This year, you won’t be able to miss Alicia Vikander. The Swedish actress has no fewer than nine films coming out this year, including Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and next month’s fantasy adventure Seventh Son co-starring Julianne Moore. Her latest release is sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, the directorial debut from novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), in which 26-year-old Vikander plays a sentient robot named Ava.
Ava has been built to pass the so-called “Turing test” by exhibiting behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human, so her inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) recruits a bright spark computer coder called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to assess just how realistic his creation is. Caleb is instantly impressed by Ava, who’s incredibly lifelike and hyper-intelligent, but events take several dark turns when he realises that life isn’t quite as it seems inside the high-security bunker that Nathan and Ava call home. Vikander spoke to NME about the film’s “thrilling, scary undercurrent”, the four hours in make-up every day it took to transform her into Ava, and how she feels about a potential Ex Machina sequel.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you really wanted to play Ava in this film – what made the role so attractive to you?
“I think I can go so far as to say it’s one of the best scripts I’ve read – maybe the best. [Alex Garland] is an amazing writer. I got the script and I was just sucked into it, I couldn’t stop turning the page. The script didn’t have a lot of stage directions – it was all about the subtext in these long dialogue scenes. I haven’t played a robot before and in a way it was a clean sheet trying to create this character. Initially I didn’t know what she looked like, or how she moved and talked, because that wasn’t really on the page. But my imagination started kicking in as soon as I read it.”
As you were playing her, did you make your own value judgment on how “human” Ava is?
“I think I changed my view on it at different points in making the film. I won’t tell you what I think I decided to go for in the end. I don’t think Alex knows that and I don’t think you need to know! That’s part of the greatness of the film. It’s very fun being in a film where everyone’s reaction to the ending is very different and people have such different views upon my character.”
I found Ava overwhelmingly sad – but in a quiet, just-under-the-surface kind of way.
“I don’t think I played her sad, so that’s interesting. I think maybe you read Ava as sad because you know she’s a thing trapped. You see her as a human. If you believe she has consciousness, then you see a conscious being that’s trapped in a box.”
Alex has said that he thinks your ballet background helped with the way you portrayed Ava’s movement. Do you agree?
“I mean, of course. But Alex didn’t tell me exactly how to make Ava – he really just came in and let me find her, which was an amazing opportunity. He explained that Ava’s maker has made her in the belief that she will probably be good enough to pass the [Turing] test, so I liked the idea of trying to make her as human as possible, and then from that finding the ‘off beats’, the hiccups, that would make people suddenly question her not being human. I also liked the idea of conveying her physicality – because her maker has obviously aimed for perfection, I tried to make her movement and speech as perfect as possible. Weirdly enough, that made her feel more robotic, because flaws and inconsistency is something we consider very human.”
Was it a shock when you first saw Ava on screen – your face on a robot’s body?
“Yes! But I knew what she was going to look like because I’d seen visuals before. Domhnall [Gleeson, co-star] and I carried round pictures on set as a reminder of what she was going to look like. But the head you see in the film is what my head looked like in filming. I spent four hours in make-up every morning having them create Ava’s bald skull and build her forehead on top of my head.”
Was it an intense filming process?
“It was intense in the sense of the film featuring very intense scenes, but what was amazing is that I’ve never been on such a calm set in my life. People have asked me what it was like working with a first-time director, but it didn’t feel like that because Alex has been on so many films behind-the-scenes and he really knows his work. He said that although there’s a thrilling, scary undercurrent to the film, the energy in those scenes is very calm, and he wouldn’t be able to capture that on screen if he didn’t have that same calm feeling on set.”
If I’ve got it right, you have eight films coming out this year…
Does that feel overwhelming?
“Um… no, I don’t think about it. It’s been two and a half years since I did Anna Karenina and I almost haven’t had a week off since. I jammed those nine films into a period of two-and-a-half to three years, and it’s just a coincidence that they’re all coming out now – some of them have been faster in post [production] than others. I was quite new to the industry before I made these nine films and it’s been great being able to learn my craft away from the public eye. But now I’m just really excited to see these films finally get an audience.”
Finally, would you be interested in making some kind of Ex Machina sequel or spin-off?
“That’s up to Alex – that’s an Alex question. But I’d be up for working with Alex again, any time.”
Ex Machina opens in cinemas on January 21.