Brit Marling plays a spy in her taut new thriller The East - a woman working for an elite private intelligence agency who goes deep undercover, infiltrating a group of radical freegans that has been targeting giant energy companies and Big Pharma.
But you could say that every one of Marling's roles - as Richard Gere's daughter in last year's Arbitrage, as Shia LeBeouf's romantic and investigative interest in The Company You Keep - is a form of deep cover. She assumes a new identity, immerses herself in another reality, and then, well, like the character of Sarah in The East, she has difficulty extricating herself, finding her real self again.
"I was having a conversation with a psychiatrist recently, who I was sitting next to on an airplane," Marling says. "He happened to have dealt with a lot of actors, and the psychology of actors is fascinating - especially if they start acting when they're very young, before their identity is fully formed. Because you have yourself, but then your job is to constantly collapse that identity and refashion the particles that are you into someone else, and then collapse it again.
"And people always give room to the actor's process in building that character, but they often - actors themselves, even - ignore the idea of having to come down off of that character, and what it means. If you spend six months preparing to be Abraham Lincoln, and really believing you are in this culture and time of slavery and oppression, to just let go of that - that just doesn't happen overnight. I'm sure it takes equally as long, if not longer, to let go of that person you've made space for inside your head."
Pretty much unknown outside of her circle of Georgetown University film and theater cohorts until just a few years ago, Marling became the darling of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival when the indies Another Earth and Sound of My Voice - both of which she not only starred in but also cowrote - premiered there. The films were quickly snapped up for distribution.
Marling, 30, cowrote The East with her director and friend Zal Batmanglij. The film, which costars Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, and Julia Ormond, opened Friday at the Ritz Five and Cinemark at Ritz Center/NJ.
Several summers ago, after Marling and Batmanglij had left Washington for Los Angeles, but before they had any luck with their careers, the two took a summer off, hoboing around the country, falling in with organic farmers, with freegans, with people living on the fringes.
"I was a struggling actress," she says, visiting Philadelphia not too long ago. "I was finding it really frustrating, the roles that were written for women - the things that I could manage to get myself cast in, anyway, which were appalling parts for girls. Always being asked to take your clothes off, or being killed in the first act, or having sex with someone - just terrible.
"I couldn't really figure out what to do, and Zal had just come out of film school, couldn't get a job, we were broke. . . . And we had both been reading a lot about the freegan movement, about anarchist collectives, and we were moved by the dialogue that was going on online, what people were saying."
So the pair decided to hit the road.
"We just had backpacks, and we learned to train hop," she recalls. "I was really interested in the idea of becoming self-sufficient - learning how to grow your own food and learning how to light a fire and live in the wilderness.
"And eventually, that became a part of learning about the freegan culture, which is sort of living off the grid of capitalism - and then eventually that fell into anarchists collectives. We basically traveled back and forth across the states and met up with all kinds of different people. . . . And one of the things that I took away the most from that summer was how much these collectives, in creating a sense of community, had given these people's lives meaning.
"You know, we live in this strange time where we've broken with nature, we've broken with the extended family, now we're even breaking away from the nuclear family - it's all about the individual and the individual's pursuits. And that's a lonely and terribly isolating existence, something for which Twitter is no remedy.
"But what was amazing about these groups is that they were building tribes again, and they were trusting each other, and they were living a communal life. And it was beautiful and inspiring."
So Marling and Batmanglij returned to Los Angeles, maxed out their credit cards, collaborated with friends, and came up with Another Earth and Sound of My Voice.
"I think we took a lot of those feelings and decided we were going to make films in that fashion - the Dumpster-diving of filmmaking. Just doing stuff for no money."
And then The East came later.
"We wanted to write an espionage thriller, and we still hadn't been able to shake what had happened to us over that summer," Marlin explains. "And we were so moved by that experience, we felt that there was something in it that we wanted to get out, or share.
"So that became the seed of this movie. But that summer wasn't lived with that intention."
And while the adventures of that summer - sleeping on rooftops, foraging for food - have become fodder for media interviews and studio production notes, Marling doesn't want to trivialize her experience at all.
"It's hard to talk about all that now and not have it sound like cocktail banter," she says. "There's no way to do it in a way that holds all of the emotion of the time, what it really felt like."
But just watch her infiltrate the gang of freegan radicals in The East, befriending them, and perhaps betraying them, and the feelings Marling must have had come shining through.