Seems unlikely, but the new reigning king of sci-fi/fantasy might in fact be Domhnall Gleeson. Think about it; he played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter movies, he played the world’s most romantic time traveler in About Time, he was one of Ma Ma’s lackeys in Dredd, and he was even a replicant of sorts in an episode of Black Mirror. Gleeson’s newest film is another science fiction film, Ex Machina, wherein he plays a programmer brought to a billionaire genius’ compound to be the human component in a Turing Test, opposite the most human A.I. ever created. We spoke to him about being at the center of this film, as well as his own turn as a robot, and even a bit about that little space movie coming out at the end of the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
NERDIST: You’ve worked with Alex Garland before, on Dredd and Never Let Me Go; did he come to you directly with Ex Machina?
DOMHNALL GLEESON: Yeah. I was very lucky. I got an email. I was doing a film called Frank—
N: Which is also great.
DG: Thank you. I got an email from Alex, quite a mysterious email, just saying; “Is this your email address?”, and I wrote back; “Yeah, yeah.” He said; “I’d like to send you something, would you have a read of it?” I read it and I was like, there’s only 4 parts in the film, so I was like, well, I think it’s not the Japanese girl. I thought; “Oh my god, jeez, if he’s interested in me for either of these, I would …” We’d also talked quite a bit about ideas on Dredd and Never Let Me Go, so I thought, well maybe he just wants to chat about the script or for some reason, be interested in my opinion. Obviously, I was hoping to play a role and pretty soon he said; “No, I actually want you to play ‘Caleb’, but we need to clear it with financiers and producers, so I would need to audition you. There’s still a hoop to jump through, but if we did it together, it’ll make it easier.”
I called ’round his house and we just began conspiring together for me to get the role. It’s quite a big jump up in terms of budget. It was similar to what About Time cost, I suppose. A lot to entrust an Irish unknown.
N: And a first-time director.
DG: Yeah. Alex goes on a bit, immediately, when you say “first-time director,” he’s got a major problem with that, even though it’s patently true. He’d been on all the sets I worked. He’d been heavily involved in Dredd, heavily involved in Never Let Me Go, was almost as authorial on those as he was in this, I think, to a certain degree. He sees it as a collaboration, but I disagree with him. I feel like I want to know who my director is and I was very glad that it was him on this one. I wouldn’t have wanted somebody else to be director on this. I wanted him to be director, you know? I’m happy it turned out that way.
N: And how is Alex as a director?
DG: Fantastic. See, this is the ironic thing. He doesn’t like taking praise either, and he works so well at deflecting it, and he’s right, because the production designer, the editor, costume, makeup, visual effects; obviously, all these people do not get enough attention. They don’t get, even the camera department, a lot of the choices that are made, all that praise is given to the director a lot of the time. He wants it given out. The score, and it’s fantastic, but the fact remains that Alex chose to work with those people in particular. I think that’s a very big thing. Also, on the floor, he’s very calm, he’s very direct. He tells you when he likes something, he tells you when he does not like something. You get on with the day’s work. We shot pretty quick on it; I thought he was wonderful.
N: There are only these three main parts, so a lot of the focus are on these long dialogue scenes.
DG: Yeah. Right, right. I mean, a lot of it is me talking to Oscar [Isaac], and then me talking to Alicia [Vikander]. It’s about being interesting enough, but not, also, a lot of those conversations have to sit with [my character Caleb] in the middle. It’s actually, weirdly, a difficult job, I think. I’m sure it all looks, I found it quite a challenging role, even though I know it looks like I’m probably just doing what I’ve done before. I found that role difficult to do, you know? It was a lot of weight to carry.
N: Let’s talk about working with the two other actors. Oscar’s character, Nathan, is a pretty intimidating force, both physically and mentally, so what were scenes like to film with him?
DG: Yeah, it was tough. It was tough. I think, my perspective would be that he brought a little bit of that alpha stuff to the room, sometimes, which is difficult, because it’s a way of working that I both buy into and don’t. For this movie, I think it paid off. I think you can feel that sense of oppression in the film. The thing of me and, I get on really well with Oscar. I really, really like him. He’s really funny. He’s very interesting, super intelligent, got great taste in music, he’s like a f***ing great guy. On set, he was an antagonist, he had to be, to me. He finished my sentences, he would cut me off, he would do all these things. I would just get more and more frustrated as the day went on. By the end of the day, I just wanted to murder him.
You just use that for the film, because that’s during the shots he’s doing that, he’s not doing that in between. He’s not being an asshole in between shots. Once you were up and running, I found it difficult to be around him. That’s Caleb, so I guess I bought in to my role, I guess he bought into his, and then we just went to work.
N: And then with Alicia, who is literally separated from you in the movie behind a glass partition, what was your working relationship with her like?
DG: We had ways of working before, from when we did Anna Karenina. We had little interesting bits in that film, working with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on that, he’s an amazing choreographer and dancer, and with Joe Wright on building a rapport, some of which we brought to Ex Machina. Really, what we’re doing there, is fostering, allowing some love to grow; a possibility of love, you know? It was so much nicer concentrating on love than it was on antagonism. I found the days with Alicia a lot easier than the days with Oscar, because one was about conflict and one was about love. It’s just nicer to go into work and love, than it is to go into work and fight.
N: You’ve been doing a lot of science fiction lately. Is that by choice? Do you like science fiction?
DG: I guess those are the scripts I found most interesting at those times, that I fought the hardest to get, for whatever reason that is. The ideas, Alex always says, I’m sure he said it if you were talking to him last week, perhaps he said it, anyways. Really, the interesting science fiction is more about people, often. As much about people as it is about science, it tells you more about people than it does about science, quite possibly. I think that is totally true with the ones I’ve done, for the most part, you know? About Time, I don’t know if you would call it a science fiction movie, a romantic comedy, or a father-son dramedy, or whatever the hell people would call that. Black Mirror and this, I would certainly put more in the realm of talking about how we see ourselves, how we think of ourselves, our loves, our fears, all those things. That’s how I read it more.
N: Your episode of Black Mirror, “Be Right Back,” was one of my favorites because it was the only one where I didn’t feel like killing myself at the end. Like it was the only one not intensely bleak, you know what I mean?
DG: Should I take that as a compliment? [laughter]
N: Yes! It was great.
DG: My two favorite episodes of Black Mirror are the one that I’m in, because I’m an egomaniac. No, the script for that was superb. Then “The Entire History of Us,” with Jodie Whittaker and Toby Kebbell, just so, so fantastic. My brother Brian told me to watch it, and I did. It’s like, wow, that has so much to say about people, jealousy, and the bad aspects of technology, how we use them. It’s not about the technology, it’s about how we use them, you know? I thought that was just a superb hour of television. I thought both their performances were just great in that.
N: Did you give Alicia any tips on portraying a robot since you’d done it first on that show?
DG: It was different because my guy was supposed to be empty on some level, because he’s based on Facebook, Twitter, and postings. He’s based on an online persona and not on a person. The difference between a persona and a person is very clear. What we would do is, we only had like two takes on those, really, because we shot the whole thing in two weeks for Black Mirror. It would be more about doing one with just a little more connected and then one just a little bit more remote, and then talking to them. They showed me stuff at the edit and stuff, they were very nice about that. I said; “I’m trusting you a lot to make my …”. Finding the line was difficult. You wanted to give them choices, but then you didn’t want him to just be a normal guy.
I think one of the producers wanted me to play him as he was before, and I was like; “You’ll lose the whole, you’ll lose any sense of creepiness if it’s just– don’t just do the facts. Let’s get a performance, here.” I was happy with how it worked out, but it helped that Hayley [Atwell] was so good. We had a strong connection, I think.
N: According to the IMDb, you’re in the new Star Wars movie.
DG: Yeah, yeah, I hope IMDb is right.
N: We are the Nerdist, so I’m going ask you what you can tell us about that. Or are you NDA’d up the ass?
DG: I mean, similarly NDA’d to Caleb in Ex Machina, it’s a similar thing. Yeah, man. All I can say is that I want to see the movie just as much as everybody else, and that I’m going in unburdened by the previous ones. I’m leaving all that behind and just going to take this one on it’s own merit. There was an excitement on set about getting to do this that was present everywhere, that I found very inspiring. I thought J.J. was wonderful. The love for the movie was everywhere. I hope when people see it, they have that love sparked. I think if they can do that, then we’ll be in a really good place. I hope that’s what happens.
You can see Domhnall Gleeson in Ex Machina in select theaters now, coming to more on April 24th, in Season 2, episode 1 of Black Mirror on Netflix, and APPARENTLY Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December.