARLING: No, exactly. People have to eat. But so far I’m doing okay. I’m lucky because I have a pretty simple life and so far I’ve been okay. I don’t have a lot of stuff. I don’t have kids so I don’t have to worry about their college education. And those choices may change, but right now based on what I actually want to do… it’s a really fortunate place to work from. I’m wary of being known. I’m wary of what that does to people. I’m wary of what that means to an actor. You have to protect what you do, you’re an instrument of illusion. But how can you be an instrument of illusion if people know too much about who you are?