It can really hinder an actor to constantly do the same thing. Productive fear is something I really thrive on.
If actors aren’t able to safely return to work in the era of never-ending pandemics, are we ready to embrace movies starring robots? Artificially intelligent robots—potential thespians unsullied by annoying and old-hat things such as “artistic choices” or “sentience.” As Hollywood grapples with how to best reopen for productions that were put on indefinite pause at the beginning of all of this unpleasantness, at least one movie is proceeding with a lead actress who is immune to COVID-19—an A.I. robot by the name of Erica. She is confirmed to star in a $70 million dollar science fiction picture titled b, about a scientist tasked with creating the perfect human DNA. Not surprisingly, things go very wrong for him because playing god is always a terrible idea.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, it was up to Erica’s creators, Japanese scientists Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa, to “teach” her their own version of method acting. The film’s visual effects supervisor and producer Sam Khoze had this to say to the industry rag: “In other methods of acting, actors involve their own life experiences in the role. But Erica has no life experiences. She was created from scratch to play the role. We had to simulate her motions and emotions through one-on-one sessions, such as controlling the speed of her movements, talking through her feelings, and coaching character development and body language.”
In all fairness to robots everywhere—if that’s a thing—humans have encroached on their turf since the earliest days of sci-fi: Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Peter Weller in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Kelly LeBrock in John Hughes’s Weird Science, Yul Brenner in Michael Crichton’s Westworld and Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s Terminator, to name a few. The list is truly endless.
Now comes Anglo-French actress Stacy Martin in Gavin Rothery’s wildly ambitious feature debut Archive. She plays Jules, or J3. Her consciousness from her former human self has been hardwired into a third generation robot prototype by her husband, George (Theo James), in his desperate attempt to “bring her back.” It’s a movie where the less you know about it going in, the better.
Martin was of course first introduced to us with her breakout role in 2014’s Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s operatic, two-part exploration of sex addiction. It’s the type of role many young actresses would shy away from. However, it turned the beguiling 30-year-old Martin into an instant star, and she has continued to put her impressive acting chops on display in the years since, appearing in movies like Ben Wheatley’s dystopian head-trip High-Rise, Brady Corbet’s meditation on the vapidity of pop superstardom Vox Lux, and Michel Hazanavicius’ Palme d’Or contender Godard Mon Amour. She has other movies on the horizon, including David Bruckner’s The Night House, a ghost story that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim.
Archive hits select theaters, On Demand and digital on July 10th.
It’s great to connect with you again. That was so brief when we met up at Sundance for your portrait session, down in that basement off of Main Street with Rebecca [Hall].
Yes, oh my god! The world has turned completely upside down.
We got lucky with Sundance slotting right in there before the pandemic became real.
It’s just insane how quickly things changed. It was my first time at Sundance. I was like, “This is incredible! This is such a wonderful festival.” Then a few weeks later I read this article saying, “Sundance: The Petri Dish for COVID-19.”
I remember that headline, too. Let’s move on to more positive things: Let’s talk about Archive. This movie really impressed me. What an interesting proposition for an actor. Did you immediately jump at the opportunity?
Yeah. It was a very quick turnaround in that Gavin Rothery asked me a week before they started shooting, which is kind of crazy. I loved the script. It had something so weirdly human and relatable about it, even though we’re talking about robots and it was a very heavy sci-fi film. Then I met Gavin and he was so passionate and inspiring in the way he was talking about the robots. I just thought, “This guy really knows what he wants and he has something no one has tried to do before.” I’ve always wanted to do things that are completely different from anything I’d done in the past, and one of those things was to play a robot. I felt like this would just be insane to not do.
You’re very good at playing a robot. I think in any other instance, “robot acting” would be an offensive thing to say to an actor. But you’re really, really good in this one.
Time is obviously the thing that unites us. Time is the thing that we can’t make any more of. What do you think it would be like to live forever inside of a machine? Is that idea appealing to you, just as a concept?
Not really. There’s something really disturbing about this endlessness. I think that was a really strong point of entry for me into the character of Jules and J3: This idea that it’s relentless. Obviously I think the fear of death is in all of us, and it’s because it’s there you end up enjoying life and everything matters a lot more. But that idea? It’s just a bit freaky for me. [laughs]
Archive has one hell of an ending. We won’t spoil it here, but there’s tragedy to your character. There is tragedy to your husband George and his situation: He goes to unthinkable extremes for love. There’s also tragedy to J1 and J2, of course. What lengths would we go to, to wrap up our affairs when a life of a loved one is cut short unexpectedly?
Yes. I think one of the questions that the film so clearly proposes is, how do you reconcile an abrupt ending and what lives on after death? One of the things that comes out so strongly from all the robots is that there is this unending feeling of love. Strangely enough, for me—I’m not gonna spoil it, but—there’s such a powerful moment with J2, who plays the more adolescent robot that George has built. Just to see her be completely crushed and devastated, even though she’s a robot—she has nothing resembling humans on the outside—you relate to her so vividly and so strongly. It just gets straight to the core of love and death and grief. I just found myself weeping when I saw the film for the first time. It’s like, “I know what’s going to happen! Why am I so affected by it?”
Immediately, that’s what felt different about Archive. With George and his second generation prototype, J2, it’s an incredibly affecting and adorable dynamic, which you rarely see done well, or done at all, in cinema. I got super curious about the performers behind J1 and J2.
J2 was played by a dancer—I can’t remember her name—and she spent whole days in that costume. As much as it was quite hard for me to be in my costume all day, I still had a lot of mini-escapes where I could sit down if I wanted. With J1 also, they just couldn’t really move as freely and they couldn’t see. So to be able to physically communicate something so strong was absolutely amazing. I would sometimes just watch and stay even when it was the end of my day because I found it so beautiful that you can communicate something without language. It still works without explaining how you feel. With J1 and J2, the words aren’t sophisticated enough. J1 doesn’t even say words at all, but you can still understand everything she is going through.
I don’t know if you heard this, but The Hollywood Reporter recently announced the casting of an A.I. robot in a leading role in a $70 million science fiction movie. It’s going to be the first film to rely on an artificially intelligent actor—a Japanese robot named Erica.
I need to look this up because this is blowing my mind. Does this robot exist regardless of the film, like “Let’s make this film with Erica,” or are they making the robot?
From what I understand, Erica was built from scratch with this end purpose in mind and trained specifically to play this role. They’re already filming the movie right now.
That actually scares the shit out of me. A.I. is such an interesting thing. With science, we’re able to do so much. But there’s something about A.I., to do with the fact that they’re trying to recreate consciousness. I know you have to accept that you’re giving control away, and that is just terrifying to me. I mean, I would love to see [the movie!] How do you direct A.I.? Practically, what happens?
I believe her handlers are teaching her movement coordination and their version of what they call “method acting” by just communicating with her. It will be really interesting to see how this all pans out. Even the idea of owning personal drones was an outlandish idea not that long ago. Now we use drones to bomb other countries and god knows what else.
It’s going so, so fast. Archive takes place in 2038, which isn’t that faraway. Like you say, when you see how fast things are moving forward, [A.I. acting] is possible—anything is possible these days. It’s just weird. [laughs] It’s just the way kids are growing up now. It has evolved so fast.
Because Archive takes place not too distant into our future, everything is very much believable. Gavin is obviously also smart, and has great taste and a clever vision. Like you said before, he does come across as somebody who has such a precision about him.
What struck me the most is just how he’s really precise. I was comforted by that because this is definitely a genre that I wasn’t familiar with. When you have CGI, it’s a very weird task. Some actors are used to to doing green screen and it’s a skill in itself. I definitely haven’t done much of it at all. But with Gavin, he would just describe everything so precisely. He would go through it with me so that I could build an understanding of the space around me and how it would affect my character. I loved it. It was just so insightful and he would just give me little pieces of information that he must’ve spent hours and hours on. He’s so just very passionate about sci-fi. It really translates through the film. It’s almost like a love letter to technology, but at the same time, it’s a love letter to human creation. That’s all explored in the film and even in the costume that I wore every day. In my later scenes as J3, her crazy complexion was done with actual makeup and prosthetics, which helped to build this grounding reality in a genre that’s abstract.
With the final look that you arrive at as J3, did it take some time to find it with Gavin?
No, Gavin was really specific about all of [the looks] from the very beginning, which was actually quite helpful for me because it eliminated doubt. The first phase of J3, where she’s on her rig, even that look was something just very clear. It was more about how we were going to execute it and what it means in terms of my movements. Thankfully, the costume team was just so fantastic. We kept finding solutions to problems in terms of the movement. They would say, “Stacy, it’s okay! We’ll just paint you in black latex!” I’m like, “What do you mean paint me in black latex?” [laughs] It was just such a creative process. I spent four to five hours in makeup every day, which meant I was pretty grumpy on set, but there’s something that felt so unique about that experience.
It must come as a great relief when you watch the final product and it’s as great as Archive is, but also on set realizing that your director is somebody you can really trust. Are there concerns when it’s a first time feature director because you don’t have the luxury of watching tons of their previous movies to be sold on what they’re actually capable of doing?
Yes, but I’m fine with first-time directors. With first-time films, there’s a very, very specific energy to them. It’s really exhilarating as an actor because you’re at the very beginning of someone coming up with a vision of what they want to do. I’ve done quite a few of them now. They’ve all been so thrilling to be a part of. When you’re on a first film, there’s definitely a different vibe on set. With Gavin, I was just so taken by his world. I thought, “Wow, he really knows what he’s doing.” I had no doubts about that, to the extent that he wanted to create these robots and how he envisioned them. Also, there’s him, but there’s also an amazing team behind him, like an amazing cinematographer [Laurie Rose] who I’d worked with before. There’s Steven Price, who did the music for Gravity. You know this is just a recipe for something that’s gonna be really good. I knew that there was something in this story that was going to come out different and powerful.
I was scrolling through your Instagram and saw the posts you’ve made with stills from movies like The Shining, Heaven Knows What, and Parasite. You have a very particular taste in movies even as a fan. Similar to how Gavin is precise, you’ve always remained very particular about the projects you get involved with.
I think I just like cinema and I get very excited about watching a film. Watching Parasite I was like, “Yes! This is what it’s about!” I get a bit ecstatic about it. I have to honor that part of me: I’m part of an industry that I love so I also have to uphold my tastes in that. I’m lucky enough to be able to—to a certain extent—make choices. It’s this constant thing of really wanting to work with directors who have a vision, who are trying to say something and very unique in that way, whether it’s a science fiction film or a comedy. It’s not necessarily about genre or style, as long as it’s specific. That’s what makes me excited as an actor.
I learned that you moved around a lot growing up. It was interesting to read that you moved to Tokyo when you were 7 and when you moved back to Paris years later, you felt like “We’ve already done this place” and so you became “anti-French everything for a very long time.” I bring this up because it seems deeply rooted—this allergy you have to projects that look familiar to what you’ve done before.
I try and always do something different. I think part of what I like about acting is also the experience of being on set. So if it’s too similar I’m thinking, “What else could I bring to this that I haven’t done prior?” Then there’s also, for example, what happened after I did Nymphomaniac. I had a lot of roles that were suddenly coming to me that were very sexualized. I just thought, “Why? What is making people think that—” I would read scripts that were so similar. I would think, “This is never gonna get made because it’s almost an exact copy of Nymphomaniac.” I’m sure in some way they were well-intended, but there was definitely a part of me that was fighting being typecast. It can really hinder an actor to constantly do the same thing. I like trying new things and being uncomfortable. Productive fear is something I really thrive on.
We’re in this pandemic where film release dates are constantly changing and being pushed back and some movies are being shelved indefinitely. What’s the word right now on when The Night House will get released? I actually didn’t get to see it at Sundance. I’ve only heard good things about it.
I think it’s definitely coming out soon. I have seen discussions about it, but I don’t know when exactly, which is a bit of a bummer. I’m answering that without really answering you. [laughs] It is gonna get released for sure. That movie was one of those things where—I’m terrible with horror movies. I can’t even watch a horror movie trailer so being in one was definitely intense and then watching it at Sundance was terrifying.