Almost Human: Interview with Humans' Emily Berrington

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AMC/Channel 4/Kudos

Emily Berrington as Niska in Humans

Attractive, functional, practical, must-have—these are just a few of the words used by those trying to sell you and me the “next best thing since sliced bread.” In the new AMC/Channel 4 Sci-Fi TV drama Humans, the” in thing” to have (in some instances whether you want one or not) is called a Synth, a very lifelike humanoid robot created by mankind to do everything from taking care of your children to serving you at the local supermarket. It sounds like the ideal arrangement, but that all depends on who you are. To some humans, a Synth is just another appliance to be used, but not all Synths are created equal. Actress Emily Berrington, who plays a beautiful blonde Synth named Niska, was delighted to take her place in the robotic ranks and show audiences the good as well as bad surging through her character’s circuitry.

“Because of her experiences, Niska is rather hard and mistrustful as well as suspicious of humans and Synths to a degree,” says Berrington. “However, she is also very vulnerable and full of love, and it was a challenge to find a way to bring out both those sides in her. Niska couldn’t just be hard, mean and violent, because no one is just those things. Everyone does something for a reason, and I also wanted the audience to like her, as I like her. So I did my best to also show Niska’s less aggressive, softer side.

“On top of that, there was the huge challenge of playing a Synth, which for me was physically difficult to do because I’m quite fidgety, I tend to talk with my hands and gesture a lot, I’ll touch my hair, scratch the side of my nose, you name it,” says the actress with a chuckle . “So it was a matter of cleaning away all those little very human characteristics and bringing them down to something much more physically neutral, but without losing a genuine acting performance, That was really tough to do, but luckily we had this fantastic movement director, Dan O’Neill, on-set with us all day, every day. So if, for example, my hands got in the way of my acting, Dan would remind me nicely and ask if perhaps I could try it again without the gesturing.”

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Growing up, the British-born actress enjoyed watching TV and going to the movies, but never imagined that she would one day be performing on the big as well as small screens. “It [acting] seemed so impossible,” says Berrington. “Back then, I just assumed that you had wanted to act from a young age and worked as a child actor, or you had connections in the business. I’d watched my cousin, who is an actor, but, again, I thought it was something that if you weren’t already doing it, then it was an impossible profession to get into.

“I loved acting, though, and did school plays and amateur dramatics. I was also quite shy, so I found performing a bit stressful as well. Even so, I wanted to keep at it, and when I enrolled at university, I continued to act on the side just as a hobby. While at university, I got a job working for an MP [Member of Parliament] in the Houses of Parliament, and while I was doing that, I suddenly thought, ‘If I’m working in politics, which is also quite an intimidating and mysterious line of work to get into, why then have I written off acting so quickly.’ Coincidentally, a friend of mine was accepted into drama school that same year, and that’s when I finally realized, hey, that’s how you get into acting. So I applied to drama school and was accepted into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It’s been a long, slow process to get to where I’m at today, but I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.”

It was late summer 2014 when Berrington first heard about Humans and booked an audition for the role of Niska. “My agent called about an upcoming show called Humans [based on the Swedish Sci-Fi TV series Real Humans] that was already receiving a bit of a buzz,” notes the actress. “She then told me that I’d be reading for the part of a robot, and I thought, ‘Hmm…’ For some reason I imagined that I’d be hidden away inside a metal robot costume and it wouldn’t really be me playing the part. However, as soon as I read the script, I saw that wasn’t the case, and I also realized that it was the best script I’d read in ages. It was so cool, so unusual, and although it was Sci-Fi, it wasn’t too Sci-Fi, if you know what I mean.

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“So I met with producer Chris Fry, and Sam Donovan, who directed the first two episodes. I immediately thought that Sam’s direction was great and that he was an actor’s director, which made me even more intrigued about the series. I read the scenes with Chris and Sam, and I felt like I genuinely responded to the character. A couple of days later, I received a phone call offering me the job, and I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a part of the project. As I said, it was such a brilliant and unusual script and also the chance for me to do something slightly different to anything I’d done before."

The Niska character is introduced in the opening episode of Humans and in a flashback scene set five weeks before the actual start of the story. She and a small group of fellow Synths including Anita (Gemma Chan) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) along with a fugitive named Leo Elster (Colin Morgan) are hiding out in a forest outside the city. When two men in a van show up, everyone but Leo and Max are abducted and taken to London to be reprogrammed and/or sold on. Niska ends up as a prostitute in a Synth brothel for human customers. It was a memorable introduction for Berrington to the series in more ways than one.

“It was really nice to instantly start out as kind of a little family with that scene in the woods where all the Synths are together,” she recalls. “I have this wonderful memory of our characters being rendered unconscious, kidnapped and chucked into the back of the van. We were all squashed up next to each other, and I remember opening my eyes a tiny bit at one point, looking around at everyone and thinking, ‘These are people I’m going to be working with for the next six months. I don’t really know any of them yet, and I’m already lying on top of them. I wonder where this will go from here and the back of this van.’

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“Another vivid memory I have is when they first showed me the brothel room. I was really surprised in a way by just how seedy and grotesque they had managed to make it. Obviously I knew it would be like that, but it did make me wonder a bit about what type of minds that the designers had to come up with all the intense little details that were in the room and the different sex toys they’d found,” jokes the actress. “They spent a lot of time explaining to the cast and crew what every single one of those toys was used for, too, which was very amusing. All kidding aside, I was amazed by time and thought that was put into a set that was being used for only a few scenes.”

Despite her less-than-desirable living/working conditions, Niska stays put and waits for Leo to come find her and take her away. However, when he does finally arrive, Leo explains to Niska that the timing is not right and she must wait a little longer. Not surprisingly, Niska is not pleased and begins to doubt that Leo will ever return for her. Berrington enjoyed acting opposite Humans cast mate Colin Morgan and developing their onscreen relationship.

“Niska and Leo have quite a complex relationship in terms of who is protecting who,” she explains. “In the brothel scenes, Leo is supposed to be saving Niska, but he fails. That’s a huge letdown for her, especially because she has become very reliant on him. It’s also the point where she loses trust in everyone and, I think, begins to wonder, ‘If Leo can let me down, then anyone can let me down.’ So without giving away where that goes, things between her and Leo are now ‘broken,’ and throughout the rest of the season, they have the challenge of how to rebuild their relationship.

“As for Colin Morgan, it was great working with him. I’d heard from so many others that he’s a fantastic actor as well as a very nice person, both of which turned out to true.  Colin works incredibly hard, and before we filmed a scene, he would kind of physically get into character and run through bits of dialogue and material leading up to the scene. Some actors just want to chat about the weather before the director shouts, ‘Action,’ so I found it very useful to spend time beforehand really getting into the moment and thinking about what we were about to do. Because I was playing such a complex character, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted before a take, and Colin is extremely thorough with his performance and dedicated to the scene. He doesn’t let anything go until he’s happy with what’s happened, so that was a wonderful way to work, and, again, on top of that, Colin is such a nice guy.”

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Forced to remain working in the brothel, Niska finally reaches her breaking point when a male customer demands her to act young and frightened. She kills him and walks out of the brothel. Back in the outside world and, for the moment, on her own, Niska must fend for herself and blend into the crowd. This led to one of Berrington’s favorite scenes in Humans.

“It’s only a tiny scene, but it’s where Niska goes to a shopping center to find some clothes that she can use as a disguise,” says the actress. “We spent this great day filming at a real shopping center, so there were some actors as well as some supporting artists and lots of regular shoppers milling about. In this scene, Niska is watching how humans move and what their little idiosyncrasies are, so she can copy them. Although we shot loads of footage, there wasn’t time, of course, to put it all in the final edit. I particularly enjoyed the part where Niska is walking through the shopping center and it was a bit like Saturday Night Fever, where the shot starts on my character’s feet and she’s sort of practicing a type of walk that’s different from a Synth’s walk. Niska also practices things like putting her hands in her pocket or brushing her hair away from her face.

“So I suddenly found myself being a human being, playing a Synth, who was playing a human being, and I loved how ‘weird’ that was.”

If you have been a regular watcher of Humans, you are among those privy to the fact that Niska along with Max, Anita and a handful of other Synths are not typical Synths. Their programming has been “enhanced,” making them more human than robot and allowing them to feel as well as think for themselves. As with humans, the ability to make your own decisions also leads to consequences, which must then be faced and dealt with. At one point, Niska meets a young man named Greg (Tom Brittney) at a bar, and their encounter could have turned out much differently than it did, while last week’s episode ended with Niska caught up in a frenzied and dangerous situation. As for where she goes from there, you will just have to keep tuning in to find out.

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“For me, Niska’s journey was about exploring her vulnerable side, which you initially don’t see very much of,” says Berrington. “It was a real joy to play her as she discovered how the world isn’t just black and white, and people aren’t just good or bad. In my eyes, she’s not good or bad, she’s more complex than that. So I loved seeing Niska learn about the world and broaden her mind in order to better understand why other people make the decisions they do. Niska not only has feelings, but she also recognizes other peoples’ feelings, and there are still one or two more surprises down the road with my character,” she teases.

Prior to learning how to walk, talk and behave as a Synth in Humans, the actress had lead roles in the feature films The Last Showing and The Inbetweeners 2. On TV, she also played two decidedly different roles—Simone Al-Harazi in 24: Live Another Day, and Margaret Kemble Gage in Sons of Liberty.

“I loved both those TV projects, and the 24 miniseries was the first major American series I worked on,” says the actress. “Although it was shot in London, it was still with the original American team, which was great. Filming something of that scale and with people who you’ve watched for years on TV is the most surreal thing in the world. The first time I met Kiefer Sutherland, I couldn’t believe that I was standing in the same room as Jack Bauer. Unfortunately, I had this really embarrassing moment with my first scene where Jack Bauer is chasing my character through a car park. I was wearing these huge heels, and as I was running, all I could think was, ‘Oh, my God. Jack Bauer is chasing me. This is the highlight of my career,’ but then in sort of a moment of panic and confusion, I tripped and head-butted a brick wall.

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“Needless to say, Jack Bauer caught me fairly easily since I was lying in a heap on the ground. The director, Jon Cassar, yelled, ‘Cut!’ and everyone ran over to make sure I was alright. I was slightly dazed, but okay. Jon said to me, ‘Do you promise you’re okay?’ I told him, ‘Yes, I promise,’ and Jon then said, ‘Well, in that case, you have to come over and watch the take because it’s absolutely hilarious.’ So it was a bit of a dreadful start, but I had such a good time on that shoot.

“As for Sons of Liberty, I was shooting that this time last year [mid-July] in Romania of all places. The cast was made up of people from all over the world, so it was this amazingly international project, but telling a very American story. I had worked on a period drama before [The White Queen], but, again, nothing on this scale. It was fantastic to spend every day dressed in these beautiful costumes that had been handmade for the show and riding horses through the countryside. I also had the added bonus of learning about a piece of history that we don’t really study here in the UK, unsurprisingly, because the British are not the good guys.”

Humans airs Sundays @ 9:00 p.m. EST/8:00 p.m. CT on the AMC Network. Please note, all Humans photos above copyright of AMC/Channel 4/Kudos.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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