Currently airing its first season in the UK on Channel 4 and in the United States on AMC, HUMANS is based on the Swedish science fiction drama Real Humans. The series takes a look at and examines what the world would be like if synths or synthetic humans were part of our everyday lives.
One of the stars of the series is Emily Berrington who plays the synth Niska. If the actor looks familiar, you may remember her from series such as The White Queen, Outnumbered and as Simone Al-Harazi in 24: Live Another Day. On the big screen, she’s appeared in the films The Last Showing and The Inbetweeners 2.
We sit down with Emily to talk about her character Niska, what it was like going to “robot” school and if she would ever own a synth herself.
Pop Culture Principle – What was it about the script for HUMANS that made you want to be part of the project?
Emily Berrington – As soon as I read the script, I thought it was really unusual and I didn’t think there was anything like it on television. It was much braver than a lot of the scripts you get sent. It wasn’t predictable and none of the characters were cliché. It also had some really strong female characters and in fact, women lead the show in many ways which is still relatively unusual. So, all of that combined, I thought this is great and I knew it would be something a bit different.
Pop Culture Principle – Can you tell us the basic premise of HUMANS?
Emily Berrington – HUMANS is set in a parallel present, so a world that is exactly like our own where the only difference is that artificial intelligence has become so advanced that you can now have what is called a synth.
A synth is a synthetic human that looks, sounds, moves and talks like a human, but it is a piece of machinery, so you can program it to do whatever you want. It can do your washing up, it can look after your kids, it can do your shopping for you and all the things that people don’t want to do or are too busy to do.
Pop Culture Principle – What can you tell us about your character Niska?
Emily Berrington – Niska is a synth, but she is a bit different to your standard synth that could be made to do anything. As for the rest, I don’t want to give too much more away.
Pop Culture Principle – All the actors playing synths had to go to robot school. What was that experience like?
Emily Berrington – Yes, we did! It was amazing and if you ever get a chance to go to robot school- go! We had a movie director named Dan O’Neil and he set up this synth school at the studio. A group of us got together with him and we started with nothing. Dan had no preconceived ideas and he hadn’t watched the Swedish version of the series. He came in just saying he wanted us all to work it out from scratch.
We started by having everyone walk up and down the room as ourselves and notice all the little idiosyncrasies that made the way we walked different from each other. We then tried to take them all away so that we all approached the walking in a mutual, very efficient and economical way. Then we started doing that with everything such as speaking, how you sit in a chair and how you iron a shirt. We practiced loads and loads of different tasks that synths might be used to do and eventually, we organically developed this way of moving, speaking and interacting.
I really enjoyed it and so many people who watch the show have said to me that during the breaks, they make their tea and pretend to be a synth while doing it. I love the fact that it is catching on.
Pop Culture Principle – Much of what an actor does is react to people and things in scenes. Was it hard for you to suppress that natural instinct playing a synth?
Emily Berrington – Naturally, I am quite expressive with my face and with my hands and move my eyebrows a lot. Reducing all of that, sometimes it was unbearable and I felt like I was acting in a straightjacket. It was such a good discipline to learn and it suddenly makes you realize that it is 100 percent possible to be extremely expressive without relying on all the little things that you normally rely on. It kind of forced everyone to get rid of the little tricks that you do and the little physical things that you don’t realize you do and become a very economical version of yourself.
If you look at the best actors, a lot of them are very still and do very little and they don’t need to do wild gesturing and crazy facial moments to let you know how they are feeling. So, I genuinely left it thinking that I am one step closer to being one of those great actors that I admire so much. William Hurt is playing a human and he does very little as an actor because he can rely on just telling the story.
Pop Culture Principle – The cast of HUMANS is very diverse in gender and race. Do you think that adds to the quality and texture of the series?
Emily Berrington – It 100 percent adds to it! If you have a cast made of people from all different places, races, backgrounds and genders, then inevitably these people brings their own life experiences, experiences as an actor, their beliefs and a new way of approaching something. So, it was great being in a room full of people who were incredibly experienced and had done decades of work and also people who were just beginning.
That was also great about having synth school because there was a chance right at the beginning for everyone to share their own approach and to learn from each other. I hope that the same thing comes across to the audience because it’s a more universal story. If people can see a story and recognize something of themselves in it, then it means a lot more when you watch it. It’s not just about some different world with a bunch of people that have nothing to do with you.
I always think it’s so important for people to see themselves on television and in movies whether it’s someone of your own age, race or gender being portrayed in a positive way. I think it’s really important, especially for young people to see that and have something to aspire to as a result of it.
Pop Culture Principle – Stephen Hawkins recently said in an interview that artificial intelligence is the biggest threat to the human race. Do you think this series opens up the debate even more about artificial intelligence and its possible dangers?
Emily Berrington – It’s funny, people come up to me and tell me how much they love the show and wonder if they would or wouldn’t get a synth. When mobile phones first became a thing, I insisted that I would never get one and I held out for so much longer than my friends, but inevitably I did crack. I would love to say I would never get a synth, but I have no doubt that if everybody had one, I would probably get one whether it was good for me or not. I love people talking about it and it’s a topic I can talk about for hours and hours.
Pop Culture Principle – What do you think separates HUMANS from other science fiction shows?
Emily Berrington – I probably would have never labeled myself as a science fiction fan. There are science fiction films and television series that I love, but I know that it’s a genre that people identify with really strongly.
I think what surprised me about HUMAS is that I kind of don’t see it as a science fiction show. I mean, it obviously is in many ways, but I think it’s a drama about real people and I think that is what makes it stand apart. I think there are people who are kind of intimidated by the science fiction genre and I think the great thing about HUMAS is that it’s just about people.
Pop Culture Principle – What can fans look forward to for the rest of the season with Niska and the series?
Emily Berrington – Well, the great thing about playing Niska is that she just goes on an enormous journey from how you see her at the beginning in the brothel; she was very suspicious, hardened and angry. From that, she gets completely tested throughout the series about her concrete beliefs again and again and is forced to question everything she knows to be certain. It turns out to be a painful and difficult journey, but it has some amazing, warm and almost human like moments for her.
We would like to thank Emily for taking time out of her schedule to talk with us. You can catch new episodes of HUMANS every Sunday night at 9/8c on AMC. You can keep up to date with all of Emily’s latest news and projects by following her official Twitter account here.
**All HUMANS photos above copyright of AMC/Channel 4/Kudos**