They Are The East
Although THE EAST was only his second film as a director, Zal Batmanglij found
himself leading a cast of esteemed actors including Oscar nominees Ellen Page and Patricia
Clarkson, Emmy winner Julia Ormond and "True Blood" star Alexander Skarsgard. All of them
signed on, according to Michael Costigan, for the opportunity to participate in a movie based on
ideas they believed in.
"We gambled on the chance that other people would feel the way we did about this
movie," he says. "Everybody knew from the get-go that we didn't have much money or many
days to make it. You could see a deep level of commitment at the first table read. I think
everybody was amazed, looking around the table, seeing and feeling the impact of all this
incredible talent coming together, even in an anonymous hotel conference room in northern
The leading role of Sarah was conceived and written with Marling in mind. "Brit was
always the anchor," says Batmanglij. "She's an amazing person to work with and she sets a tone
that all the other actors pick up on."
Costigan believes the film's leading lady is star material. "When you see Brit onscreen,
you see an actress with a rare mix of intelligence, a grounded realism, and a luminous screen
presence," says Costigan. "From the first moment I saw her in SOUND OF MY VOICE, I
thought she was very compelling, an actress and presence who kept you riveted to the screen."
At the beginning of the film, Sarah represents the status quo, according to Batmanglij.
"She's career obsessed and that gives her life its meaning." A conventional young professional,
Sarah makes herself over as a freegan traveler to infiltrate a group of anarchists who are
'jamming' against corporations they deem irresponsible. "And they've been tremendously
successful," says Marling. "How did they pull this off? It is pretty sophisticated. Sarah goes in to
answer that question."
Infiltrating The East is her maiden undercover assignment for her employer Hiller Brood
and Sarah will do whatever it takes to prove her worth and impress her boss, Sharon. "Sarah is a
bit like a thoroughbred racehorse," says Marling. "She's incredibly well-trained and ready to run
the race of life. She's in the starting gate and when it lifts, she's off and running. But she has
blinders on that keep her from realizing that she's running in a circle, until she encounters this
group of people who force her to see the world and herself in a new way."
Sarah's point of view begins to change as she becomes more and more emotionally
invested in her targets. "In the beginning, she's infiltrating a group of terrorists who are doingillegal things," according to Marling. "They need to be brought to justice. But when she spends
time with them, Sarah, being a brave, intense person herself, begins to forget who she is and to
identify with their desire for radical accountability. Living in deep cover, it's hard to hold on to
who you really are, much less what you believe in."
Her growing relationship with Benji, the group's unofficial leader, begins to cloud her
judgment. "Early on, she asks him if he thinks she's not tough enough for the truth," says
Marling. "He says I think you're not soft enough for it. After a lifetime of being told she needs to
be tough, suddenly someone says, if you want to get to the truth, you actually need empathy.
Right there, she begins to fall in love with him, but she fights it, because it gets in the way of her
work, which is gathering information that could eventually put him in prison for years."
The East is a collective of committed activists from all walks of life, each with their own
personal reason for being there and each fulfilling a specific need in the group. "Of course, the
actors always bring another layer to their characters," says Batmanglij. "For example, it's hard for
me to think of Benji without Alexander Skarsgard. He arrived with the attitude that he was wide
open for exploration. For actors to come in saying, we're ready to get our hands dirty, is a great
thing for a director."
Skarsgard, best known to American audiences as Erick Northman, a centuries-old
vampire on the HBO hit series "True Blood," is a respected actor in both his native Sweden and
the United States, responded strongly to the script and the filmmakers. "It's a very well written
script with rich, real characters," says Skarsgard. "I was especially intrigued by Benji, by his
background and how he got to where he is. When I met with Zal and Brit, the only question I had
was whether or not I wanted to spend three months in the woods with these people. I definitely
did. They're really special, both of them, super intelligent and extremely warm."
Benji is a child of privilege who has grown into a man of inflexible principles. First
among them is an eye for an eye. "He is more militant than some of the other members of The
East," the actor says. "He is willing to go a little farther to achieve his goals. There is no leader in
an anarchist collective, but Benji is the driving force behind some of these 'jams,' as they call
their missions. To him, this is a revolution. The fact that he believes so firmly in something is
"The film has a point of view, but it's not preachy," Skarsgard continues. "There's a lot
of action in it, which makes it fun to watch, and it raises interesting questions, as well. Who are
these people? Is what they're doing right or wrong? The question is, morally, where do you
draw the line?"
The chemistry between Marling and Skarsgard is palpable -- the characters must maintain
their respective strategic advantages while keeping their volatile attraction under control. "Sarah
is drawn to and repelled by this person," Marling says. "We had an amazing time working
together, because he's so open. We challenged each other to try to find something that felt true."
While writing the script with Batmanglij, Marling says one thing she didn't take into
account was that Sarah is in virtually every scene of the film. At the end of long days spent under
grueling physical and emotional conditions, she had to slip back into writer and producer's mode.
"There was not a single day that I wasn't shooting," she admits. "At night, Zal and I were
discussing what scenes were coming up next and then rewriting until three in the morning. It was
an intense time. We both gave a pound of flesh to the movie in a profound and amazing way."
Ellen Page plays a fervent true believer of the group named Izzy. An Academy Award
nominee for her star-making turn in the 2007 comedy JUNO, Page says she was drawn to the
ideas that inspired Marling and Batmanglij to write the script.
"This script was like nothing I'd read before," says Page. "I was so moved by Izzy. As
people and as artists, Brit and Zal have so much trust, honesty and enthusiasm. They care so
deeply and that creates a special energy on set. I was grateful to be there every day."
Izzy's passion for justice and her anger at the unfairness she sees all around are a driving
force for The East. "She's trying to help people get justice and to help the Earth," Page says.
"Every living thing gives us life, so how can we not want to respect that and protect it? The ethics
of all of it become very muddled"
Marling was touched by Page's absolute commitment to her role. "Not to give too much
away, but Ellen shot her most difficult scene on the first day," she says. "She did it with a bravery
that was astounding. The whole cast was determined to do everything as bravely as Ellen did that
Page is eager to see how audiences react to the goals and tactics of the group. "Their
actions pose a lot of ethical questions," she notes. "Ultimately, they care deeply and want to end
the inequality that allows some people to live comfortably at the expense of others. I think that's a
really difficult truth for people to deal with."
The group members, as diverse as they are, share a common bond: disillusionment with
the lives they came from. Other than that, they represent many different worlds. "Some are trust-
fund kids," explains Marling. "Eve is hearing impaired. Thumbs is an ex-soldier, Tess is a hacker,
and Luca has been living on the streets. Doc is a former med-school student. But they all have a
reason they have left the 'normal' world."
Some, like Doc, played by Toby Kebbell, keep one foot in their past, allowing them to
easily insinuate the group into the circles of power they left behind. A promising doctor, who
joined The East after a widely used antibiotic he prescribed for himself and his sister caused
disastrous side effects, Doc went to an elite boarding school, then Harvard and Stanford, explains
Batmanglij. "He is from a wealthy family, but chooses to live with the group. He still uses his real
identity as a sort of Bruce Wayne cover that allows him to go out into the world."
Kebbell is a past nominee for the BAFTA Rising Star Award who starred in WRATH OF
THE TITANS and ROCKNROLLA. "Toby Kebbell is a fantastic actor," says Batmanglij. "He
came so prepared. He took it to a whole new level. Toby even spent time studying medicine and
helped come up with realistic props for Doc to use."
Kebbell gives the director kudos for being willing to listen to the ideas he brought to the
table. "In fact, he loved hearing about them," says the actor. "I did a lot of research, reading
Gray's Anatomy and basic medical texts like St. John's Ambulance. There were moments where I
needed to look like I had actual medical knowledge and my research really helped me out. I
didn't have to pretend. It was just what I knew to be true."
Shiloh Fernandez, who plays Luca, the street kid who brings Sarah into the group, was
initially attracted to what he saw as a unique new approach to filmmaking. "It's a modern thriller
with a lot of heart," he says. "The East is giving these big companies a taste of their own
medicine, so to speak, and promoting their jams on the Internet, so that more people are aware of
the truth of what's going on. For the YouTube-Occupy generation, it's pretty relevant to see
people rising up and deciding to fight for what they believe in this way."
The filmmakers' devotion to authenticity extended to hiring people who were living the
lifestyle and Hernandez valued being able to spend time with them to help understand Luca.
"They call themselves freegans because they don't pay for anything," he says. "They live in this
tent community. Everybody pitches in to help the collective. The fact that they live this way helps
bring a real truth to the movie. It is possible to live a fulfilling life without all kinds of things. I
believe that what we usually look at as benefits can also hold us down."
As strongly attracted as Sarah becomes to her undercover life, she is just as connected to
her life outside the collective, especially to her boss, Sharon, played by the accomplished Patricia
Clarkson. "Sharon represents all of Sarah's aspirations," says producer Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson.
"She's successful on her own terms. She's the boss, and she still has a family and a life outside
work. She's powerful and smart and in charge. Who wouldn't want to play the woman every girl
wants to be and be slightly evil too? Patricia had a lot of fun doing that."
It was very important that Sharon be seductive and appealing, rather than just another
corporate drone. "The character needed to be as charismatic as Benji, because her role pulls Sarah
in the opposite direction," Batmanglij says. "Patty is very convincing. She was seducing people
left, right and center on the set!"
Clarkson was delighted to take on the role of Sharon, who she describes as "glamorous,
intelligent and formidable." "She is CEO of Hiller Brood, a powerhouse with a lot of people
answering to her. She helps corporations avert public disasters and she's very good at her job."
"I think Sharon sees a lot of herself in Sarah," Clarkson adds. "She puts a lot of faith in
her. And Sarah delivers, but perhaps not in exactly the way Sharon expects. There are so many
surprising elements in the film, but the heart of it is the transformation of this young girl, which is
always a great story."
Sharon is also a role model and something of a mother figure for Sarah. "Her love and
approval mean everything," says Marling, who created a backstory for her character that involved
losing her mother at an early age. "It becomes really complicated when Sarah starts to fall in love
with Benji and his way of seeing the world, because it's in direct conflict with what her 'mother'
expects from her. They have a pretty intense confrontation. Patty was brilliant. She's an actor
who is so in the moment that if your attention wanders, her presence will suck you back in."
Discovering great young writers like Marling and Batmanglij was an exciting experience
for Clarkson. "They're both so enchanting and so talented," she says. "And it was lovely to act
with someone as present as Brit. Their writing is fluid and potent and topical. It's almost a new
genre of film, a hybrid, which is part of why it's so great. It's suspenseful, it's emotional, it's
romantic, it's mysterious. I think audiences will be swept away by it."
Also playing a small but pivotal role in THE EAST is Julia Ormond. She plays Paige
Williams, vice president of product development at McCabe/Gray, an international
pharmaceuticals company that is the target of one of the group's culture jams. "Julia came to our
set just for two days and she came so well prepared. She just picked up her shovel and started
digging with the rest of us."
According to Ormond, the prolific British actress whose recent credits include THE
CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and a recurring role on "Mad Men, "the film has a
real modern, anarchic energy. It's a particularly resonant tale for people who are disturbed by
corporate irresponsibility. All the characters are interestingly distinct from one another. It pulls
you in as you discover each person's story."
Ormond particularly responded to the character of Sarah, the kind of feisty, smart girl she
says she sees too little of in films. "I'm very impressed that Brit is writing," says Ormond. "She has said she started because she didn't like the roles she was being offered an actress, so she
creates the kinds of characters she wants to play. She and Zal have written female characters that
are fuller, more diverse and more real than what you usually see. They're tougher, but that
doesn't mean they're not sexy or vulnerable or passionate."
For Batmanglij, the actors' performances are wonderfully satisfying elements of THE
EAST. "The actors were so excited to come to work every day that Shreveport was like summer
camp," he says. "The line between work and play blurred, but everyone took this project deeply
seriously. On the weekends we would all sit around and practice the more complicated group
"Anarchist groups are about lack of hierarchy and a film set has a lot of hierarchy, but we
were able to fuse those things," he continues. "Everyone did their jobs, but there was a sense that
we had become a tribe."
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