Oscar Isaac on Ex Machina and the Secrecy of Star Wars

Photo: Johns PKI/Corbis

Independent-film fans have been familiar with the talented Oscar Isaac for years, but mainstream audiences will soon be exposed to him in a major way: He's playing Poe Dameron in the J.J. Abrams–directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens this winter, and then segueing to the big-budget X-Men: Apocalypse, where he's been cast as the titular villain. In the meantime, Isaac stars in this weekend's Ex Machina, which cleverly splits the difference between those sci-fi blockbusters and his smaller, headier projects. In the Alex Garland–directed film, Isaac plays brilliant but blinkered inventor Nathan, who uses his vast fortune and influence to lure a meek employee (Domhnall Gleeson) to his private island getaway, where he's meant to test out a crafty, lifelike female robot (Alicia Vikander). Vulture recently sat down with Isaac in Los Angeles to discuss conceiving his Ex Machina character, his surprising influences, and the secrets that were and weren't revealed to him while shooting Star Wars.

You've rocked some interesting facial hair during your career, Oscar. Your mustache in Sucker Punch, your Inside Llewyn Davis look ...
Wait until you see this HBO miniseries I just did for David Simon. It's a mullet and mustache! Oh my God.

So when I see your Ex Machina character Nathan, who's got this bushy beard, a bald head, and big biceps, I'm curious how you and Alex conceived the look for your character, because it's so distinctive.
From the beginning, Alex wanted a beard, and I was like, "Cool, no problem! I can grow one of those." From that point on, we started brainstorming. We thought, Okay, this guy's been a reclusive inventor for the last five years, he's seen no human beings — what would he look like? One of the first ideas we had was that he'd have really long hair, because what reason would he have to cut it? But then I thought that from a practical standpoint, if you're trying to make something in a lab, you'd have to have hairnets and stuff, and I don't think he'd want to do that. So then we thought that shaving his head would be an interesting look and quite striking.

One of the inspirations for me, and not just intellectually but the way he looked as well, was Stanley Kubrick. This was a man of incredible vision, a genius, someone who was so detail-oriented and whom so many people described as reclusive — even though I think he just wanted to live in the countryside with his family. But his look was so striking, with the bald head near the end of his life, the big beard, and the glasses he would peer over like an owl. Even his speech patterns! I would listen to recordings of him from when he was younger, as well as recordings of Bobby Fischer, who also had a brilliant mind and was very damaged and misanthropic.

It was funny that you had to get super-buff for a movie that’s essentially a talky chamber piece.
Well, that's like Bobby Fischer, too: He had an Olympic trainer when he was preparing for his chess battles, which is interesting. The muscles were written into the script, and we figured that he'd had this regimen for a couple of years, so he'd be in pretty good shape.

At one point in the movie, the characters stand in front of a Pollock painting and debate whether art is thought-out or automatic, and I'm reminded of that when you tell me your approach to acting. It sounds very thought-out and research-driven … but is that so you reach a point where you can leave it all behind and have it come to you automatically?
Completely. It was the same thing with Pollock: He studied painting for a long time and played with these themes, but when it came time to actually do it, it had to be expressive, not communicative. There was never once during this movie where I was like, "Make sure you know this part was inspired by Kubrick!" It's not even about hoping that someone picks that up — it's about inspiration, and having conviction in what you're doing. So for me, something about that inspiration gave me ownership over what I was doing so that I could let the unconscious work.

Talk to me about Ex Machina's dance sequence. It's so giddy and odd, it's almost a release valve for the tension that's been built up during the movie.
I love a good disco non sequitur! [Laughs.] It's just so left-field and great. It's such a smart thing to keep people on their toes. You just don't know what to expect from this guy, and when I read it, I started cracking up. I saw it for the first time with an audience at South by Southwest, and they erupted into applause at the end of the dance! It was one of the most proud moments of my career, I gotta say.

What's interesting about Nathan is that he's become so successful that it's almost made him crazy. Both of his feet are no longer on the ground.
Human nature is such that it's always a mix between fear of the unknown and disdain for what you do know, for what's been discovered already. So no matter what heights one can reach, once you've reached it and come to know it, you already want the next thing. When there is no next thing, then what happens? How do you fulfill that natural desire to move forward? For someone like Nathan, the next place for him to go after he had all this money was to create the singularity.

So how do you deal with the destabilizing effects of success as it comes to you?
For me personally, I'm nowhere near that point! I still see lots of possibility, and I'm excited about doing different work, and excited about the fact that I'm actually at the place where I can be thought of for some of these jobs.

I know you can't spoil anything about Star Wars for me, but I'm curious about the art of secret-keeping on a production like this. For example, when you signed on, did they even tell you that the movie was titled The Force Awakens?
I don't think they really knew the title for a long time … or if they did, it was kept under wraps. You know what? I think I learned it when everybody else did, when it was announced. With bigger movies like this, there are so many moving parts, so many marketing ideas, that they obviously don't want those things preempted by someone speaking out of turn and saying something they shouldn't have. People are so hungry for information and content that it's just easier when you don't tell people that much. Even something small you might say could get misconstrued! For example, someone asked me if I was interested in working with Rian Johnson, who's directing the next Star Wars movie, and I said, "Sure, I'd like to work with him" … and then people reported that I'll be in that movie. And I have no idea! I don't even know if I'm gonna be in this one. All I know is that I'm in the trailer. [Laughs.]

It's interesting that in Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson's character arrives at this mysterious compound and has information doled out to him in a very cagey, need-to-know basis. I would think that's analogous to meeting with J.J. Abrams on a project as secretive as Star Wars.
It's a bit like that, yeah. You meet and you talk, over the next week or two, people figure it out, and then it either happens or doesn't.

And then do they tell you the character's name and all the important plot details?
I knew that in my first talk with J.J., actually. He basically told me the whole thing, the whole story. It was incredibly exciting just to be called in and told that. It was awesome.

Both Ex Machina and Star Wars are effects-heavy movies, but at least in Ex Machina, those effects are so well-integrated that you don't even notice them. The parts of Alicia's body that are replaced by technology in postproduction look utterly convincing.
It's stunning. And the positive side of technology is that what they're able to do with it nowadays is amazing, because it doesn't get in the way of shooting. Alicia could just be in her mesh suit and we could do all the scenes, they'd do one pass without us, and that was it … although it does feel to me that with other movies, there's such an overreliance on digitally creating things, and you can still tell that it's not real when you overuse it so much. What's great is when those effects are used in a more subtle way, and I think in Ex Machina in particular, it's sometimes incidental. The camera isn't even presenting those effects, it's just catching glimpses of things, and it's done in such a sophisticated way that I find it's very believable.

And I hear that's similar to the new Star Wars film, which goes heavy on practical effects instead of computer graphics.
Same thing! It was very much like that. Yeah, there would be some blue-screens here and there, but for the most part, I interacted with full sets and everything. It was great.