The wild finale of Alex Garland’s sci-fi series “Devs” managed to do the impossible and reveal the full capabilities for the mysterious super computer. But like all good Garland creations, the answers only lead to more questions from the audience. Looking for clarity, we turned to the woman who runs the Devs operation, Katie, played by Alison Pill, for a conversation about what’s next for the resolute right-hand of the Devs operation.
A longtime fan of Garland’s work, Pill had previously read his novels “The Beach” and “The Tesseract.” In fact, the actress actually auditioned for a part in his 2018 film “Annihilation,” but it would seem that her “track” was destined to lead her to “Devs.”
“Carmen Cuba texted my husband and said, ‘Alex Garland is interested in your wife for this movie, can he email her?'” Pill explained to Variety over the phone. After sending over all eight scripts of the mini-series, Pill was hooked. The next step? Become an expert on quantum mechanics.
You mentioned Richard Fineman’s lectures, is there anything else that you had to read or watch to prepare for “Devs?”
I read “A Briefer History of Time,” which is excellent. I guess I can say it now, we were really trying to keep the multi-verse out of the conversation for the first little bit, but David Wallace, who’s an incredible philosopher of science, wrote a great book about the many worlds theory. It’s a tome.
Then I read a David Foster Wallace book on infinity, but “Briefer History of Time” was the most helpful in terms of the history of the science, the development of the ideas. In every single one of these books I could sort of grasp [the concepts] in the beginning and toward the end as the concepts become more and more abstract, the tethering to the physical world is just is gone. [Laughs] It’s like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s crazy!’ You can’t have particles in two places at once, doing two things at once at the same time. My brain won’t accept that! But then that’s what physicists have been struggling with for a long time.
Did Garland send out a syllabus to the cast or is that something you explored on your own?
Alex was definitely helpful. Sonoya [Mizuno] was too because she had been on board a little bit before me, and she had done a lot of reading as well. Her recommendations were really helpful. The David Wallace books I just read on my own. His lectures are great. I think he’s a fantastic speaker. Also in terms of character studies it was really interesting, too. What does somebody who thinks about this type of thing all the time do with their body? Interesting little character things. They’re pretty eccentric folks considering that they think about the nature of reality and the unnatural nature of quantum physics. They’re odd ducks.
Watching your character Katie get emotional in the end was shocking. She’s closed off, but softens in the last two episodes. What did you want to do with the emotional progression of her?
The first decision I made was physical. I didn’t want her to move very much because I’m thinking about the self-consciousness that must be involved in every move you make, having already been decided. If that’s your worldview you can’t just unconsciously take your hand out of your pocket anymore, because you know that was what the universe was always going to have you do. That was my way in, just trying to keep her as still as possible.
It’s also a really interesting show of power. As a woman, I often find myself smiling and talking a lot to try and make other people comfortable, to make myself comfortable. I will just fill in those gaps and just be a little too out there sometimes.
I imagined being somebody so completely sure of their place in the world, their own power, their brains, and just not giving a f—. And that was really thrilling to play. She’s not going to smile politely. She’s not going to do the polite thing that we expect of women…Making her not, not unemotional, but in control of her emotions was really important to me. She’s not heartless at all, the furthest thing from it. I think she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever played. She’s not obsequious, she’s not polite in the way that people expect, but she is emotional. And I think those complications are really interesting.
You say she’s the most generous person you’ve ever played, then why let Lyndon stand on the other side of the dam?
Her belief system is that there’s not a world in which Lyndon doesn’t stand on the other side of the dam. So it’s not that she wants him to, it’s not that she wishes that it happens, it’s just the way it is. And that’s why in the finale, the idea that freewill could exist destroys her whole moral outlook. Once that becomes true, if determinism is real, but that freewill is possible if you know what is determined, then her whole moral view just crumbles.
Then I think she is at fault and I think she realizes that. But I think in the moment, it’s not something that she desires, it’s something that she wishes wouldn’t happen. I think she really likes Lyndon. But also [she] believes that there are truly a near infinite number of universes where Lyndon doesn’t fall, truly, and comes back to work at Devs… It’s a real moral quandary only if free will exists. And it also begs the question, could we do anything wrong in a truly deterministic universe? Could we be blamed for anything we did in a deterministic universe if there was never going to be another action taken?
Which is what tortures Forest (Nick Offerman) throughout most of this.
Yeah. I don’t think Katie believes she’s morally culpable. I think she’s really very sad about Lyndon. And it’s Cailee [Spaeny] who was the best, it was so hard.
Was Garland always re-explaining quantum mechanics and the multiverse on set or was it more focused like, “Let’s just get what’s on the page done?”
Oh, no, he’s very much up for those discussions. Luckily he’s also a big believer in rehearsal, so I could come in and sit down and be like, “Alex, physics of the observer, what are we going to do about it? You know, the statistics of near infinite variations, what do you do with statistics!?”
So yes, he would allow me some time to go over stuff. We would have classroom moments with different groupings of us [the lab people] and have those discussion. And then on set to a degree because sometimes I would come in and just have read another excerpt from the Wallace book just going, “What does it mean!” [Laughs]
He is one of the more generous listeners I’ve ever met. He doesn’t play down anything, he doesn’t make you feel dumb and he’ll take any question seriously and take time to consider it. It’s a real gift. Yes, we had fascinating conversations about politics and gender and also quantum physics just because we’re all in that headspace of giving consideration. And I think that’s what he expects as an audience.
Being around this group of people, to some degree, primed for this. I think we’re just curious people and I think most humans are incredibly curious. I don’t think we give ourselves enough benefit of the doubt in terms of our intelligence. In terms of our ability to really challenge our brains with new concepts. I think it’s something that we just sort of give up on unnecessarily, because I think we’re better at it than we might suppose.
Did working on “Devs” challenge your own perspective of the universe? Do you believe in the multiverse?
Hmmmm… many worlds is just, yeah, it doesn’t make a difference? Which is to say, I’m in this one, I can only live one. Would it feel better if I knew that in some [world] I might make a different choice? To a degree, but also the maths involved are so extraordinary. When you think about branching and the amount of branching that every person, every thing, every blade of grass, the wind blowing one way this time it becomes meaningless to me.
Determinism, however, it’s a really interesting concept that I still do struggle with and I don’t think that human brains are particularly capable of dealing with it. We really are wired to believe that we have choice. So in both cases, while I consider determinism pretty likely — which is a crazy thing to think about — but you know what else is crazy? Space is a thing. You know what I mean? Space is a thing, the universe is expanding. Spanning into what? Space is already an existing thing. It’s not nothing. It can’t be nothing. Which is in itself a real quandary anyway.
The multiverse map, I just can’t even. So each person, every instant of their life branching however many times. Infinity is crazy, I can’t make my brain understand that to such a degree, I find it interesting to read about. But it’s not going to effect my everyday life… neither is quantum physics because we can’t see it. We could have been pretty happy humans with just Newtonian physics. It wouldn’t have been entirely true, but it’s fine, I mean, it gets us by.
I loved it when characters got to explain the science on screen, like you did when you sat down at the table with Lily and revealed what Devs is with the rolling of the pen. What was it like delivering that monologue?
I was looking forward to it and had been thinking about it since I first got the scripts because what a rarity to have, I was just so excited to have this scene between two women. First that she’s like, “I want answers, let me talk to Forest.” And I say, “No, if you want answers, you should talk to me.” Just the power dynamics, it’s such an interesting way to start a scene.
We shot it over two days. I love working with Sonoya. It’s such an interesting thing because that much dialogue doesn’t happen that often on TV, but at the same time it’s not theatrical dialogue. It’s not as though someone said, “Oh, it should be a play!” Because so much of it is about the cinematography and the setting. It’s something that you don’t often get to see, which is just people thinking through their thoughts and taking their time and having these slower scenes. That whole episode is basically just a series of two-person scenes. It’s just so ballsy to do that in the midst of this like techno thriller, plot-heavy, cool action thing and you’re just like, “and then we sit.”
I was so aware of the importance of the scene in terms of explaining things but also wanting to make it real for Katie. There are emotional stakes for her too, because she does like Lily. She thinks she’s really cool, she spent hours watching her. It’s like meeting a celebrity, finally, in our kitchen. Alex and I talked, did she always set the pen out there before because it’s there, it’s on the table. [Was Katie] thinking about her the day before she goes to bed thinking, “I have to put the pen there because Lily’s going to be by soon.”
I think what’s so interesting about this scene is that it’s a sci-fi trope, but it’s usually done by men and in ratty suits like in “Armageddon” and “The Core,” and now we have a very smart conversation happening between two women.
It’s not the expectation. The expectation is partly that Forest is going to sit down with Lilly.
The last thing we see is Katie getting the government involved to keep the lights on for Devs? Is that something Forest would want?
Well it’s the only way he survives. She asks [Forest] whether he wants to deal with the fact that there will be a near infinite number, where Amaya will have died, where all of this will still happen. But that there will be somewhere he does get to be with Amaya. That has been his ultimate goal. That has been their ultimate goal. And that’s what I mean about Katie being generous. She literally needs this man and says, yeah, I’ll bring back your daughter for you.
She sacrifices her happiness for his.
I think that’s also the happiness of working on this project. It’s not her life goal until it becomes it over time. I do think Forest makes the decision to be part of the sim, and therefore I think Katie doesn’t want to let it go. Because she wants to keep those two alive as long as she can.
Do you think when Katie dies, she will put herself in Devs? What would her ideal future look like?
It’s so hard to know what the power will actually mean in the world. Even five years on, if the U.S. government knew everything, what would the world look like? Pretty f—ing scary! So I don’t know if she would want to be part of the machine at that point. If Katie died of natural causes 40 years after the events that we see in episode 8, the changes that would have occurred in both quantum computing, would everybody have an everything machine? I don’t know. I’m cleaning out my office and I’m just getting rid of a bunch of DVDs, and those are not that old. Thinking about 40 years from now, in terms of tech, especially in terms of quantum computing, I don’t even know what it would mean? But if it was under government control I’d say probably, no, she doesn’t really like authority.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.