After years of hard graft, Brit Marling has struck gold with The OA, the most talked about TV show of the year so far. Charlotte Gunn catches up with the pioneering writer and actor to talk escapism, disenfranchisement and conquering "the wild west of TV"
Brit Marling – co-writer, executive producer and star of The OA – is currently experiencing what happens when you unleash a little magic into people’s lives. “People approach me with a kind of urgency to talk about The OA,” she says, on the phone from LA. “Largely, the sentiment has been so unusual and beautiful, whether it’s them saying they cried at the ending or it blew their minds or that they’re overwhelmed by it, there’s a lot of passion and emotion that I haven’t seen before.”
On-the-street adulation is new for the 34-year-old, mostly known for her roles in independent films prior to The OA. A Netflix original series, it introduces the viewer to the world of Prairie, a missing blind girl who reappears after seven years with her sight restored. It has elements of ’90s Nickelodeon favourite Are You Afraid Of The Dark, cult horror-fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth and – crucially – more than a hint of Stranger Things. And it’s the most addictive show since the Demogorgon was triumphantly struck down – the type that sees you delving into the depths of Reddit fan theories the moment it finishes.
A strong female lead is just one of the ways in which The OA invites comparisons with Stranger Things, the nostalgia-packed sci-fi smash that NME dubbed the TV highlight of 2016. That show’s creators, the Duffer brothers, along with Marling and writing partner Zal Batmanglij – brother of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam, who provides the theme tune – are among a new vanguard of young screenwriters pushing the boundaries of what television means in the age of streaming. “It’s funny, because The OA isn’t really a TV show,” says Marling. “It’s got basically nothing in common with TV other than it’s longer than two hours. Writing is truly unfettered now. It feels like we’re in the Wild West of storytelling again, and I have to credit the Duffer brothers in that too.”
Do the Stranger Things comparisons get a little tiring? “No, I think it’s an awesome example of the power of the collective unconscious,” she says. “We’re drawing from the same ether: young people making things around the same time from the same generation, feeling similar sentiments about the importance of friendship, or the idea of a young girl – an outsider – coming in with something to offer a group of boys. I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s a convergence in themes. I think it’s actually quite beautiful – it means we’re all hunting around the same thing. The more people that are in that mix, the better.”
For Marling, venturing behind the camera was a result of being frustrated with age-old Hollywood gender stereotyping. After coming to acting “super-late” (actually her mid-twenties) and working hard to secure a role – any role – to get some experience, she found herself on the LA audition circuit trying out for parts like “cute blonde” in a horror movie. It was then she took a moment to re-evaluate what it was that mattered to her. “I realised: gosh, even if I got any of these parts that I was desperate to get, they’re all roles that I would feel somewhat ashamed to have done. If I later had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her to see that representation of a woman – so what was I doing wanting to play one? At that point, I felt an imperative to write, and I don’t know that I would have felt that as a young man. If you’re part of a group that hasn’t had as loud a voice, there’s a sort of need to help eke out that voice.”
Speaking to young women was an important part of the writing process for Marling, who spent time visiting schools and talking to pupils about their view of the world. Connecting with that generation, growing up in an uncertain world, proved an eye-opening experience. “I think the most surprising thing was just the amount of pain I saw – it just felt like a crisis,” she says. “It didn’t feel like the classic coming-of-age troubles I had when I was at school, and I think a huge part of it is technology. If I got picked on, I could go home and I’d have friends and family outside of school, but these kids are on social media 24/7 and it’s such a literal accounting of popularity that the oppression is out of control. You feel the kids snapping under the weight of it. It felt to me that they were really overwhelmed and there was a great feeling of yearning for a way out.”
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Escapism and disenfranchisement are at the core of The OA’s story. A transgender teen, a lonely school teacher, a misunderstood troublemaker and a straight-A student with an alcoholic mother come together to find their voice and purpose in a world that’s cast them out. It builds up to one of the most controversial TV finales we’ve seen in some time – and one that has left fans desperate to know if there’ll be a second series. “If we wrapped everything up in a neat little bow, we wouldn’t get to keep telling the story and we’d very much like to keep telling the story,” Marling teases. “I hope we do [get another series], but I don’t know for sure yet.”
For now, Marling’s taking some time out, still considering the impact of creating a world visited by millions across the globe, particularly in today’s climate. The political reality of 2017 is something that’s weighing heavily on her mind given the fact that literally while we’re speaking, Donald Trump’s inauguration is happening in Washington DC. “I’ve noticed something happening recently,” she says. “Strangers are getting together in rooms more, sharing ideas and telling each other about ways they can get involved in their local community. That’s at the heart of this show. When you strip it all away, it’s really about people in trauma healing each other by talking, listening and making profound friendships they didn’t think were possible. The American Dream has unravelled, but by just showing up and getting together, that’s what will make a change. If we don’t, nothing is going to move forward.”