“I would often during takes, I would end up, shedding a tear or crying and we’d have to call cut and you know, wipe them away” – Gemma Chan on playing an android
You may have seen British actress Gemma Chan starring opposite Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock (check it out if you didn’t, it was a great episode!) or in last years Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. She’s now starring alongside William Hurt in AMC’s Humans.
Set in a parallel present, where the latest must-have gadget is a Synth – a highly-developed robotic servant, eerily similar to its live counterpart. In the hope of transforming the way his family lives, a husband purchases a Synth named Anita (Chan) against the wishes of his wife, only to discover that sharing life with a machine has far-reaching and chilling consequences.
Chan graduated with a law degree from Oxford University and was offered a job with a big law firm but turned it down in order to train at the prestigious Drama Centre London. Since graduating, she’s had a busy career in working in film, theatre and now, Humans.
Chan talks about going to Synth training, working with the cast and learning how to be still.
Humans airs on Sundays and 9pm on AMC
I was reading that you did sort of a Synth training, I guess, they called it, can you kind of talk about that and also about the difficulties of kind of hiding your emotion when you play the character?
Gemma Chan: Yes. So Anita was, you know, a really challenging – a unique challenge for me really. There was a whole physical aspect of the role which as you mentioned we – about a month before we started shooting, we – 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, you know, like starting to – starting from scratch and learning how to walk again, really, 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 (unintelligible) with the choreographer to come up with the specific movement of the character, because as you probably (unintelligible) one and two like for example the character of Odi is an original B-series since he’s slightly malfunctioning and the other end of the spectrum, Anita is one of the newer models, her – she’s, you know, her movement is probably smoother and you know, more advanced than the other Synths so, yes, it was a huge physical challenge. And then on the other hand as well, there’s the whole inner life of the character and as you say, the emotional challenge for me was about trying to play a character that is not human but that at certain points is showing, you know, 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 yes, that was very challenging.
Was anything you added to Anita that maybe wasn’t originally in the script for you?
Gemma Chan: In terms of dialogue, I mean our – we have such amazing writers that we didn’t – in general I would say, for any character, we didn’t improvise lines. It was very much, you know, the script was so great we could work from that. I would say there was, you know, it was a very collaborative process in terms of fleshing out the character and I would go to the writers with ideas for, you know, physical things and you know, deciding, and in terms of the emotional journey of the character I very much had a lot of input on that and deciding what to show and when and, but, yes, I would – I read the first three episodes before I signed on and I didn’t know exactly what Anita’s journey would be and I, you know, discovered that as we went on and as I got the new scripts and I was constantly asking the writers questions as well because, you know, 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, you know, not quite right.
Do you think probably one of the themes of the show – of the series is not only examining robots, but maybe our own humanity as well?
Gemma Chan: 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, yes, 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 you know, the AI in the show and it really uses that to explore those themes, yes.
What drew you to the project in the first place and what does the story, you know, speak to you? What speaks to you about the story
Gemma Chan: Well, 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 you know, 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 know, you’re not being, you know, smacked over the head with these themes, it’s kind of the – 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 you know, it’s so rare as an actor that you get – that you have that kind of reaction immediately to a script and I just thought the themes and the ideas in the show were so interesting.
And in addition to that, I mean I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and I know – 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, you know, when you watch a film or – there haven’t been that many TV shows that deal with AI, but – 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 and I think in the world of humans, the fact that it’s set in an alternate present and in the, you know, 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.
You know, 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 still you could be?
Gemma Chan: It was a big challenge. I, you know, I think as human beings, we have so many idiosyncrasies and physical kicks that we do on a sub, you know, 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 Chan: 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, you know, they would – I would be freaked out by their performances.
Your dynamic with Laura has been tense at best, but I have to say I’m really enjoying your interactions, can you talk about that relationship a little bit and how it develops?
Gemma Chan: Yes. So, understandably, Laura is very uneasy about Anita’s presence in the house and possibly feels a bit threatened by her. And like I said, I – you know, 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 is 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 – but 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 Chan: I think I would have to – well, I 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 yes, I think it would be – it would freak me out there. I mean having one in your house overnight when, you know, what do they do after you go to sleep? That was – I mean if 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, you know, it could do all kinds of things for me, because, you know, I’m quite disorganized in a way and I’m not very tidy, it could – you could absolutely throw out my wardrobe that would be amazing.
But yes, I mean there are obviously positives and negatives to everything in life, so, yes.
What has been the most rewarding part of working on the show?
Gemma Chan: I would say two things, one being just having the chance to work with a show that I think has something, you know, 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 and then on the other hand as well, it’s been incredibly rewarding to work with the cast and the other creators of the show as well, but, you know, 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? Were you more patient with the children or…
Gemma Chan: 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, you know, 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 yes, 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.
Were there was any either AI type characters or maybe other real human characters that you feel influenced you in kind of bringing, you know, your own thoughts and research to Anita?
Gemma Chan: I try to approach it – I mean I am, you know, I’m a fan of the genre and I wanted to try and make Anita her own – very much her own character. I mean it’s – it was definitely a challenge in terms of trying to play a character that isn’t a human being, what is your reference point? Like do you just, you know, have a lot of conversations with Siri on your phone? I get it a little bit.
But, yes, I try to just use the information that I had about her as a character to flesh her out and to kind of, you know, build up the layers to the character. But I wouldn’t say it was a particular – any particular character that she based on for me.
How have you grown as an actor since playing the role of Anita?
Gemma Chan: It’s definitely been one of the biggest challenges as an actor. I think I’ve learned so much through playing her. And I suppose what I have learned? I think a big thing from her, from this character in particular is learning I’ve touched it before, but learning stillness and what kind of power you can get from stillness as an actor. Often you feel like, you know, they should be reacting to everything and you know, being as – yes, reactive as possible and that’s absolutely is still part of acting but I’ve definitely learned that there is -there’s something else to be gained by finding stillness and also not necessarily revealing everything shows away because obviously I have to hide certain things in playing Anita, you know, certain emotions and reactions that are – 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, so yes, I hope that answered your question.
Has this changed what you think about technology or social media at all?
Gemma Chan: I would say that before I filmed the show, I already had a love hate relationship with technology. Like I had 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 know, you’re out and you’re meeting friends, everyone’s on their phones, (unintelligible) just putting away and just have face to face human interaction, but – I don’t know, I think the show (unintelligible) my relationship with him really.
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 and the technology in the show it’s not many miles away, there’s a hotel in the pan that certainly miss summer where it’s going to be completely staffed by robots, I don’t know if you heard about this or read about it in the news quite recently and you know, you check in and the receptionist robot will text you and it can speak four languages and you know, it’s a human the whole time you’re there, a robot cleans your room and you know, that’s – it’s kind of insane but I guess it’s happening, so we – is definitely we need to be having conversations about that and what impact it has on us and I don’t think all is being completely negative, I think there are amazing things happening, you know, like people who’ve lost limbs or had amputations and you can now have a, you know, a prosthetic limb that you can, it sort of widens your brain and you can now control it. I mean these things are – that’s amazing. If you can improve people’s lives by that, I think, you know, 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.
During the filming process, how much of Anita’s storyline were you told about? Were you approaching each episode not really knowing what was going to happen next?
Gemma Chan: I had an overall view of how our cast actually it’s something that I before we started filming anything, I discussed with the writers because I needed to know where she had to end up to then kind of plot back the way, if you know what I mean? Where she, you know, where – what could be revealed and learned about her. So 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, you know, me pulling out the writers, saying, I don’t understand what’s happening here. But they were very, very good, very, very receptive to that.
Did you find that difficult to kind of react to?
Gemma Chan: I think always as an actor, you know – you often know more than – not always, but you often know more than your character does. You know, not just for this job, you’re often having to put away the knowledge that you have as an actor about the character and you know, where that you know, you have to kind of put that to one side in your mind and just be completely as much as you can do, play in the present moment at the character and I – again, I try to do that as Anita and to put aside what I need about where should I going to end up.
I read an interview with Dan O’Neil, where he talked about how each actor and actress kind of had some particular habits or kind of personality quirks. You talked about the individual training. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share any that you might have that you found particularly challenging to break?
Gemma Chan: Yes. I mean, there are a couple of – well he was – luckily we had him 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 Humans is probably going to be quite funny.
Yes, (unintelligible) down the stairs at one point in the (unintelligible) I was carrying a basket of laundry and not looking down at the set because there’s no reason why you’d need to ever since then, I completely fell out of shot and luckily I wasn’t too badly hurt, the crew were just laughing at me. But…
Dan would have often tell me, he’d come up and whisper in my ear, you’re doing – 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, I – that was a continuous thing that I had to try and – (unintelligible) things out actually because when you watch the show you’re going to be looking out for these, little ticks that I have. What else? Yes, just posture wise, he was often having to correct my posture and I’m also – I’m very right handed, so – and 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, there’s a lot of powerful scenes with Anita and where the audience can kind of feel the reality of the situation. 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, who might not be aware of her situation or might not have kind of the wide range of expressions?
Gemma Chan: Again, it was such a unique challenge to me because, you know, there are – and as certainly as the show goes on, there are some very emotional powerful scenes that I had to play as Anita, but yes, I wasn’t allowed to physically cry and you know, there, you know, if I – I know – I’ve often be playing a scene and you just, you know, as an actor usually your – that’s where you welcome that, you welcome, you know, opening yourself up and releasing your emotions but it would be – I would often during takes, I would end up, you know, shedding a tear or crying and we’d have to call cut and you know, wipe them away and find – and so finding a different way of doing things and being able to play really very emotional things, but, you know, finding another way to convey them and again, another thing that you do as an actor usually you use the breadth to convey emotions, whatever emotion it is and obviously, being a Synth you really are or I couldn’t really show that I was breathing too much. It was really hot, really, really hot.