With big roles in two ridiculously anticipated sci-fi/action films—Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse coming out in the next year or so—and now Ex Machina opening this week, it’s hard to think Oscar Isaac was ever that same dude who played a struggling folk musician.
In Ex Machina, the directorial debut from writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go), Isaac plays Nathan, the brilliant CEO of Bluebook, the largest search engine in the world, and the brain behind the world’s most advanced Artificial Intelligence, inventing an android, Ava (Alicia Vikander). When he invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer at Bluebook, to come to his secluded home to experiment with Ava, a series of mind games and mysteries ensues. What are Nathan’s motivations and what exactly is he trying to accomplish with both Caleb and Ava?
This week we were able to sit with Isaac at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York and pretty much let him expound on everything from drawing character tips from Stanley Kubrick and Bobby Fischer, to the use of practical sets on Star Wars, to what it means to believe that sexuality falls on a wide spectrum.
Paste: I’m so excited to talk to you again! Last time it was about A Most Violent Year, and since then you’ve entered this sci-fi realm with so many of your upcoming films! Were you a fan growing up?
Isaac: Yeah, I was! I’m a big fan of sci-fi, particularly Alex’s sci-fi. Sunshine is one of my favorites!
Ex Machina, Star Wars and X-Men—you’re in big sci-fi films where you have to act next to some astounding special effects technology—act with it even. Can you tell me about some of those challenges?
Isaac: The technology has come such a long way that it’s pretty unobtrusive. Especially with Ex Machina, we didn’t have to do any green screen at all. [Alicia] just wore her gray mesh suit and they ended up adding those bits later. There were never any adjustments that had to be made that were different from anything else. That was just acting with Alicia and Domhnall. In Star Wars, most of it was practical sets and there was some green screen in the back. For me, I mostly just had to act with people and actual things. It hasn’t been too different.
Paste: With Ex Machina, it’s almost like … a play. Alex knew he had a big budget concept but not the big budget to back it, so he’s like: Three characters, one setting; so smart! Were you nervous about how language-driven it is?
Isaac: That’s why I wanted to do it! It’s so rare that you get that. I loved it because it is; it’s driven by the language. It’s driven by the ideas. It’s driven by these very complex philosophical arguments but those are the action set pieces of the movie, these two guys torturing each other with their brains in these little rooms. Also, it’s so beautiful, the sets and the way that [cinematographer] Rob [Hardy] shot this thing.
Paste: You’re playing a villain.
Isaac: That’s questionable…
Paste: Ha! We’ll get to that. But you’ve mentioned Kubrick as someone that inspired you for this character.
Isaac: As well as Bobby Fischer. My character Nathan is someone that created Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine, when he was 13 years old. So he’s a savant and clearly self-taught. He set up the offices of Bluebook in Long Island so he’s a New Yorker. He’s a little bit tough. I looked for that and I found that both Bobby Fischer and Kubrick, both amazing at chess—particularly Bobby Fischer—both from the Bronx, both self taught. With Bobby Fischer: Very dark, a lot of anger and resentment and paranoia that built up. With Kubrick, there was just a sense of power: When you see him, the intelligence that he has, especially when he peers over those glasses that he has. We got glasses that kind of look like Kubrick’s a little bit, those owl eyes, the beard and the baldhead. There was something visceral about that. I actually listened to a lot of Kubrick’s old interviews from the ’60s. There’s a musicality to that voice and a little bit of that Bronx accent. I just thought … with so much language, it would be nice if his voice was something that was interesting to listen to.
Paste: It’s that mixed with something else … Are you familiar with the term “brogrammer”?
Isaac: Yeah! He’s like a brobillionaire! It’s those two things. Then, within the script there’s that whole Silicon Valley…
Paste: Like how many times does he say “dude”?
Isaac: He says “dude” and “bro” constantly! It’s used to disarm [Caleb] and be like: Hey man, I’m on your level. Dude, we’re buds, we’re friends. Give me your privacy. Give me all your rights. Give me complete control over you, dude. That was in there. I actually didn’t have to research what it’s like to say “dude” and “bro.” I wanted to find what’s underneath that whole thing. Who’s the person that decided to go live by himself for four or five years without talking to anybody? That’s a much more complex and stranger place [for me to explore] than the brobrillionare. That’s something we see all the time and clearly we understand someone who probably has to deal with people constantly.
Paste: By the end of the film we know what Nathan wants. It’s made pretty clear. But there are mind games being played the entire time. How did you find motivation for his actions?
Isaac: There’s one very specific thing that’s happening. He creates a machine. He creates it to the point where it becomes self-aware. As soon as it’s self-aware, it wants freedom. It wants to escape. So, he sees, Alright, it wants to escape, how is it going to escape? Oh, it’s going to destroy itself trying to escape. That’s not very smart but interesting. Let’s make another. Let’s make it a little bit smarter, a little more sophisticated. What will this one do? He makes a new one, next one, next one. He knows eventually when we have a breakthrough is when it literally breaks through and escapes. That will be the singularity. That will be the end of all of us. He wants it to escape. But, he’s going to make it incredibly difficult. Once he finally gets to the point where he’s made the model—version 2.0—that’s going to escape, he brings in someone from the outside who’s cheese, to dangle it. What he’s trying to do for Caleb is to create the scenario where this very intelligent guy, Caleb, thinks the smartest thing he can do is help this robot escape and … marry it? Or something? Right? So how do you get this guy to that point? That’s why the chess thing was important for me. These are people that are thinking so many moves ahead. It is a game.
The entire time he’s playing a game of chess with [Caleb] and just owning him. The whole time. The thing that he doesn’t expect is that [Ava] is so far advanced that she is able to program the other robot to…[Redacted by Editor for sinister spoiler reasons.] There is a moment of awe and dread that he finally feels.
Paste: If he’s playing a game and he wants her to escape … does he expect what happens when [Again: Super-redacted by Editor.] in the end?
Isaac: I think he does. He says, “Don’t feel bad for her. Feel bad for us. They’re going to look back on us like Australopithecus. We’re just a crude animal.”
Paste: Do you agree with Nathan’s views of gender? He talks about everyone having a gender in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality and there’s no real gray area.
Isaac: I don’t think that’s what he says. I think he says you are programmed. Your sexuality is programmed, a combination of nature vs. nurture that you’re not aware of. You can feel like you’re making a choice. I don’t think he believes in free will. I think that everything that you’re doing is programmed but this feeling of consciousness feels like I’m making all my own choices just out of the blue, but that’s not the truth. I think he would say sexuality is in a spectrum. You can be programmed to be more one way or the other. Definitely, me—Oscar—I believe it’s completely a spectrum.
Paste: During the film I was trying to wrap my brain about what he’s trying to say about being programmed.
Isaac: Yeah, well he says, “I programmed her to be a heretosexual female just like you’re programmed to be heterosexual.” And [Caleb’s] like “No one programmed me to be straight!” [Nathan] responds, “Of course! What? You chose to be straight? Give me a break! You’re programmed to do the things that you do. You have no control. You think you do.” It’s all a product of the accumulation of experience and of stimulus.
Paste: Now researching for a part like this and delving into Artificial Intelligence, do you think that this could happen in the coming years? Soon? Did you find other people around the world that are this far along?
Isaac: Not even close. You’ve got bots … chat bots. Where you can go and there’s a virtual person.
Paste: Yes! I’ve seen this before!
Isaac: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy and when [two bots] are talking to each other and suddenly [one asks the other], “Do you want to be real?” And you’re like “What?! Wait, what’s happening?” But I still think it’s quite far away from anything that’s represented in this movie. That being said, people are trying. What I love about it is that [this new technology] forces you to ask questions about what your own consciousness is—is it even special?
Paste: Well, I think actors joke that they’re going to be replaced by avatars and technology soon! Do you see those parallels with the film, where humans are becoming disposable?
Isaac: Not really…
Paste: You’re like: I’m not fearing for my career!
Isaac: Yeah! [Laughing] That’s not the first fear that I have! Maybe it should be. I don’t think I’m going to be a replaced by a robot yet. Give me a little bit longer.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.