A few years after graduating from the Royal Ballet School in London, Sonoya Mizuno had a choice to make. She’d auditioned for a small part in Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, and even though she’d never read a screenplay before, he offered her a role that would require weeks of filming in London. But she was still on contract at Scottish Ballet. She could either continue down the path of a professional dancer, doing Sleeping Beauty for 80-year-olds, or break her contract and take a chance as an actor.
Mizuno chose the latter. She drafted a letter of resignation, booked a flight, got on the plane, sent the email, and turned off her phone. “So that’s what I did, and like fuck, it worked out,” she tells me over tea on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn. It’s an origin story fitting for an actor whose first leading role is on a near-future sci-fi miniseries that explores our notions of free will. Devs, which stars Mizuno as a software engineer named Lily Chan at a fictional quantum-computing company called Amaya, is about escaping what people, what technology, what the universe dictate we must do and who we must be. Written and directed by Garland, the speculative-fiction mastermind also behind the film Annihilation, it warps our existential views on the world, reality, and autonomy. And Mizuno landed there by making bold decisions.
When she auditioned for Ex Machina in 2014, Garland immediately noticed her unusual talent. “My gut feeling is that when an actor is good, it’s really easy to spot,” he tells me on the phone later. “And broadly as well, like, everyone sort of agrees. I never encounter anyone who says Philip Seymour Hoffman was not a good actor.” She plays Kyoko, the live-in assistant to Oscar Isaac’s eccentric tech genius, Nathan. It’s not a speaking role, but the character has one of the most emotional narratives in the film—an abused robot who gets revenge against her ruthless creator. She also does an unforgettable disco dance with Isaac (“I remember being like, how the fuck is he so good and so confident,” she says of his dancing ability.).
Garland thought it would be a bumpy start acclimating Mizuno to performing in front of the camera. And, “instead, she was just completely there, first take, first seconds of the first take, completely there,” Garland tells me. “I think that also relates to the dance background, where what Sonoya would do in dance in practice and practice and practice, and then have to do a performance, and not fuck up the performance while she was doing it.”
Ex Machina was a critical hit, and in the wake of its success Mizuno moved to L. A. to continue her movie career. After a couple of indies, she scored a part in La La Land. But she was still living the classic life of a struggling actor.
“I remember taking a toilet roll from my theatrical studio I took a class at, because anything I could do to save money would be helpful,” the 33-year-old says.
That’s when Garland called with an unorthodox idea. He was adapting the Jeff VanderMeer novel Annihilation and wanted to end the film with a dance sequence.
Though Mizuno is digitally turned into a silver humanoid in the end, her performance makes for a powerful, mystifying conclusion to Annihilation. She describes that scene, dancing alongside Natalie Portman, as a moment where the character “realizes, because she’s hiding herself, and herself is fighting her back, so she’s like causing pain to herself. I always love the moment where we fall and and then we stand up and and we do these mirror steps and then she realizes ‘Oh fuck, this is me.”
The film happened at a time in Mizuno’s career when she was coming to terms with herself as both an actor and a dancer.
“I was really fighting against pushing away that dancer part of me, and I’d feel like, I’m not a dancer; I don’t want people to see me as a dancer, because I felt like it made me less of an actor,” she says. But with Annihilation she realized she could be both. “That’s when I felt like I actually started to get the work, and I felt like I actually started to be a better actor.”
As she navigated the industry, Mizuno kept in touch with Garland. “When I was really struggling, and there was a period of time when I was going up for a lot of parts that felt tokenistic, I didn’t have that many people in the industry who I knew that well, but [Garland] was someone who I felt like I could talk to about these things sometimes,” she says. “And so I think he kind of saw the struggle that actors of color would have.”
So she was initially hesitant when an opportunity to appear in Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians came her way. “I thought, Is this going to portray Asians in a negative way? But I read the script, and it was so funny, I just felt like I would be silly not to want to be involved in it.” The movie became a phenomenon. “Everyone had similar experiences in the industry, being like the token Asian character,” she says. “Then we were suddenly there making this really interesting, fun film. . . . I was surprised by how meaningful it felt for me.”
And then a chance to reunite with Garland came around again with Devs. Even though she had worked with him before, the casting process was rigorous; she still had to audition. He was looking for a female protagonist with a very particular energy, one who could deliver a sad, strong performance conveying action and quiet strength. “I just knew she’d be able to do it, and she really does,” Garland says.
Likely thanks to her training as a dancer, this strength is physically present onscreen at all times. She’s almost unrecognizable, and not just because of the close-cropped hair. She carries herself differently. Mizuno says she wasn’t trying to change her posture. She had a specific idea for how her character would move through the world. “I wanted her to feel like she was open and ready and confrontational and very straightforward,” Mizuno says.
Garland marvels at her work. As he explains, there are a lot of actors who get uncomfortable with what they’re supposed to be doing on-camera. They want the audience to like them underneath all the acting. “Sonoya doesn’t seem to have a trace of that in her,” he says. “And so it means that she feels unusual—you’re not seeing a version of the performance you’re familiar with from other kinds of films.”
With a quiet, decisive strength, Mizuno’s Lily Chan navigates a cold world of corporate espionage and billionaire geniuses with limitless power and the technology to play god. Her boss Forest, the founder of Amaya played by Nick Offerman, has created a quantum computer that appears to be able to predict the future. It becomes a debate over humanity’s capacity for free will: Are we operating on rails, with every decision deterministic? Or can our actions change the course of the future?
The climax of Devs comes down to one ultimate choice. Chan has seen a future in which she shoots and kills Forest in the godlike machine he created. But, when it comes down to that moment, Chan chooses not to, which leads to both her and Forest falling and suffocating inside his vacuum-sealed laboratory.
“She has the ultimate agency,” Mizuno says. “She always was different. She’s a person who doesn’t participate in group think and isn’t following the same path. When she does take the action we have to believe that she would do it and it would always be a decision she makes. But the paradox of the story is that was her doing the action predetermined as well?”
Mizuno says that exactly what happens in the moment of Chan’s choice is up to the viewer to interpret on their own. That final scene in particular, where Chan dies in the heart of the Devs building, was one in which Mizuno did intentionally use her ballet training to add to the scene. “I do remember like my position at the end is like I’m in a ballet position,” she says of her character’s final moments.
This article appears in the April/May issue of Esquire.
From there, Devs takes a turn into another theoretical afterward, where Chan and Forest’s minds have been transferred into an alternate reality of the machine. “She’s living in one version of one branch in multiple universes. She knows she lived this day and Forest explains to her what happened. And she chooses—or maybe she doesn’t choose, maybe it’s predetermined in the machine as well—to go and see Jamie. After all of this stuff that’s happened, she has realized that Jamie is who she loves and there’s nothing that is more important to her than being with the person that she loves.”
It all started with one choice: to leave the world of dance. And then to let her artistic sides as an actor and a dancer come together. Knowing that gives Devs something of a meta dimension, especially when Mizuno describes the way in which her character makes decisions. Most people, when frightened, resort to inaction. “Her fears did the opposite,” she tells me of Lily. “They drove her forward and made her do things, because she was more fearful about what would happen if she didn’t do them.”