The notion of being an idealist that serves the well-being of society, whether through leading a political radical group during the height of war or pushing to become the best journalist who accurately uncovers and relays the entire objective truth of a story, is a major motivating factor in the new thriller, ‘The Company You Keep.’ The film, which stars and was directed by Robert Redford, chronicles a fundamentally humanizing story about how supporting the ideals of a radical movement initially seems like the right thing to do, but in essence only causes grief for everyone involved. Supporting actress Brit Marling agreed the filmmaker’s decision to tell a political plot that’s engrossed in a human story, so audiences would be more willing to support the political ideas and the emotions they evoke.
‘The Company You Keep’ follows Jim Grant (Redford), a public interest lawyer and single father raising his teenage daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho), in the suburbs of Albany, New York. His world is turned upside down, however, when a young reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), exposes his true identity as a former 1970s antiwar radical fugitive wanted for murder. After living more than 30 years underground, Jim must go on the run across the country and rely on his former associates in the Weather Underground, including Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), Donal (Nick Nolte) and Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), to help exonerate him. But the FBI, including Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) and Diana (Anna Kendrick), is close behind Jim, ready to make the long-awaited, high-profile arrest.
Despite the warnings of his editor, Ray Fuller (Stanley Tucci), and the threats from the FBI, Ben is determined to track Jim down as well, knowing the significance of the national news story he has exposed. He knows the story can make his career, and is the opportunity of a lifetime. Determined to make a name for himself, Ben also travels across the country, also tracking down those involved in the case, including Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), the police chief leading the investigation into the murder after it occurred. While interviewing Henry, Ben forms an attraction to the former chief’s daughter, Rebecca (Marling), whose background in psychology makes him question his motivations in pursuing the case. As Ben uncovers the shocking secrets Jim has kept hidden for over three decades, they both are forced to come to terms with who they really are.
Marling generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at a New York City hotel to talk about filming the thriller. Among other things, the actress discussed how Rebecca’s straightforward and direct nature helped convinced her to take on the role; how younger generations can learn about the different ideas and mistakes from the radical groups from the Vietnam War era; and the admiration she had for her co-stars, particularly LaBeouf and Gleeson, and Redford as an actor and director, while filming ‘The Company You Keep.’
ShockYa (SY): You play Rebecca Osborne, the daughter of retired officer Henry Osborne, who was in charge of the investigation into the Weather Underground in the 1970s. What was it about the character of Rebecca, and the story overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Brit Marling (BM): I was really moved by the script. I had just watched a documentary on the Weather Underground, and I was really moved by how radical those kids were in their time, toward what they thought their country was doing that didn’t make sense. I wondered why that same radical accountability doesn’t exist now, in the same way. So I was fascinated by the politics of it.
I was really drawn to Rebecca because she’s very direct and forthright and honest. In this story, she doesn’t know much of what’s going on. She’s sort of being manipulated by Shia’s character. But in the end, I think she sort of gets the upperhand. She leaves him with something to think about. I think she has an effect on him.
**SPOILER ALERT** It’s interesting where the story leaves off, because you really don’t know what kinds of choices Shia’s character is going to make. Is he going to use some of his gusto and deep intelligence and quick mind to tell stories that matter? Or is he going to go in a careerist direction? The film’s asking a lot of interesting questions. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: There are several serious themes in the film, such as people passionately protesting war and people’s guilt over their part in the deaths of innocent people. Do you think that audiences of all generations can relate to the diverse themes presented in the film?
BM: Yeah, I think that they do. I think that’s why this is such an exciting movie. I think the generation of people in their 20s is looking to find its voice and place. Occupy Wall Street was attempting to give voice to that desire for change, and for things to be different, and recognize things in the system that are completely broken.
So I think a film like this is incredibly pressing, particularly for a younger audience to go in and watch this movement from the past. It’s also important to realize how these people, who are in their 60s now, are looking back on what they did when they were 30. They have different ideas about what they should have done.
Some of that wisdom comes with age, and that can certainly be applied to what we’re thinking now. How do we change the world, but do it in a way that the movement doesn’t cannibalize itself? That’s a good and important question for right now. I think the movie’s really going to connect with people who are wondering about that.
Q: How did you become involved in the film? Did you have to audition for the role of Rebecca, or did Robert approach you?
BM: It’s because of Robert that I have the potential to make a living as an actor. Two films that I was involved in, that I co-wrote and produced, called ‘Another Earth’ and ‘Sound of My Voice,’ played at Sundance two or three years ago. He saw both of those films and he sent the script to me, and said “I’d love for you to play Rebecca.” I read it, and of course I was so excited to work with him.
The way he is as an artist in the world is truly admirable. There aren’t many people who are actors and also making profound change in other landscapes. What he did by creating the Sundance Institute was create a safe haven for actors and filmmakers and composers and editors and writers, which allowed to come and make work and a sense of community and support for each other. Then he created an outlet for that work with the festival, and also with Sundance Cinemas.
I don’t know where independent cinema would be if Robert hadn’t stepped in and created this space for it. I wouldn’t have a career, and a lot of other young artists wouldn’t be able to work, either. I feel tremendously indebted to him.
SY: Speaking of independent films, ‘The Company You Keep’ doesn’t have too many CGI effects, and has a smaller budget. As an actress, do you prefer working on a lower budget?
BM: I don’t have anything that I prefer; I just like good storytelling. Good storytelling can have CGI and have a $200 million budget. Or it can be in a single room with an iPhone camera. It just depends what the story is.
I’m open and down for any adventure, as long as I believe in what it’s saying. It’s when I don’t believe in what it’s saying or how it portrays women that I have a harder time with it.
But whether you’re in a trailer or not in a trailer, or have weeks of rehearsal or no time, or it happens over many weeks of shooting, or you only have a few days, that doesn’t tend to be as important to me. It’s more important to find a sense of meaning or purpose in order for me to wake up everyday to tell it.
Q: Like you mentioned, besides being an actress, you have also worked as a director, writer and producer on several films during your career, including ‘Another Earth.’ Does your experience behind the camera as a filmmaker influence your acting techniques when you sign on to just appear in a film, like with ‘The Company You Keep?’
BM: That’s a good question. I have done a lot of writing and producing, but I haven’t directed, outside of a documentary (‘Boxers and Ballerinas’) I did when I was a teenager.
But I really admire Robert and what he did. It was so interesting to watch him both act and direct. He’s in almost every frame of the film, and he was also directing. It was a tremendous amount of work, and it was nice to watch that. But I’m not sure that I could do that.
For me, in the writing, you end up doing a lot of preparation for the acting. So those two things compliment each other. But on set, it’s really hard if you’re an actor, and you’re thinking micro about all the small movements of this person that you are in this moment.
Then it’s hard to get macro again, and think, okay, we’re on the clock. We’re running out of time. If we have to cut something, we have to cut this. There are two sides of your brain working out those problems. So I admire Robert that he can manage to do both at once. For me, I’m just happy to loose myself in the acting. (laughs)
SY: Would you be interested in directing in the future, or would you prefer to stick to acting?
BM: You know, I can see myself doing that sometime in the future. I think it would be a great thing to see more women writing and directing, so we get more of the female point of view. I think that’s important. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen anytime soon. Watch me say that, and it turns out to be wrong. (laughs)
SY: Were you a fan of Robert’s work, both as a director and actor, before you signed on for ‘The Company You Keep?’
BM: Absolutely, I love ‘Ordinary People.’ I think Robert’s so sensitive to the subtly and complexity of human relationships. You feel that in ‘Ordinary People’ and his work as an actor.
He gave me some really profound advice on set once that really stuck with me. We were going over a scene together, and he said “You can say this line the way it’s written. Or, you can cut out this word and sentence, and say this simple version of it. You can try both and do what you want, but I think the simpler one says more.”
He was right. With film, it’s a medium that’s about 80 percent visual and 20 percent auditory. Whereas with plays, they’re sort of the reverse, where they’re 20 percent visual and 80 percent auditory. With film, he taught me an incredible lesson about restraint and saying less puts all the feeling beneath fewer words, and it ends up being more.
SY: Did you work with Robert before you began shooting the movie to develop your character of Rebecca? Did you do any particular research about the antiwar movements from the 1970s, or rehearsals with your co-stars, before you arrived on the set?
BM: Yeah, Shia and I had some rehearsals together, and Robert and I had met before that. We talked about the script and Rebecca a couple of times. Robert has a really beautiful way of working. He said, tell me what you think, and we talked. Then he said, “here are some of the things I’m thinking.” Its’ very beautiful, because he implants ideas in you, but never in a forceful way. It’s a real collaboration.
It was the same thing with rehearsals. During rehearsals with Shia, Robert was really open to suggesting, what if you approached the discussion like this? It was all incredibly collaborative. Of course Shia’s an incredible actor and deeply intelligent and very charismatic. So it was interesting to wrestle those scenes together.
SY: Speaking of Shia, his character, Ben, develops an attraction towards Rebecca when he travels to Michigan to interview her father. How did you develop your working relationship with Shia on the film?
BM: Well, we had that day of rehearsal together. Then we were just dropped onto the set. I think this is the kind of movie where you wish you had more time and keep working forever. Everyone you’re working with is a serious actor who takes their work seriously and comes to set prepared and wants to give their best. So it was really fun to do those scenes.
Shia has an amazing sense of humor. So we would do that long walking take on the University of Michigan campus, and we’d cut. On the way back, he would have me laughing so hard, I could barely keep walking. (laughs) Then we’d roll again and do the scene, and then we’d laugh all the way back. So he was incredible to work with, I hope we have the chance to do it again.
SY: Another one of your co-stars is Brendan Gleeson, plays Rebecca’s father. What was your working relationship with him like on the set?
BM: Oh, he’s wonderful and has an incredible energy. He’s really thoughtful and takes a lot in. Sometimes it’s a strange thing among actors, when you find a certain affinity right away. It’s interesting when you have to play close to somebody, like a father-daughter relationship. In the story, my character’s life has been spent with this whole person, but you just met that day before you shot the scene. So how are you going to convey the depths of the experiences you’ve had together, even though you just met?
Sometimes with a rare person, you just meet and you just feel reservoirs of emotions that just exist there. You’re an energetic match, and I really felt that with Brendan. I felt the father-daughter relationship right away, and it was nice.
SY: ‘The Company You Keep’ was shot in Vancouver, which stood in for the various locations of the film, including Albany, New York City, Michigan and California. What was the process of shooting in Canada like for you?
BM: It was okay because it’s so beautiful in Vancouver. (laughs) It’s gorgeous. Just the drive to set was awe-inspiring, as there were mountain ranges and water. It’s a really naturally beautiful setting.
Of course, the spaces were so real; the campus we were on could have just as easily been the University of Michigan. So you just play make believe and pretend you’re actually there.
SY: The Company You Keep is based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon. Had you read the book before you signed on, and began shooting, the film?
BM: No, I hadn’t read the book first. But of course I read it after I read the script. For me it was interesting because there were a lot to learn about Rebecca from the book, and I had to bring that to the story. But there were some things that were a little bit different in the adaptation. But it was helpful. The more material you have to draw from, the better.
SY: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether acting, writing or directing, that you can discuss?
BM: Yeah, this film called ‘The East’ that comes out May 31. My friend Zal (Batmanglij) and I wrote it together, and he directed it and I starred in. It’s actually about very similar themes in the present day, and it’s about a radical movement trying to rebel. This girl who’s a corporate spy tries to infiltrate this radical group, so it’s a political espionage thriller. It’s a very fun movie. But after that, who knows? (laughs)
SY: Did ‘The Company You Keep’ influence your decision to make ‘The East?’
BM: We were writing that and shot these back-to-back. I finished the movie with Robert, and literally the next day I got on a plane and landed in Louisiana and started shooting ‘The East.’ They’re interesting companion pieces.
This is about the Weather Underground, which is a movement of the past. ‘The East’ is about an Eco-terrorist movement of the present. It’s an all young cast, with Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell. There’s young people wrestling with the ideas of rebellion and change, and they’re doing that now. So they’re interesting book ends.
Written by: Karen Benardello