From writer/director Gavin Rothery, the indie sci-fi drama Archive is set in 2038 and follows George Almore (Theo James), who has isolated himself while working on a true human-equivalent AI. Having built on each of his two previous robot prototypes, the risk of failure is high, as his goal is to be reunited with his dead wife.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actor Theo James talked about responding the more existential themes of this script, why the filmmaker’s vision interested him, what having actors in the larger robot suits and getting to interact with them added to his performance, and how he responded to the film’s shocking ending. He also talked about why he thought Sanditon worked best as only a one-season TV series, his desire to steer away from the big blockbuster franchises and do as different a breadth of material as possible, and trying to figure out how to safely return to work in our new COVID world.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers for the ending of Archive are discussed.]
Collider: When this project came your way, was it about the script and the filmmaker’s vision that most interested you?
THEO JAMES: There were two things, really. Conceptually, I liked the more existential themes of it, of what is a soul and at what point does a machine become a human. Those questions are often tackled in the sci-fi arena, but I love those questions. I find them fascinating. But at the core of it, (writer/director) Gavin [Rothery] had real specificity of vision. He’s a huge sci-fi fan, but he’s also very, very detail oriented. He and another producer on the film came to watch me in a play, and they gave me the script and showed me this whole document that Gavin had built, that was rendered drawings of each robot, from J1 to J2 to J3, I got to see what they were gonna look like. And then, when Gavin and I were chatting and talking about it, he went into the detail of this whole world that he wanted to build. All that detail really gives you confidence in a filmmaker. He had a mug that he had been drinking from, for a year, with the Archive emblem on it, because he wanted George to use a corporate mug that he would have gotten, but he wanted it to be believable, so he drank from it, in order for the prop to be weathered in a realistic way on set. That’s a tiny, random example. All of the suits for the robots had people inside of them, operating them, and the way that he had rendered them, three years ago, was exactly how they manifested themselves on set. He’d been thinking about this story for years, and that makes you want to really get involved, as an actor, because you know that, hopefully, you’re gonna be taken care of, but also the details is what’s gonna make the story unique and interesting.
How was it to have the experience of working with actors in robot suits and acting opposite them? Did it really help you to have something tangibly there?
JAMES: Yeah. The largest robot, J1, was operated by Chris Schubert, who’s also a set designer and prop builder. It was extremely hot and really uncomfortable, but he had an iPad slider, which made little robotic noises. The thought of it was that there was a guy inside this seven-foot suit, and he was able to actually have a conversation with me. You wanna be able to be a little bit loose with the lines and the script, and be able to go places that you haven’t been expecting, and that enables you to do so ‘cause he would be up to reply to me, in a strange way, which made it really satisfying and also hilarious, at times. I’ve done lots of stuff, where you’re staring at a green or blue screen, and you often feel a part of yourself dying sometimes. This was the opposite. You felt really connected to the machinery, and that was exactly what Gavin wanted to do. He wanted them to feel as human possible. Even though they looked like these walking boxes, he wanted to imbue emotion into them, in a way, and part of that was by having a human inside. It was also about how I interacted with them. In the first couple of days on the set, I had to remind myself that they were like children to George, and he should act like that with them because that would imbue the most amount of emotion within the story.
What was it like to actually see what the finished product looked like and to see yourself interacting with them?
JAMES: It takes a bit of trust because sometimes you do feel a bit ridiculous. But actually, once we got there and they’d built the set, it was an enclosed capsule and you could move pieces around. Essentially, once you were in it, then you were in it. Other than the more world building aspect, where they did big aerial shots of the facility, it felt as real as it could be, in a strange way.
You spend the majority of this movie alone and talking to robots. Was there a most challenging scene or a day on this shoot?
JAMES: Yeah. The interaction with robots wasn’t too hard, in the sense that the interaction and the narrative felt real enough that it felt part of the story. Probably the hardest stuff was towards the end of the movie, when George is beginning to lose his mind, essentially, and his sense of self and understanding of the reality around him. That manifests itself in a confusion and mania, so that was a little bit tricky. Other than that, it felt fairly organic.
What did you think of the film’s ending? What was your reaction?
JAMES: I loved the ending. It made so many things, in the earlier part of the story, make sense. In a way, it has some similar DNA to another project that Gavin worked on, years ago, called Moon. Once you understand the ending, you start looking back at the body of the film again and understand it in a different way. I found it quite sad. There’s a deep loneliness to him, but also to the story, which he never recovers from. I found it quite poignant, really.
Is the ending that we see now, the ending that the film always had, or did that also evolve, over time?
JAMES: No, it was pretty much always there. The idea had been that, essentially, he was manifesting it all in his own brain, towards his own decline. That was always in there. It’s quite a complex idea, really, in the sense that he’s building the essence of someone else through material parts, but trying to bring back their soul, or however you wanna view the idea of soul, and in reality, he’s losing his own. That was the other part of it that interested me, with the conceit of the archive and the idea, in that sci-fi way, that upon death, a piece of your being, whether that’s electronic impulses or however you want to define it, is remaining and is a part of yourself, and that’s also what’s fading. Looking at a dead person or animal, the link between death and life is so fragile. That’s what the essence of the archive is. It’s trying to connect those two pieces, between life and death, and that moment when someone becomes inanimate, rather than a living being.
I very much loved Sanditon and your work in it and, like many fans of the show, which that there had been more of it. Were you surprised that series wasn’t able to continue on and that you weren’t able to continue telling that story? How do you feel about where things were left, in that series?
JAMES: I actually wanted it to be the single series, in a way. That’s how I saw it. I didn’t enter it as a returning series. To me, the essence of it was (creator) Andrew Davies and, when I read the script, those great parts of the ‘95 Pride and Prejudice that I grew up watching, but also, it was an extension of that, where you were adapting to the fact that things are changing and you need to represent different parts for the audience. It has the Miss Lambe character, but it also explores women’s independence and sexuality, in a beautiful way. That, but also the ending, meant that it felt a bit different and a bit unique to me. So, the fact that it didn’t end with a happy ending and it was left with pain, was unique and interesting to me. I wanted to leave it like that because it’s more of a broken fairy tale, and that was fascinating to me. It’s a reflection of the time, as well. If you had to get yourself out of that kind of huge financial debt, the only way, unless you were able to prove massive wealth, suddenly, was to marry into it, and people did that, all the time. I liked that element of it, perversely.
The two romantic stories that I’ve seen people talk the most about recently were Sanditon and Normal People, and both stories end in a way where you don’t get the happy ending that you want for the characters, which makes you want more. But at the same time, if either show came back and continued the story, it could ruin what’s already there.
JAMES: Yeah, I agree. And I loved Normal People. I thought it was amazing. It left you not conventionally satisfied, but the end result was quite poignant.
Especially in the last few years, you’ve done such interesting material that’s all over the place, as far as types of projects. Is there a specific genre that you haven’t gotten to do yet, or a character from some sort of source material that you’d like to play?
JAMES: Yeah. I’ve spent a bit of time trying to do as different a breadth of material as possible. I started in the big-budget arena and I wanted to go in the other direction, completely. So, in terms of specific stories, I’d love to do a fictionalized version of a real character. I’m a big fan of history. There are so many stories that are interesting and unique that I don’t know if I could pinpoint it to one, but certainly, this type of old school sci-fi always appealed to me because I grew up watching Blade Runner and Star Wars, and that functional, real world sci-fi that you can touch and feel, and you can pull the leavers, and it’s not all pressing an imaginary screen and swiping imaginary buttons. There’s a viscerality and a wholeness to that sci-fi world, which I love.
When you talk about wanting to steer away from the big blockbusters or big franchises, is it out of a feeling of that being completely out of your hands, and when you do stuff that’s different or that you can be a producer on, you can have much more of a say in it?
JAMES: Yeah, I think so. And also, there’s just the fact that, if you do one thing for a period of time, you wanna do the opposite for awhile, but that’s certainly part of it. It’s about feeling more involved creatively, rather than being a tool in the larger process. And saying that, I’m a big fan of the seminal blockbuster films. I love them and I watch them all the time. But for me, it felt like a way to satisfy myself more was to do these smaller things that have a longer process where I can be involved creatively, and then I can understand how the decisions are made, and how things evolve and change, and be a part of that, as opposed to being outside of it.
How are you now trying to sort out what’s next for you and trying to figure out what that looks like, in the safest way possible? What are those conversations like now, for you?
JAMES: Yeah, it’s a very different world. In March, when everything hit, we were a week into previews of a play in London, in the West End, and then everything got shut down. In terms of theater, we’re probably not gonna see conventional theater in the UK, for quite some time. Things are evolving, in terms of screen stuff, in the UK a bit more, but in the U.S., it’s quite tricky because we don’t know how the COVID situation is gonna evolve. We’re all hoping that things will be rockin’ and rollin’ come September, but COVID seems to be have its own mind in this, and we’re not really where we expected to be at. I don’t know about you, but when lockdown started globally, it happened at different times, but we thought it was two months or maybe three, but now we’re looking at a world where maybe things aren’t the same until 2021. So, that’s my way of saying that I don’t really know. Theater has definitely changed, for the foreseeable future. But in terms of screen, it’s more likely that the UK and Europe will be doing things in a larger general way, quicker perhaps than in the U.S. There are a few things that can happen, between now and the end of the year, and I think that will potentially slow things down, in terms of production. But we’ll see. It’s a bit of an unknown.
Archive is available on-demand and digital.