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Interview: Chicago native 'The East' star/co-writer Brit Marling

Brit Marling seems to have a thing for punishment. In “Another Earth,” she wrote about a woman seeking redemption following a vehicular manslaughter; in her film opening Friday, “The East,” an anarchist group seeks vengeance on corporations for harming the public.

“Do I feel like I should be punished? I never linked those two, but you’re right,” the Winnetka native actress/co-writer says at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “I think ‘Another Earth’ was a lot about grief and figuring out how to build another life for yourself out of the ashes of a former life. In [‘The East’], too, there’s that feeling. Benji [Alexander Skarsgard] literally sets his house on fire and builds a new life out of the ashes of a former life. So something’s going on here!”

The 29-year-old actress, seen recently alongside Shia LaBeouf in “The Company You Keep” and Richard Gere in “Arbitrage,” recognizes that she, too, changed paths to begin another life. Most people don’t graduate as valedictorian from Georgetown University (where she majored in economics and studio art) only to decide in their early 20s to be actors.

“It’s sort of ludicrous,” Marling says.

Needless to say, Marling’s not looking back. She was the darling of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival thanks to “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.” “The East,” Marling’s second collaboration as star/co-writer with “Voice” director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij, easily bests the pair’s previous film by confronting complicated subject matter with excitement and convincing moral gray areas.

Marling plays Sarah, who infiltrates the titular anarchist group (which includes Skarsgard and Ellen Page) that aims to give companies a taste of their own dangerous medicine. The terrifying examples in the film come from reality, Marling says, citing a recent PBS special that identified pharmaceutical drugs that are prescribed loosely and result in numerous, adverse side effects.

Sarah’s experiences living off the map come from real life as well. In 2009, Marling and Batmanglij spent the summer traveling around America, living with freegans, anarchist collectives and other similar groups and surviving on discarded food. Marling learned a lot, particularly about dumpster diving. One tip: Don’t wear sandals.

“The sandals slid off, my foot went into something really squishy and mushy and unidentified,” she recalls of a particularly unpleasant dumpster diving memory. “But you learn after a while to not care about that sort of stuff. You become less afraid of everything, and by the end of it Zal and I were rolling out our sleeping bags and sleeping in parks and sleeping outside of train stations and sleeping on rooftops. You don’t see spaces the same way that you did before. You feel a lot less afraid, which is one of the powerful things about these people.”

The scavenging wasn’t all bad—she remembers finding organic peanut butter and bread and making the “best peanut butter [and] banana sandwich I’ve ever had”—particularly because of how it played into the communal, open-minded nature of the outsiders with whom she spent time. Many people may imagine a stereotype about someone who eats food from a dumpster or lives in an alternative setting, but Marling says the type of person making those choices has changed.

“I think everyone is really grappling with the question right now of, ‘How do you live your life?’ When you recognize that a lot of the way that we can live in the first world is because of the oppression of so many other people, when you really think about that it becomes hard to not want to address it in some way.”

In “The East,” Sarah discovers people determining how to counteract that oppression, and whether ends justify the means. The situations are anything but clear-cut. “Are you poisoning [the pharmaceutical company] if it’s with a legal, pharmaceutical drug that is their drug?” Marling posits. “What is the charge there? And they were invited [to the party]! There’s not exactly a breaking and entering charge … It’s hard to say anymore exactly what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Something that would be wrong would be painting anarchists as reckless, hard-partying types. Marling calls the movement being “totally straight-edge.” That means no drinking, no drugs, and open discussions about sex, S&M and other topics.

Fundamentally, it’s about bringing a community back to a safe, helpful, DIY aesthetic. People ask for help and permission. It’s very direct. “’I’m attracted to you. I’d really like to talk to you more. Do you want to go on a walk with me?’” Marling says as an example. “And that person has to literally verbalize, “Yes.”

It’s a somewhat intimate, old-fashioned approach, which can generate unexpected responses. At a recent screening of “The East,” someone laughed when the characters play spin the bottle. Marling notes how no one flinches anymore at the extremely bloody violence of movies or video games.

“But when you watch a scene in which people are bathing each other,” she says, “or you watch a scene in which a bunch of people are together spinning a bottle and doing pretty harmless intimate acts--hugging each other, kissing--that makes people feel a bit overwhelmed.”

Plus:

Regarding the group’s planned action, Ellen’s character says, “This is my jam!” When’s the last time Marling said that about a song, and what is her jam right now? [Laughs.] Oh my gosh, I say that all the time! Who invented the jam? My current jam is Niki and the Dove. Have you listened to her song “DJ Ease My Mind, Will You?” Oh my gosh, I’m all about that jam. I’m also about going back to jams from the past. There’s a Tupac song that has become so my jam when I go running. The one where he talks about—he’s like giving it up to the ladies, and he’s talking about single mothers who have a hard time. What’s the name of that song? I was listening to the lyrics the other day. I was like, “This is like a feminist anthem, and Tupac wrote it.” I need to look it up. [Ed. Note: She later determines it’s “Keep Your Head Up.”]

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

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