Interview with Domhnall Gleeson, star of ‘Ex Machina’ thriller

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Domhnall Gleeson. If you haven’t heard his name, then you’ve probably seen him. He starred in “About Time” alongside Rachel McAdams in 2013 and was also in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” Oscar-nominated “Anna Karenina,” and other feature films. And if that isn’t impressive enough, the breakout actor scored a role in the highly anticipated “Star Wars: Episode VII.”

All filmography aside, Gleeson has genuine talent and a charisma that will continue to land him roles in top-notch films.

Gleeson showcases his advanced acting ability in his latest venture, “Ex Machina.” This mind-bending new film blends sci-fi elements with psychological thriller twists and turns.

“Ex Machina” follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he spends a tumultuous week with his mysterious boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Over the course of the week, Caleb analyzes Nathan’s complex creation named Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robot with artificial intelligence. Check out my review for a full run-down of “Ex Machina” and why I thought it was the best film I’d seen all year.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Gleeson about the film. Here is your exclusive Q&A:

The DC: There is certainly an underlying level of gripping suspense throughout the entire film that kept me on the edge of my seat, which is one of the things I loved about it. Did you feel that intensity while filming?

Gleeson: “Absolutely. The stakes were so high all the time. Even when Caleb is relaxing with Nathan, there is always something hidden. There’s always that level of tension right beneath the surface. It was very psychologically tiring to deal with that everyday for such long periods of time. There was something exhilarating about it though.”

The DC: Your character, Caleb, certainly talks about a lot of advanced concepts in the film. Did you research all of those things?

Gleeson: “Yeah I definitely need to know what I was saying. I understood the nature and the specifics of what I was saying. But if you were to dig too far into my knowledge, it would probably crumble really quickly. I mean, it wasn’t built on solid foundations because I couldn’t get a Ph. D. in mathematics and coding in the two months that we had to prep. I focused more on the character, but it was great because I got to watch some really interesting documentaries, read some interesting books, and meet some really cool people about most of the things that are in the film. But as soon as the film’s over, I’m kind of like a goldfish. I forget and move onto the next thing.”

The DC: Now considering you and your co-star Alicia have worked together before on “Anna Karenina,” did that prior onscreen experience together help you establish the undeniable chemistry we see in “Ex Machina”?

Gleeson: “I think it did. When they said Alicia was doing it, I was so happy. We rehearsed a little bit, but we were already so far down the tracks. They are very different people than the people in “Anna Karenina,” particularly in Alicia’s case. The fact that we had done something like that before though and made something pure before really helped.”

The DC: Now this film is just smart, and it definitely appeals to a wide range of viewers. Did you know right off the bat when you read the script what a great project this would become?

Gleeson: “You never know that something is going to be great, but all you can know is that it has the possibility of being great. When I read this script, I thought there was a real chance that this could be very good, and if we live up to the script, we’ll have a really good film here. I think Alex did a great job of directing it and got us all to a place where we could be really proud of it.”

The DC: Though a lot of sci-fi movies capitalize on over-the-top action and unrealistic narratives for our generation, the events in “Ex Machina” seems frighteningly realistic. Is that something you kept in mind while playing Caleb?

Gleeson: “Well, there was no reason to keep it in mind really because my job was to make it real. It’s a lot easier when the stuff your given is believable and realistic. The only time something like that plays in your mind is when you are having a hard time making it real.”

The DC: If you could some up “Ex Machina” in one word, what would it be?

Gleeson: “Mystery.”

The DC: You talked about watching different films in preparation for your character. Was there a certain film that inspired your character or resembles “Ex Machina”?

Gleeson: “I spent some time in Portland and talked to a couple of coders. So more than other films, I think that is what inspired the character. In terms of films similar in undertones, there is a film called “Moon” that has a certain melancholy I think they might have in common and “Sunshine,” which has the same writer. But I think “Ex Machina” is very much its own thing. The mix of ideas, the psychological thriller thing, and the fact it’s a chamber piece is pretty unusual. I feel like it was fairly individual.”

The DC: What was it like working with Alicia (she plays a robot) actually on set?

Gleeson: “Well, she was there and basically covered in the grey mesh that you can see in the film. All of her body was covered in that and extended over her hair, and then they extended her forehead with prosthetics back over it so it looked like her face was planted on the grey mesh. It was very striking to look at. It was very beautiful. It was very unique. But we also knew they were going to take out her midriff and paint in all that beautiful CG exoskeleton inside. It was great because it was a real performance in the room including her movement.”

The DC: There’s a lot students here who are aspiring actors and filmmakers. What one piece of advice could you give us?

Gleeson: “I studied Media Arts in college, which was kind of a stupid name for writing and directing, but it was a bit of all the aspects of making a film. The only thing that I regret about my time there is that I didn’t use the stuff they had there more. There was a scary guy that was in charge of the equipment room that was always demanding we bring stuff back in time. So I would have just told him to f*** himself and taken stuff out more because that was why it was there. I wish I had made more stuff in college. I’ve learned more on film sets than I ever did in college, and the way you do that is by making things. When no one else will hire you, you kind of have to hire yourself, keep active, keep creating and finish things. That’s a big thing. Make sure to finish things because everybody can write a great first third of a screenplay. Everybody can come up with half of a great character or come up with a full character and never put him in anything. The secret is to finish your stories. The worst finished feature is better than half one that doesn’t have an ending. So I think the only advice I’d ever have for you is to find good people and finish everything that’s worth it. My brother is a writer, and I think the only advice he ever got that really mattered to him was that he had to finish his stuff. You can’t get half way there and then start something else. You can call yourself a writer when you’ve finished a project.”

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