Oscar Isaac on Playing an Eccentric Tech Genius in Ex Machina

Ex Machina Oscar Isaac

A few years back, you might be hard pressed to find anyone who knew the name Oscar Isaac, although the 35-year-old actor has slowly been establishing himself with leading roles in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and last year’s A Most Violent Year.

This Friday, Isaac can be seen starring in Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, playing Nathan, a technological genius billionaire who has been holed up in a research facility in the middle of nowhere trying to create the perfect A.I. The film shows what happens when he brings Domhnall Gleeson’s programmer Caleb to the facility to test out his latest A.I. that’s been placed inside a sexy cyborg he’s named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb soon learns that neither Ava nor Nathan are what they seem.

It’s a fantastic film that harks back to the science fiction films of Stanley Kubrick, moody, deliberately slow and highly visual, and Isaac gives a very different performance than some of the low-key characters he’s played in the past.

Having recently wrapped the anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac is getting ready to start shooting his role as the title villain in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, both projects that he’s hesitant to talk about for obvious reasons, not that it stopped us from trying (and failing) to find out anything that we could.

ComingSoon.net: I have to imagine this must have been a great script, Alex is such a great writer…

Oscar Isaac: Such a great script.

CS: Did you just get it through normal outlets and did you have to fight to get the role?

Isaac: No, I got it sent to me and they said that Alex was interested in sitting and talking with me, so I had read the script and I fell in love with it.

CS: Was there anything specifically he had seen you in that made him think of you for this?

Isaac: I don’t know if he had seen me in anything specific. Probably but I don’t think we talked about that too much.

CS: It seems like a very different character than we’ve seen from you before, not just because his look but also his personality.

Isaac: Definitely. I hadn’t played anything like that, so I was very excited to get it. Yeah, maybe that’s something I should ask, but if it’s something I haven’t played and I’ve been called to meet with someone, I’m not like, “Why would you want me to play this?” you know? (chuckles) I’m like, “Yup, I love it. Great, I’m glad you don’t see me as doing this one thing.” We started talking and I just loved the language and I loved the wit and how dynamic of a character he is and just his speed of thought and speed of language as well.

CS: Was the screenplay very descriptive about his personality?

Isaac: No, it was from the writing, from the dialogue that I really got a sense of his rhythm.

CS: Do you know if he based it on anyone in particular?

No, he didn’t base it on anyone in particular, not that we talked about it. I think there was amalgam of a few different people, so for me, I was pretty free to draw from inspiration from a bunch of different sources.

CS: So who did you draw from?

Isaac: Bobby Fischer was one. I liked the idea that this guy was also someone that was self-taught, that was a savant, that was quite dark and misanthropic and from The Bronx. And I thought, who else might be from the Bronx? And I found that Stanley Kubrick was also from the Bronx—another chess genius and another genius in general and had a really great speech pattern, particularly in the ‘60s that I listened to a lot and drew from. The look actually came quite a bit from Kubrick.

CS: That’s interesting because the movie itself has a very Kubrick-inspired look to it.

Isaac: It has some of that although Kubrick would never have this much language.

CS: Right, he’s more visual, but did Alex mention that as an inspiration or was it just a coincidence?

Isaac: I think it was just a coincidence. For me, it was really more about the personality aspects of Kubrick and that.

oscarisaacexmachinaCS: Did you put on weight for the role, too?

Isaac: Yeah, this is a guy who works out a lot and he’s been out there for a few years doing that, so that was important to try to get a little stronger but also what he represents. He’s not only Caleb’s intellectual superior, but he’s also his physical superior as well and that was an important thing to create that formidable opponent that’s seemingly insurmountable.

CS: Did you get any sort of impression what his backstory was? Did you know a lot of that stuff or were you able to figure it out yourself?

Isaac: Yeah, yeah. We talked about that a lot and figuring out, “Okay, when did he create Bluebook? He was 13 years old, and then what happened? He probably sold the company but has always been interested in something else.” He then ends up moving to this research facility and being there for how many years building these machines.

CS: That’s interesting. You can probably see someone who is that smart wanting to shut themselves off from the rest of the world…

Isaac: Especially someone that’s a bit misanthropic already.

CS: But to actually do it and especially in a place that’s two hours away from anywhere else. Kubrick was fairly social but could you think of anyone who was like that?

Isaac: That isolated?

CS: Howard Hughes maybe?

Isaac: Yeah, maybe not necessarily physically isolated but emotionally isolated and mentally isolated. Again, Fischer was someone that was an inspiration.

CS: It seems like this was mainly taking place in one location so was Alex able to shoot it in some sort of order?

Isaac: Yeah, we shot it in London and Norway. Everything that was outside and above ground, so even in my facility…

CS: When you’re looking outside?

Isaac: Yeah, that’s all in Norway, the Northwestern part of Norway.

CS: I’m sure you’ve already been asked about the dance sequence because it’s something that really takes you aback because it’s such a dark, moody film and then you start dancing with Kyoko.

Isaac: Mm-hm. There was a choreographer that came in and taught us these disco moves. It was actually twice as long before but yeah, we learned it. We did a couple weeks of rehearsals for that to get really in sync.

CS: Were you surprised by that when you read the script?

Isaac: Yeah, I was totally shocked. What the hell is this? And it was great, because it’s one of those rhythmic things that’s really needed at that moment in the film but also makes perfect sense within the character’s world.

CS: What’s Alex like as a director? I’ve met him before and I know he’s a great writer and very involved with the movies he writes.

Isaac: He’s been around. He’s great. Incredibly confident. I’d say pretty fearless to the point where he’s not afraid to collaborate, to change things, and really to dig deep into the script. He came and met with me and we went through every inch of that script together. I loved it. I can’t wait to work with him again. He’s just incredibly calm and focused.

CS: Is it coincidence that you did this movie with Domhnall and then you both ended up in Star Wars?

Isaac: Total coincidence. It was pretty wild. Neither of us knew that we were both going to be in it until we showed up for the reading.

CS: Since this is pretty much a three-hander with you, Domnhall and Alicia, did Alex keep the crew fairly small and intimate?

Isaac: Yeah, it was pretty small.

CS: How long ago did you shoot the movie, because I know you have quite a few things coming out soon? This one has a lot of FX involved.

Isaac: This one we shot a year and a half ago I guess? Yeah.

oscarisaacexmachina2CS: Is it easy to switch gears when you’re doing, I assume, a lot of movies back to back?

Isaac: I’ll get a little bit of downtime in between where I can start to prepare for the other ones. It can be a bit of a challenge to wipe one away completely and then dive into the next one, but it’s also fun. By the time the movie is wrapping up, you’re ready to move onto the next.

CS: I imagine that’s part of the reason to be an actor.

Isaac: Yeah, yeah.

CS: I assume you did this before shooting “A Most Violent Year” as well.

Isaac: Yes, it was, exactly. It was quite a change. The turnaround for that one was very fast. We shot in January and it was out later that year.

CS: What’s next for you? Is “X-Men” next?

Isaac: I’ve got that HBO miniseries coming out, David Simon wrote it. It’s called “Show Me a Hero.” Paul Haggis directed it, and yeah, that will be out in the fall and then I go off to shoot “X-Men” next in the summer.

CS: Last time I spoke to you in January, you hadn’t started to prepare for it yet, but have you started that process yet?

Isaac: Yes, I’ve started to prepare for it and we’re shooting soon.

CS: I know you probably can’t say much…

Isaac: Nothing. (laughs) I can’t say anything about it.

CS: I’m kind of interested in how it might play out with Magneto becoming more of the villain in the last movie.

Isaac: Right, that will be interesting, won’t it? (laughs)

CS: So is there anything coming up that you can talk about? Let’s talk about the HBO thing then…

Isaac: Yes, it’s a true story called “Show Me a Hero,” it happened up in Yonkers in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and the city of Yonkers was found by a federal judge to be purposefully segregated by keeping 90% of the minority population in one square mile of the city and so they were forced to build low income housing on the East part of town, which is predominantly the white part of town, and the city flipped out. There were protests. They said, “No way, not in my backyard. You’re going to make all our neighborhoods into crack dens” and the city tore itself apart and the council people in city hall and the municipal government refused to do it. Federal government ended up charging them fines that were going up to a million dollars a day, so they were on the edge of bankruptcy, and I play the mayor of the city, who is the youngest mayor in America at the time. (Nick Wasicsko).

CS: Besides being a New York-based actor, you seem to be drawn to these New York-centric projects, which I like as a New Yorker.

Isaac: Yeah, well it’s one of the most fascinating cities on the planet and so many different people and so condensed together in a small area, I think it’s a great area for stories.

CS: Are you far enough being done with Star Wars where you’re just waiting for them to call you? Do you know if you’re doing Star Wars Celebration or anything else this summer?

Isaac: I haven’t gotten any of it yet, no. It’s so secret that even we don’t know what’s happening or what our involvement is.

CS: You’ve never been to Comic-Con for anything, have you?

Isaac: I’ve never been.

CS: I don’t know when you start shooting “X-Men” but maybe by July, Bryan will have some stuff to share.

Isaac: That would be pretty cool. I’m sure eventually with X-Men and Star Wars at some point…

CS: The problem is “X-Men” comes out before Comic-Con next year but they’ll probably do something this year. Bryan always brings something. You’ll probably be in the middle of shooting and then get dragged out to San Diego. I’m surprised you haven’t been there.

Isaac: It’s fun?

CS: It’s basically 6500 people who have been in there all day.

Isaac: Jesus.

CS: If you go to Comic-Con, hopefully I’ll see you and then, you’ll be expected to talk about X-Men.

Ex Machina opens in select cities on Friday, April 10, and then will expand wider over the rest of the month. Isaac also stars in William Monahan’s Mojave, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in a couple of weeks, so he’ll have another chance to deflect questions about “Star Wars” and “X-Men” then.


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