‘Devs’ Star Cailee Spaeny on Why She Plays a Male Character on Alex Garland’s Series

     April 9, 2020

From creator/writer/director/executive producer Alex Garland, the limited series Devs, which is available to stream at FX on Hulu, follows software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), as she tries to investigate the ultra-secretive development division of the cutting-edge tech company that employers her, following the murder of her boyfriend (Karl Glusman). As Lily gets in deeper and the extent of Amaya CEO Forest’s (Nick Offerman) commitment to the Devs project is pushed to the limit, the success of the company’s covert work is threatened, which could result in dire consequences for everyone.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress Cailee Spaeny (who plays Lyndon, a brilliant young employee at Amaya’s secret development division) talked about what made her jump at the opportunity to be a part of Devs, how she related to Lyndon, what led to her playing a male character on the show, and her eagerness to work with Alex Garland again. She also talked about her experience making The Craft and why she thinks it’s a story perfect for re-telling, and how she ended up in Los Angeles and pursuing an acting career, from her small town in the Midwest.

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Photo by Miya Mizuno/FX

Collider: When Devs came your way, what did you find most appealing about it?

CAILEE SPAENY: I was like, “Alex Garland? Done!” I went through the process of auditioning. I knew the casting director, Carmen Cuba, who had cast me in Bad Times at the El Royale, and she told me that Alex Garland was doing a show. I was like, “Woah, he’s doing a show? That’s new.” I had never done television, either. So, I went into the room, and I think I was the first person Alex saw and the last person that he saw. I got a call about 30 minutes after that audition and got the role, and then dove right in. I needed to meet with Alex, every day. He took a little notepad and he drew pictures. He was like, “Okay, so this is the quantum universe.” I kind of understood. I was also the one he’d test things out on and be like, “Do you understand this? Do you understand these words? Does this dialogue make any sense? I can simplify it because I want the audience to understand it.” I was always the Guinea pig. I was also the youngest one on set, too. It was a wild ride, but I felt so honored to be a part of it, working with people, like Nick Offerman, Alison Pill and Stephen Henderson. They’re legends. I felt like I was in an acting course, every day for six months. It was incredible.

How did you relate to this character that seems so very different from you?

SPAENY: At face value, they definitely are. I play a male on the show, who’s a tech genius, so that’s very different from who I am. But there are a lot of parallels that I found, during the filming process, of just a young person who has put everything into career. He’s good at what he does, and he’s found his community and family in his work. His whole life is in this job. It’s where he puts all of his passion. He’s very creative. He cracks the code. But he still has this youthful optimism. It’s a very beautiful character. I found some similarities, just in putting everything, my whole life, into this business. I’m always the youngest one on set, and I’m so happy to have these mentors to look over me. When you’re doing a show for six months, you’re confused as to what’s you and what’s the character, but I thought Lyndon was such an inspiring character to play.

The dynamic between Stewart and Lyndon is so interesting.

SPAENY: Yeah. I love seeing two men, who aren’t even really like father and son. They’re just generations that have these differences, but at the core, they’re best friends, at the end of the day. You don’t see that a lot. It’s really sweet. I love that scene where Lyndon goes to Stewart, and Stewart tries to convince him to let it go, but Lyndon is only seeing one thing and has only one goal in mind because this is his whole world. It was so interesting, playing a character that’s so smart, in a lot of ways, but so naive, in other ways. I feel that, too. When you’re this young, you feel like you’ve seen everything, but they’re worlds ahead of you. You’re living in a why not world, where the possibilities are endless. I loved exploring that.

As an actor who’s still pretty new to this career, it seems like this is a project where you could learn a lot, since everyone is so different and from such different backgrounds.

SPAENY: Yeah. With Jin [Ha], he’s only done theater. This is his first on screen thing, ever. And then, there’s Zach [Grenier], who was in Fight Club. And there’s Nick [Offerman], who’s a comedic genius. It’s so cool to see Nick playing a role like this. We’ve never seen him like this before. Because of his background, he brings such a likability to this very strange character with selfish wants and needs, but you can’t help but fall in love with him. I just feel so lucky to be able to work with them. I hope we get to work again together.

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Photo by Miya Mizuno/FX

When you start following these characters, they initially feel very emotionally closed off. It takes a while to see how connected they are to each other and to see what the relationship dynamics are.

SPAENY: In the tech world, sometimes people can feel a little bit closed off to it because it does come off as cold, or intimidating and unaccessible. But at the end of the day, they’re just humans with wants and needs. Whenever we, as a cast, would get confused about where we were or what story we were telling, we just came back to that. That’s the real heartbeat behind the show. The tech is the backdrop, but it’s these characters and whatever they need, whether it’s their daughter or their community, or they’re trying to find out what happened to their boyfriend that went missing. There’s a true human heartbeat throughout the show.

How did you actually even come to be playing a male character in this show? How was this role presented?

SPAENY: The character was very differently written, in his mid-20s with a shaved head and tattoos. They were gonna see men, but then Alex talked to the casting director, at the last minute, and said, “Can you bring in some girls?” So, the casting director emailed me and was like, “I don’t really know what’s going on, but he wants to see you.” I was like, “Sure, I’ll do anything for this.” So, I went in, and I was the last person he saw. We just went for it. I think it’s the same as how a lot of women play Peter Pan. He wanted this perfect boy, and I actually look very similar to Alex’s son. He just wanted this innocent person that you fell in love with. Hopefully, I pulled it off, but I think that’s what he was going for. He just said, “I want you to play a guy.” And I said, “Okay.” So, I went around and hung out in coffee shops and thought about physicality, but at the end of the day, there’s not really much that’s inherently different, between men and women. The nurturing behavior that you find in women, you can find in men. The aggressive behavior that you find in men, you can find in women. And we don’t mention it, in the show. It’s just there. I thought about it a lot, before we start started filming, but once we started filming, I was just playing a character who’s a prodigy. I just let the gender thing go. It was what it was, and the character dressed how they dressed, but I just tried to find the human part of it and the connections that Lyndon as making, throughout the way, and his passion for this company. It was really my priority to have that cup across.

Alex Garland has said that he wants to do another project with this same cast. Are you game for whatever that might end up being?

SPAENY: Oh, my god, yes! He’s one of those people, where I’m like, “Anything you want, let’s go. Anything that you’re directing and working on, let’s go.” He just took care of us, so much. He trusted us with these characters and believed in us. We just all fell in love with each other. Every day, for six months, as a cast, we were like, “Can you believe that we’re doing this? How cool is this guy? How did we get here?” I’ve never experienced that on a set, with him being in love with our work and what we brought to the table, and vice versa for him. It just felt like a huge lovefest, and it felt like a true creative collaboration. It’s a project that I wanna see. It’s a that I wanna sit down with my friends and family and show them. It’s so cool. It’s a genre that I’m in love with. So, yes, if he says to jump, I’ll jump.

devs-posterWhat was it like to do the upcoming remake of The Craft?

SPAENY: That was just a whole other ball game. It’s a cult classic. People are very protective of that movie. I think it’s really smart to re-tell it today. If you go back in history, witches are just women who are persecuted for being independent and having their own ideas. I feel like that’s such a fun story to re-tell now, today. We had a young female director (Zoe Lister-Jones), who wrote that project, which was also cool. I’m interested to see how it turns out. It’s the first time I’ve ever led anything. It was shot in 30 days. It was a whirlwind of a process, and we’ve got some exciting things that are coming in that movie, that I think are gonna be cool homages. Hopefully, people like it. We’re definitely trying to say some things about the times that we’re in now, using that story and that vessel. I think it’ll be cool.

When that came your way, were you hesitant about being a part of a remake?

SPAENY: I was definitely curious. The biggest thing was, who am I gonna work with? It could be the best thing, ever, but the director, the person leading it, the captain of the ship has to be right. That’s something that I’ve learned, the little time that I’ve been in this industry. You’ve just gotta make sure that you have a connection with that person. I’m definitely hesitant, sometimes, about remakes. I swear, there’s a group on the internet that just goes to every single post about remakes and trashes it, which I think is funny. I almost think they’re our modern day fairytales. People like to hate on them, but it’s the stories we keep re-telling, for a reason. Those are our modern day witches. Those are our modern day superheroes. I think it’s great. And to be a part of something that’s so loved, who wouldn’t wanna do it? I haven’t been in this career long enough to be that picky, at this time. I’m so honored. to lead something like that. You just have to remind yourself that this is just such a dream job.

Did you refer back to the original film, at all?

SPAENY: I watched it, and we definitely wanted to respect it, as much as possible. In this story, we are women versus the patriarchy, so we took our own liberties, but it’s still for young women, growing into their power. So, I definitely did refer back to the original.

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Image via FX

After you do material that’s as thought-provoking and challenging as Devs, is it hard to then find the next thing interests you because it raises the bar so much?

SPAENY: I’m so new to this industry that I think it’s so cool to be here, at all. I’m from a small town in the Midwest and I didn’t know about any of this stuff. I just feel so lucky to have opportunities like this. I’m just 21 years old, soaking it all in, like a sponge. There’s always gonna be an interesting person out there that I wanna make art with. It’s endless. That’s another thing that technology is great for. We have so much access to so many different people out there. I’ll never get bored and it’ll never be hard to find people to do something with.

What inspired this career for you?

SPAENY: I wasn’t very good at school, at all. I was failing every test that I was taking. It didn’t feel like the right place for me. I didn’t feel like anything was making sense. I just didn’t feel at home. I didn’t see myself ever going to college, at all. It wasn’t what felt possible. And so, I tried to get my hands on anything that I could, in the small town that I grew up. I was doing small town theater, I was writing music, I was doing local commercials about RVs. And then, I begged my mom to drive me to Los Angeles. We drove 25 hours and slept in random family’s houses, that we barely knew, for four months, in one room on cots and on air mattresses. I did that for four years, until someone said yes to me. There were a lot of nos and a lot of rejection, but I was young. I went out to L.A., for the first time, when I was 15 or 16, so it was a youth optimism thing, where I was like, why not? I just kept going. I was like, “It’s never gonna happen, but this is fun.” I remember calling my agent, a month before I booked Pacific Rim, which was my first project, and I begged her, “Please just let me be an extra. I don’t care. I just wanna be on a set. I wanna be working with a group of people on one thing. I think it’s so cool. I’m in love with the idea of that.” And she was like, “Just keep waiting it out.” And then, one month later, I was in Australia filming my first project. I never had a passport, and I’d never gotten on a big plane before. It was this wild fantasy, as a young child, that just got a little bit more real, every day. I was like, “This is fun. I’m never gonna stop. I’m never gonna say no to this.” I really didn’t have any other options ‘cause I was so shit in school, so I was like, “I’m just gonna keep going and pretending.” And then, it became a reality.

Devs is available to stream at FX on Hulu.

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