In the independent thriller “Sound of My Voice,” actress and screenwriter Brit Marling plays Maggie, the leader of an underground cult, who draws in new members by telling them she is a time traveler from the future. When two members, Peter and Lorna, join the group, Maggie calls upon them to help her solve her mysterious background.
During an interview with me, Marling, 29, talked about the theme of doubt she presents in the film and whether she ever thinks about what the future holds.
Where did you find inspiration to play someone as enigmatic and influential as Maggie? She really is a profound character.
It’s interesting because we wanted to write about a female cult leader, but we didn’t know what that would really look like. In a lot of our research on the Jonestown massacre and David Koresh, we found there are many more famous male cult leaders than there are women. It was fun to daydream on that and think about how a woman might hold a group together in a way that would be different. A lot of it came together when I realized how multifaceted Maggie is. There are moments where she is motherly and tender and in the next instant she is vicious. You can never really get a handle on her. Writing the character and then getting the opportunity to play her was a lot of fun and actually quite intimidating.
Like your film last year “Another Earth,” “Sound of My Voice” allows audiences to come to their own conclusions at the end of the film. As a writer, is that a conscious decision you make during the writing process?
Actually, I think this movie has a very closed ending. I think this is Peter’s story and he goes through a very traditional arch from being one way and then having a deeper revelation. I think this movie is about faith. With faith you have to decide to believe or not believe without proof. That’s sort of what faith is. We have to stay true to that.
Do you believe doubt is a natural human reaction when we’re presented with new or unusual ideas?
Yeah, I think [director] Zal [Batmanglij] and I were feeling a lot of doubt when we were making this. I think that worked its way into the script. We’re in L.A. and I want to act and Zal wants to direct, but we didn’t know where to start. It’s better to just start writing if you want to act and direct. I didn’t know if we were capable of doing it. We were filled with doubt and anxiety all the time. Also, this is a story about a cult and I think independent filming has sort of become a kind of cult. I was working with a group of people who are all devoted to this one story that is like this higher power and everyone surrenders to it. You’re together in a very intense way for a period of time. I think we really get a sense of purpose by connecting with one another. So much of modern-day life is so profoundly alienating. I think in a cult you can surrender the loneliness and be part of a collective group. All of those ideas worked their way into the story.
Do you think about the future and what’s in store for all of us or do you choose to live day by day?
I think about the future all the time. I think I may think about it a little too much, actually. I’m worried for us. I think that’s an undercurrent that is everywhere in our society. I think everybody is looking at how the world is structured right now and thinking, “Well, this is obviously unsustainable.” We can’t keep growing indefinitely on a planet with dwindling resources. How is this gap between extreme wealth and poverty going to keep going? It’s such a strange time to be alive. I think even though we all feel the world is sort of immaculately constructed, it also feels like a sweater where you can just pull on one thread and the whole thing unravels. We could find ourselves living in a reality where you can’t just get into your SUV and drive to the grocery store anymore and load it up. As Maggie says, “We may be growing gardens in our garages.” She seems to be preparing people for a very different future. But maybe the other side of it isn’t as bad as we think. When I think about the future, I always think about a soldier going across the battlefield in WWI and all of a sudden coming across an iPod. He would think it was a device from an alien race. He probably couldn’t even conceive of the idea of turning it on or that music would come out of it. So, I can’t even conceive of some of the things we will be capable of five years from now let alone three decades from now.
Since following your career over the last couple of years, it seems like you are breaking out in a really big way. I just saw you on the cover of Vanity Fair’s April issue alongside Academy Award-nominated actresses Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), and Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) with the words “Introducing the Fresh Young Stars of 2012.” In your next three movies, you’ll be working with the likes of Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Robert Redford, and Oscar nominees Tim Roth, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, just to name a few. That has to be surreal for you after only two indie films.
What is most exciting to me about all that is that there are an incredible number of really talented, unusual, young leading ladies. Five years ago the landscape seemed open. Then, suddenly, these young interesting women are popping up and they seem very different from how we generally think of actresses. They seem from a millennial generation. I’m not sure what that means yet exactly, but maybe they will all tell us from the roles they choose and the stories they will be a part of. I feel moved to be in that company of these women. I’ve been inspired by a lot of their work.
Starring: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (debut)
Written by: Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) and Zal Batmanglij (debut)
Aside from the fact that most head doctors regard a majority of them as having a few bats in their belfry, cult leaders — whether factual or fictional — usually share similar attributes with one another in their attempt to convince committed followers to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. From disturbing leaders of the past like Jim Jones and David Koresh to cinematic ones like John Hawkes’ intimidating alpha male in last year’s compelling film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the men (and, yes, most are men) in these positions of power have some pretty persuasive personalities that allow them to rule the roost.
It’s one of the reasons why when female cult leader Maggie (Brit Marling) is introduced in the independent thriller “Sound of My Voice,” there is automatic intrigue that comes along with the uncharacteristic role simply because it’s not something seen too often in film or the real religious underground. Maggie, however, is more than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Like any of the leading men who have come before her, the illogical explanations and information she offers to gain the trust of her congregation is believable because Maggie makes believers out of everyone. Part sci-fi phenom, part subtle intimidator, she is the strongest asset of an otherwise indecisive and transparent film.
Meeting Maggie for the first time in “Sound of My Voice” are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple in the San Fernando Valley whose sudden interest in investigative journalism leads them to a bizarre group of sanitized, hospital gown-wearing devotees and their ambiguous queen bee. Upon infiltrating the cult to secretly record its inner workings for a documentary, Peter and Lorna learn that Maggie, a self-proclaimed time traveler from 2054, has journeyed to the present day to prepare her selected sect for the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile in another part of L.A., an odd little girl spends her time playing alone in her room with black Legos. The separate stories don’t cross paths until much later in the narrative and the big reveal isn’t as clever as one would hope.
“Sound of My Voice” isn’t so much about a cult as it is about a cult leader and her followers’ willingness to accept what she is saying as the truth. None of the cult members beside Maggie are fascinating in the least bit and their mission is about as vague as a modern-day scientologist’s explanation of Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy. If these men and women were gathering in the basement of a house to play Parcheesi rather than sharing spiritual beliefs and putting their fearless leader on a pedestal, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
With a script written by Marling (her inspired sci-fi drama “Another Earth” released last year, which she also wrote and starred in, is infinitely better) and first-time director Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” will capture one’s imagination in smaller doses much like an episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” Dragged out into feature form, however, reveals just how little substance there is behind all the strange characters and existential discourse.