Oscar Isaac has delivered another superb performance in Alex Garland's “Ex Machina.” It follows a National Board of Review-winning turn in “A Most Violent Year” which, frankly, should have earned him an Academy Award nomination this past January. Of course, you could also say he should have received more recognition for his work in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Drive,” but Isaac's time will come. Potentially with whatever projects he chooses after shooting “X-Men: Apocalypse” this summer. But, before we get to Isaac's blueprint or building his character in “Machina” let's get to the subject you probably really want him to hear about, “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”
Frankly, the mantra for anyone working on any J.J. Abrams directed movie is that you keep your lips sealed and don't reveal anything to the press. And that means almost everything is under wraps unless you're playing Han Solo, Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker (mostly). Isaac, who has always been pretty frank in our previous interviews, has made some public comments about his experience on the picture which made me wonder just how formal a “keep things quiet” discussion was held when he got the role.
Isaac clarifies, “You have to keep it under wraps. You do sign the things.* Of course, everyone that comes to visit on set does. Yeah, so there definitely is the talk about keep it under wraps.”
But, then there was this intriguing nugget about his role as Poe Dameron, a Rebel X-Wing fighter.
“The truth is I didn't know until I saw the trailer. I wasn”t even sure I was still going to be in the movie,” Isaac says. “You never know. I”ve kind of gotten misquoted as saying I”m in the next one. I have no idea. You know, they [reporter asked], 'Was I excited to work with them?' Of course, I”d be excited to work with them. I have no idea if I”m going to, but yeah, there”s a lot of unknown elements.”
*Likely a contractual non-disclosure agreement.
While his public profile has grown, Isaac has been dealing with the media for quite some time. He knows they are looking for tidbits on his bigger or high profile films (oh, hi Madonna's “W.E.”) and often he's just as curious as we are about how it will all turn out.
“There”s so many people and so many components and there”s such a thirst for content that unfortunately one of the ramifications is that you get left in the dark a lot more than with the smaller movies because they have to be so protective, understandably so about everything,” Isaac admits. “Sometimes the collaborative aspects can become a little bit more difficult.”
And, now, back to the really juicy stuff from “Ex Machina.”
In case you hadn't heard, Garland's original screenplay centers on a young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who has been dropped off at the remote estate of his company's mysterious and genius founder, Nathan (Isaac). Caleb has won a contest at their Google-like company to spend a week with this mysterious figure, but he soon learns, however, that he's been recruited for a specific experiment. Nathan has secretly been developing an artificial intelligence that “lives” within a walking and talking robotic body. Caleb has been brought in to interact with Eva (Alicia Vikander) and help determine if “she” has really reached a true level of independent consciousness.
“Machina” is a movie full of unexpected surprises and Nathan is one of them. For the most part, he's not the stereotypical programmer-entrepreneur that Hollywood has seemingly made into a cliché over the past 15 years. Nathan won't remind you of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. He's someone else entirely. That being said…
“He incorporates the pro billionaire speak. You know the 'dudes,' the 'bros' and all that whole aspect of it,” Isaac says. “I though, 'I don”t need to research that because that”s [in the script].' What I”m interested in is the idea that he”s a savant. He was 13-years-old when he wrote this code. That he”s maybe street smart. That he”s a fatalist. That he”s misanthropic. That he doesn”t think too highly of humanity. That he is open about his damaged almost juvenile look at sexuality to a certain extent. And he”s honest. Well, honest is a difficult word. He tells the truth.”
Isaac continues, “Everything that he says stands up. Actually, even his arguments philosophically stand up. You know, I would defy anyone to be very up front with his or her porn history. We all have pretty [expletive]-up sexual proclivities and his is on the scale of [expletive]-up. I mean, it”s like, what if your iPad was semi-sentient? It probably wouldn”t be too happy about its place in the universe. And, yet, we”d be fine with just keeping I guess like, 'Hey man, I”m gonna jerk off onto it.' So, if he”s by himself all alone up there for four or five years why wouldn”t, you know, why wouldn”t he make his creation sexually stimulating. He”s beyond red tube.”
Isaac is referencing some of Nathan's questionable actions that audiences will be debating soon as they walk out of the theater. Trying to keep spoilers at a minimum, how Nathan uses the robots with A.I. for his own personal use will disturb many. And, yet, if they don't have true consciousness, does it matter? Isaac's true inspiration for Nathan may help form a clearer picture of his character's motivations.
“I didn”t go to pro billionaires,” Isaac says. “Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick were my two big inspirations for Nathan. Bobby Fischer because he was so brilliant, but so damaged and definitely, towards the end of his life, just rotten with hatred, you know? He was incredibly anti-Semitic. He was [expletive]-ed up. But he was also streetwise and he was self-taught. He actually had an Olympic trainer when he was training for his matches.”
Nathan's look and public persona, on the other hand, came from the secretive and perfectionist filmmaker.
“Those glasses and the owl eyes and the shaved head and the beard. Even his speech patterns. That”s why he kind of sounded a little bit like he was from the Bronx, because both Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick were from the Bronx. They were New Yorkers,” Isaac says. “And I played a lot of chess while we were doing it. I”m not a great chess player, but it just helped the feeling of I”m looking at all the directions I need to go to. [Nathan is] 20 moves ahead constantly. Everything that he says and does is a calculation. Everything.”
For a movie that's as much of a mind game as “Machina” is, this background may make you reconsider Nathan. Moreover, seeing the movie for a second time may completely change your perspective on the events that occur within his estate (no doubt music to A24's ears).
“It is funny because my girlfriend, who”s a hyper feminist, the first time she saw it she”s like, 'I hated you so much,'” Isaac says. “She saw it a second time and was like, 'I kind of saw the whole thing from his perspective now and you realize he”s actually telling the truth the whole time. He”s kind of the good guy here. A good guy if you see that all he”s doing is running an experiment.'”
Now that he's done with a short promotional tour for “Machina,” Isaac will continue prepping for his role as the villainous and seemingly immortal mutant Apocalypse in the follow up to last year's blockbuster, “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” He's hoping to follow that up by staging a new adaptation of “Hamlet” this fall in New York. Beyond that, well, Isaac, like most true talents, doesn't have a master plan for what's next.
“I”m not thinking that far ahead because it”s boring to be honest,” Isaac says. “Because it”s art – for me that aspect of it is so much more interesting than the more commercial ideas. I don”t mean that by, like, commercial films [themselves]. For me, even those are about ideas and a character, 'Oh, this is an interesting meditation on this' and also working with certain people and being part of those worlds.”
And this is what Isaac leaves you with after talking to him. If he doesn't get to appear in the follow-up to “A Force Awakens”? No skin off his back. He'll just movie on to whatever's next.
Then again, maybe he's such a good actor he just wants us to think that…I might need to read this interview again.
“Ex Machina” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.