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Alicia Vikander on Playing a Robot in ‘Ex Machina’

Alicia Vikander on Playing a Robot in 'Ex Machina'

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has been steadily growing an impressive body of work since garnering attention for her performance in 2012’s Oscar-nominated period romance “A Royal Affair,” by working with filmmakers like Joe Wright (“Anna Karenina”) and Bill Condon (“The Fifth Estate”). 2015 is poised to be the year that she breaks through to the mainstream.

The former dancer appears in a number of high profile projects this year, including Guy Ritchie’s summer blockbuster “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and Tom Hooper’s potential Oscar player “The Danish Girl,” opposite Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne. But her true star-making performance is in her first major release of the year, Alex Garland’s heady directorial debut, “Ex Machina.” In the sci-fi thriller, which screened to critical acclaim at SXSW last month and opens today, Vikander plays Ava, an entrancing A.I. creation with mysterious motives.

Indiewire sat down with Vikander in New York to discuss the film.

It was great to see you in a bracingly modern film. You’re more known for your period work stateside.
Beyond modern! [Laughs]
Exactly, futuristic. Were you dying to sink your teeth into something not period in the English language?
I’ve never chosen any film because it is or is not period. But yes, when it comes to this kind of genre I think I have kind of a crush. I love sci-fi. A couple months before I had this script in my lap, I was on the phone with my agents and was like, “I saw ‘Moon’ for the second time in two years!” I just love those intimate, psychological sci-fi films. Then this script came along and it’s one of the best scripts I’ve read. Normally you come in and work on a script and Alex was very open to us to change it, but it was just a very finished product. It’s a page-turner. 
I’m sure it kind of reads like a play in a way, on the page.
Yeah, it’s kind of set in one space and very contained. I think that was part of the thrill too. It was my shortest shoot ever. I think we had five or six weeks; only one week rehearsals. And great to get the chance to work with Domhnall [Gleeson, her co-star in “Anna Karenina”] again. Most of the scenes between us were 10 or 12 pages long — it’s rare to find a scene that long in any script.
You played Ava as very human. You could have approached her in so many ways. How did you go about deciding on the best way to embody her?
It was difficult because in the script, which tends to be a very difficult thing about scripts, there weren’t many stage directions. So when I read it I didn’t really know what Ava looked like, what she was or anything. My self-taped audition I did is a very different Ava.
How so?
It was a bit like a blank sheet. I was going do a scene and I did it one way and that was of course the tape that Alex saw. He asked me to come along on that journey, but he also said it was a test to see if someone could consider her a girl. So I took that in and I tried to just do a girl and then he let me try out my physicality, which was a big thing that the director let me free. He said, “I’m just going to sit here in a corner and you try whatever you want.” So I did that and it was interesting. I realized when I aimed for that physical perfection, the way it just moved, that in a way made her more robotic. Because what is human is flaws and inconsistency. So I gave her some offbeats. I wanted her to be a girl, but I also wanted her to have some glitches.
It was a scary thing to do, but fun because you try looking for characters you haven’t done before and normally at least you can relate to the character being human. I didn’t even have that, so I was like, “Okay so what is she?” And of course it brought with it so many questions. Does she know that she thinks? Where do I create? Where does it come from? And I had to decide myself what I think and it’s nothing that I need to share. It’s almost like between Alex and I. We almost didn’t want to talk about it. And I think that is the brilliance of the script too. That fear that everyone kind of sees this film a bit differently. Some of them see it one way, some of them see it a different way.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Ex Machina’ Trailer Tricks Domhnall Gleeson Into Being a Trippy Experiment

About your dancer background, I’m sure it served you well in “Anna Karenina” given how rehearsed the staging for that film was. How did it play into this movie? 
It probably meant a lot. On “Anna Karenina” it was the dancing of course, so that helped. Physicality can be a good tool to get into a role. Like a new accent can be the same thing, or the way you move brings you into that character every day. I really wanted to work with my physicality for this role. Also it was not only with me. With Domhnall and I had five scenes in one box. So we had to, space-wise between us, figure out how we could move and interestingly enough, when you read the script, it feels like he’s stepping into a room where she’s trapped. But because of him being in a glass box inside of her box, he’s the monkey and she’s the one checking him out. When we saw that in rehearsal it all changed. When you think of an interrogation room, you think of the subject as the one locked in. But he couldn’t really move. I could always choose to see him in whatever angle I wanted and I was a bit more in control. 
What was it like to see the finished product? It must have been thrilling to see yourself transformed by digital effects.
It was a very small budget and every wide shot we had to count because we didn’t have more money than a certain amount of wide shots. I did wear a whole Spider-Man suit that continued all the way up to my head. So I did wear a bald cap and continued the silver mesh. Then they would build my skull on top of the silver mesh every morning. So the whole figure that you see is there, then they just took out some parts and changed it. But yeah I had forgotten how I looked. I went to the canteen and got myself lunch [laughs].They’re like, “This person is walking around bald headed with a very high skull.”
But both Domhnall and I carried around a print out of what she looked like and before the scene brought it up as a little reminder. It gave me confidence too, to just get reminded of what I looked like which I now feel when I see the film. She’s such a weird beauty. I thought they did a great job. It’s wires, but they made it look seamless and very beautiful.

READ MORE: Why ‘Ex Machina’ Writer-Director Alex Garland Doesn’t Consider Himself a First-Time Filmmaker

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