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The OA's Brit Marling Says Hollywood Needs More Complex Female Roles: 'Women Characters Are Constructed as an Afterthought'

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Brit Marling rewrote the rules for making it big in Hollywood.

In The OA — her hot new sci-fi mystery series on Netflix — Marling stars as Prairie, an abduction survivor navigating the world after years trapped in a science experiment. The rich, complex role blossomed from about four years of work on the addictive (albeit bonkers) series with co-writer/co-creator Zal Batmanglij.

And she’s hopeful the show will pave the way for more empowered, fully developed female characters, which she believes are, on the whole, lacking in pop culture today.

“You sometimes think that we’re farther along than we actually are. When you read that less than 10 percent of directors are women, you realize it can’t be surprising that, in most stories, women characters are constructed as an afterthought; they’re not fully realized, not the ones with agency,” says Marling.

It was that realization — which she came to early on in her showbiz career — that motivated Marling to get into screenwriting.

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

An Illinois native, Marling went on to study economics at Georgetown University. By 2005, she’d interned at — and scored a job offer from — investment banking titan Goldman Sachs when she had an epiphany leading to a quarter-life career change.

“I thought, ‘I’m setting myself up for a life that I’m not really going to enjoy,’ ” Marling recalls. And upon graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. After striking out on the audition circuit, the soon-to-be starlet — disappointed with the variety of roles available for women — took control of her own narrative.

“I came close to playing parts where I felt, ‘If I had a daughter, would I be proud of the representation of a woman she’d be watching?’ ” Marling says. “Because you want to begin getting work as an actress and think, ‘This is what I have to do in order to [make it in the industry]’ … That’s the point where I thought: ‘The only way I’m going to be able to navigate what feels right is if I figure out how to tell stories.’ ”

She teamed up with her Georgetown pals Batmanglij and Mike Cahill on the indie projects Sound of My Voice and Another Earth and broke out at Sundance in 2011. And it was through that desire for complex female characters that The OA came to fruition, spawning roles like her Prairie (or “The OA”) and Betty Broderick-Allen, a high school algebra teacher played by beloved The Office star Phyllis Smith.

“That’s one of the most satisfying parts of the job for me now, getting to write a part like Phyllis Smith’s part,” Marling says. “I think we overlooked the 50-year-old divorcée algebra I teacher. I think she’s sort of invisible to us — we can’t see her fully, we don’t give that kind of purchase in the storytelling. And I got to write a part, and Phyllis came and and embodied it so wholly and with so much depth and humor and intelligence.”

  • For more on Brit Marling, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

As for her own character, Marling had a very clear focus on what she wanted Prairie to represent.

“It’s cool to explore the idea of a woman who is a victim of trauma but has power in her recovery,” she says. “She’s not sitting in her victimhood, she’s not passive; she’s actively seeking recovery, actively doing something and sharing her story — and healing herself through sharing her story.”

With The OA ringing in at about eight hours long, Netflix made the long-story format accessible and easily bingeable. But Marling says the streaming service also allowed for her fully developed characters  — both male and female — to come alive in a way they couldn’t in a feature film or typical TV series.

“There are a lot of people who have been stuck in the margins — women, people of color — and it’s exciting to see those voices find a platform,” says Marling, who cites another Netflix original series, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, as another beacon of hope in storytelling via streaming services.

“It’s exciting to see those people start to tell stories,” she says, and adds, “because I think that that really changes things. When you consume those stories, it changes your perspective; it connects you to people in a way that you maybe couldn’t have before because they didn’t have any representation.”

The OA season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.