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Brit Marling on The OA, Netflix’s Surprise Show About Dying

As a surprise early Christmas gift, Netflix premiered an enigmatic new series called The OA on Friday. It’s pretty much your run-of-the-mill mystery/sci-fi/coming-of-age/metaphysical thought experiment: A young blind woman (Brit Marling) vanishes, returns seven years later with her vision restored, refers to herself as “the OA,” and gathers a group of locals to impart the secret to vanquishing death via the wonders of synchronized dance. There’s a narrative within a narrative that leaps around its own chronology, interludes in a starry alternate dimension, some of the strongest youth acting this side of Stranger Things, and a finale that’s equal parts beautiful and baffling.

The architects behind this winding labyrinth are longtime collaborators Marling and Zal Batmanglij. After meeting in college, Marling starred in Batmanglij’s thesis film at the American Film Institute in 2007, though their relationship couldn’t be farther from artist-muse; the pair have jointly written and produced two films, 2011’s Sound of My Voice and 2013’s The East. The OA marks their most audacious effort to date, capitalizing on the creative freedom Netflix gives artists for a project that, in Marling’s words, “stretches the limits of what long-form storytelling can be.” On Friday, she spoke with Vulture about conceiving a celestial plane, making the jump to TV, and wondering what happens after you die.

To put it mildly, The OA has a pretty complex premise. Was it difficult to sell the idea?
It was difficult in the sense that it always had a maximalism and minimalism to it. There’s an aspect of the story that’s pretty firmly anchored in the real world and the lives of a group of teenage boys and their teacher, and there’s an aspect of it that’s more massive and sweeping. From the very beginning, we started telling the story out loud to each other. Zal and I could always tell when the other person was entertained or was falling asleep, so we were refining the story as we were telling it back and forth. That was how we ended up pitching it: just go in and tell it from beginning to end, acting out some of the highlights. Everyone at Netflix seemed to understand it and be excited by its challenges, the things in it that were pushing against the norms of long-format storytelling.

The Netflix model lends itself to binge-watching, especially with something as mystery-driven as The OA. Do you recommend taking time to go through the series, or experiencing it all as a single, discrete work?
For everyone, it’s different. What’s exciting about Netflix is that it’s like a library in your house. New volumes are appearing all the time. You can read the first chapter, you can read the first four, you can read the whole thing in one sitting — it’s about how the story dovetails with your own life, and what you need or don’t need at this specific moment. There’s something beautiful about the fact that the person in the audience has so much control. You take it in according to your appetite for it.

When you give that control to the audience, does it free you up or restrict you, creatively?
For me, there’s something liberating in it because I feel like the show is a dialogue between the storyteller and the viewer. There’s something nice about being able to have as much of you want of the show, or to take your time with it. There have been shows that I slow myself down while watching because I don’t want to leave these characters and the world of this show. I do the same thing with novels — right now I’m reading Magda Szabó’s The Door. They’re so rich, that when you start to get close to the end, you draw it out for yourself. I love that way of interacting with story.

How would you describe the world of The OA?
For some people, the show feels pretty honest about what it means to be a young person right now. We spent a lot of time in the Midwest with high-school students. I love John Hughes movies, too, so if you spend enough time watching those you kind of relate them to your high-school experience. It’s a different world for young people now, though, what public schools have become. But then at the end of episode one, the show takes off with this expansive leap that takes you into a different landscape with a dramatic contrast against the colors and tones of Crestwood.

The scenes in the celestial dimension are remarkably striking. What was the design process like?
Alex DiGerlando
did the production design, and he’s such a talented artist. He put so much thought into everything included in the frame. One of the fun things about the writing process was doing everything upfront in a small writers room where we could check in with Alex every step of the way. He’d read the script and say, “Okay, here are different ways we could conceive of this space.” He wanted to do something unlike what we’d seen before, an interesting slant on near-death experiences, which you tend to see visualized and spoken of in a certain way. In the earliest stages, he had the idea for what you called a “celestial” space, but one that was geometric or surrealist in its construction rather than literal.

Prior to The OA, had you given thought to what happens after we die?
Death is on all of our minds all the time, really. Whether it’s a conscious or unconscious thing, that’s the way everybody’s story ends. Near-death experiences are interesting because they draw something that often exists in our unconscious mind and brings it to the surface. If you talk to an NDE survivor, they tend to operate in the world on a slightly different frequency, like they have an awareness that’s just different. It’s inarticulable; you can’t put your finger on it.

And you found that was easier to express through images?
Exactly. That’s what it is: You get a feeling about something and you don’t know how to write it down in a paragraph, but with an eight-hour series, you can take the time to show everything and delve into the feelings behind it. The work, in and of itself, has all those things I can’t say in it. I guess that’s why people try to make films, because there’s something they can’t articulate with words. You want to get at a feeling, but then, you never know if you have until your audience tells you.

You worked with a lot of young actors, some of them complete unknowns. How extensive was your casting search?
Ian Thompson, who played Buck — we’d always written the character as a 14-year-old transgender F-to-M Asian-American, and when we gave our casting director Avy Kaufman that description, she said, “We might not be able to find this person, so what are you flexible on?” We told her we weren’t flexible, so she finally took to the internet and posted some casting notices on various trans chat rooms and groups, and audition tapes came flooding in. Ian was among them, he had shot his with his iPhone in his bathroom and uploaded it all without his parents knowing. Out of nowhere, his parents get a phone call that Netflix wants to cast their son! They’re like, “What?” His tape was brilliant. He told us, “I’m having a really hard time in school, because I wanted to act but it’s not like the plays that are done in high school have roles that describe a person like me. You can’t imagine what it was like to go online and see a posting for a Netflix show that describes me.” We got really lucky.

Let’s talk about your performance as Prairie. Was there an emotional or psychological toll to shooting those intense captivity scenes?
That was really tough, for sure. That was definitely a difficult place to go to. I think all the actors in that setting — Emory Cohen, Sharon Van Etten, Will Brill — bonded pretty closely by the first week. We were in such a confined space, spending so much time with one another, we all started to really feel the sense of being stuck and that brought us together. We were grateful when the story broke out of that space. It was challenging.

We shot the scenes in that setting first, the underground lab, and then we shot scenes in his house, then back to Crestwood where Prairie tells the story. From an acting perspective, that was helpful. I had lived these moments as the character by the time that Prairie has returned to Crestwood. I had felt that thing, and then it was our job to try to figure out what it is about this girl’s experience that connects to these boys that feel trapped in their own lives. How does the metaphor of her story help them understand their own experiences, or give them solace?

Was The OA intended to be a reflection on trauma and the process of recovery?
Definitely. It’s a hard thing to talk about, trauma. Some people touch places of darkness or suffering and then come back to the world as we all know it, and it feels like a dimension jump. Nobody can understand where you’ve been. I think about that a lot. Soldiers coming home from war, they used to ship back together and have some time for camaraderie or decompressing. Now, they’re leaving a war zone, and the next day, the day after, they’re at a PTA conference. How are these two spaces even present in the same reality? How do we make sense of the fact that some people touch them both and others don’t? And for people who survive it, how can storytelling be a medium for exorcising that pain?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Brit Marling on Netflix’s Surprise Show The OA