You can always bet on a lively press conference with Johnny Depp, but a recent Los Angeles tech talk about “Transcendence” and the inevitability of uploading human consciousness into a super computer brought out his more vulnerable side. Depp admitted, among other things, that he’s too clumsy when it comes to texting and that his role as an AI scientist-turned megalomaniac was difficult without a flamboyant mask to hide behind.
“Things go wrong all the time, especially between me and technology,” Depp quipped. “I’m not familiar enough with it and I’m too old school to be able to figure it out. But anything that I have to attack with my thumbs for any period of time makes me feel stupid. So I try to avoid it as much as possible, to protect my thumbs, of course.”
Joining Depp at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills were Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director — who’s learned a lot about efficient storytelling from Christopher Nolan — as well as co-stars Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen.
However, Bettany offered the most telling tidbit: He met a Caltech professor who predicted that the science of “Transcendence” will be available within 30 years. Mind you, the fact that the professor was listening to Wagner while looking at a slice of the human brain made the encounter even creepier. “It was a terrifying thought that they were all unified in the opinion that we have always been on a collision course with technology and that the next stage of our evolution will involve machinery,” Bettany suggested.
But for Depp, the role of Dr. Will Caster was a bit more nuanced than the obvious “Frankenstein” analogy. While working to create a sentient machine combining unlimited intelligence with the full range of emotions, he nonetheless turns into a different kind of mad scientist.
“You can make the analogy to a security guard who three weeks prior to was mowing lawns for a living. The second he puts a uniform on, man that badge, everything — boing! He’s like a man. I imagine the majority of us have felt the wrath of the overzealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? Don’t know. Does it reveal him? Don’t know. Does it change him? Don’t know. When Will is in the computer, as he’s growing along with the computer at this rapid pace, growing up through Pinn [the primary computer system], does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot. And they were dumb. But I think Will is dedicated to the cause and, yeah, maybe the power, when you realize it, essentially, you’re God. There ain’t anything more powerful on Earth… I think Will was just so focused on the cause and you get too far into it.”
And yet playing someone closer to himself was arguably the most difficult challenge Depp faced as an actor. “I always like to try to hide because I can’t stand the way I look, first of all, but I also think it’s important to change every time, come up with something as interesting as you can for your characters. And it really depends on what the screenplay asks of you and what your responsibilities to that character are. You have the author’s intent, the filmmaker’s vision, and then you have your own wants, desires, and needs. I knew right off the bat with this that there was no need to go off and do some pink-haired, clown-nosed Ronald McDonald type.”
But Pfister was drawn to something more primal than the organic vs.simulation debate of “Transcendence” (there was never any question that cinematographer Jess Hall would shoot on film to convey “the breath of life”): “In each character there’s a point of desperation. In Evelyn’s character [played by Hall] she’s desperate to have some part of her husband who’s dying remain, and that drives her, along with the science in medical applications, to do what she does. It then becomes desperation with Will: we don’t know if this machine’s sentient or not, but he measure’s her hormones, which he thinks is making some sort of connection. But I think to us as an audience — certainly to Evelyn — it is quite a desperate level to reach.”
For Hall, “technology is obviously the thing that’s gonna get us out of a lot of problems; it’s probably our greatest hope in terms of solving everything that we find problematic now in terms of the environment and all the rest of it. But equally it is likely to throw up a whole world of problems that we have no understanding or perception or imagination to anticipate what they could possibly be at this point. So it’s complicated, but whether we like it or not, we’re becoming more and more closely integrated. We have to deal with these problems.”
But despite the seeming inevitability of a machine-like evolution for humanity, Pfister added that there’s always the wild card of unpredictability to consider. “One of the things that I found most fascinating was that at least one of [the scientists] said, ‘But there’s interpretation.’ So whoever’s doing the actual program, whoever’s doing the actual upload is going to have some effect as that information goes from one machine to another. And that gives us some of the airy gray area in this film to play with as well.”