Oscar Isaac 'Ex Machina' Interview: How Stanley Kubrick Influenced His Character, Plus Star Wars And X-Men

Fans love to complain that good sci-fi isn't released any longer. Alex Garland's Ex Machina, however, is good sci-fi. The passage of time may even turn it into great sci-fi. The film stars Oscar Isaac as Nathan, a billionaire savant who created a fictional analog to Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his employees, to his secluded home in order to test a new piece of technology. That technology is a beautiful, mysterious, artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander)

After that setup, the film is very careful about letting us know what is really going on. Caleb, Nathan and Ava all seemingly have their own agendas in a very tense, very exciting sci-fi story that surprises from the first moment to the last.

We were lucky enough to speak to Isaac about this great movie. He discussed how he shaped such a fascinating, yet seemingly familiar character, creating tension on set, the influences on the character – including Stanley Kubrick – and, of course, some discussion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men Apocalypse.

There are no spoilers here. We'll post those after opening weekend. For now, read our Oscar Isaac Ex Machina interview.

Ex Machina

From scene to scene, you don't know where this character is at. You never exactly know what his motivations are. Do you walk into playing the character with any preconceptions of what his mindset is? Or do you sort of just take it sort scene by scene?

Well two things there. One, that's my favorite thing when you play a character. That you don't know where they're going, 'Cause that's surprising. For some reason, sometimes people think that you need to know everything about a character within the first 5 or 10 minutes of meeting them. And that I don't totally understand because you know someone for 15 years and they do something that surprises you. Like I had no idea that you even had that in you. So that's one thing.

But getting into the mindset of the character? That's the whole job. That is the job. So for me, it is about sitting with Alex, dissecting every word of the script. Especially with this guy who thinks 25 moves ahead in every direction. Every word he says is calculated and he's not casual with his talk. Even though he seems like he is sometimes. Everything you see is his creation. So this whole thing is an expression of who this guy, of this guy's mind in particular. And so getting into that mind, being able to say those things to live in that world with conviction, I had to have a complete understanding from moment to moment about what he's trying to do. Because everything has an intention. And sure that's like a basic acting thing. But particularly with this, he has a specific goal in mind with everything that he does and everything that he says at all times. That's how calculated he is.

But the audience doesn't know that.

The audience doesn't know that. Exactly. So and neither does Caleb. Because Caleb is the cheese in the experiment. And he needs to have the cheese in a certain shape.

Ex Machina (2)

Nathan is a character that could be compared to famous people like  Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. How important was it to you to make sure that this media mogul was so different from media moguls we know in our culture?

Hmm, well, you know, I don't start off with the place of like 'How do we make him totally different.' I try to go to what's inspiring to me. So one, Alex, first of all, Alex wrote it and he wrote him so intelligent and so funny and unusual. But he did get that "bro billionaire" thing. And so for me I was like, 'Well that's done. I don't have to go investigate bro billionaires because that's there.' So what else can it be? And so I just tried to think of like brilliant minds that were elusive and mysterious and maybe sometimes very dark. And so the two people that I found to be incredibly inspiring were Bobby Fischer who was so brilliant at this one thing, but also so angry and just so, towards the end of his life, full of hatred. And also Kubrick. He was the lighter side of that yin-yang, you know.

Yeah.

The look, for sure, was something that we took from Kubrick. I wanted him to get glasses that were kind of like that. I listened to the way he spoke and Bobby Fischer, both of them are from New York. And they were both self taught. So that was an aspect that I like a lot. 'Cause I think Nathan would have been self taught. Someone that was born with this innate sense, you know. This intelligence. He was a savant. And yeah, there was something about making him a bit more streetwise that I really liked. That I felt would be more disarming in the film.

Ex Machina Hallway

Well "disarming" is a good word, because the whole movie is sort of like that. Like I said, you don't know what's going on and there's always this tension between the two characters. What is that like creating that tone on set? It almost felt like one of those scenarios where the director might have made sure  let his actors wouldn't talk off camera.

No, Domhnall is one of the funniest guys I've ever met in my life. It was just great talking with him and hanging with him. I will say, and I know he would agree too, sometimes it was not the most fun having to bully him. I mean, I wouldn't do it between takes or anything like that, but just between action and cut. I was always foot forward. And by the nature of the scenes, he would have to be foot back.

I even have a good friend of mine who's brilliant and very mercurial. And he tends to interrupt everybody. He doesn't let anybody finish a sentence, probably 'cause he's so quick. He already knows where you're going, knows where you're getting, so you don't need to finish. But socially it's not the best thing to do. And so that was an element that I wanted to bring forward. That was one of the things I would do is I would interrupt a lot. And I'm sure that was not the most fun for him. And to be honest, for me, it wasn't the most fun to do, because I'm not naturally like alpha male. But that's who this guy is. And that's what Alex created. He basically created someone who seems impossible to overcome. Because he beats him at everything. He's smarter, he's stronger, he's got more money, he's got more everything. And so when the tables do ultimately turn, it's very rewarding.

[SPOILER DISCUSSION REMOVED, WILL POST NEXT WEEK]

Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac Star Wars Force Awakens

When you were making this movie, had you been cast in Star Wars?

No.

Watching the movie as a Star Wars fan, the fact two characters from that movie are talking about Star Trek was kind of fun.

[Laughs] No, we hadn't been cast yet.

Now we know you're a big Star Wars fan, I'm a fan, J.J. Abrams a fan. When you step on that set, does it dawn on you of the importance of that? "I'm making the seventh episode of Star Wars and this will live forever?" That kind of thing? 

You totally fan out and geek out when it first happens and the moments when you arrive on set and are like "Holy shit." But then you have to get to the meat of what you're doing. Sure it can be a little difficult and there's a lot of moving parts of figuring out where you fit into that thing is challenging but no, at a certain point you have to put those...

Expectations away?

Yeah but that goes with anything. If you're already into the result you're dead in the water.

Lots of those expectations come from online rumors. Do you go online and read those?

I've read a couple of them. You get excited. "What are they saying?," you know?

I know you can't say specifically, but do the actors know what's going to happen to their characters if and when they go on past The Force Awakens?

Ah, I couldn't speak to that. I don't even know. I think generally, watching the trailer was my only confirmation that I even was going to be in this one so I have no idea. I know that people thought I was saying I was going to be in the next one which is not true. I was asked if I was excited to work with Rian Johnson. I mean of course I would. I'd be excited to work with him. I have no confirmation whether I will or not.

But as character arc thing, do you think about what might happen later?

Sure. Yeah, of course I have thoughts about what happened before, what happens now and what happens later, if anything.

With a franchise like Star Wars that has so many ramifications beyond just the movie, do you have any input on your character like you did in Ex Machina or is that pretty well defined?

It's the same thing. You talk with J.J., the writers, we discuss it, we see what it can be, if it's a scene be like 'Okay this is cool, but is this an option. Is this an option?' It's just like any other movie in that aspect.

Apocalypse

Now, as excited I am for Star Wars, it's so cool that you're in X-Men as well. What was your favorite X-Men movie going into this? I know you're a fan of the comics.

Yeah, I know, I did, I like the film franchise a lot. I thought it was so, it was a very cool thing to cast Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. So when that first happened, that was exciting. 'Cause when I was a kid, me and my friend would cast them all the time. We had our own like crazy casts. So that was really fun. You know, X2 I thought was pretty brilliantly done. And I really like the last one too was fantastic. I–

So all the ones by the director that you're working with!

Well no, and the other one, the–

I'm just kidding.

I mean, the last one.

First Class is good yeah.

Yeah, First Class. The reboot with Fassbender and McAvoy, all them, yeah, they were great too.

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Ex Machina is now open in limited release.