Black Mirror is known for delivering a gut punch with its twisted endings, but the dark and bleak moral of the story rarely tugs at the heartstrings like in the second episode of season three.
Among the newest batch of episodes in Charlie Brooker’s anthology series (which dropped on Netflix Oct. 21), “Playtest” is, on paper, a horror romp that warns of the near-future tech dangers of virtual and augmented reality. But its protagonist, Cooper (played by Wyatt Russell), is an anomaly in the Black Mirror world: He’s likable and doesn’t deserve his fate.
After his father’s death, Cooper travels abroad, meets a girl (Hannah John-Kamen) and ignores his mother’s phone calls, as well as the reality waiting for him back home. Strapped for cash, he decides to playtest a top-secret augmented reality game from a world-famous developer. After signing his life away, an implant is inserted into his neck to track his brain frequencies and meddle with his eyesight, causing his fears to manifest while trapped inside a virtually haunted house. The thrillseeker plays along with the jump scares until the sinister twist arrives: Cooper was killed after one second by a malfunction — caused by a signal interference when Mom calls his cell phone — and what viewers have been watching only exists in an alternate, rabbit hole-like universe.
“You have to be really into the darkness to have the smile at the end of it,” Russell (Everybody Wants Some!!) tells The Hollywood Reporter about his episode’s heartbreaking ending. “You had to sort of go with him to the seventh circle of hell, so I thought it was important for him to be a likable character in ways.”
Below, Russell talks to THR about pulling off director Dan Trachtenberg’s (10 Cloverfield Lane) Inception-like vision, the emotional lesson behind “Playtest” and the biggest difference between Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone: “Honestly, how far away are we from having virtual reality for whatever we want?”
How did your role in Black Mirror come about and what attracted you most to “Playtest”?
I was a fan of the show before I had anything to do with it. A year before, I was in Atlanta doing a movie and started watching it and loved it. Then out of the blue, I got a call saying they wanted to meet me for the new season, which I didn’t even know they were doing. I was like, “Hell yeah.” I spoke with Dan [Trachtenberg] on Skype for a couple of hours. He’s big into genre and video games. I’m not such a big video game guy, but I love genre movies and that world. We had one meeting and he liked it.
Dan said that originally Cooper was going to be a jerk who gets taught a lesson, but that your casting made him likable — something Black Mirror characters usually aren’t. Did you have to persuade Charlie?
When I read the script, Cooper just came off as an American in over his head. That was my take and I talked to Dan and I don’t know that there was any convincing, other then that just felt right to them. There was a lot of comedy in the story. It’s an insane story and the whole setup is ripe for things to be funny because it’s this guy who is just completely in over his head who is trying to fool everybody that he’s not. In order for things to be funny, when you’re following one lead character the entire time, you have to like him. You have to be living it with him. One thing we talked about a lot is that Cooper is the audience and that every time Cooper learns something, you learn something. The audience has to want to learn something with him. I thought that him being open to new experiences, he’s a guy who would react like, “Oh wow, that’s so cool.” Otherwise, you’re just watching an asshole run around and it’s not that fun.
You do really root for Cooper, which makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. How did you feel when you first read it?
I don’t know if I saw it coming. I knew something would come up but I didn’t know it would be that. If you know Black Mirror, you know there’s going to be a twist. When I first read it, and I still kind of do think this, I always thought the ending was that in his own mind, he’s in a perpetual state of hell and he can’t get out of this cycle that he’s now trapped in. In the real world he’s dead, but that doesn’t mean your mind or whatever was in your mind stops working. So I viewed it that he was trapped in this world of hell, but everyone else on the outside of the world thought he was dead. I definitely knew there was going to be something, but I didn’t know how Inception-y it was going to be, in terms of where you were on the spectrum watching it. It’s a good one to go back and watch again. There’s a ton of Easter egg stuff that Dan put in there. You can watch that episode two or three times and discover new things, it’s that detailed.
Charlie has always said the enemy isn’t technology and that it’s people. How was Cooper his own enemy?
I think everyone’s their own worst enemy. It’s a, “Why didn’t you just call your mom?” thing. But really, it’s an issue: Face your problem in life and deal with it. It’s not his fault that he died. The result, in my mind, was not his fault and was just the result of something. He could have stayed home and gotten hit by a bus. But there was a lot of things that he did right. He went out and experienced life. What if he did get Alzheimer’s later on, like his dad, and his life was horrible? Maybe this was the best it was going to get. The lesson within that technological fence would be: Don’t keep putting off your issues with what’s in your hand. And with all the Instagram stuff, everything was an Instagram at the beginning. You didn’t see him living any of it, really, because as he was he was posting everything. If you’re going to live it, go remember something.
Did anything creepy happen during filming in that house?
It was a pretty normal shoot. A total blast. I never felt creeped out, but none of the things Cooper was seeing, including the spider thing, were there. We had a visual effects guy who had this weird paint roller thing with a Styrofoam spider in a green head and that was what I acted to. I kept asking him, “What’s it going to look like?” And he would say it was going to have fangs, so I would make it up in my head. But it was more fun than creepy and that’s what Dan is great at. He loves, loves making movies and it’s so much fun to be with people like that because I do too. When we’re doing it, he’s screaming, “People are going to be so f—ed up about that!” So, especially for Dan, it’s a feeling of accomplishment that what you were thinking on that day really worked. You’re just having a blast making it and then when Dan puts it together, he’s using his horror expertise and mental mind to make it all work.
The whole time in the house, you are alone. Did you improvise?
So much. When I’m in the house, I’m there for a half an hour by myself. Katie’s in my ear and there’s a lot of stuff that was written, but in order to bring that moment to life, it’s all me. Usually it’s not that way, there’s usually another person who’s making the scene great and killing it, that’s what I love about acting, playing off other people. But when you don’t have that and it’s just you, I said, “F— it,” and I’m just going to go off. You have to be free. Dan would say, “Ok, go nuts.” But I wasn’t trying to make jokes. I was trying to enhance the story. When I was fighting the fake bully guy, that was almost all improvised because there wasn’t a ton there to explain who this guy was and why he was there and pumping that up a little bit was really fun. Charlie and Dan would come in with lines and say, “Say this next time.” There was a lot of freedom because I was the only one in the room.
There are certainly elements of Dan’s 10 Cloverfield suspense and psychological mind games in “Playtest,” and Charlie said he wanted to do a haunted house episode. Are you a fan of the horror genre?
I find that when genre is done well, it’s the most fun movie experience. [Quentin] Tarantino is a genre filmmaker and has all the genre elements to his movies, but because of his crazy depth of knowledge of film and entertainment in general, he’s able to weave these epic stories together and make incredible experiences. And Dan is one of the new guys that’s as good as there is out there right now for a younger group of people — there’s the Duffer brothers, Jim Mickle, J.J. Abrams is a genre fanatic. They have a take on what their story is, but it’s all wound up in a love for filmmaking and, to me, that’s the most fun thing to do because they love to make movies and tell stories. They’re just innovative filmmakers. For that reason, I’m a genre fan. Not necessarily the blood and the scares. When it’s all woven together, it’s the reason to go to the movies. Black Mirror is the perfect example, you can sit down and watch two or three episodes with your girlfriend, boyfriend or friends and it’s a fun experience to have watching it with somebody.
This episode is set in the near future, but AR and VR technology is thriving today. How close are we to this happening?
We’re not that far, we’re like, there. That’s what’s cool about it. The Google Glass thing? That’s real. And even the VR thing, watching people now with the weird goggles on their head. I’m sure they could probably do a version of what was in “Playtest” in some military testing base — but they can’t because it will probably kill somebody. That’s what’s great about all the Black Mirrors. It’s not that far away. It’s not the future, we’re doing it now. Twilight Zone was where you couldn’t even fathom these things happening, they were so crazy. This is not that. This is more like, in five years about what we’re dealing with now.
Would you ever sign up to playtest? And did any of your true fears materialize as you played Cooper in the house?
I would never in a billion years, ever, sign up to do something like that. That is not my personality. It seems fun, maybe? But if they were going to mine some fear of mine, there’s a million. How about just dying and experiencing death over and over again? The fear of drowning or falling off a cliff, it’s just doing that over and over again. And then all of a sudden, you’re told that was one second. No, not doing that again.
Did your episode change any of your gaming habits?
I never really played video games. I played GoldenEye and Mario Kart. Just recently, my friends got FIFA so I was super into that, but that’s as far as my gaming habits go. I was playing hockey when games became big. The sports games we always played, but I never got into the role playing games. It wasn’t really my deal, it still isn’t and definitely won’t be after this. (Laughs.) I saw some people playing Pokemon Go on the set. I tried to download it for five seconds to see what it was, but I couldn’t figure out and immediately deleted it. It seems to have died down, until the next one and they put it in your head.
Charlie doesn’t usually repeat castmembers, but would you want to do another Black Mirror?
Oh, definitely. Any time I get to work with good people and if the episode is good and something I thought I could be good in, of course. Charlie would never do a replay of an episode or a “Playtest 2,” but he did bring back Hannah [John-Kamen], who was in [season one’s] “Fifteen Million Merits.”
Black Mirror season three is streaming now on Netflix.