Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s new Netflix series The OA is difficult to talk about. The new effort from the creative team behind Sound Of My Voice and The East is a mystery series that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully, as the show you think you’re watching during the first episode quickly reveals itself to be something different.
So it’s a bit awkward that, when we talk to Jason Isaacs, one of the stars of the show, we’ve only seen two of the eight episodes.
“Ah well, you’ve no idea what’s coming!” he laughs. “You’ve literally got no idea what’s coming at all! It’s like someone hearing an overture and not watching a movie. One of the reasons I took this job at five minutes’ notice and stepped in where I think another actor had been playing the part is because I’d never read anything like it. It just kept on taking these huge swerves from where I thought it was going. You’ve got no idea what’s coming.”
Now, at the time of writing, we have now seen the whole thing, and we can see where he’s coming from. It’s a complex, ambitious and wonderful series with a superb ensemble cast, and we’ll leave it to co-creator and director Batmanglij to pitch it in case you haven’t caught up yet…
“It’s about a girl who goes missing who is blind, she’s discovered 7 years later with her sight but she won’t tell anybody, not her parents, not the FBI, what happened to her,” he explains. “But for some reason she is comfortable telling a group of teenage boys, who seem to handle the strange story of her experience better than probably other people would, and so she tells her story to them every night. And as the nights progress it becomes clear that she’s telling them the story for a purpose and the purpose is to recruit them for a mission that she feels that only they could help her with. If that makes sense! That gets to it!”
It’s the first TV series for Batmanglij and Marling (who also co-wrote the excellent Another Earth) and the filmmaker tells us that they were looking to make the jump into longer storytelling.
“The genesis of the idea was to do something long format that felt a little bit more like a novel than a traditional TV series,” he says. “In almost every other long format series you would have met all the main characters by the second episode and the main plot engine would have been revealed, and we wanted to treat it more like a novel. You don’t meet all the main characters by the first or second chapter.”
“In most TV shows, if you watch 2 or 3 episodes, the other episodes are a lot like the ones you’ve seen in terms of pacing and tone, but this keeps changing.”
This break from the traditional format immediately grabbed Isaacs’ attention, who was getting ready for bed when he got the call.
“It was about midnight, and I got a phone call from my agent going ‘We’re sending you 8 scripts, read them straight away.’ And I went ‘Why? I’m knackered!’ And they said ‘No, you’re Skyping the director at 2 o’clock in the morning.’ I said ‘Why am I skyping the fucking director at 2 o’clock in the morning?’ They said ‘If you like it you’ve got to get on a plane at breakfast.’ ‘What?!?'”
“They said ‘Because as soon as you get off the plane, you’re shooting a scene at Grand Central Station.’ I went ‘Oh, wait a minute, this sounds mad.’ And then I read it, spoke to Zal, and when my wife and kids came down for breakfast I was packed and ready to go because I thought it was fantastic. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea who the characters were going to be, what genre it was in, where it was going to take me, and, more than anything I’ve ever read before, this continued to surprise me along the way. At every point, you’re revising your opinion of everything you’ve seen so far, wondering if you should have trusted or believed it.”
Unreliable storytelling was a key element of Sound Of My Voice, and it’s something that continues, in a slightly less pointed way, through The OA, as so much of what we see is a story that is being told by different characters, and the listeners’ (and viewers’) reactions are crucial.
“I just think that’s reflective of real life,” suggests Batmanglij. “We’re all consuming stories all the time, whether they’re news stories or fiction short stories or films or long format stories, and what’s true in them and what’s not true? And even when something is the whole truth, isn’t it from someone’s perspective? I don’t think any narrator is reliable!”
Leaving aside the question of reliability, the performances from the show’s ensemble cast are truly superb. Marling leads as The OA, while there’s support from veterans like Phyllis Smith, Riz Ahmed, Scott Wilson and Alice Krige, and the group of young actors playing The OA’s listeners are fantastic.
“I think it will be one of those things that people will look back on and go ‘Wow, they were all in the same show.'” agrees Isaacs. “They’re all just so good in their own way and so unusual. Things just happened serendipitously. There are so many areas that can go wrong when you’re trying to tell a story on screen, whether it’s film or TV, just every element, music, casting, sets, editing, and I can say this because I think it doesn’t sound too much like bragging, given that I’m just a small part of the ensemble, I think they’re all fucking brilliant.”
“We worked with Avy Kaufman who’s a brilliant, brilliant casting director and what’s brilliant about her is that she works from the gut,” enthuses Batmanglij. “She kind of intuited the story and sent us lots of different people but when we landed on Patrick Gibson for Steve [the violent teenager who becomes The OA’s first disciple], I think we all just felt it was something magical. He came from Ireland to New York to meet with us and to read with Brit. I noticed the notebook in his lap and he said ‘Yeah, it’s my Steve notebook, it’s a notebook I keep from Steve’s perspective.’ I’ve seen actors do that before but I’ve never seen them do that before they have a part, and it was that level of commitment and excitement and passion that didn’t feel like it was born from a financial moment or even an ego moment of getting the part, someone’s that excited to pour themselves into things. I think a lot of people get afraid to put their heart into things, for good reason, because your heart can break, but Paddy didn’t have that, I think that’s true across the board.
“With Ian [Alexander] for example, the character of Buck, Buck is a 14 year old female-to-male transgender Asian-American character and even the great Avy Kaufman was like good luck finding that! We really wanted to have a trans actor to play this role but there were no trans actors who were 14 auditioning for this, and if you did find a teenager who was maybe 17 they weren’t Asian or Asian-American. We just went to the internet and started tweeting about it. And before you know it, two days later, there were 300 submissions, all trans teenagers, from all over the world, some were Swiss, some were from the Philippines, Indonesia, some were in England, and we found Ian in Virginia, it was just an amazing experience. He’d never acted before!”
The show was kept under wraps by Netflix almost until its release, and Isaacs tells us that level of secrecy was absolutely vital. “More than anything I’ve ever worked on, to talk about what happens in it would be to ruin the pleasure of it for an audience. It’s a paradox because on the one hand you want people to find it, but the ideal way for people to find it is just to be told, ‘Trust me, watch it, I saw it, it’s great,’ and to let word of mouth build on it.”
“It’s just one of those things, dare I say it, like the great big cheesy wotsit in the White House, ‘Trust me, believe me,'” he laughs. “Sit back and let it unfold. Sit down and binge it. Turn the lights off, get a glass of water, go to the loo, then sit down and watch five or six hours of it, you’ll be amazed.”