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The third season of Black Mirror conjures up an array of near-future, technology-based nightmares. But one episode is particularly scary today.
The fifth of six new episodes in Charlie Brooker’s sc-fi anthology series (which dropped on Netflix on Oct. 21), “Men Against Fire,” follows Stripe (Malachi Kirby) and his fellow soldiers as they exterminate sub-human creatures called “roaches.” A glitch in Stripe’s high-tech microchip implant, however, allows him to see the zombie-like “roaches” as they actually are: real people augmented and targeted by a government eugenics program to wipe out a weak sect of society.
The episode twist is confirmed by Michael Kelly (House of Cards), who plays military psychologist Arquette. Citing the World War II study of the same name as the episode, he explains how soldiers in the past didn’t fire to kill and that those who did returned with PTSD. Now, they have implants to mask the pain. “It’s a lot easier to pull the trigger when you’re aiming at the boogeyman,” he says.
The episode is “so incredibly relevant” because of today’s politics in both the United States and in the series’ original home across the pond, the House of Cards star tells The Hollywood Reporter. (Netflix acquired the show from British network Channel 4.) “It’s this rhetoric, this negativity that exists in both political climates,” he says, citing Donald Trump and Brexit media coverage as prime examples.
Below, Kelly talks to THR about why Trump won’t get elected Nov. 8, how his Black Mirror role compares to House of Cards‘ Doug Stamper and what the episode says about modern warfare and PTSD.
House of Cards also has a knack for predicting the future, is that what drew you to Black Mirror?
No. Honestly, I had heard about Black Mirror but I hadn’t seen it — I have a seven-year-old and three-year-old and I don’t get to watch much television that isn’t kids’ TV. I was in Buenos Aires doing press for House of Cards and when I read the script, I thought, “God, this is so good.” I really identified with the character. They said I’d have to fly directly from there and I thought, there’s no way with all the press that I would be able to memorize it. That second scene in the episode is like a six-page monologue! I said I didn’t want to do them a disservice but they came back and said, “The director, your buddy Jakob [Verbruggen] said no.” I busted my butt and got it done and I’m so grateful I did because now I’m a really big fan of the show. I’m actually begging Annabel [Jones] and Charlie [Brooker] to let me do another one.
Jakob Verbruggen also directed a few episodes of House of Cards, so did you feel like you were in good hands?
Yes. He directed three or four episodes and the producer, Annabel, had said, “Just tell him we’ll get through it, line by line.” They set it up where I did the easier of the two scenes in the first day, then I had a day off and I filmed the big one on the third day. That second day, I’m not kidding when I say I woke up early and went to bed late. I lived that scene and went over it and over it, I probably said it a million times. When we got there, I was ready. It was not only incredibly rewarding to overcome your fears of that sort of challenge, but also to be a part of the story, which I think has such an important message. And to be a part of this show in general, it gives me a little more street cred, too. (Laughs.)
Doug Stamper is pretty sinister, but your Black Mirror psychiatrist ups the ante. Did you find any comparisons between the two?
They’re similar in ways where I don’t believe that either of them are bad guys. I believe they both have true convictions in their actions. They believe 100 percent that what they’re doing is the right thing and the only way to do it. To go back to the House of Cards and “Doing it for the greater good” tagline. I’m not saying I agree with the actions of either of those men, but I understand it and where they’re coming from. One is a very damaged character, in Doug Stamper, whereas I don’t believe the other man is damaged at all. In my head, [my Black Mirror character] was married and had a normal life and just believed he was fighting the good fight. He’s the kind of guy who would probably watch football with the guys on Sunday and is a family man. He’s doing his job that he thinks is the right job. Whereas Doug is just a flawed, damaged character. He’s a very complicated man.
Charlie Brooker has said that not every episode of Black Mirror has a message, but that this one does. It warns how genocides of the past could happen again, but it also speaks to today’s political climate. How topical do you find this episode to be?
Annabel used the term, “swaths” of people. That’s how people are being referenced in the media when discussing Brexit and these refugees, being “swaths” of people. Just the negative connotation that these massive groups of people are put in. And then you look at someone like Donald Trump who is going to ban all Muslims from our country. It’s this rhetoric, this negativity that exists in both political climates right now that makes this episode so incredibly relevant right now. You can’t label people like that. Or at least, it’s not the right thing to do, in my mind. We are better than that as a race and as a people. We need to be inclusive and think of everyone as being the same.
Charlie looked back on the Waldo moment from last season and said it predicted Trump, though he didn’t know it at the time. Does it scare you that this episode could be predicting a near-future reality?
It doesn’t, God willing. Back when Donald Trump was just starting in the primaries and I was asked, “What do you think of Trump?” I would say, “Donald Trump is a great example of someone in our country being able to truly do anything. You can dream, you can do it. And that’s a great example of that. But when the primaries are over, Donald Trump will be gone. There’s no way he’s going to make it through this field of 16 people, no matter what I think about the rest of them. I just don’t think he’s going to come through it.” I ate those words and I hope I don’t eat this. The primary is a different landscape than the general and I just don’t see the general public — at least from what I’m reading, I can’t imagine it. I think we are a smarter country than that. This country deserves a statesman who can represent the people with proper decorum, respect and knowledge of what’s happening in the world and I don’t believe that Donald Trump represents any of that. I think that the greater good of all the people will see that come Election Day and put the right person in the office. I hope I don’t eat those words. (Laughs.) I’m trying to be politically correct.
That’s the thing about Black Mirror — it sparks a discussion.
Isn’t that the greatest thing about Black Mirror? I don’t want to binge. I want to watch one. I want to digest it, I want to live in it and ask myself the questions and have conversations about them. It’s so engaging and so topical and so now. I think that’s why it’s spreading like wildfire for people.
Your episode also tackles PTSD by taking away human empathy. What resonated most with you about the view on the military?
It was something that made it easier for me to wrap my head around the actions of this man. This country, the people of our country, owe our military so much. These are the people that go out there and literally risk their lives to protect our freedom. They come home and they’re not treated with the proper respect and they’re going through hell and the PTSD is so bad that we are losing 22 men and women a day to suicide who return from war. It’s disgusting to me. To wrap your head around that and say, “Oh, if you can eliminate that problem for soldiers when they come home, then I’m all for it.” Of course, I’m not all for killing people who are less fortunate than us and I’m not saying those actions are right, but the means about which he was helping soldiers get through the PTSD makes total sense. That whole story that he tells about how it’s been in the past and how it will be forever, we figured it out. That’s his thought. His soldiers aren’t going home and committing suicide.
How do you interpret the ending when Stripe returns home?
From my eyes, I saw him as taking my advice. Accepting the complete wipeout. The parts of it that we saw of the house that were broken down is what we [the viewers] were seeing, not what he was seeing. I saw it as him accepting it. When I talked to Malachi, he was like, “Oh, I read it as he didn’t.” It’s all about what everyone takes away from these stories. Maybe I’m siding with my character, but I saw it as Stripe letting me completely erase everything that he had realized and go on and live about his married life where he sees everything through these rose-colored glasses.
What was it like to film that 15-minute monologue scene with Malachi?
It was intense doing it. Especially the way in which we filmed it at the very end. We broke it up in one room and then we moved to another room that was a completely white room and a guy with a steady cam and it was like theater. We just put it on its feet and with the third guy being the steady cam operator. It was far out. That kid is so talented and so good. It was a real collaboration.
Your character’s speech about how past soldiers didn’t shoot to kill is a reference to the study, “Men Against Fire.” Does that logic offer a bleak look at humanity with how far we’ve come with war?
Yeah. I guess it does. It’s how you do as little collateral damage as possible, but it’s that part about being removed. Stripe is not seeing them as people. When you remove yourself from that equation, it really clouds your judgment around everything. Or me as a person and looking at war and where we are. The U.S. military, they haven’t used them yet but you’ve seen video of robotic soldiers. When are boots in the ground no longer going to have to even be people, and is that right? When does it become Star Wars? When is enough, enough? When do we put this time and energy into eliminating war or reasons for war instead of creating new technology to make war easier for us.
Of the other Black Mirror episodes, is there one in particular that blew your mind?
I just loved “San Junipero” because I thought it was this incredible love story. But the one that really punched me in the jaw was “Shut Up and Dance.” Because you’re seeing what the bad guy is doing to these people, but then you realize in the end what these people are doing. Especially the two who fight to the death. Part of you is like, “OK, you’re into kiddie porn, I don’t really care what happens to you.” The questions that it poses for us, that one just really hit me. I thought it was an incredibly well done episode. But they’re all so good and for different reasons. “Nosedive” with Bryce [Dallas Howard] — how far away are we from that and the questions that poses? Who doesn’t like posting something on Twitter and getting likes? So how far away are we from having a contact where you can look at someone and everything is just sort of there?
Has Black Mirror changed any of your technology or social media habits?
No. I have always been weary, because I was a young guy in New York City without technology when I started out. At the same time, how incredible is it that I have my phone and when I have a question I can just Google it? There’s no doubt that my horrible device, my cell phone that’s now a computer, has made me a smarter, better person in some ways. Annabel brought up this great example of when you’re with your children and the kid is going to blow out a birthday candle and you say, “Oh let me get my phone and take a video of it!” instead of truly being present in the moment. That dilemma you face of, “Shit is that me? Should I just be in the moment?” Or is this something you’d like to capture and have in your memory? Because you will forget stuff and it’s nice to be able to look at those pictures and relive those moments. So again, you go back to questioning what’s right and what’s wrong and that kind of thing.
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Robert De Niro