“I find it surprising when either of the genders writes a female character that feels honest and refreshingly true”
Brit Marling discusses her latest project, Channel 4’s Danny Boyle-directed Babylon, from the pens of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong.
How did you become involved in Babylon?
I read the script and was really moved by the character of Liz – she’s tough but not without vulnerability. Danny and I spoke on the phone and I loved how he saw the story developing, and the questions he wanted to ask about how technology and the transparency it creates is changing all of our lives. How does law enforcement change when a criminal is using Twitter or Instagram? What’s the future of the public’s involvement in law enforcement as a result? And how do you create a career girl that isn’t a typical ball-buster but is multi-faceted? All awesome things to explore. So I got on a plane and 24 hours later we were doing a table reading that was so funny people were choking on their beverages with laughter. Sam and Jesse are such great writers it’s borderline dangerous.
You play Liz Garvey – what’s her story?
She’s this American PR technology guru, and she’s made a name for herself with a TED talk. Her agenda, her platform, is all about transparency, and how the future of any kind of public relations needs to be transparent – you can’t lie, because the public will unearth the truth anyway. Jimmy Nesbitt’s character, the Commissioner of the force, had seen her TED talk and thought “This is the kind of radical thinking we need. I’m going to poach this girl and bring her over here and get her to really shake things up.” So that’s where the story begins. I think she’s a very interesting person, because she’s been successful very young, and she’s used to getting her way and things moving quickly. And I think she suddenly moves into this new job and it’s not quite what she expected, and there’s all sorts of political intrigue, and certain people who don’t want her there, and she realizes that changing things is going to be much more difficult than she thought. I think it’ll be really interesting to see this character adapt to being in a radically new environment and to get to the bottom of what makes someone so ambitious tick.
You mention liking the way she’s a nuanced and layered character – was it a surprise to you that two fortysomething British male comedy writers were able to create a female character like that?
The truth is, I find it surprising when either of the genders writes a female character that feels honest and refreshingly true, because I think it’s really hard to write women. I don’t think we know that much about them, because storytellers haven’t been writing from that perspective for that long. Even I, as a female writer, find it challenging to write a woman that isn’t derivative, or isn’t a woman defined or described by the male point of view. It was awesome that Sam and Jesse were able to create a character that was so complex – intensely ambitious, but so bright and talented you almost forgive her for it. Tough as nails and confident, but also shockingly naïve in moments. I don’t think they went out of their way to make her likeable or digestible. You often feel that female characters are written to be easily liked or loathed, and Liz Garvey isn’t that easy to pin down.
It’s unusual, as well, to find a spin doctor who is given a positive portrayal, rather than being a Machiavellian schemer.
Well, she certainly has that in her – she has very shrewd political instincts – but at the same time, you do get this sense that there’s probably something pure within her. It may be naïve, but she does seem to really believe in the thing that she’s selling. But is that just the mark of a great saleswoman, or is it honest? I don’t think I know the answer to that yet – it may be a bit of both. Liz believes in the brave new world of technology – you cannot lie, because everyone has access to the information and almost immediately. So the new PR game is that you’ve got to tell the truth better than anyone else.
How did you find the experience of working with Danny Boyle?
There are almost no words. And I’m not usually at a loss for words. Danny, you feel, has the kind of curious mind and unstoppable heart that are capable of anything – exploring a distant galaxy and building a new world from scratch there for instance. So it’s lucky for us he chose to be a storyteller in a time where we need them so desperately – to make sense of the world we are living in and how to navigate it. Actors on Danny’s sets come very prepared, and stillDanny will have the best insight as to where a character is actually coming from – the complex, layered truths that motivate human beings. I don’t know how he knows those truths. I just know that he does and that anyone who spends time with him comes away from it a richer person for it.
You nearly went down an alternative career path, having spent a summer as an intern at Goldman Sachs, who then offered you a job. Do you ever reflect on how different your life might have been?
All the time. I think that I left that world because I sensed that other people were really passionate about it. They woke up in the morning with a real thrill about the market opening, and what was happening in China, and how that would affect things in London. I didn’t have whatever that bug was for the movement and multiplication of money. It made me feel like I had to find the thing that I felt passionate about, and I think that I’ve finally figured it out with acting. I may be wrong, and maybe ten years from now I’ll end up doing something totally different. Maybe I’ll be running a hedge fund!
Now that you’ve worked on Babylon over here, does it feel different from working on a production in the US?
Yeah, there is a real difference, and I really love it. I think I’m turning into something of an addict, I just want to be in London all the time. I’ll just come over here to make anything people will hire me for. I find the culture of acting in London so exciting, because everyone is so well trained. There isn’t the same obsession with empty notoriety. You get the sense that everybody has been to drama school, everybody has put the time in, and they take the craft very seriously. I remember being on set and Paterson [Joseph] and Bertie [Carvel] were giving monologues from Shakespeare and asking me to guess which play it was from. And I thought it was pretty great that I could name which play it was more often than not, but they could name the act and the scene and where in the scene it was. I find that so inspiring, that level of devotion to the craft, and that richness of background, especially in theatre. It was so exciting for me, I’d never been in a room full of actors like that before. It was awesome to get to work with such a wildly talented group of people. To come to work every day and to really feel pushed by Jimmy, by Bertie, by Paterson and Ella. We had a really good time making this, so I’m looking forward to coming back.
Away from the set, is there anything you particularly like or dislike about being in this country?
I have to say that I’m really into the pub culture. We don’t have that here in America. There’s a real sense of community, I love the idea that there’s your neighbourhood pub, and everyone ends up there after work. Faces get familiar and people get to know each other, and it becomes the hub of the community. It feels so civilized and grown up and important, and such a good opportunity to get to know your neighbours or your colleagues. It seems so simple, but we don’t have that over here at all, certainly not in LA. So you’ll be able to find me, in a few months’ time, in a pub with a pint of cider, which is my new favourite drink.
Babylon is on Channel 4 on Sunday 9th February at 9pm