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EX MACHINA Exclusive: Domhnall Gleeson on Sci-Fi and Balloons

You never know what’s going to reveal something unique about someone you’re interview. While I was interviewing Domhnall Gleeson, a little girl walked by with a pink Disney Princess balloon and he was briefly captivated. Then her two brothers started playing with lightsabers which was even more apropos since Gleeson has a role in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

MV5BMTc1NzM4NjkxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDc0NTg1OA@@._V1__SX1874_SY885_Gleeson’s latest sci-fi movie, Ex Machina, opened last weekend but Gleeson just got into L.A. this week after a seven month shoot for The Revenant. Despite jet lag and pure exhaustion, Gleeson was warm and engaging. In Ex Machina, he plays Caleb, a tech company employee given the chance to meet his boss (Oscar Isaac)’s great invention, the android Ava (Alicia Vikander). See Ex Machina in theaters now.

Nuke the Fridge: You did a time travel movie, this robot A.I. movie and Star Wars. Were you a sci-fi fan before these films came your way?

Domnhall Gleeson: Yeah, I’ve always been a sci-fi fan. I also did an episode of Black Mirror that’s on Netflix which is also in that ballpark. I guess some people would argue that Never Let Me Go has sci-fi elements even though it’s really more of a straightforward drama. Yeah, huge fan of sci-fi. Massive fan of Alex Garland’s work in particular actually and have been for a very long time, so having worked with him twice previous was very excited to get this script because I guess I knew I had a chance of actually getting it.

Nuke: Did Ex Machina leave you with a lot of questions the way the script asks questions?

Domnhall Gleeson: Not questions that the script itself could ever answer. Most of the interesting questions in the film, I think, are more about humans and less about artificial intelligence or less about machines. It’s got the one big question about consciousness, but I think it’s more about how we react to it than it is about the thing itself. It’s more about our fears. It’s more about how we see ourselves. It’s all reflexive. It’s just a mirror that you look at yourself in, the machines in the film.

Nuke: What did the set smell like? It looks so sterile I imagined it smelling like disinfectant.

Domnhall Gleeson: What a great question.

Nuke: Thank you. I’m glad you like it.

Domnhall Gleeson: First of all, the awful answer is it probably smelled a little bit of sweat. It was a heatwave in London. There was a tin roof in that studio. They didn’t have air conditioning. So we were in those little glass boxes, locked in there all day. I’m sure that didn’t smell great.

Nuke: Like a magnifying glass.

Domnhall Gleeson: It was. It really was. It was kind of crazy, with those lights and everything. But that clean environment, they had to build things out very quick and then put things in very quick. The gaffer and grips and everybody worked really hard on it, but the smell of it, in my head it smells of absolutely nothing which is so weird because you’re supposed to have a smell for everything, right? But in my head, you’re exactly right, they’re so clean, they’re so bear that in my head they smell of nothing, which is really creepy. Even if it’s a bad smell, you’re supposed to have a smell for everything.

Nuke: Is Alicia wearing a green suit for most of her scenes?

Domnhall Gleeson: No, the material that makes up what goes on her shoulders and her chest, that gray lined material, her whole suit was made of that. All the way up across her head and then her forehead was extended over it with prosthetics so it looked exactly like it did in the film except for, of course, the translucent areas where you could see inside her. They were added in post-production but that wasn’t green screen. That was all done afterwards. The visual effects teams were amazing.

Nuke: I imagined she’d have to be in green to make that effect, but you actually got to see what she’d look like.

MV5BOTMxMTgwMDc2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ0OTY4NQ@@._V1__SX1874_SY885_Domnhall Gleeson: Yeah, which was fantastic. You really got a sense of that otherworldly thing, that line in the forehead pushed all the way back and just coming out behind the ear. That was wonderful becaause there was that sense of otherness, not just in the performance which obviously is so strong, but also in the way that she looked. That instant feeling of being in the room with something different was there, and then was overcome very quickly by her performance.

Nuke: With that otherness, could you still imagine where Caleb would feel a real connection?

Domnhall Gleeson: Absolutely. Well, it’s the old argument, isn’t it, about it not just being about looks? The initial thing helps. First of all, Caleb is into this stuff. So Caleb is into mechanics, sure, but he’s really into computers. So he’s fascinated by everything. She’s the most incredible thing that man has ever invented standing right in front of him, so of course he’s initially interested by her anyway. And then her personality comes through so strongly.

[Here’s where the balloon girl walks by.]

Domnhall Gleeson: I love balloon. That little girl with the pink balloon, that’s just the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. Anyway, we formed a bond pretty quickly, myself and Alicia. We’d worked together before and I think it was important that you could imagine a world where they could actually fall in love. In some ways, it’s a really weird love story. I think that’s true.

Nuke: What is it about balloons?

Domnhall Gleeson: I don’t know. Pink balloons just, I don’t know. There’s something really sweet about them. They’re very innocent and beautiful.

Nuke: Now I see out the window, those kids are playing with lightsabers.

Domnhall Gleeson: [Laughs] They are, look at that. Oh, that’s hilarious.

Nuke: You’ll be seeing a lot of those.

Domnhall Gleeson: Yeah, yeah, come Christmastime.

Nuke: Would you hear the music on the set of Ex Machina? Would Alex play the score for you?

Domnhall Gleeson: No, he didn’t have the score at that point. I didn’t hear the score until weeks ago when I saw it at South by Southwest, which I think is beautiful. I think they did a fantastic job. Geoff [Barrow] and Ben [Salisbury] did a brilliant job. That was very interesting but myself and Rob Hardy, the DP, had both listened to the same band. As soon as we’d read the script, we both listened to the same band which is Atoms for Peace. They’ve got a song called “Ingenue,” the video for which is just absolutely stunning. Thom Yorke does a dance in it with a beautiful dancer, so in some ways it’s actually to do with the film. That music video has similarities to the film, but the song itself is so beautiful. [Hardy] listened to a different track from the Atoms for Peace album, but that was what was in my head. Then Autolux. I like Autolux too.

Nuke: How do you nail the American accent so well?

Domnhall Gleeson: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that.

Nuke: Not just me, my friends think so too.

Domnhall Gleeson: Oh, that’s good. I went to Portland for a couple weeks, stayed with a lady by the name of Emily Crumpacker on the advice of Tim Monich, a very famous dialect coach. He had a friend in Portland. I wanted Caleb to be from Portland so I went and hung out there for a week and a half. Worked with Tim a little bit but also worked with Jill McCullough who’s been my dialect coach for a long time now. She’s a wonderful dialect coach but I tend to stay in the accent when I’m doing the job, just from the beginning of the day until the last scene. Then when I go home I’m normal so my friends don’t kill me, but I kept it up on set because it felt important that it was natural and it felt like my voice, and not me doing an accent. I think it was easier for everybody to forget about it if I just kept it off.

Nuke: Are there any words you slip on?

Domnhall Gleeson: Sure, sure. I don’t think you hear them in the movie. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of ironing them out, but there are certainly words. The stereotypical Irish thing, TH’s being quite strong, so “Dis, dat, dose” instead of this, that, those. Also O sounds. Fock instead of f*ck. Those sort of things we go Ooo, we really deliver them in Ireland. They glide over the top a little bit more in the States.

Nuke: Do you get to use your Irish accent in Star Wars?

Domnhall Gleeson: [Laughs] I’m not allowed to talk about that at all.

Nuke: Not even the voice.

Domnhall Gleeson: Not even the voice, not even the accent or anything. No, no, they’ve got a full lockdown. Full lockdown on everything.

Nuke: What can we expect from The Revenant?

Domnhall Gleeson: Madness. Madness. Alejandro is crazy. They put us in the most bizarre, challenging situations you can possibly imagine. He told us at the beginning of the shoot that it was going to hurt us, that he wanted to see pain in our faces and then he went about trying to get that over the course of seven months. But I think you’ll see some fantastic performance from what I can see. Leo, Tom, Will, they were all doing some pretty special stuff and Chivo obviously is a genius. So it’ll look good too.

Nuke: That sounds like a very different experience from what I imagine Richard Curtis creating a very loving set for About Time.

Domnhall Gleeson: Yeah, so with Richard, I ended up living around the corner from him so he could call in for tea. I was living in Notting Hill. I had the summer of my life. I got to have Bill Nighy for a dad for a while. I got to have Rachel McAdams as a girlfriend for a while, between the hours of nine to five, and live in a world which was beautiful and where the emphasis was on the beautiful and finding the beautiful things and taking stock. Richard is very good at that and so are all the people in that movie. Everybody was great at taking stock, at least over the course of filming, of letting yourself understand that life can be beautiful. The Revenant is basically the opposite of that, precisely right. Precisely right.

Nuke: With Star Wars, can you at least say how it felt putting on an iconic costume?

Domnhall Gleeson: No, I can’t. Really, what they’ve said is we can talk about the table read and then nothing else, because even if you talk about if you wore a costume, then people are like, “Right, so you’re not green screen.”

Nuke: Even what we saw in the trailer?

Domnhall Gleeson: I’m not in the trailer though. So you can’t, you know what I mean? You just have to get on with it and not and smile and say, “I’m excited!” Which is true. But wait and see if you’re in the movie first of all, because it’d be embarrassing all these questions and then you don’t end up in the damn thing.

Nuke: Do you know what you want to do next, something more relaxing after these two intense shoots back to back?

Domnhall Gleeson: That was the idea but all the scripts I’m reading are pretty intense. I’d love to do a comedy. I’m overdue a comedy. Richard’s was a gentle comedy that I loved. In Frank, I got to do some funny stuff but a lot of the comedic stuff landed on Michael and Maggie. So I would love to take on the role of making people laugh because I feel it’s something I can do. I’ve done a lot of sketch comedy. I’d like to do that but I don’t know if I’ll get it done this year. I might have to wait until next year because everything’s intense at the moment.