The Keeping Room is a rare Western in that its main cast is women. Set toward the end of the civil war, the film focuses on two sisters, one of them played by Brit Marling, and a slave, played by Muna Otaru. The sisters watch over the house as they wait for their father to return, which seems less likely as the days go by, and then two Union Soldiers interrupt their quiet existence.
The three women end up having to fight for their lives.
Director Daniel Barber, like he did with Harry Brown, throws characters into an unexpected, violent situation ‐ one they are not totally equipped to handle. That’s an idea that appealed to Marling, who we’ve so far mainly seen in serious dramas, some of which she’s co-written. We’ve yet to see her run from an explosion or star in a romantic comedy. Thus, The Keeping Room is par for her career course, but soon that might change.
You said before the film premiered at Toronto you were interested in the kind of discussion the film would start. What conversations have you heard?
Well, even the response at Toronto was interesting. Obviously I’ve read the script like 100 times, because you have to do the work, and then you see it come together on the set, but I was blown away by the experience in Toronto. The movie is shocking, but you don’t realize it until the end of it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why at first, but then I realized you never have really seen a group of young women fight to defend their lives, in a way that’s actually physically possible.
You’re used to seeing fighting with choreographed stunt work, stunt doubles and harness work ‐ stuff that’s physically impossible for a girl who’s, like, 120 pounds. Everything that happens in the movie is just doing it. The cuts and bruises on my arm were not makeup. It was real blood, sweat and tears in the movie. I think people just aren’t used to see that with women in a movie.
I didn’t know the director of Harry Brown made The Keeping Room until after seeing the film, and he also showed a different perspective there, when it came to violence.
You’re right. I hadn’t even thought of that comparison, but in Harry Brown, you’ve seen that kind of violence before, but not a man of that age doing it, and being successful at it. It’s also wholly realistic. I think what’s amazing about Daniel Barber is he gives violence a proper weight; it’s never gratuitous or sexy. He makes violence play for what it is, and he does that in The Keeping Room. A part of the thrill is it feels very, very real.
He really focuses on it, not doing quick and easy deaths. The death of the drug addict in Harry Brown is really unnerving.
Unnerving is the right word. It sort of makes you recalibrate all violence in your head. I felt the same way when I watched Harry Brown. The opening image just made me think, “Wow, this movie is really putting violence in its proper place,” peeling back the lip gloss, sexy veneer. The violence is actually what it is ‐ and I felt grateful for that, because I think we’ve really lost touch [Laughs].
[Laughs] When you’re acting in a project you didn’t co-write, do you feel less pressure?
Maybe the same [Laughs], maybe so much more! I find acting so terrifying. It’s maybe the scariest thing I can think to sign up for. You really don’t know if you’re going to be able to pull it off. Maybe it’s because I deliberately try to take on roles where I’m totally out of my depth. I mean, what business do I have playing a girl from 1865? She talks the way she does, shoots guns and rides horses [Laughs]. I guess it’s a feeling of always biting off more than you can chew, and then trying your best to chew it. It’s exhilarating, but it’s also totally terrifying.
Is it always terrifying?
There is a moment maybe on set where you cross the threshold and really become that person ‐ and a weird metaphysical exchange happens. I know Brit is still in there, but I can’t access her anymore. Sometimes I think acting is a real flirting with madness. You really do surrender to this imagined reality. There’s something kind of schizophrenic about it, once you start collecting all these experiences.
When you’re playing pretend, I don’t think your nervous system knows the difference between imagining someone shooting or pretending someone is about to bust into the house. I think if you’re good at your job, you’ll trick your body into believing it’s real ‐ and then you’re holding all those experiences in your body. I wonder what it looks like at the end of your lifetime, after you’ve collected all these crazy experiences. Do you even have a self anymore? [Laughs] I don’t know.
With films like The Keeping Room or I Origins, you’ve made a living so far out of dramas. Will we ever see you in a romantic comedy or an action movie?
I’m so down for that. I’m so down for an action movie or a sci-fi franchise. I think it just needs to be the right story. I don’t feel in any rush. I think when the right thing comes along and a character moves you, then you say yes and have that experience. It’s a totally different kind of filmmaking, but it’s the same thing at its heart, when you have a character you really care about ‐ and that’s the only thing that matters to me. I never think about, “How much is this going to be made for?” I just think if I’ll be sustained being on set for days on end, pretending to be this person. Yeah, that might happen sooner than you think [Laughs].
The Keeping Room is now playing in limited release.