Jared Leto didn’t have to perform his usual all-out method acting prep for his role in Blade Runner 2049, in part because he’s already spent so much time in the world in which his character, Niander Wallace, dwells.
The character in the long-awaited follow-up is a genius inventor and entrepreneur, a blind man with the vision to save humankind who then looks past humanity to invent a new kind of replicant, the android line that once nearly destroyed humanity. Wallace is ruthless in the pursuit of technology he claims is crucial to mankind’s future, rendering himself both potential savior and antagonist. Leto, in addition to a working actor and musician, is also a prominent tech investor, and was thus prone to feeling empathy for the character.
"I don’t think he’s really that bad a guy," the 45-year-old Oscar winner told SYFY WIRE. "He's ruthless, he's ambitious, he's determined, he's highly intelligent, he's really powerful. So you can look at the titans of industry, from Dale Carnegie to the Rockefellers to Steve Jobs to the Dalai Lama. He does have this spiritual sense to him. He clearly has an opinion, an idea of what needs to be done in order to save humanity. He's not afraid to take the steps that are necessary in order to make his vision come to life."
Wallace was first introduced in the marketing material that served as a walk-up to the long-awaited sequel. This summer, Warner Bros. unveiled a timeline that original director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher conjured up as the aftermath of their original 1982 neo-noir classic: In 2023, massive food shortage sent the world plummeting into starvation, a famine that Wallace alleviated a few years later with some unnamed stroke of genius. A half decade later, he acquired the rights to the Nexus replicants — those uber-woke, too-perfect robots hunted down by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the first movie — and began to both develop newer models and fight the regulation that had banned the androids after their sentience led to bloody massacres.
Wallace's self-assuredness, and considerable power, are on full display in one of the three prequel shorts made to link the original Blade Runner and the events of its aftermath with director Denis Villeneuve's sequel. In "2036: Nexus Dawn," Wallace meets with government regulators to push the issue, pulling power moves and trump cards, showing up late and then reminding them immediately that his work alone keeps the world's hunger at bay. He tells them their laws "have chained the hands of progress," insinuating — not so subtly — that their prohibitions on his artificial intelligence work are inhibiting society's continued repair.
That similar debates are ongoing in our actual halls of power and public forums is due a confluence of factors. First, it is a testament to both the foresight of the original film (and its Philip K. Dick source material) and the thoughtful reflection of the sequel's masterminds. But it is also a remarkable bit of timing. Facebook and Google are right now coming under fire for how their algorithms are manipulated to promote false and pernicious information to mass audiences; the 2016 election brought widespread awareness of the issue, drawing first denials and then pledges from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to enhance human oversight of his vaunted, secret AI sorting machines. As the film readied for release on Friday, those tech monopolies are coming under further fire for how their computers were gamed in the aftermath of Sunday's massacre in Las Vegas.
Leto was an early investor in two other major Silicon Valley startups that have reordered entire industries and introduced massive upheaval in the economy at large, especially for working people. He holds stakes in Airbnb and Uber, both companies equal parts revolutionary and problematic, and marvels at their considerable growth. He calls it "a wild thing" to have watched "so many of these companies start with a few people in a garage or a basement of a building, and grow into a multi-billion dollar companies with tens of thousands of employees."
Leto says he understands the risks that such massive overhaul and disruption can and do present to the world. He also recognizes the inherent danger in artificial intelligence, especially as it continues to advance in leaps and bounds. And yet, he says, "I'm not worried," with the caveat that "we have to be careful."
"I guess when you have a rational process making decisions for an irrational civilization, there's going to be conflict there," Leto acknowledges. "If you had an algorithm right now that looked at the state of the world, it would probably say, 'Starting tonight, we're not going to use fossil fuels anymore. We're going to turn those off.' There would be mass famine and economies of scale would just be destroyed, and maybe in 150 years we would build back up and be a better, stronger society. And what's 150 years to AI? Nothing. Unfortunately — and fortunately — we have to make irrational decisions sometimes."
On a more personal level, Leto imagines the illogic of risks of things like jumping into a freezing river to save a strange child, or forming a human chain to rescue flood victims, as actions an AI-powered machine would reject. So it's important to have a heart overriding things, Leto reasons, though he maintains his faith in technology.
"I think as we go, there will be some mistakes, but data is great," he says. "We can do a lot with data and information."
Blade Runner 2049, in which Leto may or may not play the antagonist, hits theaters on Friday, October 6.