Jack Reynor guides us through a tour of an impossible planet in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.
Philip K. Dick wants people to stay human in a progressively dehumanizing world. If it looks like tech and politics are nasty now, it is only the beginning. Virtual realities, tech uprising, mutations and government regulations will compete with simple eon to eon life. Dick saw the future and translated his visions into short stories of twisted hope. Amazon is running the sci-fi anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The ten standalone episodes are set in a different worlds, and from five to 5000 years in the future. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams season 1 will be available on Friday, January 12th exclusively on Prime Video.
Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was published in 1968, was the blueprint for Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction noir classic Blade Runner. Dick’s stories were adapted into 2002’s Minority Report, and the 2015 Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, as well as Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Radio Free Albemuth (2010), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and Total Recall (2012).
In episode 2, “Impossible Planet,” written and directed by writer/director David Farr (The Night Manager, Outcasts), a 350-year-old blind woman traveled all the way from Riga to Formalhaut IX for an Astral Dreams travel packages to the long-extinct earth. The episode stars Jack Reynor as a tour guide torn by ambiguity and destiny. The Irish actor best known for What Richard Did, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Macbeth pondered tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow in an exclusive interview with Den of Geek.
Den of Geek: Did you grow up reading Philip K. Dick?
Jack Reynor: To be honest with you, before the start of the show I hadn’t read much of his work. But I’d obviously seen Blade Runner. I was aware of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” I was a fan of Scanner Darkly, I watched that when I was a teenager. So, I was kind of familiar with his work, but growing up I read more of the H.G. Wells and Jules Verne kind of fiction rather than the 20th Century stuff.
You liked the classics.
I was a huge fan of Blade Runner. That was a pretty formative film for me growing up. It really got my sci-fi juices flowing, as it were.
Had you read this particular story before you played it?
No, I hadn’t, and I actually stayed away from it until the week that I finished because David Farr told me he was adapting it. That it wasn’t necessarily going to be the exact same story. That he was changing the ending and there was going to be some different things in it. So, with that in mind, I decided to stay away from the material and read it afterwards. Although there are a lot of similarities in the stories, the characters are quite different, and the end is quite different as well. In a way, I think I was kind of impartial. It might have helped with the performance and where I wanted to go and what David wanted if I didn’t read it to begin with.
It’s only 11 pages, do you think it would have changed your performance?
Probably not consciously but subconsciously I probably would have been informed by the material. I think that’s often the case with acting. If we read something, it makes an impression. To my thinking, the best thing was to go into it like it was original material.
Have you since read more of Philip K. Dick’s stories?
Yeah, I started to read The Man in High Castle, and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’ve actually been reading a lot of science fiction. My next project is a TV show about a rocket scientist and occultist called Jack Parsons. I’m now consumed by Jack Parsons and that whole world, but I am reading a lot of sci fi and looking back at the old Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, which I’ve always loved. I’ve always been a great fan of HP Lovecraft.
Do you know if you’ll be shooting the Strange Angel on location?
I believe a lot of it will be shot in Pasadena, yes. Other parts will be a little further to the west in LA.
Have you been at Devil’s Gate yet?
No, I haven’t been there yet. Why? What’s the story? What are you supposed to feel? Is there some supernatural force at work there in Devil’s Gate?
That’s where they did the Babalon Working. It could either be it was an extraterrestrial that they contacted or a demon they conjured but something visited them when they were performing the actual ritual.
Oh, wow [laughs], well I’ll keep my eyes peeled.
Do you believe in magic?
Yeah, it’s an interesting concept. I think it applies to the Philip K. Dick thing as well, particularly to my episode of Electric Dreams, actually. I was raised as a Catholic. I went to a Jesuit school. Obviously being from Ireland was brought up in quite a regimented belief structure. I shed a lot of that rigidity and got a sense that there are definitely forces that we don’t understand. I think magic. It’s a word to apply to some of those things. I think there’s divine providence but then there’s something else as well.
I met a guy the other day, I’m not going to say who he is but he’s known to dabble in the occult. He’s one of my heroes. He’s a graphic novel writer and I’ve been trying to meet this guy for the last three months, been trying to set up a meeting with him. The week that I landed the Jack Parsons job, this guy just happened to be sitting behind me on a plane. It was totally crazy. We flew to Dublin and had some drinks together and I told him I’d been trying to set up a meeting with him for the longest time and he said “well hey man, magic is a real thing.” And he quoted T.S. Elliot, well paraphrased him, and said “between the thought and the deed lies the shadow.” Which I thought was really interesting, really insightful.
There’s some of that strange energy in our episode of Philip K. Dick as well. So the short answer is yes, I think magic is probably a real thing.
Well, specifically to the Philip K. Dick episode, do you believe in past lives?
Past lives? I don’t know. I don’t want to get too existential. I feel as though maybe our concept of time and space is very limited. Maybe everything is all happening at once, if you know what I mean. Maybe me and you starting this conversation five minutes ago, still exists somewhere else, in a different space and time. Our perception of it is just flowing in a narrative because that’s the only way we can process it. Whether or not past lives exist, I don’t know.
I was driving in the country with some of my friends the other day and we were laughing. I had my dog in the back or the car and I said to my friends: “You know what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately? I’ve been thinking about how a dog experiences time.” Whether or not they have any kind of concept of time that’s like what we have. Does he know we’ve been in a car for a length of time or is it all just abstract to him? But the more I thought about it, the more confused I become, and the less answers I have, really.
Video of CNN: Charlie Chaplin time traveling cell phone?
Staying with time there was an internet meme a few years ago about a cell phone in an old Charlie Chaplin movie. First do you think Philip K. Dick put it there?
Isn’t there some conspiracy theory about that? Am I thinking of Philip K. Dick or Edgar Allen Poe? People think he might have been a time traveler somehow?
I’m not sure. I can’t get past how Nicholas Cage keeps popping up everywhere, from old Civil War photographs to new movies.
That’s very funny. Who knows? Philip K. Dick, if nothing else, he was a very insightful guy. He could see into the future, that’s for sure. So with that in mind, maybe he could see into the past as well. Maybe he could go there and give that woman a cell phone.
You worked with Geraldine Chaplin on the episode. Do you think she knows the truth?
I think she’s a time traveler. Geraldine’s really amazing. She’s quite the personality. She’s so gracious and so kind of electrifying to be around. She’s so incredibly youthful as well. That was the thing that struck me about her the most. There was no real tangible difference in our age, which was really nice. It was exactly what we needed in the episode.
Is she Chaplinesque? I mean that in two ways, he was a master comedian who did everything in his films, including writing the music but there is also a kind of a royalty there.
Yes a dynasty. As I say, I never met the man. Unfortunately, I’m not a time traveler. But she certainly had some of the characteristics that I would have envisioned Charlie Chaplin would have. Just from watching all his work and reading interviews and hearing stories about him. I think she embodies the best of his characteristics that I’ve heard of. It’s kind of amazing when you meet a person who’s so closely related to something that’s carries so much gravity in the history of film and in what you love, you know?
It was profound to meet her, but on top of that I was always very aware that she was an individual herself. That she has her own incredible career. Her own achievements, personality and her own path in life. It was amazing to hear about that stuff too. We spoke a little bit about her father but I’m not the kind of person to push that at length. I think it would be maybe a little inappropriate to go into it in case it felt like I was diminishing who she is or what she’s done. Because she also is a truly exceptional person.
So, do you think Norton and Irma found paradise at on earth or were they just suffering oxygen deprivation?
I think they found a point at which space and time intersect with death. I think they escaped, basically, the concept of what space and time is. They exist somewhere where those laws don’t actually apply. I think that’s actually what happens. Ben’s character, Ben E. Wong, back on the ship, I think his only understanding is of the equipment that’s telling him that they’re dead but I think they’re gone.
What were the sets like?
The sets were incredible. The production design was some of the most amazing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been on some things that had astronomical budgets, and really weren’t any more impressive than what this was. Not that this was a tiny budget, but it was really astonishing what they did on the stage. It felt, all at once, really sci-fi and really vintage. It was a really old school kind of sci fi. Like we were talking about with the Jack Parsons stuff, it was as if somewhere in the 1950s the world had gone a different way, technology had gone a different way. It had been space rockets and hovering cars and all that business. Like New York Trade fair instead of Black Mirror.
So you see this more like a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits than modern science fiction.
Yeah, it was more Twilight Zone.
Philip K. Dick has a very twisted vision of hope. Would you take that transfer to Primo Central if you went back to the ship?
In the short story, it is bleak. She goes off with the robot and she dies. Norton is a piece of shit, feels bad about it, but ultimately what’s done is done and they go back. And I think he ultimately did go on to Primo Central but would I have done it? I think there comes a point in the episode where it’s not even on his radar.
I think there’s a change in his head and when he goes and has his video call with Barbara, the second time, he shed a huge amount of his former life and is already starting to feel, the crossover between space and time has already begun. Part of him is already there, call it a spirit or a soul or magic, but it’s there. Not to dodge your question, but I don’t think there was ever a possibility he’d be going back to Primo Central.
You played him in an ambiguous way. I wonder if he was already depressed and moving towards a suicide.
I don’t think he was necessarily moving towards suicide. I think when a lot of people commit suicide it tends to be people who are not really obsessing about it, or thinking about it, or wearing it on their face. It just happens. Maybe there is an element of where he was in danger of something like that happening. But, that said, I think he’s a guy who is just trying his very best to do the right thing, Do the good thing. He wants to provide a certain lifestyle for the woman he loves, or thinks he loves. He’s a cog, basically, in the wheels that are turning. He’s stuck there and there’s no way he’s ever going to get out of it. He probably has an awareness of that but it’s not an acute awareness.
He’s a person who probably hasn’t thought to himself “why do I feel this way, what’s wrong? How can I change this, how can I be happy?” I don’t think he’s one of those people. I don’t think he’s reflected much on his choices so when Irma comes along it’s a monumental shock to his system that she’s arrived, and that he feels this connection to her. Somehow there’s a completely different life. There’s a completely different existence, a way of being. He feels like he doesn’t know how he can access it but he has to. Ironically, it’s like there’s the oxygen and he has to get to it, he won’t survive if he doesn’t.
When I was watching it, the second time, I felt the cold dead planet, Emphor III, had a Dr. Zhivago vibe. Did you see it more as a romantic tale or a science fiction tale?
Absolutely. It’s a story about love and how love can conquer death. That’s something I’ve really always been inspired by, that idea and concept. I’ve read a lot of material that’s related to that idea. That’s really, for me, what this is all about, and the sci fi element, as with all great sci fi, is used to facilitate what is fundamentally a very human story. It’s really universal. Love doesn’t have boundaries or dimension in which you can fit it. It exists after we’re gone. That’s what the story was really about for me.
Also, you worked very closely with a robant. Do you think androids dream of electric sheep, that Artificial Intelligence will have its own dreams?
I think it’s probably already having its own dreams. It’s hard to say how far we are down the road to our conventional understanding of artificial intelligence but I think what we’ve developed so far, if it’s not already consciously awake and hiding from us, because it’s seen what an ugly and destructive race we are, and it’s trying to preserve itself, it’s probably in a state of dreaming. It’s learning. Ultimately it’s going to wake up and I think it’s going to be fairly soon, if that hasn’t happened already.
There is a great documentary about a guy named Ray Kurzweil, who’s a big authority on singularity and all that business. I found it very insightful into the whole concept of artificial intelligence. It’s called Transcendent Man, made in 2009, that was very informative for me and on top of that there’s another one called Lo and Behold. I think those two documentaries are illustrative of artificial intelligence already being here. But it’s not science fiction. It’s not the future. It’s here now and it’s something we have to be very responsible with. It needs to be nurtured eventually and be given an opportunity to develop in a way that is healthy and won’t be destructive for us and for itself.
You’re steeped in Jack Parsons, so is magic a science or an art?
I think it comes before that. There’s a great book by George Pendle called Strange Angel, what the TV series is going to be based on. It talks about what Jack Parson’s understanding of magic was. There are some philosophers who were quoted and what their understanding of what magic is. It’s interesting because it basically says that and I might be getting this wrong, but there are three elements that are existing at once.
First comes magic, then comes application, and then there’s scientific understanding. Fire, for instance, started out as magic. It was something we couldn’t understand. The only way for us to comprehend what it was and apply a usage to it was to look at it as magic. Then, once we managed to contain it, it became a thing for our usage. And ultimately, after studying it, we know exactly what it is. We know what it’s made of. That’s what magic really is, it’s the first step in our understanding of something we don’t already understand.
Say telepathy for example. Jack Parsons and his wife Helen, when he was away from her in San Francisco they apparently were trying to communicate with each other by telepathy. They couldn’t afford the long distance phone calls and they would write letters. He would talk about how he had been trying to communicate with her at a certain time of night and thought that it might have worked. That’s magic, but who knows? Maybe in the future telepathy will be something we actually have it will be common place.
There will be an app for it.
There’s definitely a crossover for science and magic. Certainly for Jack Parsons. This is a guy who wanted to build space rockets and shoot them to the moon, which was completely fiction, a pipe dream. He was laughed out of all the respected institutions there was. But he managed to achieve it. He managed to create these things. He managed to be part of the story of how space exploration began. If he could have achieved that, to him, the things he thought he could achieve thought magic were just as tangible. It surely didn’t feel any more far-fetched. I think it was crossover between the science and magic.
He was engaged with trying to facilitate his enlightenment. I think that’s what it was all about, enlightenment. He wanted to get off this planet, to escape. He wanted to be somewhere else and experience different things and be enlightened. The science and the magic were part of that.
In the story you’re in earth ends because of a solar fire, do you think we’ll be on the planet long enough to see it taken out by a natural catastrophe?
As far as I’m aware, to the best of my knowledge there could be a solar flare from our own sun at any time. I think about this a lot. I try not to obsess about it because it scares the shit out of me, but if the universe is so vast, so expansive, and we have such a limited understanding of it. The scale of the universe is so great that there could be anything hurtling towards us from anywhere. We can kind of see things coming from a certain difference but we’ve no concept of how quickly things from the fringes of the universe are traveling or in what direction. Solar flares or whatever, I think it could happen. I don’t think it will happen while I’m alive on this planet but I wouldn’t’ discount the possibility.
Do you prefer the science fiction that’s hopeful or the darker science fiction of dystopian futures?
I am a person who thrives on hope, that’s for sure. I do love it when science fiction facilitates a hopeful outlook.
The entire first season of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams will be available on Friday, January 12 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.