Zoë Kravitz and Steven Soderbergh on why KIMI confirmed their tech fears: 'It freaks me out'
Our devices are always listening to us... but what happens if they pick up something more nefarious than a song request or weather update?
Such is the basic idea behind KIMI, HBO Max's new tech thriller from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh. In it, Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs, an agoraphobic tech analyst who reviews data streams for the ominous Amygdala Corporation, purveyor of the voice-activated companion server KIMI. Angela's life is thrown off-balance when she hears what sounds like a violent crime being committed in one of the recordings she's analyzing, and finds herself in very dangerous waters when she decides to report it.
Soderbergh first heard the idea for the film from screenwriter David Koepp, and he was hooked instantly. "He had been reading about this case where [Amazon's] Alexa appeared to pick up a recording of a murder. And that's when he found out, oh, there are live human beings that do AI recalibration by listening to actual audio files," Soderbergh recalls to EW. "And I thought, 'Of course there is, of course there is. And, why hadn't I thought of that before?' To me, it's such a strange idea, to say yes to being recorded all the time."
A very dedicated prop and video department were charged with nailing the tech aspects of the film, Soderbergh says, in order to "make all that stuff look legit, just look like a real platform or the worksite of a high-end tech company." The film's namesake, though, was the brainchild of the director.
"I think this is the only time this has occurred. I actually had an idea for what the KIMI should look like and sent a sketch to [production designer] Philip Messina to see if he thought it would work. I never have ideas like that. I don't know why this was in my head, but it was," says Soderbergh. The end result is a speaker that vaguely resembles a high-tech rounded pyramid, with a glowing magenta light at the bottom to indicate KIMI's responsiveness.
The irony is that neither Soderbergh nor Kravitz own a similar device in real life, and both consider themselves "suspicious" of technology by nature. For Kravitz, working on KIMI did nothing to assuage her worries. "I think it validated what I was already feeling. I have a funny relationship with technology," she tells EW, explaining that it likely comes from "being raised by hippies," referring to parents Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet. "I don't know what that is really, but I have a bandaid over my camera on my computer, I don't have my Siri on, and I get freaked out when I talk about wanting sushi and all of a sudden there's an ad for sushi on my phone. It freaks me out. And so I think that this just made me feel like I wasn't being completely absurd for feeling that way."
Her director agrees. "It's always made me very suspicious," he says, adding, "I just wish it solved things that need to be solved. It's just solving problems that aren't problems, like where the nearest sushi restaurant is. We don't need to solve that. We need to solve Syria. So that's my frustration. It's so powerful and ubiquitous, but it doesn't solve anything we need to solve."
One thing that does solve problems, though, is the film's leading lady, who is somewhat of an unusual heroine for a thriller. "She's a problem-solver, and she doesn't panic. In the moment of distress, she doesn't forget everything that she knows," Soderbergh says of Angela. "I think people who are good at things are fun to watch…. Proficiency is compelling."
The film takes place roughly now, so amid a pandemic. That, coupled with Angela's agoraphobia, means we spend a lot of time in her apartment, with many of Kravitz's scenes done solo, talking to fellow actors through phone and computer screens.
Because of this, it was important to Kravitz (inspired by a rewatch of Run Lola Run) to create a look for the character that was "visually engaging, since so much of the film is my face and one person." So, she proposed that Angela should have blue hair. "I was thinking about what kinds of things we do when we're alone a lot, and how can you experience change if you're not going outside and living your life," Kravitz says. "And how many of my friends cut bangs during the pandemic and how many changed their hair color? So just finding ways to feel in control and experience some kind of change. It felt like a really interesting way to visually communicate her mood as well, with the blue color very specifically."
And, to prepare for her character's agoraphobia, she did a lot of research into the condition and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and what she found surprised her. "Maybe that's because I'm looking to identify with this person, but by the end of it, [I was] like, 'Oh, I understand how this happens. Maybe I am like this. I might be OCD and not know that I'm OCD.' And I understand why people don't want to leave the house and once you get comfortable, how it could really become this jail sentence that we give ourselves," she says.
KIMI wasn't originally conceived of as a pandemic-set film, but when COVID-19 happened while Koepp was working on the screenplay, the filmmakers ran with it. "We decided this is additive. This is not a problem," Soderbergh says, adding, "the movie works without it, and now it works in a different way with it. So we were just chasing reality."
"I think because of the pandemic as well, I think it's interesting that more people could relate to this character than before," Kravitz adds. "I think it's not just about a person with a kind of disorder or very specific view of the world. We've all now gone through this thing and I think it's really comforting to see the way that it might really deeply affect a lot of us. I think there's this expectation to just kind of get back to work and go back to normal. And it might not be that easy for everybody, and hopefully, they'll find a little bit of comfort in seeing a character like Angela."
On a personal level, though, Kravitz found the isolated role "really challenging." "I think it was what kind of frightened me about the project and also what excited me about the project. And a lot of it came down to I just have to do what's on the page and trust Steven and believe that it will be engaging and interesting."
She continues, "It's vulnerable for sure, but I think that was a good challenge. And I think especially after coming off of a film like The Batman where there's so much going on, it was really wonderful to get to focus on character. And of course, living through this pandemic, I've just experienced for the first time what it would really be like to not leave the apartment or have human contact for a long time. So it was almost therapeutic in a way to get the time to really explore what that does to a person."
And for Soderbergh, it was a chance to make a film that he'd want to watch — which comes down to what he says Koepp pitched as "a Saturday night bottle of wine movie."
Of KIMI's appeal in particular, he says, "It's a character study in a weird way, jammed into this contained thriller. When you add Zoë into that, she's one of those people, she doesn't have to do anything. You just want to watch her because she looks smart and engaged. So, for me, it seemed like the potential was there for the [film] as a character piece to match the pure thriller demands and come up with something that felt unified."
KIMI — which also stars Rita Wilson, Byron Bowers, Jaime Camil, Erika Christensen, Derek DelGaudio, Robin Givens, Charles Halford, Devin Ratray, and Jacob Vargas — starts streaming on HBO Max on Thursday.