A man out for revenge after his livelihood is demolished by an identity thief, a newlywed forced to function as the primary caregiver for his neglected six-year-old step daughter, and now the leader of an anarchist collective out to punish the cooperate elite for taking advantage of their customers. Alexander Skarsgård may have skyrocketed to fame courtesy of True Blood (which is about to enter season 6), but you can no longer pigeonhole him as gorgeous Viking vampire Eric Northman - and these past two months prove it. The actor recently starred in two indie dramas - Disconnect and What Maisie Knew - to solid reviews in both.
Now comes Skarsgård’s latest project, The East. The film stars Brit Marling (Sound of My Voice) as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent just beginning a career at Hiller Brood - an intelligence firm specifically dedicated to protecting mega corporations. Sarah’s first assignment is a big one – tracking down an organization known as "The East," including its leader, Benji (Skarsgård).
Not only does Sarah manage to find the illusive group, she eventually becomes part of it, living with the members in a secluded home in the woods and participating in their “jams,” attacks designed to give big companies a taste of their own medicine by adhering to Benji’s eye-for-an-eye ideology.
From a young age we’re taught not to treat others in ways that we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves - but is it fair to say that the companies The East targets did wrong first? That’s obviously a big fat "no," but courtesy of quality character development and a number of very successful narrative layers, The East does entice you to consider all sides of the situation, in a rather gentle manner. For someone who calls himself “allergic” to material that “shoves an opinion down your throat,” that asset was key for Skarsgård when deciding to join the project:
“It didn’t feel didactic. It didn’t feel preachy. It could have easily been a movie about the woman who works for the big bad corporation and then she joins the group of these bearded people out in the woods and she realizes that they’re the good guys and then she fights the corporation that she used to work for. It had so much more depth than that, and even within the group and that’s what made it real to me.”
The film isn’t just archaists vs. corporations, there’s also a back and forth happening within the group itself, raising various moral questions on a number of levels. The East isn’t some brainwashed coalition led into the darkness; in fact, Benji encourages the exact opposite: for the members to have their own opinions and ensure that they’re heard. “Is it okay to break the law? Is it okay to hurt someone?” These are questions the film isn't afraid to confront.
As one of the more militant members of the group, Benji is certainly a standout. For a real-life comparison, Skarsgård points out the case of the Weather Underground, a very real radical leftist group of the 1970s that “kind of imploded because some members were willing to go further than others.”
Speaking of going further than others (albeit in an entirely different context), Skarsgård was also struck by the dedication of writer-director Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice), writer-star Brit Marling, and even their former collaborator, Another Earth writer-director Mike Cahill. Skarsgård recalled:
“Another Earth got a lot of attention obviously, so [Mike] would travel the world with Another Earth, but at the same time, shoot second unit on The East. So he would go to New York for the Gotham Awards in a suit, go to the awards show and then the after party, jump on a plane, fly down to Shreveport where we shot The East, show up at six in the morning, in a suit to his friend’s movie set, Zal, and be like, ‘Alright Zal, what do I do? What can I do?’ Obviously for no money at all. No sleep.”
As for Batmanglij and Marling, they didn’t just get the idea to write this and run with it; they did research – real research. Batmanglij and Marling literally grabbed backpacks and bedrolls and spent a summer hopping trains, dumpster diving, and living in tent cities alongside real freegan collectives.
Skarsgård admitted he didn’t have the time to go that far to prepare for his role, but did note, “I would have loved to go on that adventure with them.” But even though he didn’t get to have that exact experience, making the movie was one in itself. Skarsgård recalled one particular unforgettable day on the set of The East:
“The bathing scene was the second day of shooting. I think that was a coincidence, or they planned it very very – I mean, it was smart planning because something happened that day. There was another scene we shot that day that didn’t make the final cut, but of us all in the mud next to the lake just hanging out doing like a, I guess our version of a mud spa or whatever, just like rolling around in the mud, hanging out. Like it was an old Renaissance painting almost of us lounging in the sun. It was just such a great bonding experience.”
Skarsgård pointed out that that experience set the tone for the shoot and helped the cast become The East in a realer sense. No actual corporations were harmed during the making of the movie, but everyone really did hang out, dance, and cook together while also working on material for the shoot.
The East will get a limited release on Friday, May 31, 2013.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.