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Gemma Chan on Humans and the challenges of artificial (and not so artificial) intelligence

Robots have come a long way. While television boasts a grand history of automatons programmed to complete domestic chores—from Rosie on The Jetsons to Small Wonder’s Vicki—we’ve never seen anything quite like Anita. Played by the British actress Gemma Chan, Anita is what’s known as a “synth,” a highly realistic android designed to complete the various other tasks flesh-and-blood people would rather not do themselves. On Humans, which has its U.S. premiere in June care of AMC, she’s taken in by an unsuspecting family to do the cooking, the cleaning and the child-rearing—but there’s more to Anita than they might expect.

Here, Chan explains how she landed the role, what makes robots appealing and why she’s still cautious about technology.  

You were once a law student, how did you end up playing a household robot? 

It was kind of unusual for me. I saw something in the newspaper, saying that an English production company had got the rights to the show. I sent that to my agent, and I never do stuff like that but I had a feeling about this one, just saying to listen up in case they do a casting.  About six months after that, I got the call asking if would I go in and audition for it. I just did one meeting and I got cast.

What made this such an attractive gig? 

I’m a huge fan of science fiction to begin with, but what really stood out for me was that it didn’t read like a science-fiction drama at all. For me it read as a multi-stranded story, and I liked the way that it was a really fresh take on the artificial intelligence genre. I think we’ve seen other things that are set in the dystopian future, where the robot saves humanity, and I thought what was really interesting about the show and the script was that it’s much more about the philosophical implications and what would happen to us as a people [in that situation]. What was interesting to me was that I had never read anything like it before.

You weren’t just playing a tin-can robot, though. Your character is supposed to be almost human. What kind of training goes into becoming something that’s not quite what you truly are? 

We had an amazing choreographer, and he came to work with the actors about a month before we started shooting. We workshopped and did lots of movement work to find a language for our bodies. The directors and writers didn’t want anything that was robotic, but they wanted something that was not quite human about them. Essentially it was like learning to walk again completely from scratch. I’m a very fidgety and clumsy person, so it was a challenge for me to find this stillness and still be able to act.

Has being on the show changed your relationship with technology?

It’s opened my eyes to what’s out there. Once I was cast in the show, I started to read about artificial intelligence to get a general picture. I think the amazing thing is that technology is not something that’s hundreds of years away, it’s happening now, to varying degrees—I read about this hotel in Japan that’s going to be completely staffed by robots that’s opening this summer. So, the world of the show is the world of today, and I think it’s so great that the show is set in the present. It’s not set in the future, it’s very much about now.

Did it make you less trusting of any of your gadgets?

I myself have a love-hate relationship with technology. I’m so reliant on it day to day, but I hate how reliant I am.  There are so many benefits to technology, but at the same time I feel like as a society, we really lack face-to-face connection in our everyday lives. I embrace technology, but with caution.

Your character might be a robot, but does she change over the course of the series?

Everything is not as it seems with her—there’s something going on underneath the surface. Her history and her backstory are explored, and you find out as an audience member, over the course of the show, where she comes from and why she is the way she is. I look forward to seeing people’s reactions to her, and finding out what they see in her. I find that kind of thing really interesting. 

The first season of Humans is completed—it already aired in the U.K.—so what’s next for you?

A role for which I get to kind of blink as much as I want—and to cry! I’d love to play a human.

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