Oscar Isaac is still in the early stages of his blossoming acting career, but already he’s shown that he’s one of the finest actors around. Since graduating Juilliard in 2005, the 35-year-old, who was born in Guatemala and raised in Miami, has captivated in his film work. Whether he’s playing small parts, as he did in Drive (2011), humanizing an ex-con, or leading with nuanced, award-worthy performances in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), as a struggling folk musician, and A Most Violent Year (2014), as an immigrant businessman resisting the lure of criminality while trying to save his heating oil company, he's unforgettable on screen.
In his latest film, the Alex Garland-directed sci-fi drama Ex Machina, Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, a brilliant computer programmer and “bro billionaire” CEO of an Internet-search behemoth. Perhaps too smart for his own good, he’s determined to create the world’s first fully-conscious artificial intelligence and holes up in his secluded, state-of-the-art compound, secretly playing God with androids. To determine the consciousness of his newest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan invites Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who works for his company, to his private lab to conduct a week-long Turing Test. If Ava, possessing a gentle synthetic face and a shapely—but clearly robotic—body, displays emotional intelligence and consciousness to convince Caleb of her humanity, Nathan will have achieved his goal. But at what cost?
We sat down with Isaac to discuss the scary side of technological advances, Oscar snubs, and what he’s bringing to his roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse.
Who, if anyone, did you base Nathan Bateman on?
For me, the two big influences were Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick. [Ex Machina] was so well written [by Alex Garland], the whole bro billionaire aspect of it, that I just wanted to get a little bit more to the idea of someone who was a savant, someone who was self-taught, and someone who had a real air of mystery to them. I wouldn’t say Kubrick and Bobby Fischer are alike, because Kubrick was a good man, from what I understand, from what I’ve read. And sure, he could be intense and harsh and difficult, but he had real vision. And, although the myth of him was that he was a recluse, I just think he wanted to live in the countryside with his family. That’s not reclusive necessarily. He had a big, wonderful family and was social in that way. But the aspect that he was self-taught, that he was great at chess, the way he would speak about things, the attention to detail, the vision of the guy—and the look, to a certain extent. I listened to his speech patterns and I liked the idea of the bald head and the glasses, the beard. There was something god-like about that. And then with Bobby Fischer it was the darker aspects, the more misanthropic parts of him, the fact that he was angry. It was an anger that grew and grew and grew throughout his life until the anger itself ended up swallowing him. But again, [he was] a chess master, someone who was so brilliant at this one particular thing. I found out that he had an Olympic trainer, which is weird—you wouldn’t think chess player Bobby Fischer would have an Olympic trainer—but he had an intense physical regimen as well.
I do think that we’ll destroy ourselves. We already are. We’re already completely dependent on the machines.
How do you feel about technology after making Ex Machina?
Technology is fantastic and amazing and prolongs our lives—I’m part of the system, I happily use all the gadgets and stuff—but I’m also aware that we lose control over the things that we create. What’s happening to the climate, what’s happening to the rising sea level, what’s happening to all these things, are [the effects of] stuff that we’ve created to help us, but then it becomes a system that’s beyond our control. Or when those in true power are able to control the system. So, I am less optimistic about the way technology will go. [Computer scientist, futurist, and Director of Engineering at Google] Ray Kurzweil is an optimist and he believes that we will always compete because we ourselves will become more machine, whether it’s nanotechnology or exoskeletons or whatever. He doesn’t think that it will be a problem. But I do think that we’ll destroy ourselves. We already are. We’re already completely dependent on the machines.
I conducted a Turing Test with your co-star Domhnall Gleeson and asked him this question: How do you feel, knowing that labs can use your search history to devise something to appeal specifically to you?
It freaks me the fuck out when I’m like, “Hey, I wanna buy something for my friend on Amazon,” or on any website, and then suddenly I’m getting all these ads for that thing from random places. It genuinely unsettles me, to the point where I’m like, “How did this happen? Who knows this and how is it…? Is it someone that’s doing it? Is it artificial? Is it some form of basic artificial intelligence through an algorithm that’s figuring out, OK this, there, right now we’re gonna send them all this stuff.” Who’s amassing this information? It’s weird.
Do you ever fully unplug?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just recently went back to Guatemala to see family and hang out there, and I unplugged completely and went off-grid for a moment.
How did that experience feel?
The first few days, I was fiending for it. I was like, “Must touch electronic equipment. Need blue light.” And then, it’s amazing, because it starts to go away, and then by the next few days, suddenly this calm comes back, and perspective shifts. We’re in this weird situation; there’s this idea that everyone can be reached at any moment, and there’s this automatic nature of things, this disposable nature of interaction. Interaction’s become much less important because there’s so much of it. It’s like supply and demand; when there’s so much of it, you don’t even give a shit. The same thing with music. I rarely use [the music player] part of the phone anymore because it makes it disposable. We don’t care as much about our music. That’s why going back to more tactile things, like a record, it’s not just about being a hipster, it’s like you have a different interaction with the music. You put a record on, you listen to the whole album, you’re forced to get up and change it and put it on the other side. So you’re actually interacting with the whole experience of listening to something, way more than just some sort of shuffle that’s just random songs.
Do you have a big record collection?
Yeah, getting one. Working with T Bone Burnett, who’s like the patron saint of analog, [on Inside Llewyn Davis] definitely helped shift some of those thoughts.
I’m one of many people who feel that you not getting an Oscar nomination for A Most Violent Year was criminal.
Thank you. That’s kind of you to say.
I’ll get a script, and if it says that [the character is] Latino, my first thing to do is to take that away and see what’s there. people will put that on top of a bland character to make them exotic, to add a little spice.
A colleague of mine, Angel Diaz, wrote an essay about it in which he argued that the Academy is less likely to acknowledge a Latino actor when they portray a Latino character in a positive light. What are your thoughts on that?
I kinda don’t care. I mean, the truth is, to pontificate about award distribution and why, it’s kind of a fool’s errand. And it’s also a lot of people that vote on this thing. It’s just a bunch of random people, and to put a heavier meaning on that, or to chastise people for not liking something that much, and assuming that it’s because I’m Latin or whatever, I don’t know. I just think it’s a waste of my energy.
Do you feel your work is viewed differently when you’re playing Latino characters versus non-Latino ones?
I don’t view it at all differently. I do notice that oftentimes I’ll get a script, and if it says that [the character is] Latino, my first thing to do is to take that away and see what’s there. Because something that happens a lot is that people will put that on top of a bland character to make them exotic, to add a little spice, and the only thing that’s interesting about them is their ethnicity. That’s boring. I mean, apart from whatever political aspects that are wrong with that, it’s just boring for me.
To a certain extent that happened with Drive; I got that script and said, “This is such a shitty character.” No offense to [Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini], who I love and worked with again, with him as a director [on The Two Faces of January]. But I just was like, “This is no good. Standard is a cliché. He’s just this thug gangster who lives a life of crime, is horrible to his family, and then you want him to die so the white people get together.” [Director Nicolas Winding Refn] agreed. He said, “Let’s make him into something more interesting,” and we ended up making him a tragic character that had made a mistake. And so then suddenly his ethnicity is an aspect of him, but it’s not the driving force, just like it isn’t, I don’t think, for most people. Most people are individuals. It kinda goes back to Ex Machina: Does consciousness have a sex? Does consciousness have a gender? Does consciousness have an ethnicity? Is there such thing as a male consciousness? Is there such thing as a white consciousness versus a black consciousness versus an Indian consciousness, whatever? The answer’s probably no, although those things inform your experience and your existence. So, for me, it’s much more interesting to figure out what that consciousness is, what the soul of a person is, as opposed to any kind of outward ethnicity.
Looking ahead to the big projects you have coming up, what research and development have you done to play X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the supervillian Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse? Any NASA training?
I did some actually. I can’t talk too much, but I did some fight simulation. Clearly I’m in an X-wing. I actually did read a lot about war. That was something that was interesting to me, particularly the ecstasy of war. I read a book called What It’s Like to Go to War. It was straightforward but it was interesting. It was about the spiritual aspects of war, and being a warrior, and how, really, that’s not something that’s taught, the sacred space that soldiers are thrown into. I know it’s heavy stuff for Star Wars, but still, you try to find something to ground you to go inside. So that was something that I looked at.
when I was a kid, the second coming, the apocalypse, the beast with seven heads, and all this crazy s*** that the bible talks about in Revelation was the scariest thing you could think of.
What was your experience like doing flight simulation?
It’s like a video game.
Was the simulator just a box that you get inside?
Yeah. The whole thing was very simple. It doesn’t move around. It was just getting the sense of basic controls and there’s a couple screens. It’s a little bit boring actually.
So your stomach wasn’t in your throat?
No, it wasn’t high-end, that kinda stuff. And the truth is, it’s also space. So it’s not the same as flying in Earth’s atmosphere.
What about X-Men Apocalypse?
With Apocalypse, I’m super excited ’cause I’m trying to get back to the initial expression of that character. Louise Simonson, the lady who created Apocalypse, was tasked with making a brand new, big supervillain. The fact that she chose the embodiment of the biblical apocalypse, with the four horsemen, that was fascinating to me. For me, when I was a kid, the second coming, the apocalypse, the beast with seven heads, and all this crazy shit that the Bible talks about in Revelation was the scariest thing you could think of. So, it’s getting back to the source of what that is, the actual word “apocalypse,” which is Greek and means to lift back the curtain, to reveal. Although for us it’s synonymous with destruction. Maybe it’s a bit of both.