Gemma Chan – Anita on AMC’s Humans – Talks The Challenges of Playing a Synth!

Gemma Chan as Anita - Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Des Willie

Gemma Chan as Anita – Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Des Willie

When AMC’s Humans (Sundays, 9/8C) premieres on Sunday, we will meet an intriguing group of characters called Synths – androids that exist to help humans with all sorts of tasks.

Gemma Chan plays one such synth, the ethereally beautiful Anita, recently purchased by Joe Hawkins for his family – who may, or may not be something more.

Chan spoke with a group of bloggers/journalists earlier this week about the show and playing Anita.

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.

I was wondering if there was anything you added to Anita that maybe wasn’t originally in the script for you?

Chan: In terms of dialogue or…

Yes, in terms of dialogue and maybe backstory as well.

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?

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.

Do you think that these Synths in the show, do you think they have rights?

Chan: Well that’s a very interesting question and that’s a question that is explored in the show, I would say. I think the show very much in terms of all of these things, it doesn’t dictate what the answers are, it just – it’s very much about just opening up the debate and opening up those conversations and I think – there are lots of – I would say 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 the show 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.

Humans - Key Art 2

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?

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?

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?

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.

I was just saying that 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?

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.

I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about this, but it seems like, Anita is being returned at the end of the second episode, are you allowed to say anything about how she comes back?

Chan: I’m probably not allowed to say anything about that because that would be -will be going into spoiler territory, I’m afraid. But definitely it’s not over.

I’ll say, yes.

Okay, that’s a good answer for me. And if Synths were a thing that actually existed now, would you have one and why?

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.

As 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, I doubt that she had any childhood besides the factory assembly line, and how that reflects on her view of humanity and how do you think it can relate in the family dynamic? It has part of that – been some of the point of friction with Laura.

Chan: Sure. Can you repeat the first part of that – the question again?

So, with being a Synth, and Anita looking at the children, and her reactions with them and dealing with them, she has no childhood except maybe the factory floor, how does – how do you think that reflects upon her views of humanity? We’re seeing early on that she is making views and observations on humanity and how she relates with the children because there is no childhood per se.

Chan: That’s a very interesting question. I think Anita – 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 she – is this having an effect on her, but she immediately in terms of her relationship with Sophie, she has an immediate bond with her and you know, Sophie is the family member that immediately takes – bonds with Anita and takes her to heart and loves her and yes, she’s affected by that and it’s tricky because I can’t – without revealing 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 (unintelligible), so, you know, and she has been shaped by her experiences, but yes, 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.

Pixie Davies as Sophie Hawkins and Gemma Chan as Anita  - Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4

Pixie Davies as Sophie Hawkins and Gemma Chan as Anita – Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4

So, are we going to possibly see more of a subtext defining between her and Laura what is motherhood then throughout the show without spoiling anything?

Chan: Yes, I would say that’s definitely a theme that emerges. You know, what is motherhood and as you say, an episode – end of episode 1 as you know, what is love? Is love something that can be taught and you know, or are we in some way programmed to love our children? You know, 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?

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.

My question is, was there a difference between acting with the children and acting with the adults? Were you more patient with the children or…

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.

I know you touched on this really briefly, when we’re watching the first two episodes, I think we seem to get kind of glimpses or hints that there’s maybe more than the show or the factory is maybe letting on about some of these models. In this season, are we going to maybe learn a little bit more about Anita’s back story?

Chan: 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, absolutely, and I think the writers have done a great job actually in terms of how they reveal it and I would say that hopefully, you know, your questions will be – 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 yes, you definitely will.

Wow. Wonderful. I assume you can’t tell us too much about that quite yet, I feel like that’s really spoiler territory.

Chan: Yes, it is.

Instead, I would like to ask if 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?

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.

Well I felt like there was a lot of – I know you’re saying this is contemporary and a lot of the other AI is very future based, I couldn’t help thinking about Battlestar Galactica when I was watching Humans, I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve watched and I mean, I know that they’re the robots for and this should be on the bad guy side but I felt they’ve become so sympathetic, right, and I was thinking that it – and that way I don’t know if that’s a comparison that you’ve gotten a lot of and did you take…

Chan: I’ve heard that from a couple of people actually and Battlestar Galactica is a show that I am, you know, I can’t wait to watch as soon as I get a bit of a break to watch it. But yes, no there’s – I definitely have heard that from other people that there has in some ways, you know, reminds them of that which I can only take as a compliment really.

I was just wondering how you’ve grown as an actor since playing the role of Anita? How have you grown? What experiences have you had, just along those lines?

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.

Tom Goodman Hill as Joe Hawkins, Pixie Davies as Sophie Hawkins, Dan Tetsell as Salesman and Gemma Chan as Anita  - Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4

Tom Goodman Hill as Joe Hawkins, Pixie Davies as Sophie Hawkins, Dan Tetsell as Salesman and Gemma Chan as Anita – Humans _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4

I’d like to – the – kind of your like your past life what we saw and her relationship with Colin Morgan, is that going to be explored more in the series and also what was it like to work with him as well?

Chan: Yes. Well, 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 and also, it’s not necessarily, I know that certain people have (unintelligible), but things aren’t necessarily – it’s not necessarily the bond that people – it might not be predictable in terms of what the nature of their relationship is all out, I’ll say and in terms of working with Colin, Colin is a wonderful actor and I was, you know, a huge fan of his before, working with him and I would just say that I love every minute of working with him, he’s so dedicated to, you know, to the work and to, you know, being the, you know, giving the best performance that I feel that you yourself or I myself have to up my game whenever I had a scene with him and…

…yes, it was – I can’t really say anything, and I guess it’s about that. I loved it and I, yes I would happily do many, many more scenes with him.

I wanted to follow up a little bit on the previous question. You know, we do see that Anita, you know, in the first – I think the first and second episode, we do see her spend some time with Leo and Niska and Max and Fred. 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?

Chan: Yes, actually saw, there’s obviously a group of Synths that are different to other Synths and have perhaps for whatever reason which we’ll find out have evolved beyond what a regular Synth can do and they are, you see them all together and then we get split up and I’d say each Synth has their own journey…

…very much so and you know, 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. So, yes, but each of them – and each of them has a very different experience out in the world as well, 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, so I don’t know, that’s probably all I can say without getting too specific.

Okay. And then, I think this is super spoilery, so if you can’t answer it I understand. With Leo, we see, I guess something interesting about him at the end of episode 2, are you allowed to talk about that at all?

Chan: Probably not in detail but I would say that he is, again, he is a very unique character and you know, you have seen him bleed, so he is definitely he’s a human but there’s something different about him and you’ll find out why.

I was going to ask you some Leo Anita questions too, but I was wondering since we’re getting into spoiler territory, can you just tell me, is Anita capable of loving?

Chan: Is Anita capable of loving?

Yes. Or is that spoilery too? I mean because I like her relationship with the kids and it seems like…

Chan: Yes.

…her and Leo have a somewhat maybe loving relationship.

Chan: That’s a very – I want to say that that’s a very – that’s a question that is explored in the show. I mean to what extent can any of these Synth experience genuine emotion and – yes, I mean, what can I say? She – I would say you just – you’ll probably make up your own mind about that as you watch the show.


Okay, great. So, has this changed your – what you think about – or change your relationship with technology or social media at all?

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.

I was just wondering during the filming process, how much of Anita’s storyline were you told about or I mean, did you – were you approaching each episode not really knowing what was going to happen next?

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? I mean, if you did know something or where the overall story was, how – like was that difficult to act like you – like as a Synth not knowing that?

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 kind of want to jump back and kind of discuss the Synth story quick. 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 that, you know…

Chan: Yes.

…they – 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?

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…

Well, I’m glad you’re okay.

Chan: Sorry? Yes, I was okay. What else? 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.

Well, you did a wonderful job from what we’ve seen so far.

Chan: Thanks. Am I?

As an actress, kind of following up on that kind of, how is it that, you know, 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 I guess of realism and emotion to a scene like that or to a character, especially with Anita who’s a Synth, who doesn’t – might not be aware of her situation or might not have kind of the wide range of expressions?

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.

I hope that answers your question.

Thanks so much guys for talking to me and I hope you enjoy the rest of the show. I know you can’t reply necessarily, so, but yes, thanks so much everyone.