Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (son of actor Brendan Gleeson) has been a dependable screen presence for over five years now by standing out in a number of projects that featured bigger box-office draws than himself.
In “Frank” he stole scenes from a masked Michael Fassbender; in “Anna Karenina” he was a comic revelation opposite Keira Knightley; and in “About Time,” he proved he could lead a romantic comedy opposite a vet of the genre, Rachel McAdams. 2015 could be the year that Gleeson finally becomes a household name thanks to his involvement in the most anticipated film of the year, J.J. Abrams entry into the “Star Wars” canon, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which opens this December.
Before that monster in unleashed, however, Gleeson will appear in a number of other buzzed-about features sure to boost his profile. “The Revenant,” also set for release later this year, will see him pair up with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to “Birdman.” John Crowley’s immigration drama “Brooklyn,” in which Gleeson co-stars opposite Saoirse Ronan, premiered to rave notices at Sundance in January and comes out this fall. His first release of 2015 however is “Ex Machina,” the directorial debut from “Never Let Me Go” and “28 Days Later” screenwriter Alex Garland. The film recently screened at SXSW and comes out in select theaters this Friday, April 10.
In it, Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer selected by Nathan, a billionaire scientist (Gleeson’s “Star Wars” co-star Oscar Isaac) to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of Nathan’s latest A.I. creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Indiewire sat down with Gleeson at SXSW in Austin last month to discuss Garland’s stellar debut and his involvement in the “Star Wars” franchise.
This year’s a big one for you with “Ex Machina” coming out, “The Revenant” later this year, followed by that little film from J.J. Abrams. Do you pinch yourself daily given your good fortune of late?
No, I don’t think you do in retrospect. Everything seems very slow to you when it’s happening. I mean I’ve been the lead in three films, maybe four, and I’ve been acting since I was 19 years old. I’m 31 now. When you pinch yourself is when you hear that somebody wants to work with you or somebody likes something you did, or that you audition and you get something with people who you just are excited about. That’s when you pinch yourself. When I got this, that’s the time when you go “wow.” I don’t sit around on my days off and go, “Doing pretty, pretty well,” you know, in that Larry David way.
This marks your third time working on an Alex Garland-penned project following “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” What is it about his writing that makes you want to collaborate with him?
Alex’s work is exactly the sort that I would always go to see, without fail. His name on something is almost a guarantee that I will like it. Like “Sunshine,” I’m just still in awe of that movie. Still in awe of that movie, and I owned the screenplays for his films before I ever auditioned for him or anything like that. I’m a big nerd for his work, huge fan of how he’s so direct and uses genre and yet has incredible emotion in everything that he does. And so I love that, you know? And Cillian Murphy’s career — and life — but career is something that I would really aspire to, and what he did in “Sunshine” and in “28 Days Later” is like, awesome. So there are so many reasons to be excited about Alex. I guess the previous collaborations must have done something, because he wanted me to do it before I auditioned.
“Ex Machina” works on so many levels. What chiefly appealed to you about the screenplay when you first read it?
I was doing “Frank” at the time, and normally I don’t really read scripts when I’m doing work, especially if I’m in every day, like when I was on “Frank.” I had work in the morning and I thought, “I’ll do 30 pages,” ’cause I gave myself three days to get back. I had it read twice by the time I went to sleep, easily. You just can’t stop and as soon as you finish you go, “Oh my god!” and then you have to read it from the beginning to make sure everything checks out. And of course it does because it’s Alex. I kept on thinking I know what was coming, and I was wrong every time, you know? And everything makes sense — a lot of the films now which are marked as twisty-turny and stuff, the twists are only there to be twists, the turns are only there to be turns. Half the time they don’t make sense, half the time they’re not for anything apart from just to be a twist. Everything in this makes sense. When anything new happens, it’s always surprising, but it’s always from what went before. Alex has an economy with the way he writes that’s so wonderful. So much is going on beneath the surface.
Alicia Vikander is a revelation in this. What was it like to work opposite her for much of the film?
Well, there were two things. I’d worked with her previously, I’d worked with her on “Anna Karenina,” and so we had real shorthand. I knew she was stunning, and I knew that we could push each other in scenes properly. You could really throw punches during a scene and really alter the way a scene went early, because they were like seven to eight page scenes. You could really force each other around, force each other to do different things, and I loved that. So every day is like a real challenge but just joyous, because you’re pummeling the crap out of each other, you know? I really like that.
And then, I’d played kind of a similar sort of a thing in “Black Mirror,” except in that I was a robot guy. And so I’d done that, and I knew she was going to have a hard time, but what she’s doing is much more sophisticated than what I did. Mine was for TV. What she did is amazing. It was never anything less than brilliant, because she would change up what she was doing depending on the take. So one would be a little bit more mechanical, one would be more erotic, and one would be more natural. I mean it was just kind of cool the way that continued to change. And then in the film you can really see the best of that. I think they were very good in the edit, as Alex’s films always are. They were good to the performance. I think they got the best out of it.
On another note, I’m shocked there’s no publicist or handler in the room. I figured Disney would pull a Christopher Nolan and not let you do press for your other releases this year prior to the “Star Wars” release.
What did he do?
The New York Times ran a piece during awards season revealing that Jessica Chastain was not allowed to do press for “A Most Violent Year” per an agreement she signed on behalf of her awards campaign for Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
Yeah, that’s crazy.
Following the publishing of that article, Paramount —
Yeah. She suddenly started doing press for the smaller film.
That’s insane. I guess I understand the instinct, but it’s terrible for the other movie, right? You have to try and push to get people in the cinema to see it, that’s the whole thing. I mean “Interstellar” doesn’t need to worry about that.
With that said, obviously I’m not going to ask you about “Star Wars.”
Yeah, ’cause there’s nothing… [laughs]
I figured. Still, going into these interviews not being able to address the elephant in the room must be a bit strange for you, no?
I guess so… I was going to try to continue with this elephant in a room analogy, but actually it just —
— but no, no, no, because it goes nowhere. It’s like, because the elephant is asleep, the elephant isn’t released until December. [laughs] I don’t know where to go with that. No, what makes it easier is that I can say nothing. If you can say something then that’s difficult, because in your head you’re trying to get around, “What can I say what can’t I say?” It’s pretty clear: I can say absolutely fuck-all, you know what I mean? [laughs] There’s nothing I’m allowed to say. But I will also say, they’ve been pretty good, man. I think they trust people.
They clearly trust you.
They do, they do. I’ve really enjoyed that. I asked to read the script and stuff before, like before I was involved, and they were really good about all that stuff. I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. You can get frustrated when you’re like, “Where are my sides?” and they’re like, “We’ve buried them!” Because they trusted us, you kind of take on the responsibility and it doesn’t become overwhelming in the way it might do if they didn’t trust you, you know?