Ultron: James Spader on the things his Avengers villain has right about us
Think of him as the ultimate malware.
James Spader is the man inside the mechanical terror in Avengers: Age of Ultron, breathing fetid acrimony into the artificial intelligence program that decides the world would be a nicer place if we weren’t on it anymore.
As the movie opens across the country, and to cap off EW’s Age of Ultron week, we bring you an exclusive deep-dive into why The Blacklist star played hard-to-get for Marvel over the years – and what he thinks Ultron may have right about us.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Joss told me he wanted Ultron as the villain for the Avengers sequel before he even finished the first movie. When did you come into the process?
JAMES SPADER: It started with my agent and Kevin Feige talking about the idea of doing something at Marvel. She also represents Sam Jackson, and I had said at one point, “It might be fun to do one of these comic book movies.” My middle son, at the time, was a teenager, and he always loved superhero movies and things like that.
Were you into them growing up?
I have fond memories as a child where I had a great friend who had a trunk of every kind of comic book. I would go over for sleepovers at his house, and I used to just climb in that trunk and read everything I could.
So this one was for the kids.
And my youngest son, at the time, was coming along. I have three boys, and I had never really chosen any films for the kids — quite the contrary! [Laughs.] Most of the time, kids wouldn’t really be able to see or, certainly not, appreciate them until they were considerably older.
I suppose Less Than Zero isn’t good for a family movie night.
None of them have been! Crash [the 1997 David Cronenberg thriller about people sexually aroused by car collisions], probably even less — or maybe not! Both are … cautionary tales.
So that was years ago, but when did Marvel come back to you with Ultron?
We all left enthusiastically but with nothing tangible in hand. Anyway, I went off and did my thing, they went off and did theirs. I had said to them in that first meeting: “I am aware of that fact that you get one entrance into this world.”
You wanted to make it count.
I just wanted to make sure this is the right entry for me, because I realized, “Once I play this, I burned any opportunity to play anything else.” Kevin said, “It can’t get any better than playing Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron!” I said, “When you put it that way, you’re right; it’s a pretty good entry.”
Ultron doesn’t talk much like a robot. He’s sarcastic and sophisticated. He’s elegant and petulant. Joss said he recruited you with some scenes that weren’t even from the movie.
They were never in the script! think one of the scenes that he had written was quoting Emily Dickinson. As drafts started to come, I got more and more excited.
Separate from the motion-capture technology necessary to play Ultron, what’s your read on him? He’s a genocidal artificial-intelligence program, but what kind of guy are we dealing with?
It’s interesting, because he was originally conceived of as a benevolent being of some sort that then was sort of a shelved project that then self-created. But what was at his disposal was really everything human. Even though his makeup is machine, everything — his operating, his engine — is all informed by everything human. He has accessed an entire human history — and animal history and the history of the Earth – he’s downloaded it all.
He knows everything there is to know.
An unprecedented amount of information. And that’s what informs who he is. So you’d think the result of that might be the wisdom of the ages. But remember being back in the body of an adolescent [laughs] — and a formidable adolescent as well. He’s out for his own good.
Not well adjusted.
He’s pretty crazy, because it’s also streaming all the time, too. He has voices in his head.
But he thinks he’s doing good. His programming tells him to protect the Earth, and his conclusion is – great, let’s get rid of the people on it.
His view of the world and humanity’s place in it is tumultuous and violent and dramatic — it’s biblical, really. He’s allowed himself to make a decision about what he thinks is best. What he has decided is best for the world is to start over.
At first, I thought of him as wise and possessing infinite knowledge. But when you say “adolescent,” I can see that age’s arrogance in Ultron. There’s nothing like a really smart kid who gets a little cocky.
Can I tell you something? The worst argument one can face is from a very smart teenager. There’s a great Mark Twain quote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” [Laughs.]
That’s a great quote.
Ultron is very smart and very learned and very powerful, and there are moments of sort of wisdom, but it’s balanced with the arrogance of youth, and that is incredibly potent, in his case.
So it’s not insulting when Joss Whedon says: “I wrote this thinking of you?”
I said to Joss, “Why do you want me to do this?” He said he wanted to be able to have someone who could be irreverent and childish — not childlike, but childish. And be able to have humor and childishness married with a sort of credible gravitas. I don’t know what the hell he thought. But in any case, that’s what I packed in my luggage. [Laughs.]
You and Robert Downey Jr. worked together a lot in the old days. How was it teaming up again?
We’ve done a couple of pictures together, and at a time, became really great friends. I have found it hard; I’m not a socialite at all. Actors will work together, and crew and writers, directors, and anybody else: We all work together, and you all go off in different directions to do other different things. But Robert was somebody who I really became friends with and spent a lot of time with, and then our lives just took different paths and went to different places. We really weren’t in touch for a long time, and it was one of the loveliest things being reunited on this film. I was glad for all the time we had to just sit and talk.
You’ve played many characters over your character, but lately you seem to be on a villainous streak. I’m both terrified of and charmed by your Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist.
He’s a dangerous charmer [laughs]. I’ve always tried to go back and forth between playing good guys and bad guys, and I think what I’ve ended up with, in the end, is playing a lot of good guys where the bad is also evident, and playing a lot of bad guys where the good is also evident. At a certain point, I tried more and more to meld the two. Maybe it was just because it was just more interesting for me.
Does that mean Ultron has a good side?
Oh! He’s a conservationist! That is really what he is! [Laughs.] I’m sure that there’s some members of Earth First out there that’d really be down with his ideology about the annihilation of the human race for the betterment of the world around [Laughs].
In the comics, Ultron had some father issues — to say the least: He hated his creator, Hank Pym (a.k.a. Ant-Man). In this film, Ultron is made by Tony Stark, who similarly invokes his rage.
I think it’s dealing about the Avengers, too. They’re not just part of the problem, they personify the problem. That could also be Oedipal, too. It could very much be a sort of Oedipal complex.
Oh, absolutely. He wants to vanquish his father and lay with Mother Earth!
It’s Age of Ultron week at EW.com. Check out our other exclusive Q&As from the set of the new Avengers movie below.