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Domhnall Gleeson & Alicia Vikander talk robots and chemistry in Ex_Machina

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Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander are the kind of effortless stars that seem to have arrived overnight. Gleeson has carved a niche for himself as an alternative leading man in the last couple of years, delighting us in Frank and About Time, as well as a whole host of supporting credits in a roster of envious titles – including the highly anticipated seventh chapter in the Star Wars saga.

Vikander, conversely, is a Swedish born actress who has gained critical acclaim for her turn in the fantastic Danish feature A Royal Affair, and is set to impress further in British First World War drama Testament of Youth (read our interview with her about that film here)and pulpy Australian thriller Son of a Gun.

The two share an extremely similar stratospheric rise to stardom, yet let’s not forget they’ve already shared screen time together - playing husband and wife in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. So when The National Student gets the opportunity to catch up with the pair in the Soho Hotel during press duties for the upcoming Sci-fi thriller Ex Machina there’s an air that these two actors have a very bright future ahead of themselves.

Ex Machina, on the other hand, sadly displays a not so bright future. Gleeson plays Caleb, a coder who’s invited to spend a week with the mysterious CEO of the fictional Bluebook Corporation Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac). Whilst there he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with extremely advanced Artificial Intelligence, with whom he’s tasked by Nathan to test. The film is a moody psychological thriller and is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

Back in Soho Hotel the pair, Gleeson with long shaggy hair and beard (a hangover from his time on the Star Wars set?) and Vikander in an elegant, spotless white outfit, act like two peas in a pod – it’s easy to see why the two have such a great chemistry onscreen.

Did you feel a need to understand the science behind the film when researching your roles?

DG: I watched documentaries and read a certain amount, but I just needed to know what I was talking about.

AV: Yeah, in one way with Ava we don’t know whether she exists. So, it was a bit of a clean sheet creating her, but then of course I did the same thing - I read up. I think what helped me most was a fear of robots, which I think a lot of people share. In a way, it was interesting because I was questioning why I felt that way. I began to read a lot about the human body and brain function. And suddenly after reading two books I started to feel like a machine! Because I read about dopamines and electrodes, about why I feel certain things, why I fall in love, and suddenly I started to see myself as an organic machine. It helped me to open up and be a bit more welcoming to the idea of robots, in a sense.

How did the production achieve the robotic look of Ava?

AV: Well, I was wearing a Spider-man-looking grey suit that you could see parts of. So I had that very tight onesie on while shooting the film and I spent about four and a half hours every morning [in hair and make-up]. And the shape that you see as Ava was what we saw. So it was a bit strange.

DG: Other-worldly, yeah. It was brilliant because they built the forehead back and actually had it drop down onto the skullcap. They didn’t have to do that, and I loved the fact that they did.

AV: Well, it was a money issue, I think.

DG: (Mock correcting himself) …they did have to do that.

AV: You kind of forget, because it was such a special look and you don’t think about it. I remember the first time I went to the canteen at the studio and I had a little warm coat on and I went in and ordered food and suddenly the entire place just turned their heads. I wondered why, and then I remembered what I looked like.

DG: You walked back to your table like this…(Does impression of robotic walking)

Can you describe your first reaction when you read Alex Garland’s script?

DG: I thought it was phenomenal.

AV: Its one of the best scripts I’ve read.

DG: Yeah, I think it might be one the best, just as a piece of work. He’s the sort of writer that I’m in love with. I love the way he writes. I love the sort of material he creates and I love how concise he is. One sentence tells you…

DG & AV: Everything.

AV: The way I read it, I couldn’t stop, just like the best books, the thrillers I’ve read. I kind of hope I had the same journey that the audience will when watching the film. It was very rare, normally you have to use your imagination quite a lot and I was just sucked into it. Normally you have stage directions telling you things and in this script there was so much in the subtext and the story is within the dialogue with those three characters. And still with Ava, I wanted to play her. She isn’t really described - what she is, how she talks. It’s all just so subtle.

Did that give you a lot of freedom with the role?

AV: Yeah, it did. I’m glad that Alex invited me to have quite long conversations about her – trying to figure out who she was. But he was also very open to let me do my thing.

With Ex Machina, Frank and About Time, you seem to like playing the ‘Average Joe’ thrust into very outlandish and extraordinary circumstances. What is it about that role that appeals to you as an actor, Domhnall?

DG: It’s interesting, it’s not necessarily the role, it’s the project. I want to be a part of telling good stories. And being central to those sort of stories is something I really treasure. I never thought I’d have the chance to be in every scene in a film for example, I didn’t know that was what was ahead for me. Having done it three or four times now – I can’t believe it, it’s the best thing ever. Possibly, it’s also the thing that people are interested in me for, rather than the other way round. I guess I look more like a normal person than some movies stars, something like that. Often the way an audience experiences the movie is through those characters, especially those three instances, for example. Cillian Murphy in Sunshine and 28 Days Later, two of Alex’s other films that he wrote, they’re towering performances that I’d love to be able to get close to.

The two of you have a great chemistry on-screen. That’s because you’ve worked together before, and met first at the Berlin Film Festival…

AV: Yeah, we did. We were two of the ten ‘Shooting Stars’. We were paired up for interviews and I answered a question saying, ‘Well, y’know, its fun meeting all the young actors and Domhnall, I admire his work –‘

DG: Older…

AV: ‘Y’know maybe he’ll be done in this industry by then (They both laugh),but I hope we get the chance to work together.’

DG: Yeah!

AV: And then it was a year later, it’s quite extraordinary.

DG: It’s crazy. And we got to do it twice. There’s no one I’d rather work with. I think Alicia’s extraordinary.

AV: Likewise dude, come on. And it was so sweet – Alex didn’t know we’d worked together…

DG: I know, Anna Karenina isn’t his sort of movie. (They laugh)

AV: ‘What? You worked together!?’

DG: ‘Yeah, we were married.’

And obviously you’ve gotten to work with Oscar Isaac again on the upcoming Star Wars movie…

DG: Look at this face. (He gives a comically stern look) As I said earlier, it was crazy, I walked into the [Star Wars] table-read and there he was, I didn’t know he was gonna be there, because I didn’t know anyone who was gonna be there-

AV: It’s great, everyone in Ex Machina is in it. Except me! (They laugh)

DG: Everyone! Pretty much all three - Errr, pretty much the whole cast!

What was Alex’s work ethic like onset?

DG: I haven’t worked like that before. I don’t know whether you’d call Caleb an ‘everyman’, I suppose in some ways he is. Mystery was the word Alex used quite a lot, and I wrote it on the front of my script. He was like, ‘maintain mystery, always concentrate on keeping mystery involved within the room.’ And that being the objective was wonderful. Having that at the forefront, and working like that was great.

Ex Machina (2015), written and directed by Alex Garland is released in UK cinemas on 21st January, Certificate 15.

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