Explaining The OA—Netflix’s latest original series to combine mystery with sci-fi elements—to someone who hasn’t seen it is a little like pulling at a loose thread. You think you’re starting small (“So it’s about a young woman named Prairie who was missing for seven years, and then mysteriously returns”), but then it starts getting slightly more tangled (“She tells her story, which involves near-death experiences, to a group of teen boys and a lonely high school teacher”). Soon it’s all too knotty to grasp (“Let me show you this thing called the five movements!”), which is why it’s probably best to just experience the story as it’s meant to be: in eight strange, ethereal episodes that take you through the life of Prairie, also known as the OA.
Brit Marling, who wrote, produced, and starred in the series, learned this early on in the process. “The show is so maximalist and minimalist at once,” she said, during a recent visit to Glamour‘s New York office. “It’s about everything and then it also distills to the smallest thing, like a parent-teacher conference. So how do you do cosmos and a conference in the same?” It’s tricky, so Marling found the best way to explain The OA to Netflix executives was by acting out the “tentpole moments” in person, rather than writing it all down.
That ability to be both maximalist and minimalist at once seems to be something that’s always been in Marling’s life. The 33-year-old started out in the banking world with an internship at Goldman Sachs, before starting over in Los Angeles to try her luck at acting. “It became very easy to turn the other direction because it’s like you live your backup plan first,” she explains of the life change. Of course, things weren’t instantly that much better in L.A.: Marling describes the roles and auditions for struggling actresses as “brutal.” But those experiences made her realize if she wanted better roles, she needed to start creating her own content. Eventually, after a long road of “risk and treachery,” Marling wrote and starred in breakout indies Another Earth and Sound of My Voice in 2011, which got her noticed. And now? She’s the star of a hit show on a popular streaming service and finding that her “ambitious and probably impossible” project paid off.
Here, Marling tells us how she did it. Read on.
Glamour: To start, I read that you had a job offer from Goldman Sachs and then turned it down to pursue acting. Can you tell me about that life change?
Brit Marling: I studied economics in school. I kind of liked sitting in the library and wrestling with these proofs with kids who were in econ. Then it became junior year, and everyone was like, “Oh, now we interview and get these internships and then you get the job, and this is sort of how it goes.” I just followed that wave into the world of banking. And then, when I found myself doing the job, it wasn’t what I thought. The creativity in terms of the math had turned more into the creativity of taking money and making more money out of that money. I felt dispirited somehow by it, and at this point I happened to be staffed on something that was two different companies having their IPOs at once. I was at the office like eight days a week, 26 hours a day. I thought, this doesn’t feel right. I’m really giving away all the hours of my life to this thing that doesn’t stir me in a deep way.
Then it became very easy to turn the other direction because it’s like you live your backup plan first. You just have to find the thing you love to do and then go figure out how to do it. So I moved to L.A. with some people and wanted to act, which I was really embarrassed to admit at first. It was very hard to tell my parents or anyone else, because they’re like, “Wait, what? You studied economics. This doesn’t make any sense!”
Glamour: You left a stable job…
BM: “You have a stable job! You’re a rational, reasonable person. You get good grades; you color within the lines. You play it safe!” To suddenly and very dramatically shift and be like, “Oh no, I’m going to live dangerously. I’m going to put my whole life on the line” was a tricky change. I think the first thing I thought when I got out to L.A. was just: Oh, if I want to act, I have to find a different way to go about it because the parts for girls are as dispiriting as the banking jobs. You have to really be willing to invent, I guess, a different path for yourself.
Glamour: That brings me to my next question: What about the banking world do you think is similar or dissimilar to Hollywood?
BM: They have a lot in common, right? [Laughs.] I don’t know enough about the history of Hollywood, but I feel like probably in the seventies, when Jaws and these movies that were made for relatively little started making so much money, you can imagine that everybody on the East Coast in the banking world suddenly turned and looked at the West Coast and was like, “Wait. This can be a financial product too and it’s glamorous?” I think there’s an element of Hollywood that has become about the business and less about storytelling or what kind of stories need to be told—what kind of stories are we desperate for or will lead culture in a good direction. That camp exists too, and they’re kind of fighting it out for territory. Certainly, I think a company like Netflix that has come in and is really putting their weight behind new, original stories suddenly is like fresh blood into the system. [It] feels like an exciting time now for storytelling. I don’t know about 10 years ago—it was looking a little dicey. [Laughs.]
Glamour: What were your first roles and auditions like?
BM: Oh my God, brutal. I remember when I first got to L.A. I wasn’t even SAG, so you’re so illegitimate that no one wants to have anything to do with you. It’s like you’ve got the plague. You might infect them with your illegitimacy because you’ve never even been in a car commercial and you’re trying to audition for this stuff. I used to read, like, Backstage, and there would be auditions posted that you could go to if you weren’t in SAG. I’d get dressed up and go to some audition in the Valley, and there’d be like 100 girls, all with their hair curled and short skirts on and tank tops and heels…and then you went inside to audition and it was just a group of men behind the table. I think that’s when I was sort of like, It’s not going to work very well for me if I go about it this way.
The idea is that you’re supposed to pay your dues doing these kinds of parts in films that are sort of more financial products than anything or films in which the girl is a thankless, thoughtless, underwritten character. If you pay your dues there, eventually they’ll give you a part that has substance in it. The problem is if you play enough of those parts along the way, you’re no longer the person who had something fresh or vital to offer. I think it really does start to diminish some part of you to put yourself through things you don’t really want to be doing. So that’s when I was like, I better figure out a different route.
Glamour: So was that the turning point for you to start creating your own content?
BM: Yeah, it was. And I thought for a long time that actually wasn’t going to work. It’s funny because you look back at life and create a narrative that makes sense—but, of course, when you’re in it, it’s chaos and you’re scared. I kept driving to the library downtown and reading screenwriting books and scripts that were great. I read Silence of the Lambs like 200 times. You’re trying to figure out how to do that, and I wrote a lot of really bad things. Really bad scripts, you know? [Laughs.] [I’d] be so nervous to share them with a friend who was actually making films, and they’d read them and be like [makes face]. Those early rejections are really tough, especially when all of your friends who you went to school with now have legitimate jobs, are getting married, having children, buying real estate, being adults. And you’re still trying to figure out how to make a living doing the thing you think you love, but you’re not even sure yet because you haven’t even done it. It was a long road of risk and treachery.
Glamour: How can you tell when you have a vital product? When you have a script that finally might be something?
BM: I never know, really, by my own reaction. I can only tell when you give it to someone, especially someone you trust. You can tell by how they look at you after they’ve read it, if it lit something up inside them. Or you can tell by the film itself. I mean, Mike Cahill, who’s an amazing human being, artist, and director and I wrote this film Another Earth together, and neither one of us had script writing software at the time because we couldn’t afford it. It was just written in like Pages or Word and was like a 60-page novella. We gave that to some people, and you could tell in their reaction to it that there was something there. It lit some kind of question inside them, and then that felt worth trying to begin to make.
So we started making it with no money. I mean, we just started shooting scenes that only I was in on my own. Eventually, if you’re the train that’s leaving the station, people will race to catch up with you. I think that’s one of the things I’ve figured out. You can’t wait for permission to act, you just do; then people are like, “Oh, look at that person just doing over there. Maybe I’ll come join them.”
Glamour: What was the reaction you got to The OA?
BM: The scripts had this really unusual power. Even from the very first chapters [cocreator] Zal Batmanglij and I wrote together, you could tell people would read it and say, “I’ve never read something like this before. I’ve never felt something quite like this before.” And certainly, once we formed a very small writers’ room with three great playwrights, the five of us worked together fleshing out this story that Zal and I had spent a good two years conceiving of. By the time we got to the end of that and had eight hours of storytelling with these scripts, it was really interesting the response. Actors or agents or people we would give it to to bring crew or cast around really felt like they couldn’t put it down, so that gave us a lot of energy and confidence for trying to mount something that was so ambitious and probably impossible. It’s like a very narrow gate or passage way that I think we slipped through by just the virtue of the combination of the unearthly talents of [actors like] Phyllis Smith or Emory Cohen or Patrick Gibson or the production design or Lol Crawley, who shot it. An amazing group of people came around it.
Glamour: I think The OA is best experienced knowing very little about it before you go in, but how do you even explain it to people? There’s a lot there…
BM: It’s very hard. Normally when you’re making something long format, there’s a part where you turn in a document that explains where it’s all going to go. But the show is so maximalist and minimalist at once—it’s about everything and then it also distills to the smallest thing, like a parent teacher conference—so how do you do cosmos and parent teacher conference in the same? It’s tricky, so we found the best way to talk about it was orally. It was very hard to write down in the beginning, so at one point Cindy Holland, who’s at Netflix, came into the writers’ room, and Zal and I basically put on a four-hour play for her in which we acted out all the parts and took her through the eight-hour experience because it was just easier to tell it that way. It was easier to perform tentpole moments in real time than it was to try to write down on a piece of paper. The shifts in it are very hard to do in the word form because they’re about moving images, you know?
Glamour: Why TV or streaming for this story instead of telling it through film?
BM: I think we’re in this amazing wild west of storytelling because The OA isn’t TV. It doesn’t even really have anything to do with TV. It isn’t film. It’s like a novel in its DNA, maybe, but it certainly isn’t a novel. I think we’re in this exciting moment of Internet streaming storytelling, and it’s anybody’s guess what that is or what it means. It can take on any form. That’s what’s so exciting about the time we’re in; these filmmakers are coming in and letting the story tell itself as it wants to be told. I think Stranger Things did that beautifully. In The OA, the chapters are of different lengths, some of the main characters you don’t meet until four hours in. That doesn’t really have a precedence in television or film, necessarily. I think it’s interesting you bring up film because if there’s any comparison, it’s maybe in the way a film is a proof that starts complicated and gets simpler, so it wants to lead to this ending. I think The OA is like that. It’s about setting up this world and all these people in order to arrive at a moment.
Glamour: The reaction has been split on whether or not Prairie is a reliable narrator. Have you seen the response tipping more one way or the other?
BM: That’s such a good question. I feel like Zal would know the answer to that because he tends to be more plugged into the world than I am. I get pieces of thing. Somebody will tweet something at me or send me a post. It’s interesting because I think the story asks you in the end to have faith in spite of real evidence that could lead you to doubt. Then that’s up to you as to whether or not you carry on in your faith in the story and the narrator or if you don’t. At the time, doing it, I certainly believed it.
Photos by Katie Friedman