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New Netflix sci-fi thriller The OA is based on a real-life encounter, says star and creator Brit Marling

Online streaming series about a blind woman who resurfaces after a seven-year disappearance with the ability to see is a mystery thriller like Netflix’s earlier smash hit, Stranger Things

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 11:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 11:09am

It’s not every night you go to a party and bring home a TV character.

But that’s essentially what happened to The OA’s Brit Marling a few years ago, when she met an uncanny young woman who said she had died and come back to life.

“I saw her from across the room, and she just seemed to be operating at a different frequency,” Marling says. “So when she told me she had this near-death experience – and described leaving her body and what she felt inside herself on the return – you understand why she felt like a person who was both apart from the world, but also more deeply in it. The idea of a character like that became really appealing.”

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The encounter provided a springboard for Netflix’s eight-part series The OA, which the streaming giant surprise-announced on December 12 and released on December 16. The sci-fi thriller was created by Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who were eager to try an ongoing series after writing mind-bending films Sound of My Voice and The East (both of which also starred Marling).

Like Netflix’s similarly twisty phenomenon Stranger Things, The OA is a “layered mystery; there are lots of clues everywhere,” says Batmanglij, who directed all eight episodes. “I think watching it slowly has its advantages, but (binge-watching) it as an eight-hour film is also amazing.”

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The show centres on steely heroine Prairie Johnson (Marling), a blind woman who returns home after disappearing for seven years with her sight restored and a new nickname, OA (the origins of which are revealed midway through the series). As she recruits a group of teenage boys and their algebra teacher (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) for a mysterious mission, OA gradually shares how she was kidnapped and caged by a scientist (Harry Potter’s Jason Issacs), who performed experiments on her and others who had near-death experiences.

“A lot of the things in her story become metaphorical conceits that make sense to the boys,” who feel confined by school, parents and definitions of masculinity, Marling says. (One student is played by 15-year-old transgender actor Ian Alexander.)

To capture how today’s kids talk and think, Marling and Batmanglij travelled to high schools and interviewed students. They also spoke to those who reported experiencing “flatlining”, some of whom “come back with really unusual skills, like perfect pitch or language fluency,” Marling says.

The most intensive research came through Marling’s work with a blind technical consultant for the many flashback scenes in which OA is sightless. Sometimes wearing a blindfold for five- to six-hour stretches, she re-learned tasks as seemingly simple as cooking an omelette and difficult as using New York public transportation.

Shedding light on near-death moment

“I feel like when I’m navigating Manhattan with my eyes open, I’m likely to get run over,” Marling says. “But when you have a blindfold on and it’s literally the blind leading the blind, you have to get through that moment of terror ... and begin to awaken (your) other senses.”

Although The OA tells a self-contained story, Marling says she and Batmanglij have ideas for potential future seasons. But for now, the social-media-shy creators are anxiously awaiting viewers’ reactions.

“I’m very curious to see what kinds of interpretations people come up with, because there may be lots that weren’t what we were thinking,” Marling says. “Once you surrender a story to the world, those are just as valid as yours.”