Brit Marling is amused, if a little perplexed, at being dubbed Hollywood's "It Girl."
"Has there ever been an 'It Guy'?," the cerebral and ethereal actor/screenwriter asked rhetorically in a recent phone interview.
Marling, 27, emerged from obscurity at this year's Sundance Film Festival, when she starred in two microbudgeted movies that she also co-wrote: "Another Earth," a gentle drama that takes place as scientists have discovered a planet identical to ours; and "Sound of My Voice," in which she plays a mysterious cult leader who claims to be from the future.
Both movies were picked up at Sundance by Fox Searchlight. Since Sundance, she's made a movie with Richard Gere, has turned down an offer from Steven Soderbergh and is contemplating roles that would have her working with Robert Redford or Tom Cruise.
And journalists, at Sundance and during this summer's rollout of "Another Earth" (it opens Friday, Aug. 12, in Salt Lake City) stress Marling's striking beauty and intelligence sometimes acting shocked, or a bit cynical, that both come in the same package. ("How to Succeed in Hollywood Despite Being Really Beautiful" was the headline of a New York Times profile.)
"That whole version of things makes me feel so awkward," Marling said of the media's attention to her beauty. "I don't see myself that way. I still feel as awkward and gangly as I was when I was 15."
Some of that groundedness was inherited from her family, according to Mike Cahill, who directed "Another Earth" and co-wrote it with Marling. "She said, 'My family has never put any value on looks.' It's not in her value system."
Marling said the whole "It Girl" meme, which has been applied to her since Sundance, "is bizarre and points to something inherently flash-in-the-pan about it. When women enter the scene, they're a commodity, and when men enter the scene, they're actors."
That kind of thoughtfulness and insight helps set apart Marling from some of her Hollywood peers. So does the fact that she has, so far, held the reins over her career path.
Her screenwriting is a reaction, in part, to the lack of good roles available to female actors. "In the movies, we don't see the beautiful and charming women we see around us all the time," Marling said. "We don't have very many representations of women to draw from culturally. I didn't realize, until I started working as an actor, what you're being asked to do how often a female lacks a voice, lacks agency, is never driving the action."
She sees positive signs, though, in the success of writer-performers such as Kristen Wiig ("Bridesmaids"), Tina Fey ("30 Rock") and Lena Dunham ("Tiny Furniture").
Marling co-wrote "Another Earth" and "Sound of My Voice" with the men who directed them Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. The trio met as students at Georgetown University, and "the three of us are thick as thieves," Cahill said.
In "Another Earth," Marling plays Rhoda, a promising science student who on the night scientists announce the discovery of a planet identical to Earth drives home drunk and hits another car. The accident kills a woman and her child and puts the husband, John (William Mapother), in a coma. After four years in prison, she finds John and seeks a way to atone for her misdeed. Meanwhile, Rhoda explores the opportunity to visit the other Earth, and perhaps see how different her life would have been.
"When we were making it, ultimately Brit and I were trying to move each other with the work," Cahill said. "We were making it for ourselves and maybe show to our closest friends." When the call came from Sundance, "it exceeded all of our expectations."
The festival screenings, at Sundance and after, have been cathartic for audiences. "I thought we had made a movie where people would be breathless at the end," Marling said. "We didn't realize people would bring so much to it, and we leave so much room for them."
Cahill credits the movie's emotional impact to Marling's performance. "There are 20 minutes of the film that just plays on her face. No dialogue. It's so hard to do that," the director said.
"Another Earth" received a standing ovation at its first Sundance screening and positive reviews since. Yet some critics have been negative, and powerfully so.
"The reviews are not just bad, they're really bad," Cahill said. "There's love and there's hate and there's no feeling at all. The worst feeling of all is apathy apathy is invisibility. The bad reviews have not been apathetic."
Since Sundance, the chances for more work have piled up for Marling. She recently wrapped the financial thriller "Arbitrage," playing a woman working for her father (Richard Gere), a hedge-fund manager.
Working on her first big-budget movie was a culture shock. "On 'Another Earth,' I was pulling my own costumes from the Goodwill," she said. "On 'Arbitrage,' there were these beautiful costumes."
She's working on another script with Batmanglij, "The East," a thriller about an FBI agent who infiltrates an eco-terrorist group. She turned down Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," which will star Channing Tatum as a male stripper. She's also being sought after for "The Company You Keep," which Redford is directing and starring in with Shia LaBeouf, and "One Shot," a thriller in which Cruise would play novelist Lee Child's Jack Reacher character.
Meanwhile, Cahill has completed two scripts whose quick synopses carry the same "what if?" bent as "Another Earth." One imagines a society in which reincarnation is scientifically verified; the other, Cahill said, involves "a fashion designer at the bottom of the sea."
But for Marling, Cahill and Batmanglij, the ride that began for the trio at Sundance isn't over yet.
"We're going through a lot of similar things simultaneously," Cahill said. "We can share our experiences. We got each other's backs. We've always been sort of a family."
'Another Earth' opens
"Another Earth" opens Friday, Aug. 12, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.