Ticks and Twitters: Brit Marling on ‘Sound of My Voice’

The star and co-writer of this weekend's indie thriller talks about the film's unusual storytelling style.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Brit Marling’s our type of girl: pretty, charming, smart, writes and stars in two films that get into Sundance. The second of her Sundance 2011 films, Sound of My Voice, opens in theaters this week, nearly a year after Fox Searchlight released her first, Another Earth. Marling co-wrote Sound with her Georgetown U buddy Zal Batmanglij, and stars as Maggie, a cult leader who claims to be from the future. Investigator Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) infiltrate her cult but Maggie proves formidable as she gets in their face, especially Peter’s. When we caught up with Marling at the Los Angeles press junket, she was so sweet to remember our encounters at Sundance, SXSW and last summer’s press junket for her other GU friend Mike Cahill’s Another Earth.


Brit Marling: How’ve you been?


CraveOnline: I’m great. Well, how have you been since your films are opening and you’re making more?

I’ve been all right. We’ve been working on The East, now starting to talk about this movie which is so fun and it’s been a while.


We were hoping to visit the set of The East but it didn’t work out.

Oh, that would’ve been so cool.


Yeah, indie films are tough, as I’m sure you know.

They’re crazyville. Every day on that movie was crazy. It was like trying to make 10 movies every single day.


We’ll get to that, but with Sound of My Voice, is it really the essence of acting to get in another actor’s face like in the apple scene?

That’s an interesting question. I think acting is about having a bit of a childlike mentality or an openness to playing pretend and making believe. Combining that with the hard work of doing your homework and being prepared and knowing the story, having felt and thought through everything, and of course listening ultimately. There’s a lot of listening in that scene. Maggie is listening very acutely to all the ticks and twitters and eyelash flutters and breaths and pauses. It’s like she’s sensing emotional weather and she’s picking up on his cues and using that to sort of break him further down.


Did anything change from the script after discovering things on set?

That scene was really word for word what was written.


Where did you start with Maggie?

I think in creating her, Zal and I are always interested in writing strong, interesting women who have agency. And I think also complicated women and Maggie’s really complicated. She’s like a shape shifter. Every time you think you know something about her, she’ll throw something else at you. That was an awesome challenge from an acting perspective because you see so many versions of her. And also because you don’t want that to become a cheap parlor trick. You want it to feel real. You want her shifts of mood and the way she’s treating people to come from someplace and to get that heartbeat was a little tricky at first.


Did you and Zal write the script as 10 minute segments?

We always wrote it with chapters. We liked the idea that in the way that you read a novel, like you’re reading Dickens and you get to the end and he leaves it on a cliffhanger. You can choose whether or not you want to keep going or you can stop and dog ear the page and go to bed. I think this movie needed those pauses in it. Every chapter sort of leaves you with a question of do you want to go further. Do you want to descend deeper into this cult. I think the chapter markings make the viewer feel like they’re giving their consent to go forward.


Had it not gotten into Sundance was there a plan to release the film in online chapters?

When we made it, we made it as a feature film. We weren’t sure whether that feature film would be released in theaters, on the web, on TV. Obviously all those things are now starting to converge but I think what was important to us was just no matter what to tell a story that would keep people engaged. I think audiences have ADD now because we’re all returning 150 text messages and emails in a day so everybody’s brains are slightly fragmented. So how are you going to write a narrative that’s going to keep people drawn in? That’s was really what we were trying to do. I don't know if we pulled it off. That was the intent.


Have you had any interviews where someone kept taking text messages?

No, are you going to do that right now? You can if you want. If you have a text you urgently need to send.


No, not me. What was it like walking the streets of LA?

That was intense. We did that downtown. I really got naked and dirty and wrapped myself in a sheet and they dropped me off at one end of skid row, got in a van with tinted windows across the street and I just ingratiated myself in that world. In retrospect it might be a little dangerous but it’s also exhilarating. I think one of the things that attracted me to being an actor is you don’t have to choose a life. Every day can be high adventure. I love that idea.


Were you always going to play Maggie or could it have been Lorna?

I was always going to play Maggie. I think because Maggie really scared me and I always like to do the thing that scares me.


Have you been sitting on Maggie ideas, waiting for people to discover her and have more questions so you can unleash the rest of her story?

When the world came to Zal and I, we felt it in a really big way. It was big. But we decided ultimately that all of that was just informing this one section really which is Peter’s journey so we went deep into there. Could it continue? I mean, if everybody goes to the theater April 27th. [Laughs] I like to think of the film as ending where it ends because I think it’s more provocative and lets the viewer have a place in it.


So you don’t have a burning desire to do a sequel or a trilogy?

Depends on the audience’s burning desire for the first film.


What was it like to go back to Sundance this year with only one film?

It was great. It was great to go back with Arbitrage. I had so much fun making that movie. Richard and Susan, Nate Parker, everybody’s wonderful in it and because I was only in a sliver of it, it’s great to see the movie in all of its glory. You’ve had nothing to do with any of the editing. You have no idea where it is. You’ve not even seen all of the performances that have been given. To watch it is like opening a really great presence.


I did not even get to see it at Sundance so I’m waiting for it to come out. What kind of character did you get to play?

I play this girl Brooke Miller who is Richard Gere’s daughter in the film. He’s in the middle of crisis and he’s doing all these illegal things to keep his company afloat. There’s an accidental murder and all kinds of stuff that he’s trying to cover up and I begin to unravel it. I and his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, begin to unravel the things that he’s hiding. So it’s a thriller.


Was that a new mode for you to get into driving a plot like that?

I liked it. I had a great time on that movie. Brooke is interesting because she’s the daughter of one of the most successful hedge fund managers in New York and she’s working at his company as sort of his protégé. I liked the idea that you normally see that as a father/son story. Normally the son is being groomed to take over the father’s empire. I thought it was really fresh that Richard has a son in the movie but it’s actually his daughter he’s grooming to take over. I thought that was cool.


How did Zal land The East over Mike Cahill?

Oh, Zal and I wrote The East together. We wrote it over the course of two years I think. We would work on it for a while, do other things and then come back to it. So that story has been coming for a while. It was so exciting to realize it finally.


Do you have more ideas with Mike too?

Mike is working on a film right now that he wrote and that I will act in. Then after that who knows? I think there are all kinds of things that we all hope to write together and make together.


Can you say anything about Mike’s next film?

I don’t know anything about it yet.


What was the process of making The East under a studio like Fox Searchlight?

It was great. It was great because the people at Searchlight are amazing. They’re very good at story. They are great at pulling productions together. The notes are incredible. The people you’re getting to work with and talk with on a daily basis are incredible people who care passionately about movies and making them great and making movies that mean something. So every day of going to work with them was an awesome day.


What about turning your words over to actors like Ellen Page and Alex Skarsgard?

It was incredible. It’s incredible because writing is so of one dimension. It’s pretty flat. When both Ellen and Alex and Toby Kebbell and Shiloh Fernandez, these are incredible actors. They go into a level of research and homework and a depth of character exploration that when they come and bring all that to the table, they know those people inside and out and they’re teaching you things about the story. It was like the ultimate sandbox. We would just get in together everyday and play and revel in this imagination. It was fun.