AMC’s new drama series is a tantalizing look at what life would be like if we had incorporated robots with artificial intelligence into our house and daily lives — and the ramifications of what if some of those robots developed a self-awareness and independent free-will.
In a recent press call, star Gemma Chan talked about her character Anita, a Synth, who embodies a very special awareness and how the show explores her unique circumstances, both before and after she is placed with a family living in the suburbs.
We have heard that you did sort of a Synth training. Can you kind of talk about that and also about the difficulties of kind of hiding your emotion when you play the character?
GEMMA: Anita was a really unique challenge for me really. There was a whole physical aspect of the role which as you mentioned — about a month before we started shooting — those of us in the cast who were playing Synths, did some workshops with an amazing choreographer called Dan O’Neil and we tried to come up with a universal set of rules for the movement of Synths in the show. And our writers and our directors were very dedicated, they didn’t want anything overtly robotic, but they wanted something that was other than human. So it all boiled down to the fact that the Synths are ultimately machines, and every movement requires energy and essentially uses up battery power, so every move has to be economical and there’d have to be a reason why every move is the way it is. So learning how to walk, and how to stand up and sit down and all of the basics. And then after weeks of establish a general kind of movement, we did lots of individual work. Each of the Synths work with the choreographer to come up with the specific movement of the character. For example, the character of Odi is an original B-series since he’s slightly malfunctioning and the other end of the spectrum. Then Anita is one of the newer models. Her movement is probably smoother and more advanced than the other Synths. So it was a huge physical challenge. And then on the other hand as there’s the whole inner life of the character and the emotional challenge for me was about trying to play a character that is not human but that at certain points is showing what could be interpreted as human emotions and human characteristics and really deciding when I was going to reveal those character traits as the show goes on and that was very challenging.
Was there anything you added to Anita that maybe wasn’t originally in the script for you?
GEMMA: In terms of dialogue, we have such amazing writers that in general I would say, for any character, we didn’t improvise lines. It was very much the script was so great we could work from that. I would say there was it was a very collaborative process in terms of fleshing out the character and I would go to the writers with ideas for physical things. In terms of the emotional journey of the character, I very much had a lot of input on that and deciding what to show. I read the first three episodes before I signed on and I didn’t know exactly what Anita’s journey would be and I discovered that as we went on and as I got the new scripts, I was constantly asking the writers questions as well because the world of the show is so specific and I wanted as much information as possible as an actor. I didn’t do anything that was kind of not quite right.
Do you think probably one of the themes of the is not only examining robots, but maybe our own humanity as well?
GEMMA: Definitely. I think at the crux of the show is it really wants to explore what makes us human and really everything comes from that. It’s really about it explores the blurring of the line between humans and machines and it really wants to explore the human condition and yet it uses the framework of the show and the AI in the show and it really uses that to explore those themes.
Do you think that these Synths in the show have rights?
GEMMA: That’s a very interesting question and that’s a question that is explored in the show. I think the show very much in terms of all of these things. It doesn’t dictate what the answers are. It’s very much about just opening up the debate and opening up those conversations and I think, for me on a personal level and I think everyone as a viewer will probably get something slightly different, but I find it really interesting that you can see a lot of parallels in the show between and between real life in terms of how we treat certain people in our society as less than human and that was really interesting to me.
What drew you to the project in the first place and what does the story speak to you?
GEMMA: When I first read the scripts, I try to read the script first of all not as an actor but just as an audience member and I was immediately drawn into this world and into the world of these characters I really cared about the characters and although there are a lot of big themes and ideas in the show. I think that the characters and the relationships in the show are what drive it. So you’re not being smacked over the head with these themes. They’re kind of slipped in very cleverly by the writers and I got the end of script 3 and I just couldn’t wait to read the next one and it’s so rare as an actor that have that kind of reaction immediately to a script and I just thought the themes and the ideas in the show were so interesting. In addition to that, I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and I’m familiar with the films that we’ve had in terms that deal with AI, I think are brilliant, and I thought, what the show has is it’s actually a refreshing take on the AI genres for me. I think we haven’t necessarily seen this world explored in this way in terms of often when when you watch a film or there haven’t been that many TV shows that deal with AI, although there are a few but it’s often set in the future kind of world and often it will be presented as a dystopia occasionally. I think in the world of HUMANS, the fact that it’s set in an alternate present and in the very much in the now, that was interesting to me and I love the fact that it seemed to deal with more the emotional and philosophical implications of having this technology as part of our everyday lives. And there are elements of suspense and thriller in the show as well but for me it was the emotional, philosophical side of things that I thought the show explores, that I thought was really interesting and refreshing.
Did you surprise yourself by how physically still you could be?
GEMMA: It was a big challenge. I think as human beings, we have so many idiosyncrasies and physical kicks that we do on a sub-subconsciously and I certainly have a lot of those, so it was hard to be that still. It definitely didn’t come easy to me.
Did you freak out your fellow cast members ever?
GEMMA: They told me they were freaked out, so yes. And when I would watch other actors play Synths, I would watch them on the monitor I would be freaked out by their performances.
Anita’s dynamic with Laura has been tense at best, but I have to say I’m really enjoying those interactions. Can you talk about that relationship a little bit and how it develops?
GEMMA: Understandably, Laura is very uneasy about Anita’s presence in the house and possibly feels a bit threatened by her. And the relationship definitely doesn’t get off to the most promising start at all. But I would say that Anita’s relationship with Laura definitely changes and evolves over the course of the show, as indeed her relationship with every individual family member evolves over the show and Anita will be changed by her time with the Hawkins family. She won’t be the same and they won’t be the same at the end of it, as well. They will be very affected by Anita’s presence in the house too it’s kind of a two-way thing. And I love that, I love the fact that Anita — certainly when she’s first introduced to the house — she kind of acts like a mirror to the rest of the family and depending on each of their individual prejudices and needs and wants, she holds up a mirror to that and so each family member has a different reaction to her and vice versa.
If Synths were a thing that actually existed now, would you have one and why?
GEMMA: I think I would have to. I would probably resist having one for as long as possible — and then as with most technology — you end up kind of caving in, like I did with an iPad. I never thought I would need one and now I use it all the time. But it would freak me out. I mean having one in your house overnight, what do they do after you go to sleep? I doubt I’d be able to sleep. But I can also see that’s the thing about the show actually, I can see the benefits of having one and it would probably make my life a lot easier in a lot of ways. I could have it could do all kinds of things for me, because I’m quite disorganized in a way and I’m not very tidy, and if it could clean out my wardrobe that would be amazing. There are obviously positives and negatives to everything in life, so yes.
Playing Anita as a Synth, she has a very interesting relationship with the children. Are we going to explore the fact that as a Synth it is doubtful that she had any childhood besides the factory assembly line an d how that reflects on her view of humanity and how do she relates in the family dynamic?
GEMMA: That’s a very interesting question. I think the whole time that she’s with the Hawkins family she is watching and absorbing. I mean the question is on to what level is it having an effect on her. But she immediately in terms of her relationship with Sophie, she has an immediate bond with her and Sophie is the first family member that immediately bonds with Anita and takes her to heart and loves her and she’s affected by that. It tricky because I can’t reveal too much about the genesis of Anita. Her back story is complicated. As you say, she hasn’t had a conventional childhood as such, but at the same time she has changed from when she first was born in a factory. So and she has been shaped by her experiences, but she is affected by what she observes in the family and the maternal bond that she observes between Laura and her children and she will be changed by that.
Are we going to possibly see more of a subtext between her and Laura about what is motherhood then throughout the show?
GEMMA: Yes, I would say that’s definitely a theme that emerges: what is motherhood? At the end of episode 1, as well as: what is love? Is love something that can be taught and or are we in some way programmed to love our children? These are all questions to which there are no obvious answers and I think the show definitely explores that.
What has been the most rewarding part of working on the show?
GEMMA: I would say two things, one being just having the chance to work with a show that I think has something really relevant to say and that possibly haven’t been said before, and I want to say that I’m genuinely excited by the ideas and themes of it. Then on the other hand, it’s been incredibly rewarding to work with the cast and the other creators of the show. In terms of the cast members, everyone is incredibly talented and it’s been really rewarding working with all of them.
Was there a difference between acting with the children and acting with the adults?
GEMMA: To be honest, the actors who play the children, the Hawkins children, are phenomenal and for me, it was no different. They were as equally as brilliant as the adult actors in the show and it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. I mean each of them were brilliant and Pixie who plays Sophie, she only turned eight years old as we were shooting and she was just amazing. Like she could also do an incredible version of a Synth, she would mimic me, kind of went between page just for fun and she was like unbelievable, like freaking out all of us. But they were brilliant. Certainly didn’t require any extra patience for me because they honestly, they just had it straight away and they got it, they’re really clever and brilliant.
Was there any AI type characters or maybe other real human characters that you feel influenced you in kind of bringing your own thoughts and research to Anita?
GEMMA: I’m a fan of the genre and I wanted to try and make Anita very much her own character. It was definitely a challenge in terms of trying to play a character that isn’t a human being, like what is your reference point? Do you just have a lot of conversations with Siri on your phone? But I try to just use the information that I had about her as a character to flesh her out and to kind of build up the layers to the character. But I wouldn’t say that there was any particular character that she based on for me.
How do you think you’ve grown as an actor since playing the role of Anita?
GEMMA: It’s definitely been one of the biggest challenges as an actor. I’ve learned so much through playing her. I think a big thing from from this character in particular is learning stillness and what kind of power you can get from stillness as an actor. Often you feel like they should be reacting to everything and being as reactive as possible and that’s absolutely is still part of acting, but I’ve definitely learned that there’s something else to be gained by finding stillness and also not necessarily revealing everything shows. Obviously I have to hide certain things in playing Anita certain emotions and reactions that aren’t completely played out or maybe only a little bit shown in her face so that has been really interesting to me to learn and to try and get better at doing as an actor.
Is Anita capable of loving?
GEMMA: That’s a question that is explored in the show. I mean to what extent can any of these Synth experience genuine emotion? And you’ll probably make up your own mind about that as you watch the show.
Has this show changed your relationship with technology or social media at all?
GEMMA: I would say that before I filmed the show, I already had a love hate relationship with technology. Like I definitely have a love-hate relationship with like my phone, like I’m so reliant on it. But I hate how reliant I have become on it and I hate how when we it seems to be okay now that we you’re out and you’re meeting friends, everyone’s on their phones, when we should be just putting it away and just have face to face human interaction. I’m really fascinated by the subject matter and I’m fascinated by the technical innovations that seems to be happening all around us now. The technology in the show it’s not many miles away. There’s a hotel where it’s going to be completely staffed by robots. You check in and the receptionist robot will text you and it can speak four languages and it’s like you won’t see a human the whole time you’re there, like a robot cleans your room. It’s kind of insane but I guess it’s happening. So we definitely need to be having conversations about that and what impact it has on us. I don’t think all is being completely negative. I think there are amazing things happening, like with people who’ve lost limbs or had amputations and you can now have a a prosthetic limb that sort of connects to your brain and you can now control it. I mean, that’s amazing. If you can improve people’s lives by that — I think we have to be open to progress in that way — but I would say that we need to think about the implications of everything that we do.
How much of Anita’s storyline were you told about beforehand? Were you approaching each episode not really knowing what was going to happen next?
GEMMA: I had an overall view of our cast. Actually it’s something that I before we started filming anything, and I discussed with the writers because I needed to know where she had to end up and then to then kind of plot back the way, Like, what could be revealed. So I learned about her and I had a general idea of what was going to happen to her. But in terms of specifics, I would find out with each script and it was an ongoing dialogue of me pulling out the writers, saying, “I don’t understand what’s happening here.” But they were very receptive to that.
Did you find that difficult to kind of react to?
GEMMA: I think always as an actor you often know more than your character does and you’re often having to put away the knowledge that you have as an actor about the character. Like, you have to kind of put that to one side in your mind and just be completely play in the present moment at the character. I try to do that as Anita and to put aside what I knew about where Anita would end up.
Dan O’Neil talked about how each actor and actress had kind some particular habits or kind of personality quirks they brought to their character. Can you share any that you might have that you found particularly challenging?
GEMMA: Luckily we had Dan on set everyday watching the monitors and kind of correcting posture and correcting our movement from what he could see on the monitor. I am quite fidgety and demonstrative in person, and also a little bit clumsy too, so I would often be bumping into the set and tripping over things and having to go again. So the blooper reel for HUMAN is probably going to be quite funny. At one point, I was carrying a basket of laundry downstairs and not looking down at the set because there’s no reason why you’d need to ever as a Synth, and I completely fell out of shot. Luckily I wasn’t too badly hurt, the crew were just laughing at me. I was okay. Then what else? Dan would have often he’d come up and whisper in my ear, “You’re doing it again, you have an active left arm when you walk,” which I didn’t realize I had. Apparently I swing my left arm slightly more than my right arm. So that was a continuous thing that I had to try to not do. When you watch the show you’re going to be looking out for these, little ticks that I have. What else? Just posture wise, he was often having to correct my posture and I’m very right handed, but as Anita, I have to learn how to be ambidextrous and do tasks equally with both hands. So I have to often practice doing all kinds of things, like ironing and folding and opening doors with the opposite hand, with my left hand so that I use each hand equally, and that was a big challenge.
As an actress, how do you as an actress prepare yourself to bring the right amount of realism and emotion to a scene, especially with Anita who’s a Synth might not be aware of her situation or might not have kind of the wide range of expressions?
GEMMA: Again, it was such a unique challenge to me because — certainly as the show goes on – there are some very emotional powerful scenes that I had to play as Anita, but I wasn’t allowed to physically cry. As an actor usually that’s where you welcome that, you welcome opening yourself up and releasing your emotions. But often during takes, I would end up shedding a tear or crying and we’d have to call “cut” and wipe them away. So finding a different way of doing things and being able to play really very emotional things, and finding another way to convey them — as an actor usually you use the breadth to convey emotions, whatever emotion it is — and obviously, being a Synth, I couldn’t really show that. Like I was breathing too much. But it was really hot, really, really hot.
There are glimpses or hints that there’s maybe more about some of these models. In this season, are we going to maybe learn a little bit more about Anita’s back story?
GEMMA: Definitely. You will find out over the course of the show where Anita comes from, why she is different, why she is the way she is. I think the writers have done a great job actually in terms of how they reveal it and I would say that hopefully the majority of your questions will be answered by the end of the last show. They’re not holding anything unnecessarily back from the audience, so you definitely will.
Anita’s relationship with Colin Morgan’s character, is that going to be explored more in the series? Also what was it like to work with him?
GEMMA: The relationship between Leo and Anita is definitely something that you will find out more about as you find about Anita’s history over the course of the show. Again, it’s hard to go into specifics about going into spoiler territory. Yes, everything is – I would say that he has, what can I say without spoiling – the bond she has with him is something that drives both him and her throughout the course of the show. I know that certain people have ideas, but it’s not necessarily the bond that people think. It might not be predictable in terms of what the nature of their relationship is. In terms of working with Colin, Colin is a wonderful actor and I was a huge fan of his even before working with him and I love every minute of working with him. He’s so dedicated to the work and to being the giving the best performance that I feel that I myself have to up my game whenever I had a scene with him. I loved it and I would happily do many, many more scenes with him.
Do see her spend some time with Leo and Niska and Max and Fred? And what can you tell us about the other Synths that do have that consciousness and what are we going to see in the future with them?
GEMMA: There’s obviously a group of Synths that are different to other Synths and have perhaps for whatever reason, we’ll find out have evolved beyond what a regular Synth can do and they are. You will see them all together and then we get split up and I’d say each Synth has their own journey. You see where Niska ends up, where Fred ends up and a lot of the show is about coming to terms with what happened to them and, for some of them, trying to find their way back to each other. But each of them has a very different experience out in the world, as and each of them, will be shaped in a different way by the experience that they have at the hands of various humans that they come across.
With Leo, we see something interesting about him at the end of episode 2. Can you talk about that at all?
GEMMA: Probably not in detail but I would say he is a very unique character and you have seen him bleed. So he’s human but there’s something different about him and you’ll find out why.
To find out more about Anita and the difficult situation she finds herself in, as well as why Anita and the other Synths are so special, be sure to tune in for the premiere of HUMANS on Sunday, June 28th at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.