The Keeping Room stars Brit Marling (I, Origins) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as two sisters who, along with a former slave played by Muna Otaru, are living alone in an isolated farmhouse in the South in the closing days of the Civil War. When two murderous Union soldiers (led by Avatar’s Sam Worthington) encounter Marling’s Augusta at a local inn — where she has gone to get medicine for her sister — they track her back to the house and proceed to lay siege on the three women, who are frightened but nevertheless rally themselves and their scant resources to protect themselves at all costs.
Director Daniel Barber’s film is a meditation on the aftermath of war and the dehumanizing effects it has on its participants, filtered not just through the Western genre but through a uniquely feminine point of view. Left behind as the men march off to death and destruction, it’s up to the women to hold together what’s left — and the women of The Keeping Room refuse to give in to the despair that hangs over them. Den Of Geek had the pleasure of speaking with Marling and Steinfeld about the movie at a recent press day in Los Angeles.
Den Of Geek: We haven’t seen many Westerns in the past with such strong female characters. Is that what attracted both of you to doing this initially?
Hailee Steinfeld: I think there was quite a lot that attracted me to this part and to this story. And I think on top of everything I did, the fact that it is a Western that’s driven by women was definitely something that topped it for me.
Brit Marling: Yeah. I think also just the idea of three women working together. I’ve never seen that before. I mean I think you see the lone female protagonist, like Clarice Starling or Alien. But this was like, “Wow. I’ve never seen three girls get together and roll up their sleeves and defend themselves and protect each other.” That felt really fresh.
What kind of research did you do? How did the accents come about?
Steinfeld: I was really psyched to do that. We both worked with the same vocal coach, which was really kind of fun, because we would just like show up at her house and spend an hour practicing the sounds of 1865 in South Carolina, which is really specific…
Marling: Yeah, it is. She was first telling us like it’s “hawt” and I was like, “What?” It doesn’t sound southern. It sounds vaguely British. But that was like a cool way to get into sort of time traveling by just trying to create a similar voice together that would be sisters and sound like sisters who’d grown up in the same house together.
Is that something you have to be conscious of on set? Does it become second nature after doing the work with a coach?
Marling: I think you do your work and then you do go to set and sort of live and be and whatever sort of comes of it does, having done our preparation. But we did throw in reminders to each other every now and then. And we would go over it. And there would be sort of moments where we were running, sort of just going over our lines to ourselves before a scene and we’d look up and say ,”How do you pronounce this?” And we’d go over it with each other. So it was nice to have had that sort of experience together beforehand.
The film is set 150 years ago but it seems very timely, because it’s all about the aftermath of war and the effect on people left behind to clean up the mess. Do you find the situation these women find themselves in relevant now to the things that are going on in the world today?
Marling: I think the film is incredibly prescient, just on violence in general. I think we’ve sort of become completely desensitized to it. And I think because in this movie you are watching young women do it and do it in a way that’s very plausible, like there are no stunt doubles, there are no green screens. You suddenly can see violence again in a way that it’s been kind of invisible to you because we’ve just taken in so many movies and images of war. And I think when you are really confronted with violence, you are like, “This is horrible and awful. And human beings shouldn’t behave this way to each other.”
I think it’s a really intense and honest condemnation of war and what happens when war is taken away from the battlefield and comes to the home, and, like, civilians sort of have to defend themselves.
It’s also a bit subversive in a way that the Union guys are the monsters. The Union is supposed to be “the good guys” — but the war has the same effect on them as it could have on anybody else.
Marling: I think that Sam Worthington is so great in this movie. And I think he did a really amazing job of showing that he went into the war with all these noble ambitions about what he was doing, I’m sure, but that you’re broken by the experience no matter what side you are fighting on. It’s just a horrifying endeavor. And when he meets Augusta and sort of sees this image of like, oh, innocence and love, he wants to pursue her, but he doesn’t know how to put down his weapon anymore. He doesn’t know how to let go of fear and violence and all these things. So you watch him struggle with that. And I think Sam did an amazing job of showing that internal conflict.
Hailee, do you feel like you’re at the forefront of a Western revival these days? You’ve done True Grit and The Homesman in addition to this. You’ve got three of them on the books now.
Steinfeld: It’s funny, because obviously when I was 13 and made True Grit, I had never seen a Western before. And I don’t know that I would have for a while if it weren’t for that movie. But it’s an interesting time that I continue to be fascinated by. I learn so much about it every time I sort of immerse myself in a different sort of era of that world.
Have you gone back and watched some of the classics as background at all? Do you have a favorite Western if you’ve seen any more?
Marling: We were talking about this earlier. I don’t. And I think maybe it’s because there aren’t many Westerns with women in them. True Grit I think is the one that stands out in my mind, the one I watched and I was like, “Wow. This is meaningful. What an exciting performance.” But I think that sometimes that even helps, because you come to do this film and you are not thinking about the cannon of Westerns. You are just thinking like, here are three girls who are trying to fight to survive in this impossible situation. And then you play that as if you’re really there, not as if you’re sort of doing a commentary or something on the Western genre.
Was the training challenging for you, the riding and shooting?
Marling: That was the best part because you are so exhausted by it. I would do these wood chopping lessons where after just an hour of chopping wood the skin on your thumbs would just be like all bloody…It was intense. But it’s cool, too, because you just tire yourself out and then you don’t come to set with any idea about what you are going to do. You are so exhausted that you just show up and be a real human being.
The Keeping Room is out in limited release now.