I, Robot: Interview with Humans' Gemma Chan

By , Contributor

AMC/Channel 4/Kudos

Gemma Chan as Anita in Humans

Machines come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of complexity, and for several centuries, they have been helping make life easier for the human race. A co-production of AMC and the UK’s Channel Four and Kudos, the new Sci-Fi TV drama Humans is set in a parallel world present day London and introduces viewers to the latest and trendiest must-have gadget, a human-looking robot called a “Synth.” These mechanical marvels have been especially designed to take the drudgery out of everyday life for human beings at home, at the office and out and about in the everyday world. It all just sounds too good to be true, right? For actress Gemma Chan, discovering the hitch behind the Synths was a big enticement for her wanting to help tell this story.

Humans is actually an adaption of a hit Swedish TV series called Real Humans, and I remember a while back reading a very early article stating that a British production company had acquired the rights to it,” says Chan. “I decided to send a copy of that article to my agent, which is something I don’t usually do, with a note saying, ‘I just have a feeling about this project. It sounds really interesting and right up my street. Please let me know if and when they ever start to cast it.’ Six months later I received a call to read for the role of a Synth named Anita. I was asked to come to the audition with an idea of how such a character might move and how I would convey to audiences what was going on behind her outward façade. It was a fascinating experience and unlike any other audition I’d ever done. The process wound up being quite straightforward, though, and I was offered the part after just one audition,” she enthuses.

In Humans, Chan’s character of Anita is purchased as a robotic servant by the well-meaning Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill). He hopes that having a Synth to deal with the daily running of the house will give him and his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) more time together, not only restoring marital bliss but also repairing the familial bond. Not surprisingly, Anita takes to her new job like a proverbial duck to water, and she soon has the Hawkins’ household running like clockwork. For Chan, taking her first few steps in Anita’s shoes was not as easy as her onscreen alter ego made it appear.


“The first scene we shot on my first day of work was actually the scene in the opening episode where the Hawkins’ teenage daughter shoots an air gun at my character’s head,” recalls the actress. “So it wasn’t an easy introduction for me or Anita; I dove right into that scene, and it was a tricky one. We shot 12-hour days, and including travel and make-up, it came to 16 hours. I remember getting home from that first day of work and thinking, ‘This is going to be a really tough job,’ because there was so much to keep in your head.

“Before filming even began, all the actors playing Synths did about a month’s worth of prep with an amazing choreographer named Dan O’Neill. All of us work-shopped together and came up with a physical ‘language’ that the Synth characters would have. Once we then stepped in front of the cameras, it was a matter of trying to remember everything that we had discovered in those workshops and convey all that movement while also making certain you were in the moment and properly playing the scenes opposite your fellow actors. It was initially quite difficult and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, my head is going to explode.’ As filming went on, it got, I wouldn’t say easy, because it was a unique physical challenge, but certainly it became a little more like second nature.”

Deciding to set aside her initial reservations for the sake of her family, Laura tries to get used to having Anita around the house. However, despite the sense of domestic bliss created by the Synth, Laura cannot let her guard totally down with regard to Anita.


“My character is a bit of an enigma when you first meet her, and all is not quite as it seems,” reveals Chan. “I think that the family in the show as well as the audience watching the show, will realize that Anita isn’t like any other Synth that the neighbors have. You will discover more about her backstory throughout the course of the story, and there’s a reason why she is the way she is and why she’s different. The experiences that Anita has with being a part of the Hawkins family and the bonds she makes with each individual member really change her, and she won’t be the same by the end of the show.

“It was such a wonderful opportunity to play a character where there’s something else going on underneath, and you have to figure out ways to allow bits of that hidden persona to bubble through to the surface. One of the things I really love about Anita, especially when you first meet her, is that she acts like a mirror of sorts to the Hawkins family. Depending on each family member and where they’re at in their lives, what their needs are and their preexisting attitudes towards new technology, they each project different things onto Anita in a way. I developed great relationships with the other cast members playing the Hawkins family, especially Katherine Parkinson, as well as Pixie Davies, who plays Sophie, the youngest daughter, and I enjoyed working with everyone.

“I have to say, too, that something else I found very interesting about Humans is that although it’s sci-fi, it’s not traditional sci-fi. When I read the first script, it didn’t realty read like a sci-fi drama at all, but rather a true character-driven piece with lots of different layers. As far as the [sci-fi] genre, it’s a refreshing take on it. We’ve seen stories set in the future or the present day with killer robots running amuck and/or wanting to enslave humankind. In Humans, I don’t believe it takes a stance on whether the Synth technology is good or bad. It’s more about the possible emotional and philosophical effects of such a technology if it existed in our everyday lives.”


Born in London, England, Chan dabbled in acting while growing up, but it was purely for fun as opposed to anything else. She dreamed of pursuing a variety of professions and even graduated from university before ever deciding to focus her efforts on establishing herself in the industry.

“At one point I wanted to become a marine biologist, and then I wanted to become an astrophysicist and work for NASA,” recalls the actress. “What’s great about acting is that you get to step into all these different pairs of shoes and pretend to be lots of different people. I’m interested in other peoples’ lives and telling stories, so I eventually found my way into this [acting], and I’m so grateful that I get to do it for a living.

“So I’m not one of these actors who, at five years old decided this was their calling. I originally studied law at Oxford, which was partly at my parents’ insistence to study something academic at university, but after getting my law degree, I enrolled in drama school at the Drama Center in London. I spent two years studying there, and after that I got an agent and began working, so I was quite lucky in that way.”


One of Chan’s first TV jobs was playing Mia Bennett in the Doctor Who 2009 Christmas special “The Waters of Mars.” “This was David Tennant’s penultimate story as The Doctor, and we spent a month filming in Wales,” says the actress. “Because it was a Doctor Who special, we had slightly more time to shoot and also, I think, a slightly bigger budget. There were these amazing sets that were supposed to be a base on Mars, and over that month, we literally destroyed them. We flooded them, set fire to them, and various characters were killed off on them. I was fortunate enough that my character survived to the end of the episode and got to travel in the TARDIS, which very few characters get to do. The entire experience was brilliant fun, and the cast was a joy to work with.”

The IT Crowd, Sherlock, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Bedlam are among the actress’ other TV credits, while on the big screen, Chan appears in such feature films as Exam, Submarine and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. She can next be seen in two upcoming movies, Belles families and London Fields.

“I shot Belles families in Paris last year and that has a fantastic cast that includes Mathieu Amalric, who plays the lead, and Marine Vacth,” says Chan. “It’s a very French story about love and family that was directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who is incredible. He directed [the 1990 film] Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu, so I was thrilled to work with him.

“As for London Fields, it’s an adaption of Martin Amis’ cult novel and, I think, a very ambitious film. Once again, I had the privilege of working with an outstanding group of actors such as Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Jim Sturgess and Billy Bob Thornton. It was a crazy busy shoot, but I think it will be a really fun film.”

Humans has its U.S. premiere Sunday, June 28th @ 9:00 p.m. EST/PST on the AMC Network. Please note, all Humans photos above copyright of AMC/Channel 4/Kudos and the Doctor Who photo copyright of BBC.

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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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