Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård star in “The East,” a suspenseful and provocative espionage thriller from acclaimed writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-actress Brit Marling. The film chronicles what happens when an elite private intelligence operative infiltrates an elusive anarchist collective that’s seeking revenge against major corporations guilty of covering up criminal activity.
At the recent press day, Page and Skarsgård talked about their characters, what drew them to the script, what it was like walking a fine line between hero and villain, their collaboration with Batmanglij and Marling, and how they think the movie will resonate with audiences. Skarsgård also revealed why he enjoys playing roles like Benji in this film, Derek in “Disconnect” or Lincoln in “What Maisie Knew” that are completely different from his character, Eric, in “True Blood.” Ellen discussed playing Kitty Pryde in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and the status of her directing project, “Miss Stevens.”
Question: Can you talk about your characters and what drew you to this project?
Ellen Page: I played the character of Izzy. Izzy is a member of The East. She’s incredibly angry, frustrated – sad at the state of the world and the injustice that she sees and the lack of accountability for corporations that commit some pretty awful atrocities, often legal, to the environment and people that are disenfranchised that don’t have a voice. I completely understood her anger and sadness in regards to her more personal story and connection and journey with it, and I loved getting to explore it. What drew me to it was really Brit [Marling] and Zal [Batmanglij]. “Sound of My Voice” was such an incredible, intriguing, unique and beautiful film. Brit’s performance was so beautifully written, suspenseful and entertaining and all these things, but then it was exploring so many ideas I was personally interested in. To meet them, their passion and creative drive is palpable, infectious and contagious. You just want to be a part of their work. That’s how I felt.
Alexander Skarsgård: I agree. That’s what it’s all about. Only I don’t play Izzy. I play Benji who’s also a member of The East – one of the founding members. He’s very adamant that he’s not the leader of the group. Sarah thinks that he is when she shows up, but it’s important to him that it’s a democracy. He doesn’t believe in – he hates hierarchy or cults. He’s all for, you’ve got to think independently and you’ll talk about it and you’ll vote – that’s how you make progress. It’s a functioning real democracy. Exactly what Ellen said. I was a fan of “Sound of My Voice.” I read the script and I was wrapping up “True Blood.” I had read about 50-60 scripts – some okay, some pretty good, some mediocre, some terrible. Then I read this and I was blown away. It’s such a great, great story and interesting characters. Someone I hadn’t played before. It was a world that was very interesting to me and felt very relevant and important without being preachy or didactic. I didn’t know them personally. It was Fourth of July and I was down in San Diego and read it and immediately called my agents and said, “I love this. Can I meet them?”
Q: With the situation in Europe, do you think this kind of movie will resonate with audiences because people are in the street every single day and they’re the type of people we are talking about in this movie?
Skarsgård: What I loved about the script and what I hope we were able to capture is that it’s morally interesting. We can all agree, if you go out and ask people, “Should corporations be held accountable?,” people go, “Fuck yeah!,” because they’re not. We can all agree that they’re not being held accountable. It’s pretty obvious they’re not. They have so much power through their money that they can buy lobbyists with, so in effect they buy Washington – they buy votes, they buy senators. That’s the way it is. They’re safe that way. But what was interesting about the script is that if you don’t think that’s okay, that they should be held accountable, how do you hold them accountable? No one went to jail for what happened on Wall Street. There’s a hundred thousand kids in jail for smoking pot. But the question is, “How far is it okay to go?” Benji and Izzy are the more militant members of the group, and Benji believes in an eye for an eye. What I loved about it is that within the group they don’t all agree. It could have easily become a movie about a woman who works for a corporation who joins this mysterious group out of the woods that don’t shower, and the dude’s got a beard, and she’s like, “They’re the good guys.” It has much more depth than that. Even at the end of the movie, they don’t all agree. Like you said, people are frustrated in the States and in Europe, regardless if you are on the right or on the left.
Q: You both give dynamic performances walking this fine line between hero and villain and keeping the audience rooting for your cause. Can you talk about finding that balance?
Skarsgård: It was about creating a world that was different and intriguing to the audience. That’s why I love those moments like the bathing scene or when they’re playing spin the bottle. In all those moments, you want to invite people. You want people to think this is so different and interesting – that it happens a couple miles from where I live but it’s a completely different universe in a way. That’s how you invite them in. And you want it to be uncomfortable. They do things that are illegal and that you morally might not agree with. That’s when it gets murky and interesting to me – where you feel like you’re a member of The East. Where you’re like, “Do I agree with this? In theory, I guess. But what they’re doing is illegal and it hurts people.” It gets very complicated, which I thought was very interesting. To me, I didn’t approach Benji as the good guy or the bad guy. I approached him as a real human being with a background, with feelings and a reason as to why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Q: How helpful was it to have the two people who put this story together directing and acting alongside you?
Page: They are helpful because they are so open and collaborative. I loved the script and I loved the role. On top of that, you’re working with two people that have no ego attached to it. So you have this open dialogue where you feel safe to communicate what you feel and they’re so supportive of you creating something.
Skarsgård: That’s so important, the fact that they wrote a beautiful script but they encouraged us to take risks and play around with it. If you came up with an idea, both Zal and Brit would be like, “Alright! Cool! That’s awesome. Let’s try it and see what happens!” And even if it didn’t work, you were in such a safe environment where you’re dealing with friends that there were no egos attached. They were so excited about telling a great story and elevating the script. It might not be better, but it might go in a different direction. That’s a great feeling when you wrap at the end of the day and it’s completely different from the scene in the script, but we all went there and it was exciting. That’s kind of the creative process that’s wonderful and you don’t always get on a movie set.
Q: As an artist, how do you feel about putting your face onto this type of movie?
Skarsgård: That’s my job. If I started to censor myself or chose parts and characters where I thought, “This is safe,” then there’s no incentive for me. I want to play characters that might have darkness or do things I don’t agree with. If I didn’t, I’d always play Alexander Skarsgård. Why be an actor if I’m not interested in portraying any other characters? It was an amazing script. It’s always a gut feeling. It doesn’t matter if it’s a huge movie, like “Battleship,” or a small movie. This is a studio film, but “Disconnect” or “What Maisie Knew” were small films I just did. It’s about getting creatively excited about it. Feeling like this is different and cool. I had a blast on “Battleship,” and I shot that back to back with “Melancholia,” which is a European, art-house indie that’s very, very different. Those are moments that I love when I was in the woods in southern Sweden with Lars von Trier, and then two days later I’m in Hawaii with aliens and ships and the whole U.S. Navy behind me. I’m like, “This is a pretty cool job.”
Q: We’ve been seeing a lot of you lately on the big screen and now you’re in the middle of shooting “True Blood.” How long is it to shoot your season?
Skarsgård: Six months
Q: During those six months off, do you try to take advantage of non-“True Blood”-ish characters?
Skarsgård: Right. Again, what’s creatively exciting is taking roles like Benji in this or Derek in “Disconnect” or Lincoln in “What Maisie Knew” — roles that are very different from each other, but also from Eric on “True Blood.” As much as I love the show and playing Eric, I’m an actor and I love to find new collaborations and new characters where I can grow as an actor and human being. It’s all a combination of trying to find some great projects and also find time to sleep.
Q: What do you love about “True Blood” this season?
Skarsgård: It’s been a pretty wild ride this year. The humans are fighting back – the first time in a thousand years that they’re able to fight back. For Eric, my character, they’ve never been a threat, but they are coming up with something this year where they can actually pose a real threat. So it’s sweaty. He’s busy fighting.
Q: Everybody’s process is different. Zal and Brit went dumpster diving and lived off the grid to prepare for this film. Did you guys do that as well or did you just show up on the day, ready to work?
Page: I had an experience where I studied perma-culture design and eco-village development in Oregon when I was twenty-two. It’s not exactly the same, but I met a lot of people through that who were freegans and anarchists and had a very similar way of thinking and were immersed in that way of living. I was already familiar with the aesthetic and vibe and a lot of the philosophy. It was a lot of reading some really compelling anarchist manifestos, and most importantly, connecting with Izzy.
Skarsgård: Yeah, I don’t know what to say. Zal and Brit went on the road and spent time with freegans and anarchists. I didn’t have time to do that. I was shooting “Disconnect” and “What Maisie Knew” up to three days before going to Shreveport, Louisiana to shoot this. So it was more about reading books and watching documentaries about The Weather Underground and other groups existing. One thing that inspired me was images. Mike Brodie, who spent about a year train hopping with his friend, took amazing pictures of that. He just had an exhibition here in LA. To me, it was something about his friends that he shot on those trains – how they interact with each other – that felt like Benji and this group. That’s how I creatively started with the process of who Benji was.
Q: What did you Google in preparation for these roles?
Skarsgård: I did what I always do and just Googled myself.
Page: And I Googled pictures of Alexander Skarsgård.
Skarsgård: We do that every Sunday.
Page: I was like, “Oh, is that who I get to work with?! Yeah, that’s nice.” I typed in “Alexander Skarsgård sex scene,” and then I hit images.
Skarsgård: Sexy boy!
Page: Dang! He’s got a body. Okay.
Q: Ellen, what was your reaction when you got a call from “X-Men” saying, “C’mon back,” and doing a story, at least in the comics, where Kitty is such a major character?
Page: I was super surprised. I did not think that was going to come back again. It was great! The cast that I got to work with and the “X-Men 3” and this whole new cast that’s so incredible. I didn’t work with Bryan [Singer] before – that was the Brett Ratner one. So working with Bryan was great. It’s been awesome – really great.
Q: Are you done or still shooting?
Page: Still shooting.
Q: What’s happening with “Miss Stevens”?
Page: It’s happening.
Q: It’s still there in the early phases?
Q: Do you think Ana [Faris], with her show getting greenlit, will still be a part of it?
Page: That’s absolutely the plan. Ana is so perfect for it. I’m so excited to see her in a role we haven’t really seen her do. I think she’s such a brilliant actor. I’m excited she’s going to play this specific role.
Q: When you are on sets, are you paying more attention to learn what directors are doing?
Page: Yeah. I think what’s more interesting is the process of reading a script – not from an actor’s perspective, but from a director’s perspective. That shift is really interesting – thinking about everything visually. How do you want to earn certain moments? How you want to film it. How you want to make sure that it feels honest and true. It’s looking at something in the entire picture. Some mornings I’m super inspired and other mornings, I’m completely shitting myself.