Domhnall Gleeson says for him “Ex Machina” — a new sci-fi drama-thriller with only three main characters, one of them a possibly sentient robot (Alicia Vikander) — is a big movie for him. He prefers smaller films, especially ones, like this, that play like what he calls “elevated genre.” Still, he does have a bigger sci-fi movie on the horizon: along with his “Ex Machina” costar Oscar Isaac he’s in “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.” And though he can’t really talk about that one, he ca talk about not talking about it.
It’s strange how rare it is to get a sci-fi movie about ideas. Classically that’s been what the genre was for.
It’s about ideas, but I think almost more importantly it’s about characters. It’s about strong human beings, complicated human beings doing damage to each other. And then there’s something that may or may not be the equivalent of a human being, only it’s made out of metal instead of flesh and bones. I just like that everyone is more than a scratch-the-surface type of person.
Writer-director Alex Garland is good at that. Films he’s written, like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” have sneakily complicated characters.
He paints them super-quickly, but they’re never just what you see initially. There’s always more there, which is sometimes unusual in genre films. I like elevated genre, and this fits nicely into that category. There’s a lot more going on than checking the boxes of the genre it’s in.
The character you play, a programmer flown to a remote lab to test the humanity of Vikander’s Ava, comes off like the nice guy. But he has a dark side even he doesn’t seem to realize.
Absolutely. He participates in the experiment. Once you accept the fact — which I think most people will, and he does — that she’s self-aware and sentient, then you know it’s not right to keep her in a room and test her. That’s not right. She’s actually more evolved than he is. And he continues to test her. I think he’s confused because he thinks he’s in love with her, and that may or may not be. But he wants to be needed by someone. He’s set up as a loner, somebody by himself. He wants to be needed, and he needs to be loved by somebody above all else. That’s what he gets from her, so he wants to feed that.
You have a series of conversation scenes with Vikander, and Garland would let you do multiple versions. How did these change?
Alicia and I had a shorthand because we had done “Anna Karenina” [from 2012]. We got to push each other’s buttons. We got to make each other better, just by the fact that we were sitting across from each other and really being hard on each other. Some takes we would feel really connected to each other. In the next, halfway through she would drop into a more robotic form and suddenly everything was a challenge. But you get to do the same lines and get to go down the same road in a totally different manner. It was brilliant fun. It was less so in the scenes with Oscar, because in those scenes my character’s not growing. He feels he’s being manipulated. It’s tough being dominated in a scene all day long. That can end up hassling your subconscious.
Without getting into end spoilers, let’s just say it doesn’t shy away from the idea of humanity’s hubris when it comes to creating technology.
Well, Alex describes the ending as positive. Alex is on the side of the A.I. He would describe Ava as our protagonist, despite the fact that Caleb takes the place as an audience surrogate for a lot of it. I think he thinks of it as almost her film. He thinks the ending is a positive thing. He’s pro-A.I. He’s interested in seeing how A.I. goes. He looks forward to the singularity. He hopes that occurs. I would be slightly more reticent.
If we’re to read the film along the lines Garland does, then this is another post-human film, which imagines a future where people aren’t the center of the planet.
I’m sure the dinosaurs would have wept at the notion [laughs] at these weird pink things emerging. What’s wrong with the triceratops? It’s not better or worse. It’s just a continuation of evolution.
I don’t have any “Star Wars” spoilers questions, which I don’t want you to spoil, and which you can’t answer even if I did. But are they generally keeping you under lock and key?
You hear these stories about how on “Interstellar” there was full lockdown. Some people couldn’t do interviews for other movies they did because they [thought they’d leak spoilers]. I think that’s nuts. I wouldn’t be happy about that. But they’ve been very hands-off. I signed the thing, they trusted me to keep to my word, and I have kept to my word, so there’s been no need to make a phonecall. But I don’t want to spoil anything. I don’t want to talk about movies that are coming out. People are going to see “Star Wars,” I would imagine. So I don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to sell it by talking about what it is. That’s not going to make a blind bit of difference. So it’s easy: you just keep your mouth shut and hope the movie’s good.