Screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) makes his directorial debut with the sci-fi film “Ex Machina,” the story of a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is chosen by a reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) to participate in a series of experiments where he must interact with an artificial intelligent robot built to look like an attractive young woman. During an interview with Isaac at the South by Southwest Film Festival, I talked to him about his popular dance sequence in the film and discuss what a “bro billionaire” actually is.
Before we start talking about the deeper themes of “Ex Machina,” I have to ask you about my favorite scene of the film — the dance sequence. How did you make it look so…cool?
Single-handedly I made dancing look cool again! Yeah, it was in the script and it says we disco dance. It was a lot of fun. We had a great choreographer. We rehearsed quite a few times. Alex would come in and watch it. He would even join in once in a while.
You said the dancing was in the script, but what about the humor you bring to your character? How much of that was already there for you to work with and how much of it was ad-libbed?
All of it was in the script — the language, the wit, the condescension, the sardonic and biting humor — that was all in there. It was a whole “bro billionaire” kind of thing. There wasn’t a lot of mining to try to find the humor in the character because it was already built in. And sure enough being the hammy actor that I am, I would look to see where I could add more to it in little moments here and there.
Since you brought up the idea of “bro billionaires,” did you look at any of the young tech billionaires of today for any inspiration on the character or someone who might have that “God complex” that your character seems to be suffering from?
Usually I’ll go and do that sort of left-of-field thing when I’m building a character as opposed to getting locked into this one-for-one, literal thing. When I was playing King John in “Robin Hood,” I thought of someone like a mix between Robert Plant and Richard Nixon or something that would get your imagination going. With this one, I kind of landed on [reclusive chess champion] Bobby Fischer as someone who had a brilliant mind, but also had an incredibly dark thing going on. He presented certain aspects of himself and hid other ones. [Film director Stanley] Kubrick was another one. I listened to how he spoke. He was so intelligent, but had this sort of roughness because he was from the Bronx. He had this self-taught kind of thing because I imagined he was really bad at school. He was quite brilliant at chess, as well. So, those are the two I really pulled from.
When it comes to technology, there are some pretty futuristic things happening in this film. In your lifetime, what do you think will be the craziest thing you’ll see come to fruition? Or maybe something you hope to see?
Oh, it would be interesting to have a breakthrough in terms of longevity – something that allows someone’s life span to get longer. There’s a futurist named Ray Kurzweil who is an incredible optimist when it comes to robots and technology and artificial intelligence. He believes in robots that can live inside us and help us live longer. I’d be interested in that kind of advancement.
So, would you personally like to live to be 150 years old?
Yeah, I think battling death, one’s own mortality, is something that’s in my mind. The inevitability of that is something that humans have grappled with since the beginning of time.
Some people would argue that just because science allows somebody to do something or create something doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Do you agree with that or do you feel most things in science are up for grabs?
I feel two ways about it: One, I feel like it’s completely up for grabs. At the same time, you have to recognize that [humans] are damaged. There are elements in us that are not great. So far, the things we have created have pretty much gone out of our control, whether it’s an industry or socioeconomic systems or technology. We create these things and quickly give our power over to them for the sake of convenience or comfort. To think that it wouldn’t happen with artificial intelligence is a little bit naive.
Can you imagine a film industry in 50 years where actors have become obsolete? Will we get to a point where a studio that wants you to star in their film will just have to upload you into a program and create a performance?
I don’t think so, but I see the film industry already becoming very robotic where everything is a machine. But I think there is something about human expression, the actual organism of a human expressing it’s existence. That’s always going to be interesting for us. I’d like to think that humans can give something unique to a performance.
You’ve been in some tech-heavy movies in your career and will be in a huge one later this year. Would you say you enjoy those elements as much as you do in, say, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” where your performance is front and center without all the other extra stuff going on?
Yeah, I still had a huge camera right in my face when I played Llewyn Davis. You’re dealing with elements all the time on a set. There’s lights, there’s camera, there’s a cat. The nature of it can be slightly different, but it’s all about creating space for your unconscious mind to work regardless of what’s around you.