Domhnall Gleeson on "Ex Machina" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Domhnall Gleeson on “Ex Machina”

On a Path to the Stars

Apr 09, 2015 Web Exclusive
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All signs point to 2015 being the year when actor Domhnall Gleeson finally becomes a star. He opens strong in the lead role of filmmaker Alex Garland's sci-fi mindbender Ex Machina; later this fall, he's slated to appear in The Revenant, the newest feature from Birdman director (and Oscar winner) Alejandro González Iñárritu. In December, he'll finish out the year with a part in the highly-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, likely to be 2015's biggest movie. That's the sort of one-, two-, three-film punch that most young actors only dream of; for Gleeson, it's years of hard work beginning to pay dividends.

In this Q&A, Gleeson tells us more about Ex Machina and how his father and brother-the actors Brendan and Brian Gleeson-inspire his work.

 Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): You and writer/director Alex Garland overlapped on Dredd and Never Let Me Go before doing this film together. Did you have any idea that Ex Machina was in the works before he sent you the screenplay?

Domhnall Gleeson: No. Literally, no idea at all. I got an email from Alex asking if he had my email address, because we hadn't been in touch since I had been in Dredd. I said yes, and he said "I've got a script I'd like to send you." And he sent me the best script I'd read in a very, very long time. It was just superb. I remember reading it, and thinking it was precisely the sort of movie I'd always wanted to be in. You know, I never thought I'd get the chance at being the lead. I had to go through an audition process. Alex had kind of decided he wanted me for the role; that I could do the job for him. But there's everybody else you have to convince, like the producers. So I ran to his house and auditioned with him, and we started and stopped until we had it right and thought we could convince the guys who put it together. And then I got the phone call saying I was good to go. I was just utterly delighted.

The movie unfolds with a lot of surprising turns. When you first read the script, were you able to guess how it would play out?

No, and it's really funny about that. When I read the script, I remember the feeling. I thought I knew what was going to happen, and then 10 pages later, I'd go, "Oh, no, now I know what's going to happen." And then 10 pages later, I'd go, "No, no, no. Now that person..." and then 10 pages later going, "No, no, no, no, no." It switched every 10 pages, and by the end of the film I think I had convinced myself at various points of every conceivable outcome. That each was the definite road it was going to take. The ending that was there was by far the one that made the most sense. It wasn't just a twist ending, but one that had grown out of everything that had come before. That's why I think this is one of Alex's best. I think Alex is happier with this than with any of his other films, and part of the reason for that I think is that the ending is total.

In the film, Oscar Isaac is really the alpha male. Your character is dominated by him-intellectually, physically-on almost every level. As an actor, is it a challenge to maintain a submissive stance, and to play a character that so rarely has any leverage over anyone else in the film?

You've hit the nail on the head. It was very, very difficult. Just as a human being, you feel like you have no power in the situation-it's one of the worst feelings you can have. It drives so much anger and self-loathing and degradation-those things all pop up when you feel like you've had your power taken away, and somebody else is presiding power over you. I did feel that very acutely, and I did get very frustrated and very annoyed. I would talk to Alex about that-and this is where Alex is brilliant-at the end of the day, I would say, "Alex, I'm doing nothing in the film. I feel like Oscar just gets to punch the walls down and do everything. I've just got to sit here and fucking listen and take it. It's driving me insane. Why am I here?" And he would say-well, one of my favorite movies is Sunshine, which he wrote-and he would say that Cillian Murphy, in his opinion, probably felt the same way on Sunshine. He was holding everything together. He was telling the story, actually, the audience was with him. It was necessary for the audience to feel his struggle as the film went on. He kept reminding me of that, which helped, because I'm such a fan of Cillian and such a fan of that film. It put me in my proper place. But yeah, it got pretty heavy at times, and Alex is good at dealing with me when it got like that.

Alex Garland has said several times now that in regards to this film, he finds himself sympathizing with the machines. I'm wondering, who do you sympathize with in the movie? Caleb, or Ava?

It was always Caleb, first and foremost. I could feel his pain coming off the pages when I read this. His uncertainty, his goodness, and his morality were very present, and his struggle was so hard against these crazy people. And his love, his love that grows for Ava-I'm always on the side of the person who loves. But yeah, with Ava-there is a point where she begins to feel like a girl, like a consciousness, like she's human. And he begins to think, "God, this person is locked away. This person with unlimited potential is being denied the world, and that's not all right." And actually Caleb is part of that system just by questioning her. And so yeah, I would flip back and forth at times, but I never lost my empathy for Caleb or Caleb's situation.

Let's pivot to science fiction, as a genre. You've acted in many sci-fi films, but are you a sci-fi fan outside of your work?

Yes, I am. I'm not a total sci-fi maniac-I just like good stories-but it so often happens that [the two go hand-in-hand.] You're not going to ever make a better film than Blade Runner. It's just not going to happen. It's just the pinnacle of filmmaking and storytelling, and the fact that it has this science twist on it and talks about being something other than human-it tells us way more about what it really means to be human.

You've said before that you're not competitive with your brother or father when it comes to film roles.

No, not at all.

Let's imagine, completely speculatively, if there are any roles your father has played-if the movies were to be made down the road, when you're old enough to play those parts-that you think you'd have fun with?

Oh, wow, that's great. I've never been asked that before. There are a few. So my dad was in a movie called I Went Down-it's a comedy, and it was back in 1996. I laughed so much at that film. It was a Tarantino-meets-Coen Brothers, brilliant, brilliant comedy. Hilarious. I'd love to try that one. And I'd love to work with [John] Boorman on The General, give that a shot. And then anything with the McDonaghs [Martin and John Michael McDonagh]: In Bruges, The Guard, and Cavalry. There's no way I would have approached the level of work he did-I wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to it-but in terms of parts that I'd read and I'd say, "Holy shit, I would love to try that," all of those parts, I'd love to have a go at.

And then my brother, a year ago, was in this play called The Night Alive, by Conor McPherson. I went to see that play and my brother was brilliant-it just blew my head off. He was playing this psychopath, a really quiet psychopath. Absolutely blew my head off. I thought, that's just incredible, and one day I'd love to play something like that. Both [my father and brother] are inspiring in lots of different ways.

I know you have ambitions on the other side of the camera, too-that you write and direct. You've been working on a feature screenplay that you've had to put on the backburner-do you think that's something you'll get back to?

 Funnily enough, that script, in the last couple days, has started worming its way back into my head. I've been stuck in this hotel room here, thinking about my life and my life previous to this, and all those things that mattered to me when I was writing that script. And actually everything is the same; nothing has changed. So yeah, I think I want to dip my head back in there.

[Pick up Under the Radar's next print issue to read more from our interview with Domhnall Gleeson and a whole separate article on him and Ex Machina.]



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