Domhnall Gleeson has seen the future and he has the fear. In the keep-like cellar restaurant of a Dublin hotel, mild panic sets in as a fleeting mention of the Film That Cannot Be Discussed escapes his lips, the one that is set in a galaxy far, far away. The Irish actor has been listing his extracurricular activities – the short he’s written and directed with his actor-brother Brian and actor-father Brendan, the online sketch series he’s created called Immatürity For Charity, and the feature-length script that he’d get round to finishing, if only film-makers such as the Coens and Alejandro Iñárritu didn’t keep calling with job offers. But he blows it when he brings up the music video that he and Brian starred in for the band Squarehead last November. “We did it for fun over the summer, I was on a break from Star Wars. And it just went really well, we got an amazing reaction to it.” Star Wars? He squirms as my eyes light up, and I can’t help myself.
“Domhnall, are you Luke Skywalker’s son?”
“Ah, I can’t talk about it.”
“Are you Boba Fett’s son?”
“Look, that’s not for me to say.”
“Anything to do with Jar Jar Binks?”
“I can do the voice…” he replies laughing. And, lo, he can. “Whatever that tells you! Jar Jar Junior!”
JJ Abrams has cast the 31-year-old actor in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except that no one knows exactly who he, or who anyone else, is playing. So now Gleeson finds himself in the odd position of having a (presumably) pivotal role in a massively anticipated film and yet having to duck every single question about it. For a year.
It’s going to be even more problematic, given that everyone is going to want to talk to him in 2015. First he was Jack O’Connell’s wingman in Angelina Jolie’s epic of second world war heroism, Unbroken. Later this month, Brooklyn, an adaptation of the Colm Tóibín novel in which he stars alongside Saoirse Ronan, premieres at Sundance. And a month or so before Star Wars is finally unveiled, we’ll see him in The Revenant, a snowbound western from Birdman director Iñárritu, which Gleeson is currently in the midst of filming up a freezing Canadian mountain with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.
Right now, though, there’s Ex Machina. The directorial debut of novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine), it’s a gripping chamber thriller set in the near-future where the white heat of tech innovation is dazzling but also, possibly, blinding. Gleeson plays Caleb, a young drone programmer at a Silicon Valley mega-corp called Bluebook who wins an internal contest to spend a week with reclusive company founder Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac, who is incidentally also on the Star Wars cast list). Arriving by chopper at the internet billionaire’s fantastic wilderness home – think Wallpaper magazine does Bond villain’s lair – Caleb discovers his prize. He’s here to conduct a Turing-style test on the boss’s secret invention: Ava, an AI android so advanced “she” just might change the world. And not just because Ava is played bewitchingly by his Anna Karenina counterpart, Swedish actor Alicia Vikander.
Ex Machina isn’t T2: Rise Of The Fembots but it does seem clear where Garland’s sympathies lie. He’s rooting for the robot, and for the humanity possibly engineering itself within her; not for oddball Nathan, a bro-CEO who’s like Zuckerberg on vodka smoothies.
Does Domhnall fear or embrace the ascension of our robot overlords? “Well, this is what’s interesting. So many people talk about it in terms of human responsibility and all the bad that can come out it.” He mentions a newspaper article he read recently, “and it discussed how, if you give a computer a job to do, it’s only mindset is to finish that job. So if it makes thumbtacks, and it feels a threat – someone’s gonna turn them off – the more intelligent they are, the more resourceful they can be about stopping someone from stopping them doing their job.
“But that’s the pessimistic stance. There could be crazy consequences – but there might be a positive side to it too. Everyone talks about how we’re on our phones all the time, but the fact remains that when I’m away on a film set for two months, I can Skype my family. I remember the phone calls my parent had to make when my dad was away for while when I was younger – that once-a-week expensive phone call! The time pressure on talking to your father! That’s all gone now. That’s an incredibly positive thing.”
Gleeson is also intrigued by the inventions and predictions of “futurist” Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering. These range from “scanners which read things out for blind people to computers that live in our bloodstream. They’ll be detecting cancers, and you’ll have them in your mind, improving the way you think, your perception, rationality. Fascinating guy.”
As an actor, Domhnall is not a scene-dominating force like his father – think the troubled priest in last year’s Calvary, or the hitman-in-hiding in 2008’s In Bruges. He is engaging rather than commanding, something that was evident from his first major movie roles in organ-harvesting dystopian yarn Never Let Me Go in 2010 and in the Coens’ remake of True Grit in 2010. A Weasley clan member in the Harry Potter films, he’s the first to admit he’s not exactly love interest material, either.
But a shift happened with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina in 2012. Gleeson was cast as Levin, suitor of Alicia Vikander’s Kitty, after a gruelling five-hour audition. The graft was partly because this gangly beanpole never considered himself to be “that guy”.
“I’d never been up for a romantic part before,” he admits. “It had always been for the guy who gets hurt, or is certainly further down the call sheet – a smaller role. But Joe showed more faith and imagination in me than I did. So I remain truly grateful to him for that.” More diverse roles followed: the lovelorn time-traveller in Richard Curtis romcom About Time; the dead boyfriend in the Be Right Back episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror; the hapless musician in Frank Sidebottom-inspired road movie Frank.
Ex Machina is in keeping with his personality, too – he’s tasked with playing the beta-male in a claustrophobic film with only three full roles. He readily admits he found that a challenge. “Alex had a word with me cos I couldn’t understand why I was getting so frustrated [during filming]. He said it was because the script didn’t give me a place to punch the walls, or lash out, or to get the upper hand.”
It’s why Garland says Gleeson was his obvious choice to play Caleb. “There are some actors who have to be on the front foot…” he begins. But flexing that leading-man ego isn’t Gleeson’s way, which Garland thinks makes the actor all the more effective onscreen. “In a film like this, what Domhnall can do is be on the back foot, then very quietly just start shifting things around in subtle ways. Suddenly he’s in a position of real power. It’s a complicated bit of work he had to do there.”
Also, he adds, the actor has another secret weapon. “When we were shooting I kept getting sidetracked by his ability to really make me laugh, and you forget that that may not be what the scene really wants. Somewhere in Domhnall is a comedian.”
Wouldn’t that also make Gleeson also the obvious choice to play a role like, say, Kylo Ren, the hooded Jedi with the cruciform lightsaber in Star Wars? “I’ve literally no idea,” Garland demurs, tactfully. “When all that stuff was going down, I absolutely made sure I wasn’t asking questions of him or Oscar that would out them on the spot. They’ve had to sign such heavy NDAs [non-disclosure agreements], they’re dangerous in career terms if you transgress them.”
I decide that a more cunning route of questioning is required. So, as is the norm with blockbuster franchises, is Gleeson signed up for three movies?
“I don’t think we’re even allowed to talk about that!” wails the actor, squirming again. “Because if I say ‘no’, they’re like, ‘Oh right, you die.’ And if it’s ‘yes’, well, you live. And if say I’ve signed up for nine, they’re like, ‘Well, you must be a lead…’ I don’t how it works! That’s why [when] we finished filming I just hit the switch. I was like, ‘I’m done talking about this.’”
Gleeson can, however, gush effusively about JJ Abrams and the privilege of being on set with him. “He is incredible,” he says. “There was always a sense on the film of, like, ‘Let nobody forget that we are making Star Wars. We owe our best in every moment for the people [for whom] Star Wars is their whole life.’ There is so much love.”
He beams. Having tackled the dilemmas of future civilisations, in galaxies both near and far, Gleeson’s own star is rising.
Ex Machina is out on 23 January
The Guardian is hosting a special early screening of Ex Machina and discussion on AI and our robot overlords featuring director Alex Garland and Guardian journalist James Ball. Click here for tickets
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