It’s not every day you find yourself getting existential with a film star – but as Guy Pearce’s new film is set in a futuristic world where life-like droids can’t be discerned from real people, it’s got him questioning what it is to be human.
In Zone 414, the actor plays David Carmichael, an ex-police officer tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of the man who creates the world’s AI machines.
In order to find the missing girl, his character must befriend one of the look-alike robots, forcing him to reflect on what’s real, and what’s programming.
Pearce, best known for films including Memento and LA Confidential – as well as his rise to fame in Australian soap Neighbours – told Sky News it’s a question we may need to ask ourselves as real-world tech gets smarter.
“The whole evolution of technology and where we’re heading and this rapid desire for very smart people out there who invent technology to create versions of ourselves is really kind of fascinating and disturbing at the same time,” he said.
“And the idea that will those robots, will those androids, become more human or more human than us, or will they become human at all? You know, that’s fascinating as well.”
The actor says he has been asking himself some fundamental questions.
“Where does humanity really come from? Where does it sit? Is it only injected into us as human beings or is there just as much humanity in a chicken, but just because it doesn’t speak we don’t know and could it therefore be implanted into a robot?
“That whole idea about our identity and psychology in this kind of setting was really fascinating.”
Despite grappling with the issues around developments in AI, Pearce said the technology is not something he is familiar with.
However, the star suspects he’ll end up learning from the next generation.
“If Siri accidentally comes on, I’m immediately going, ‘no, off, I don’t need your help, go away!’
“I’m not so much a Luddite, but just an oldie I guess – it’s interesting having Monty, my little boy. He’s only five, so he’s not really aware of what’s possible on a screen yet, but certainly you see him being drawn to it. And I know there will clearly come a point, probably very quickly, where he’s way ahead of me.”
Pearce’s character in Zone 414 is a man of few words. He says he prefers to portray what’s going on through his physicality.
“I’m eliminating dialogue all the time if I can,” he said. “I’ve got to be careful not to fall into the pattern of just turning every character into a silent communicator, because that’s not right for every character – some people are just naturally much more verbose.
“But in this case we understand later the baggage that he’s bringing with him and that on some level he’s shutting down as a human being – he’s just doing what’s necessary to survive… there’s something in that that I find kind of sympathetic and sad, noble or frustrating as well.”
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Earlier this year, Pearce played a love interest for Kate Winslet’s Mare in the hugely popular small-town US crime drama Mare Of Easttown.
As an old friend of the Oscar-winner, he came on to the project late after another actor dropped out – and admitted it still seems strange that he was in it at all.
“They had been shooting for some months anyway by the time I came in, funnily enough. I did one day on 12 March of last year and we shut down [due to the pandemic],” he said.
“And I really only had about seven or eight days work, so that in the end took about six months because we didn’t go back until September of last year to finish off my stuff, and so in a weird way I feel slightly disconnected from the show because it was such a brief time – but I also feel very connected to the show because of my connection with Kate.”
Pearce, who was born in Cambridgeshire but grew up in Australia, says he was “wrapped” when Winslet, Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson won Emmys for their roles in the series.
“I was very, very happy for the show but it was funny too watching the show because my story is kind of really separate from everything else in Mare’s life,” he said. “I was really just there, I guess, to sort of remind Mare that she can have love in her life as well as work really hard.
“So it was funny watching the show because I just felt like I was a fan watching, you know, like anybody else can: Oh, and there’s me – oh that’s right, I forgot I did this.”
Zone 414 is available on digital download from 4 October