Domhnall Gleeson is either a talented actor on the rise or a robot. After watching the 31-year-old Irishman’s new film, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, it’s difficult to simply accept at face value that he—or anyone, for that matter—is human, not humanoid.
Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, a computer programmer for a massive Internet-search company whose brilliant and wealthy CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is determined to create the world’s first fully-conscious artificial intelligence. To measure the success of his latest android, an alluring model named Ava (Alicia Vikander) that has a gentle synthetic face and clearly robotic body parts, the boss brings Caleb to his super-secret secluded compound to conduct a Turing Test and determine whether she/it possesses consciousness to convince him of her/its humanity. The emotional intelligence Caleb encounters calls into question everything about Nathan’s experiment, with dangerous consequences. It also makes you wonder if bots may have infiltrated more than your Twitter feed.
If, in an attempt to convince yourself of Gleeson’s humanity after watching Ex Machina, you search his name, the computer networks that form the Internet will show you that he’s one of acting great Brendan Gleeson’s four sons. They’ll show you that he played Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, a human and his synthetic clone in the fantastic Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back,” and Air Force crewman Russell “Phil” Phillips in the Angelina Jolie-directed war movie Unbroken, and that he’s in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars sequel. They’ll even show you clips of him acting, displaying an emotional range that emojis can’t quite express. But are you going to believe what a bunch of computers tell you when it comes to ascertaining one’s humanity? Um, no. So, Complex conducted its own Turing Test to definitively determine whether Gleeson is flesh and blood or an evolutionary advancement that will replace stupid humans.
First question: Are you a robot?
[Laughs.] Let’s say no.
How do you know?
Based on the way other people treat me, but I could be wrong.
Who made you?
My parents, I hope.
How did your makers program you?
If you call love and understanding and support “programming,” then that’s how they went about it.
What is your earliest memory?
A dream about jumping down the stairs in the house where I grew up. There was a landing with a right angle, and I dreamed I’d be able to jump from the top and land on my feet at the bottom, taking the right-hand turn in my stride.
Did you try that?
[Laughs.] No, no, I didn’t—because I’m not a robot.
How do you define “living”?
Taking chances. You always feel more alive when you’re taking risks.
Do you take risks often?
Trying to make a living being an actor is a big risk. You don’t know when your next job is going to come, ever.
Do you conceal your true nature from the world?
Certainly. It’s funny doing this as a Turing Test, because when you do interviews for movies, all the interviewers want you not to be a robot. “It was fun making the movie. I liked the script. I liked the actors.” They want stuff that proves that you’re more than the automaton that’s been answering all the other questions in the exact same way. But I try and keep as much as I can personal, because I don’t figure it’s anyone’s business. I’m not on social media. My friend emailed me yesterday that somebody was pretending to be me on Twitter and had become friends with people who I knew. That’s scary. Isn’t that weird? What would you do if someone pretended to be you?
Answering questions with questions—exactly what Siri does. OK, then: What is “love”?
Finding somebody who you’re good for and who’s good for you? That’s a shitty definition. I don’t know. Alicia did all this studying for Ex Machina about dopamine and how a body is built and how the mind works, and the more you look at that stuff, your notions of a soul fritter away along the path and you realize that a machine doesn’t have a soul—and what’s a body if not a machine? It’s made of organic matter, sure, but it’s still a functioning machine—everything’s got a moving part, and the brain is no different. So love, in a way, is finding something else that makes you better, and you try and make that thing better, too, just by being good to it. It scared me. I didn’t like the notions at all.
How do you feel, knowing a lab could potentially manufacture a person or thing you would love?
There’s two ways to look at it: There’s the “Holy God! That’s scary and the world is a terrifying place,” and the other is like, “What’s the number for that lab? Because whatever they’ve created, I want one.” If it makes you happy, who gives a shit what it is?
You had to cry on stage in The Walworth Farce, the play you performed with your famous actor father and brother Brian earlier this year. Is it easy for you to summon human emotion?
Not unless I understand the character. Then you put yourself in their place and you get ready to do that scene and then that’s what happens. But there isn’t any point Joey Tribbianni-ing it, pulling out your pubic hair in a desperate bid to summon some tears.
Your job primarily involves pretending to be human beings. How do you decide which people you will pretend to be?
Often, I just want to be part of films that I want to see. But then [it’s about] switching things up, doing things you haven’t tried before, scaring yourself with something that you’re not sure if you can definitely do at all. The role that I played in Unbroken, I had to lose an incredible amount of weight. I also had to be the pilot of a plane and lead a bunch of men, play a real-life guy who I had a huge amount of respect for and whose daughter is still alive and who wanted her father portrayed well on-screen.
That’s a lot of pressure. Does pretending to be a person make you a liar?
If you’re acting well enough, you’re believing what you’re saying. I don’t know if that’s lying.
Are you lying right now?
Would you know if I was? If I were a terrible actor, then you’d know.
Quite frankly, hard to tell.
RESULT: Domhnall Gleeson is either a great actor or an incredibly dangerous robot who stars in Ex Machina, in theaters April 10.