If you grow up in Washington D.C., you’re bound to come to a realization that for most people, happens only in the movies: Eventually, you’ll discover that someone you know — a friend’s quiet mom, or that fit college buddy of your dad’s — is a spy. Perhaps that’s why director Zal Batmanglij, who hails from the U.S. capital, is so fascinated with the notion of double agents: In his first movie, last year’s nifty little thriller Sound of My Voice, he cast his cowriter Brit Marling as the leader of a cult whose two newest acolytes secretly intend to expose her as a sham, and in his upcoming film The East (which bows May 31), Marling flips the script as a corporate spy tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group called the East, which counts among its politically vengeful members Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page. “When Brit and I were doing research for the film, we were stunned to find out that a lot of the intelligence work that happens today is outsourced to private companies,” says Batmanglij. “That was fascinating to me.”
In this exclusive clip from the first act of the film, Marling’s boss Patricia Clarkson lays out the philosophy of her private intelligence firm, Hiller Brood, while we catch Marling preparing to go undercover, dying her mousy brown hair — well, as mousy as that color brown can appear on someone with Marling’s enviable bone structure — an alluring blond. That shampoo commercial-ready hair toss at the end of the sequence? “That’s the fun of having genre elements in your movie, that you get to have a classic moment like that,” chuckles Batmanglij.
But the most enticing element of this clip has got to be Clarkson’s silk-and-steel purr as she makes her case for corporate espionage. “Some friends and I were discussing this the other night: Can you fake intelligence onscreen?” says Batmanglij. “I believe that you can act a lot of emotions, but you can’t fake charisma, and you can’t fake intelligence. Luckily, Patty Clarkson has both.” Clarkson hadn’t actually met the young creative duo until the night before her first day on set, when she insisted they all go out for a drink. “So we went and picked her up at the hotel, and as soon as she got into the car, she said, ‘Wait! Nobody told me that you guys are twelve!’” He laughs. “And that was how we met.”