Sonoya Mizuno on Collaborating with Alex Garland for ‘Devs,’ Emma Stone’s Leadership Influence

Danielle Turchiano

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Sonoya Mizuno has been a scene-stealer since her big-screen breakout in “Ex Machina,” from Alex Garland, in 2015. She worked with Garland again on horror adventure “Annihilation” in 2018, a year that also saw her score with “Crazy Rich Asians” and Netflix limited series “Maniac.” Now, she and Garland are teaming up for a third time — in her first lead role — in FX on Hulu’s “Devs.” In the sci-fi/thriller, Mizuno plays computer engineer Lily Chan, who gets sucked into investigating her boyfriend’s mysterious disappearance, only to unravel a bigger mystery about the company for which she works.

How did “Devs” come to you?

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I knew that [Alex] was writing something for TV and also we’d had conversations over the years about Asian representation in cinema and TV — just conversations we’d had over coffee or something like that — so I thought it was some kind of maybe influence of those conversations, but I absolutely had to audition. There was no, “This is your part.” The time I auditioned “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Maniac” hadn’t come out, so I had a lot to prove to the studio and the casting director and everyone — Alex as well. So it was the usual casting session and chemistry reads. It was the full shebang, shall we say.

Once you did get the part, was there more collaboration with Alex on who the character was, given your past working relationship with him?

I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator, and we already had the kind of dialogue and trust there. In whatever I do, I try to speak to the writer and director, but there’s definitely an easy back and forth [with me and Alex]. But it was also scary for me to be leading something for the first time and I just felt like I had support from him — and also his whole team. Tthe producers and crew and set designers, they were all people who’ve worked together already twice, so I felt like as soon as I came onboard they had my back and we were all in conversation with each other. It was without a doubt the most collaborative experience I’ve had, and I don’t doubt it was because those relationships were already in place.

At first it seems like Lily is most focused on the mystery of what happened to her boyfriend, but there’s a larger story being told about science and technology and morality. How much of that did you know up front, and how much of that was the draw?

The first thing I read was the first two scripts, and already I could see she was going to go on this incredible journey of emotional, intellectual and physical challenges. And it felt like a real creative challenge and an actor’s dream job. I could already see there were these very human stories elegantly in play with these big ideas, and so apart from Alex being a draw, the scripts and the characters were equally a draw. The trajectory that it goes on was embedded in the first couple of scripts, and I could tell it was going to be really interesting. And the more I read, the more I was like, “F—ing hell.”

How much of that reaction came from the discussions the show has about the technology of predictive computing, versus the questions of if humans should have that kind of power at all?

The conversations on set were about all of that, and the amazing thing about this job was that Alex made sure we had rehearsal periods for almost every scene. We shot it in blocks, and we rehearsed before each block — and by rehearsing, it would often be a bunch of actors sitting in a room with Alex discussing quantum physics or the morals of these people. It went to all the different facets of the story, be it the emotional ones or the intellectual ones. And the thing about Alex is he really knows his s—, and he’s not writing about quantum physics and not understanding it, so he was able to inform us in a way that was also mind-expanding and interesting. It’s cool to do a job where you’re also learning new stuff at the same time.

So what did you feel you learned the most about on the show?

Lily goes on this journey of understanding love and understanding grief and loss, and it made me understand in myself the grief and loss that I had experienced. I had never done that before. And in a way, it was then the most truthful experience of working I had had. But then on the complete flip side, I would say I learned really fascinating theories about the universe that we live in and the fact that many people, many scientists believe in the many worlds theory — which is that there are an infinite number of universes existing at any one time, all parallel to one another. At first that blew my mind and I couldn’t really get my head around it, but it’s really opened my mind about what the universe could be.

How different did you find the technical challenge of the material, versus the emotional challenge?

By the end of the job, it was very emotionally and physically exhausting, but also, at the same time, it was the most rewarding because as performers we hope to get to that place where we’re doing really interesting work which allows us to be expressive. I think the emotional challenges were the rewards. It was the most challenging role I’ve ever had to do, and I

How did the fact that there are pieces of the story secret to your character, at least in the beginning, complicate the work?

I did know everything, and by the time we were shooting, we had all of the scripts. I think it was helpful to me to know everything because it was such a complex journey to judge that I wanted to know where I was, how tired I would be at a certain point and things like that. And also we didn’t exactly shoot chronologically — we moved around based on location, from San Francisco to London to Manchester, and within those places we would move from things in Episode 1 to Episode 8, so we did have to have the whole things in our heads to be able to do that.

And going back to leading for the first time, what kind of tone did you want to set and from whom, if anyone, did you take those cues?

I’ve always tried to have a good attitude and treat everyone fairly, whether I’m No. 1 or No. 51. I have a lot of friends and two of my sisters work in film too, so I feel very protective of people working on crew. And that’s the same as what Alex does. I’ve definitely worked with a lot of people who I think set great examples and one of them would be Emma Stone. I’ve worked with her twice, and both times she’s been so friendly and so hard-working, and it helps everyone’s morale.

Things you didn’t know about Sonoya Mizuno:
Age: 33
Born: Tokyo, Japan
Commute tunes: “The Daily” podcast
Most recent binge watch: “Succession”
Cause she cares about: Climate change
Historical figure she’d like to meet: Cleopatra
If she wasn’t acting she’d: “be doing something with food.”

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