Alicia Vikander: Pure Instinct | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Alicia Vikander, Star of “Ex Machina”

Pure Instinct

Apr 15, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Throughout writer/director Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller, Ex Machina, tension gradually mounts between the contrasting realms of nature and technology, where Swedish actress Alicia Vikander found reference points for envisioning Ava, the alluring robot she plays in the film. "I always saw her as something very pure, almost doe-like," Vikander says, adding, "Like Apple products sometimes, it's something very simple and pure and clean."

Ava, composed of metal, silicon and gel, is the creation of billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac), a software genius who founded the world's dominant Internet search engine, Blue Book. Nathan isolates Ava to a sealed section of his expansive home/research facility nestled in the remote mountains of Alaska, tantalizing her with just a single window to the stunning landscape outside. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young coder at Blue Book, thinks he's won a contest to visit the reclusive CEO at his home for a week, but Nathan's ulterior motive is to have Caleb perform a Turing test on Ava through a series of face-to-face sessions, to see if he can distinguish her artificial intelligence from that of a human. Through Vikander's gently nuanced portrayal, Ava comes off as naïve, inquisitive, lonely, and highly perceptive. As she begins to win Caleb's affection, he questions whether Nathan has programmed her to seduce him.

Ex Machina is Vikander's breakout film in a breakout year. By December, she will have starred in nine films released in the U.S. in 2015. She plays English writer and pacifist Vera Brittain in the adaptation of Brittain's World War I-era memoir, Testamant of Youth, opening in June. Later this year, she'll appear with Michael Fassbender in Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans and also alongside Eddie Redmayne in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl. Over the course of three years, Vikander has acted in films set in each century dating back to the 1600s.

Under the Radar spoke with Vikander last week to discuss her approach to playing a robot in Ex Machina, her involvement in the promotion of the film via Tinder, and Eddie Redmayne's Academy Award win in February.   

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): Can you tell me about the audition tape that you made for this film, for the part of Ava?

Alicia Vikander: I read the script, and I thought it was one of the best I'd ever read, and I was away in Australia shooting [Son of a Gun]. There was no real chance for me to get into the room with Alex or people involved in the project. I actually got help from people who were filming with me, like the Director of Photography [Nigel Bluck] and one of the assistant directors, at 2 a.m. putting together this tape. We tried to make a little short film. We took one of the interrogation scenes. It was a very different Ava from the one in the film, and that's because there weren't many stage directions in the script, which in some ways is a good thing, 'cause that just makes your imagination have to work for itself. I actually used half a bottle of sun screen that I put on my face, and tied my hair really tight and tried to do whatever I thought was Avarobotic. That was my sole tape and the thing that Alex saw. And then of course whatever work you do with the director after you've spoken to them, when you've shared your vision or what you want to make, becomes something different. 

You had worked with Domhnall before in Anna Kerenina. Did you two discuss this film at all before being cast?

He was cast before me. I knew that he was involved, and that was of course something that drew me even more to the project, because I loved and enjoyed working with Domhnall. I did send him an email, and I said, "I heard you're attached,' and he said, "Yeah, I love this project." I was thrilled when I was invited to join them on this journey. It is great to come back and work with someone that you've already done things with, 'cause you never have much time shooting a film. Just the fact that you already have a relationship going and a way to work, and a way to feel relaxed in the work you do together, makes it easier. It was a very different film, so we both did very different work with it. It didn't feel like we went back and repeated something that we had done before. I work great with Domhnall. He's such a good actor. He listens and kind of forces me in each take to do something very new. It's always exciting and organic and alive, whatever happens in our scenes.

With your dad being a sci-fi fan, is this the ultimate film for him?

[Laughs] I think he was very excited. My parents normally read my scripts, and I ask them for their opinions. It was the first film where he actually came and joined me on set too. He came all the way to Norway to see me shooting a few of those scenes and was very happy. [Laughs

The last time we spoke, you told me how he took you to see the original Star Wars. Is he excited about the new film, at least knowing that your Ex Machina co-stars are a part of it?

I know! He knows that. I definitely know that he's going to run to the theaters and see it. Maybe I'll go and see it with him.

Aside from allowing your image to be used, were you otherwise involved at all with the marketing via Tinder that coincided with SXSW?

I was not. A24 have done an amazing job promoting this film, and it is a film I care about so much, but that was a little mistake that was made. I wasn't asked. I did not know they were going to use my pictures for that. So that's something that they've come back and apologized to me personally for doing. That's all sorted out now.

Where did they get those photos?

I don't know. And that's why they apologized, because they're not photos connected with the film.

Did you have to cut your hair to play Ava?

I did not, but it took me four-and-a-half hours in makeup every day. I had my hair shorter. They made it very close to my head with a lot of product, and then they built the silver mesh on top of my skull. Whatever figure you see in the film, the shape of Ava, that was me. The silver mesh that you see was covering my entire body. So it was a bit like a Spider-Man suit. And then they built my forehead on top of my skull each morning, so they were long days, very many hours of makeup.

You've talked about how your dance background was an asset for the physicality of this role, and that's quite evident when seeing the film, but I was curious what your approach was to how Ava speaks.

I wanted her to be very much a girl, someone who aimed to be much a girl, so I found that voice and way of moving. I tried to aim for perfect movement, letting everything come in a sudden flow of being very organic. It also felt more robotic 'cause humans are inconsistent and have a lot of flaws, and to bring it back to something pure made it look a bit offbeat. So yeah, I did use my ballet background, but we had a lot of discussions. Alex said, "I saw your tape. I want you to just go for it." That's a big trust thing, which means a lot, to have a director who gives you a chance to try things out first. And then of course he can come in and be a support and help you. But it was really something that developed in rehearsals, from the first ideas that I had in the beginning, and I just got to try it out, try to get it into my body and find that voice. 

Ava likes to sketch, and you play an artist in The Danish Girl. Have you had any previous experience with those mediums?

Before, when I'd just hear the word Pictionary, that would freak me out. To put a pen to a blank piece of paper made me frightened, 'cause I've never been able to paint or do any of that. But now, with The Danish Girl, it's been fun. I've met some artists, and they took me in. The biggest thing was the fear, telling myself that I couldn't do it. Then I had people giving me exercises, saying: "Here's a piece of charcoal, put in on the canvas, and for three-and-a-half minutes just go for it. You can't stop moving the charcoal, and you can't lift it off the paper." That was a good exercise, and after a while, I started to enjoy it. So no, I definitely did not have any experience in that before, but a wonderful thing with filmmaking is you sometimes get to try things that normally you would never do.

What was it like seeing Eddie Redmayne win the Academy Award? Had you been working with him in any capacity before that?

No. We had only presented a BAFTA award together. We met at some events in London and we have some common friends. I've admired his work. He did an amazing job in The Theory of Everything, and he's doing a very different job in this one. He's an extraordinary actor, and we all were so excited for him, and he practically went straight from the awards back to set and back to work, which also shows what a hard-working actor he is.

Have you used any of the Danish that you picked up while making A Royal Affair?

I got the chance while spending two weeks in Copenhagen shooting the film, to practice my Danish again with a Danish crew. That was fun. [Laughs]

Ex Machina currently is playing in New York and Los Angeles. The film will expand nationwide on April 24. Visit www.Meet-Ava.com to sign up for one of the promotional screenings taking place nationwide on Thursday, April 16.

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