'Humans' Star Gemma Chan Spills On Robot Sex And Women In Sci-Fi

"How do you program a gender into a robot?"

On Sunday night (June 28), AMC will premiere the first installment of its sci-fi British export "Humans" -- and when it does, viewers nationwide will instantly figure out what our friends across the pond already know: that Gemma Chan is a freaking dynamo.

In the series, Chan stars as Anita, an artificially intelligent android (called "synths" on the show) who is employed by a new family as their housekeeper in the season premiere. However, there's far more to Anita than what initially meets the eye -- we soon learn that a mysterious man named Leo (Colin Morgan) is trying to find her, and that she's been "boosted" by an unknown entity to be far more human than the rest of her domestic counterparts. Add all this to the strange sexual politics she walks into with her new family and the presence of another mysterious man (Danny Webb) who wants to kill the boosted synths, and you have quite the fun summer mystery on your hands.

MTV News chatted with Chan over the phone after screening the few episodes, to pick her brain on Anita, the show's central mystery, and the role of women in sci-fi.

MTV: You've done a little bit of work in sci-fi before, guesting on "Doctor Who." What drew you back to the genre, and specifically to the world of "Humans?"

Gemma Chan: I try to, when I first get scripts, see it as a viewer and not as an actor... and I have to say I got to the end of the third script and I was like, "can you send me the fourth one? I need to read more, I need to find out what happens to these characters."

What attracted me to "Humans" as a show was that we’ve had AI stories, and although these are familiar themes, I think the show has a fresh take on that and a refreshing way of exploring new ideas. It’s not set in a distant future, it’s not set in a vision of a dystopian world where we have AI, it’s very much set in the present... it is more about the emotional and philosophical impact of having this advanced AI as part of our everyday life.

I honestly feel that people think as a genre, sci-fi has to be set in space and in the future, or kind of be a crazy world, but it doesn’t have to be. Our show is sci-fi, but it’s set in a very real world -- with a twist. The best sci-fi to me asks the question, "what does it mean to be human?" And I hope our show goes a little way into exploring that.

MTV: It also seems to me like sci-fi is a genre that's generally more inclusive of women and people of color. Anita is such a plum role, and multiple others on "Humans" are played by people of color. Have you found more roles coming in for sci-fi projects?

Chan: I’m so glad you asked that, because it’s such an interesting observation to make. All I can say is I’m so proud of the diversity in our show, both in terms of gender and race... the show has amazing female characters. All the female actresses [play] interesting, three dimensional, complex characters -- as it should be. And racially, the cast is diverse.

I love that two of the synths are black, and I think there is something about the sci-fi genre that is more inclusive -- [but] there isn’t a reason why it should be. All forms of storytelling and all genres and all mediums... should reflect life. And in life we come in all colors, all kinds, and I think it’s so important that we see that reflected on our screens.

I don’t know what it is, maybe there’s something in the leap of imagination people have when it is “a sci fi show.” Because if people have to imagine ["Humans"] is a world where we have machines among us, then people are more willing to think outside the box and make casting choices, not based on... they aren’t being restricted in terms of race. I think sometimes in television there’s a bit of an obsession with realism, and it’s not even real realism. Often times, like in terms of period things, we have a distorted view of what would be real and what would be realistic of that period, and it’s not necessarily what it would have been anyway, but people are kind of obsessed with that.

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MTV: On a related note, gender politics are definitely explored in the first couple episodes of "Humans" -- which seems necessary, since "inappropriate contact" is something that would likely happen if we made gorgeous female androids.

Chan: I think the show definitely doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker, seedier side of things. I think we have to face up to the fact if we did have synths in our world, you know, people would probably try and have sex with them. So that’s just something that would happen, and I think the show doesn’t shy away from that.

In terms of the gender politics of it all, I had a conversation with the writers where I asked them "could Anita have been a guy? And also, how do you program a gender into a robot?" And the answer they gave, which is really interesting, is that you can give a robot an external appearance of one gender or another and you can program some traits into the robot that are arguably -- rightly or wrongly -- more associated with one gender or another. You could program a strong, nurturing or maternal instinct into the [female] robot, and then beyond that, the robot’s sense of gender, it would be formed by experiences at the hands of others and the reactions to them. And from how they reacted, that’s how they form their sense of identity.

What’s really interesting to me is, how different is that from us as people, in terms of how we form our sense of identity and in particular, gender identity? In terms of Anita, [producers] said "absolutely, Anita could have been a man. But what would be different would be the reaction of the individual family members to her." So if it was a guy, maybe Joe, the father of the family, would feel more threatened by having what looks like a male presence in the house, and [matriarch] Laura’s reaction would maybe be different as well.

MTV: I've heard you had to go to "robot school" to learn how to tackle Anita's robotic mannerisms. What impresses me so much is how you nail the ice-cool robotic stuff, but we also completely get that she's hiding something. How did you approach that; what were the tricks to pulling it off so subtly?

Chan: It definitely isn’t a role you could just turn up on the first day of filming having done no preparation for.

For me there were kind of two aspects to the challenge, and one was -- as you said -- a big physical challenge to play something that wasn’t human. The writers and directors were very clear that they didn’t want anything overly robotic in the movement, but they did want something that was other than human. So the challenge was to find that element, to find that quality of what it was.

All of us playing synths, the month before we started filming we got to work with a brilliant choreographer called Dan O’Neill, and we just workshopped and did loads of improvising to find out what the movement is. It came down to every movement that is made -- because these are machines -- is equivalent to battery power, so there has to be an economy and efficiency to every move that you make. So we had to learn how to do everything from scratch. Like literally, learning how to walk again, how to stand up, sit down, how to do different tasks. I had to learn how to be ambidextrous because I’m very right-handed, and there’s no reason why a robot would be right-handed.

So that was a huge challenge, playing a machine that is starting to develop or display more human qualities. It was a big acting challenge and a big emotional challenge, actually... I had some very difficult, emotional scenes that I had to play, but I couldn’t play them in a human way. I couldn’t express emotion in a human way because, for example, I wouldn’t be allowed to physically cry. It’s really hard, because usually you embrace your physiological reactions and all the kinds of things you can usually rely on to show emotions: blinking, breathing, slowing breath to show emotion -- I couldn’t do that.

MTV: Finally, the first couple of episodes have a good mix of world-building and plot, but it's definitely a slower burn. Does the pace quicken in terms of solving the mystery of who boosted the synths and why, or do they deliberately keep things slow and atmospheric?

Chan: It’s a little bit of both. Quite dramatic things do happen over episodes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. There are certain elements and knowledge [revealed], and there’s still a mystery preserved actually as to what’s going on -- not everything is revealed straight away.

But all I would say to a viewer of the show is that you will find out where Anita comes from, you will find out her history and her backstory and the genesis of her by the end of season one. You do get to the bottom of that. But... they leave it where there’s still something to be explored in season two. So hopefully, you will have your questions answered satisfactorily.