When I heard we were celebrating women throughout July at 25YL, it took less than a fraction of a second for Brit Marling’s name to pop into my head as my inspiration. Marling’s story fascinates me. She grew up in Illinois and graduated from Georgetown University with two degrees under her belt: one for Economics, the other for Studio Art. She was her class valedictorian, so evidently she was studious and smart from the get-go. It was at Georgetown that she met two men who would become her collaborators: Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill. She’d seen a short film made by Zal, which she immediately loved, then approached him in a store asking if she could be involved in his next project in any shape or form. He told her she could be in it.
Then, during her time spent as an Investment Analyst intern for Goldman Sachs, she realised that this was not the life meant for her; she turned down a position at the firm that would have guaranteed her a seat at the elite table and set her up financially for life. But she didn’t want that. Everything had changed for Brit when Zal and Mike invited her to New York for the weekend to attend a film festival. She stayed up with them all night and they made a short film together. Brit had so much fun doing this; she knew this was her calling.
I can work my butt off doing something that I love—and is dangerous and I may never make any money—and I may be broke all the time but I’ll be happy, I’ll be delighted. Or I can do this thing that doesn’t feel right in my body, where I know there are predictable, safe outcomes. And to me it suddenly wasn’t a choice anymore, it just seemed so obvious.
– Brit Marling in Off Camera with Sam Jones
She took one hell of a gamble, but it paid off…eventually. Brit spent the next few years working her ass off trying to make it as an actress. It wasn’t long before she experienced the toxicity of Hollywood, where a large portion of the town functioned inside a soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women—a commodity with an endless supply and an endless demand. Hollywood is a place where the people with economic and artistic power are, by and large, straight white men. As of 2017, women made up only 23 percent of the Directors Guild of America and only 11 percent were people of colour.
They were the things you could find as open-call auditions. You know, usually horror films, usually the character has a name with a number in it, like Girl 3. And you would go and you read for it, and even as you’re sitting in the parking lot, being like, ‘I think that was 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 just feel actually 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.
– Brit Marling talking to Issa Rae for Actors on Actors, Variety
She emerged from this period knowing that the only way she’d be able to navigate Hollywood was to become a storyteller herself. So she stopped going to auditions, took a day job, and spent her evenings and weekends at the library reading all about screenwriting. She did this literally for years. Brit began co-writing two screenplays simultaneously: Another Earth with Mike Cahill in the mornings, and Sound of My Voice with Zal Batmanglij in the afternoons. Brit played the lead role in both films, and both would go on to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. She taught herself everything she needed to know, and with that knowledge, she brandished a power that most aspiring actresses do not have: the power to say no.
Just how incredible and inspiring is that? To go from a career in investment banking to having two films at Sundance is a truly staggering example of following your dreams, never taking your eye off the prize, and never giving in no matter what obstacles cross your path along the way.
And Brit certainly did have obstacles to overcome. Teaming up with Zal once again in 2013, the pair co-wrote The East. Zal directed the film and Brit starred in the lead role of Sarah, an undercover agent at an intelligence firm, sent to infiltrate an ecoterrorism cell targeting companies that pollute the environment. Inspiration for the film came from the summer of 2009, which Marling and Batmanglij spent living as freegans; freezing their bank accounts for 10 weeks, they slept rough, hopped trains, and ate from rubbish bins. It is an example of Brit’s willingness to try anything, to experience a world very different from the middle-class one she was born into. It is refreshing that she has never taken the easy road or used her status to climb the ladder.
But The East also fits into a pattern, one that has existed since Brit’s first script, The Dreams Of Spies. In each of her films, she has created relationships held hostage by questions of identity and threatened by the fear of discovery. In Another Earth, she befriends a man after killing his family in a drunken hit-and-run. In Sound of My Voice, she plays a cult leader who seduces journalists with claims that she’s from the future. I am sure that everyone reading this who has watched Brit and Zal’s most recent collaboration, the Netflix Original Series The OA, will certainly recognise that same pattern in her character roles as Prairie/Nina/The OA (and now even Brit herself, or a version of her, in the most beautifully meta ending of Season 2).
It was this moment above, Episode 1 of Season 1, that first took my breath away. If it is possible to fall in love with a TV show, this was the moment it happened to me. I had been watching and enjoying the story of Prairie, a young blind woman who had gone missing several years earlier and turned up again after jumping off a bridge, her sight restored. I was captivated by the mystery and the unique way in which the story was unfolding. Then Bam! The credits began, almost at the end of the first episode, and I actually gasped. It was beautiful; the music transported me to Russia and deep into the world of the original angel. Cutting the opening credits in at that point told me that this was going to be something special. The audacity of it! Brave, fierce, and majestic. Yes, I really did feel that way about a title sequence, as silly as that may sound. I had to find out immediately who was behind this. That’s when I learned that the leading lady was also the writer and producer of the show. “Wow. This woman is incredible,” my mind said. And so my love for Brit Marling was born.
Twin Peaks has always been my first love, but The OA had stormed in without any fanfare and took over my heart and mind while I waited for Agent Cooper’s Return. Numerous comparisons could be made between The OA and Twin Peaks: alternate realities, never knowing what’s real and what is either a sign of mental illness or made up entirely, wondering if there was something truly supernatural happening. Was this all about god and the devil, good vs. evil, aliens perhaps? Why not all?
The OA is a show about science, faith, friendship, love, mystery, and humanity all rolled into one. It is a story that makes us think beyond our world and beyond our own selves. It reminds us that true friendship knows no age or gender—that sometimes your friends are found in the most unexpected places, and that those moments can also be the start of something bigger than you ever imagined. Brit and Zal wrote a story that shows the complexities of believing in something bigger than ourselves—that faith is a journey, as is love. That we are all flawed, but it’s ok because pretty much everyone is fighting for the good that is inside them and seeking to find other souls that can share in their pain, joy, frustration, and love. People who just ‘get you’ and accept you for who you are. Angels are far from perfect, but they really do care.
Watching The OA is an extraordinary experience because it is so hard to predict what will happen next. It’s exciting to see how it will unfold, and I enjoy feeling perplexed and like my brain has had a workout because I cannot figure it out. I become absorbed with the story and the characters—who are all so well written—and I feel a genuine fondness for all of them; they feel like friends. As a writer, it is fascinating to watch and learn from Brit’s storytelling skills, and I am awestruck by the attention to detail and the depth of the story, which is already planned out far enough to allow for six seasons of the show. Brit’s tenacity is contagious; it makes me want to do more and more—to push myself to learn and be whatever I want to be.
It feels like my life is following a vaguely similar path to Brit’s tale of success (but on a smaller scale). I left my reasonably well-paid career in Housing after finding my home here at 25YL. I work a mundane Receptionist job to pay the bills while I help build this place along with the Editor-In-Chief, who in a sense is to me what Zal Batmanglij is to Brit Marling. The two work together perfectly, bring different skills to the table, bounce creative ideas off each other, and then go out and make them a reality; it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not about making money for me; it is the creative reward. A feeling of satisfaction that just cannot be matched when tasks are accomplished and when projects are successful—watching the machine turning day after day, powered by pure love and passion and dreams.
I had not written a single thing before I joined the team here, well not since high school. But I wanted to give it a go, never in a million years thinking it would ever get to be what it is now—and the opening credits haven’t even started yet. This is the foreword to my story. I was inspired by the brilliant people around me and learned how to write from the heart. I gained confidence by making myself do tasks way out of my comfort zone, such as interviews, and I didn’t die! I taught myself everything I could about social media and marketing, and even helped the webmaster build this website—something I had never even dreamed of doing before—and I loved every second. I, like Brit, know full well the importance of teamwork; the great people around you make you great, and it is not possible to do anything totally alone. You have to be there for your peers as they are there for you, and making our way through this journey together is one of the greatest experiences of my life. Now I am at the top of my game and I achieved this with pure hard work and determination, and I am proud of that.
It is tougher for a woman in the working world, that’s for sure. You have to graft twice as hard and be twice as nice as your male counterparts to be taken anywhere near as seriously. Like Brit, I decided that I was not going to be subjected to the male-dominated rat race any longer; I was going to write my own story. I found my happy place here at 25YL, where everyone is treated equally and where half the workforce identify as female. Not only that, half the management team are women. We come from all over the world, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and with many different belief systems. We have a high representation of staff from the LGBTQ community, and our ages range from the late teens to the early 60s. And you know what’s funny? That is the first time I have even thought about it. It’s just not a consideration here. We are who we are—with all our flaws, bad habits, and all our brilliance and passion. The labels that society gives us just don’t matter and there is no feeling of hierarchy no matter what titles we have. It is incredible what you can create when you have a blank page to work with.
Brit Marling created a science-fiction masterpiece with her blank page. The OA threw her directly into the spotlight, out of the underground world of independent film and onto Netflix—the streaming service with the widest audience. She could have just grabbed the money and ran, but no, she made sure that what she did was important and impactful. The ‘Crestwood 5’ each have their own journeys to travel. They have to navigate through awkward relationships with parents who don’t understand them, through self-discovery of their sexuality, their mental health, their fears, and their loneliness. They needed to find faith in something and Prairie Johnson entered their lives just at the right time. Brit is clearly intrigued by fate and destiny and other versions of you that could have been. What if she hadn’t met Zal and Mike when she did? Would she ever have become an actress and screenwriter, or would she be investment banking right now?
The OA is about forking paths—the decisions we make in seconds that change the course of our very existence. We all wonder what might have been, for better or worse, with regret or gratitude if we’d said something different (or not said it at all), if we’d walked the other way or just stayed put. What led to Brit becoming the powerful woman she is today was her need to stop auditioning for roles as the ‘cute blonde’ or ‘nurse,’ not even worth a name. And when she finally did get her name in Hollywood as she deserved, she did something quite amazing: she told the truth about Harvey Weinstein.
She wasn’t the first to speak out, but she added her voice to the wall of evidence against him and helped kick-start the beginning of the end of the exploitation of women on the casting couch. Brit relayed her story in an article for The Atlantic called “Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent”—economics being a particularly interesting word here. Shedding light on her own experiences also allowed her to explain the lifelong effects of these brief moments I mentioned earlier—those decisions that could go either way in changing your destiny. But when you are faced with a sexual predator who holds the keys to your future success, and neither door leads to a good place, just what do you do?
For if you were to allow (and I mean that extremely loosely, because it’s not allowing, it is certainly not consenting, and it definitely is assault or rape) the powerful white man with your budding career in his hands to also lay them on your body, you might get the role you desire, or you might not. Either way, you will hate yourself for ‘letting’ it happen and it will stick with you forever. Because even despite you knowing you have a true talent, and that you could and should be able to make it in Hollywood without having to go there, you have and now you’re spoiled and thought of as someone who ‘slept their way to the top.’
Alternatively, you say no and walk out, as Brit did. Even then she still felt shame that she had gone to his room despite her gut telling her not to, shame that he touched her shoulders and asked her to shower with him. Brit knows full well that it was because she had also become a screenwriter that she was one of the few women with a third option that meant she didn’t have to rely on Weinstein or others like him to make a go of it in La La Land. Most aspiring actresses do not have such luxury. Most women that say no are blacklisted and their dreams snuffed out despite their talent. It is not just broken dreams either; it’s your livelihood.
Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families. He could also give them fame, which is one of the few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world. They knew it. He knew it. Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.
– Excerpt from “Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent,” written by Brit Marling
That is so deeply unfair that I feel rage bubbling in my stomach at the thought of what these women endured. All those years of drama or art school, of hard work and aspiration taken away in an instant by one privileged white male. And of course it’s not just Hollywood where this happens; it’s happening in every industry across the world. Doesn’t it make you want to destroy the system? It certainly made Brit feel that way. But she knows that for real change to happen, it has to start from the inside out.
Because if what we learn about women in the films and TV shows we watch and those we read about in books, is that we are destined for a life of powerlessness when it comes to men, then nothing will ever change because it will always be considered the norm. Brit Marling is actively trying to change that by making films with a gender balance and racial balance that better reflects the world we all actually live in. Only when this is the norm will we start treating people as equals. When Film and TV studios don’t use the exploitation of female bodies or violence against female bodies as their selling points, we will be on the right track. It is down to us not to watch those that do so that the executives change their way of thinking. Money is power, so hit them where it hurts.
Brit Marling is quietly getting on with taking over Hollywood as an actress, producer, and storyteller. She will continue to write leading roles for women in which they wield power without having to be the bitch or over the top, and whose stories are interesting without them having to be sex objects. She will make TV and film where the plot is most important, in which the actors are cast for their talents and not their appearance. She will continue to inspire people like me to work hard and try new things. We know little about her private life and she does very few interviews so when she speaks, we listen. With more women like her in the industry, there is hope that one day no one else will have to say #MeToo.