James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch, Dunkirk) stars as philosophy teacher Mr. Zimit in John Huddles’ 2013 sci-fi psychological thriller After the Dark, re-released this month as The Philosophers. The film sees Mr. Zimit challenge his class of twenty soon-to-be graduates with thought experiments, in which he posits an oncoming atomic apocalypse.
There is a bunker to shelter them for a year, but the bunker can only sustain ten of them and whoever survives must reboot the human race. In a series of imagined scenarios, The Philosophers poses questions about morality, individual worth, responsibility, and what values define humanity. STARBURST spoke with D’Arcy about the enduring relevance of the film eight years on, philosophy, and his personal ambitions for the future.
It’s been around eight years since The Philosophers first came out, so it must be weird doing press for it when it’s so far behind you.
James D’Arcy: It is a little bit weird, but I’m really happy. I don’t quite know exactly how the rerelease came about, but I can only imagine it’s because the film has had some sort of life and has generated enough interest that they now feel it can be released in a wider way, which is great! I’m very happy in that regard.
Do you have any kind of feeling about the retitle, from After the Dark to The Philosophers?
James D’Arcy: It was always called The Philosophers when we made it. So actually, After the Dark was its own retitle and I never thought it was a very good one.
It’s a film that asks its share of big existential questions, so here’s one for you: since its release, we collectively have gone through many points of dramatic social, cultural, economic, and political transformations. It’s a little out there, but do you think 2021’s landscape has changed the way you interpret the film?
James D’Arcy: I think a lot of what the film talks about involves some very old philosophical ideas. So I don’t see that they’re likely to change now… obviously we are in a very turbulent period in the world’s history, but I don’t think that things Plato said are suddenly going to be made obsolete because of that.
It is a big question, and it does feel a little bit like I’m trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole [laughs]. The film is what it is, it’s a sci-fi thriller. And if you glean anything from it that helps interpret current day events, then that’s great. And if you don’t, then that’s also great. It stands on its own in that regard.
And obviously, it wasn’t made with 2021 in mind because one thing John Huddles can’t do is see into the future. Although having said that, I now remember that every time we got on a plane, John would wear a mask. I used to laugh at him for it, but maybe he could see into the future…
What was it that attracted you to the script when you first read it?
James D’Arcy: It’s not often you read a film that has such intellectual aspirations. It is unashamedly wordy and cerebral in places, and it does open up discussion of some very big ideas. The only other person really who tries to do that – I think – is Christopher Nolan, but Christopher Nolan also has a $250 million budget so he can frame it around some very big action sequences. In this case, it’s a much smaller budget film and it just had an idea that it wanted to explore.
It didn’t hurt that the places we had to go to, to explore it were probably three of the most extraordinary places I've ever seen in my entire life. And they did send me a lookbook when they sent the scripts, and I remember looking at the pictures first and thinking, “Oh my God, please let this script be accepted, because I'm so desperate to see those places.” [The Philosophers was filmed in multiple sites across Indonesia.]
Did you have any specific challenges with how you approached the character, seeing as he’s the closest thing to a villain the film has?
James D’Arcy: I’ve only seen the film once and that was quite a long time ago. And if I’m being really honest with you, I haven’t seen all of it. I don’t ever really watch anything that I do, so it’s nothing to do with this film, it’s just that it’s preferable for me not to. But we did shoot this sequence at the beginning that I think would have led you even further down the path of thinking this guy’s a villain. It was right at the beginning of the film, and I noticed that John had cut it. He definitely did not want for the audience to feel that way, certainly at the beginning. And he’s certainly an ambiguous character at best, but I don’t know what the takeaway is, or how you’re meant to feel about Mr. Zimit.
What was the scene?
James D’Arcy: It wasn’t a whole scene, it was just a sequence where he's about to start the thought experiment, and he goes behind the blackboard and has this moment of difficulty, which I think if it had been kept in the film would have immediately raised some red flags. And I think the fact that John took that out perhaps delayed that moment for a while.
Did you do any kind of deeper research into the philosophical subjects broached, or were you happy just going off the script?
James D’Arcy: Honestly, that is a never-ending cavern of research. And I seem to remember that from when they cast me in the film to shooting, there wasn’t a great deal of time. My approach was to mainly use John, the writer-director, as my source of knowledge. And actually, I thought it was important that the movie stood on its own – and that’s not to dismiss research and all the rest, but I didn’t want to colour anything we talked about in the film with a bunch of information that wasn’t directly relevant. There was enough going on anyway, you don’t need to bring thousands of other things into the subtext. I just wanted it to be clear and simple whenever we could. And as you said, there are some really big ideas in there that are hard to wrap your head around, so I also didn’t want to clutter in any way.
Did reflecting on those ideas change the way you thought about the whole science versus arts debate? [One of the questions the film essentially poses is, in order to reboot the human race, do you save the scientists or the artists?]
James D’Arcy: I’m an artist, so I obviously disagree with Mr. Zimit very early on. I understand his point of view, but I still wouldn’t do what he did. So, it didn’t change my opinion of what I think is valuable and important. I was more on the students’ side.
And looking to the future, do you have any dream roles you’d love to take on?
James D’Arcy: I directed a film the year before last [Made in Italy], and that was a very enjoyable experience. I’d be happy to get an opportunity to do that again. In terms of acting, the thing that I love most about acting is that each role is so different, and I've been very lucky in that I’ve gotten to play quite a wide variety of parts. It’s constantly new and exciting, and I wouldn’t want that to change. I’d like to keep playing roles that I find interesting.
The Philosophers is out now on digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Sky Store.