Gemma Chan: how I became a robot for Humans

It's nominated for a Radio Times Audience award, but how did the Channel 4 drama achieve such synthetic success?

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It’s hard to think of anyone less robotic than Gemma Chan. In person she’s warm and funny, with a sly sense of humour and a smart take on everything from artificial intelligence to drum and bass. As Anita in Humans, however, she’s utterly convincing as a synth, a highly developed domestic robot servant working for the Hawkins family, made up of parents Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) and Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and their three children.

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Humans offered a refreshing and intimate look at our relationship with technology – “I think someone called it sci-fi for non sci-fi fans,” Chan explains. “It was more thoughtful. I found the characters really compelling and the ideas in the show really interesting. I hoped that people would feel the same but you just never know. It was a lovely surprise when people responded to it and enjoyed it.”

Key to the show’s success was convincing us that the synths, which looked utterly human, were definitely robots. For this, Chan explains, they had to go to “synth school” in a hall in east London, set up for the show by choreographer Dan O’Neill.

By the time they started filming, Chan admits she was gratified by the effect her training had on the rest of the cast. “Tom was completely freaked out on the first day – we did that scene where all the Hawkins family are sat around the breakfast table with Anita.

“They hadn’t seen me as Anita before and their reactions, their faces around the table were… well, you can see it in the episode. Them being weird and nervous wasn’t just acting.”

She’s back at synth school right now doing a refresher course before filming begins for the second series. “I’m unbelievably rusty,” she explains ruefully. “You would think that your body would just slip back into it, having played that character for months, but I think I’m worse this time than last time!”

If Humans was to win the Radio Times Audience Award at the Baftas, would she pick up the award in character as Anita? “Will there be stairs?” she laughs. “If there are stairs I’ll fall down them. I think it’s best to go as me.”


How to be Anita

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“These robots run on battery power, so every movement has to be efficient as any extraneous movement would use up excess power. That’s where you get the shrewdness and the grace of the basic synth movement. Always take the shortest, most efficient route when picking anything up.”


How to walk

“On the first day of filming I thought my head was going to explode! I was trying to act and remember my lines, while the whole time thinking, ‘It’s three steps to there and then turn right and another four steps to the door’. And I couldn’t look down either… As a human it obviously helps to be able to see where your feet are going, especially if you are carrying a basket of laundry. So I did take a tumble or two…”


How to scan the room

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“The idea is that when one of these synths comes into a room, it scans all the dimensions so it knows exactly where everything is. Then it doesn’t need to look down – it knows the perfect place to put its feet to navigate its way from one end to the other.”


How to sit down

“Every single movement had to be relearned, even sitting down. These machines are self-supporting so would never lean back, they would also be able to stand up in one movement. Machines would have their feet in the right position to be able to do that. But I’d forget, sit down, have my feet in the wrong place and end up waving my hands about to stop falling over when it came to standing up again!”


How to show emotion

“As a synth you can’t display any emotional reactions and that was really, really hard! As an actor you’re used to giving and getting reactions. I wasn’t allowed to cry – I wasn’t even allowed to blink or breathe as much as I would do naturally, everything had to be pared back. I often found myself tearing up during scenes and the hardest thing, in the end, was not to laugh. In particular with Katherine. We would crack each other up quite a lot – I’d always start laughing when she would come up really close, especially if she was playing angry. But the minute I started crying or laughing, we would have to cut and go again.”


How to do household chores

“I had to go home and practise ironing, loading the dishwasher, folding T-shirts – things you just take for granted. Machines would find the easiest way of doing all of those things, so I had to break each element down and do them all again and again as efficiently as possible. But at least my house was clean!”


It’s up to you to decide the winner of the Radio Times Audience Award from the six shortlisted programmes — as well as Humans, other nominees are Poldark, The Great British Bake Off, Doctor Foster, Peter Kay’s Car Share and Making a Murderer. Voting closes at 5pm on 5 May.

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Vote for your favourite here.

The winner will be announced at the House of Fraser British Academy Television Awards on Sunday 8 May, which will be shown on BBC1.