In Zal Batmanglij’s thriller “The East,” actress Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) plays Sarah Moss, a covert operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates an anarchist group known as The East that uses extreme means to hold corporations accountable for their shady practices. Actor Alexander Skarsgård (“What Maisie Knew”) plays Benji, the group’s charming leader who allows Sarah to join the collective and help them carry out their eye-for-an-eye tactics.
During interviews with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Marling and Skarsgård discussed why a film like “The East” will resonate with today’s audience and whether doing something illegal for the greater good is a justifiable act.
Brit, tell us about the adventure you and director Zal Batmanglij had living out a vagabond lifestyle.
Brit Marling: This was a couple of years ago. Zal and I were looking for adventure and trying to figure out how we wanted to live our lives. We were very interested in the freegan movement and what would later be known as Occupy Wall Street. Back then, it was all still a grey area. We spent some time traveling and met a lot of really cool people and were really moved by them and what they were doing. I learned how to pick locks and dumpster dive and train hop. A couple years later, we really couldn’t shake that experience, so we wrote [“The East”] and got to make a movie out of it.
Issues like the BP oil spill and Occupy Wall Street really aren’t the headlines in the news anymore, but were you hopeful a film like this would still resonate with an audience because some of the other topics you cover in the film are so timely?
BM: Yeah, I think oddly enough the film has become more prescient. The film is talking about how far someone would go in fighting for a cause. There is a lot to fight for right now. The environment is totally falling apart. There seems to be a rise in general mental un-wellness. Everybody’s on a pharmaceutical of some kind. All of the things Occupy Wall Street was protesting were still a problem. Nothing has been fixed, actually. People start consuming again and things move on. The East is like, “Fuck that shit! We’re going to hold people accountable.” I think it’s very pressing.
Alex, do you think dialogue is enough? I mean, Occupy movements happen and people talk and educate one another, but we go back to doing the same things after everything is said and done. Your character Benji doesn’t think it’s enough.
Alexander Skarsgard: Well, what makes Benji, my character, upset are that these big corporations have so much money and so much power and all these lobbyists. They basically control Washington. They’re never held accountable for what they do. He feels like it’s not fair and he wants to hold people accountable and wake them up and make them realize what they’re doing. What I found so intriguing about this script was that it’s such a complicated question. I didn’t know where I stood when I read it and I didn’t know where Brit and Zal stood. It was complicated. Benji has always held an eye-for-an-eye philosophy, but he questions himself when Sarah shows up because she’s tough and asks uncomfortable questions. I always hate movies where it feels the filmmakers are trying to shove his or her opinions down my throat. It’s always more interesting when the film makes you think and question things. How far are you willing to go? If you can save 10,000 people is it OK to kill someone? What is justifiable?
Some people might compare your character to the cult leader John Hawkes plays in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but I though his character ruled the roost through fear. I didn’t see that in your character.
Yeah, he says that very early on. He is very adamant that he doesn’t have any followers. Everyone had equal value. He is very much against the idea that Sarah is going to come on board. But [the group] votes and he accepts that. So, it’s a real democracy.
Brit, how prevalent do you think these types of organizations are out there?
I definitely think they are out there. I think they are growing in numbers. I think they are incredibly brave groups of people. I think a lot of us share the same feelings and sense of politics, but we don’t live them as radically. I mean, I understand the conflict of where gas comes from to put in my car to get to the grocery store. I know the real price of that gasoline isn’t the price I pay at the pump. A lot of people die for that. There are a lot of those thinly disguised things going on that we choose not to look at in order to live our lives in the way we do. I think a lot of people are wrestling with the question of what the end game of that will look like. Is it getting to a place where it’s all going to fall apart?