It is a parent’s wish to only do the best for their children. But not every well-intentioned decision results in the expected outcome. When Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) chose to buy a synthetic A.I. for his family to help them maintain their home and assist the family, he had no idea that he was potentially inviting in a whole host of problems that he could have never foreseen. He was not aware that some of the A.I. were becoming self-aware and self-determined, nor did he consider how his own family members would react to having such a being in their own home. He did not just buy a machine; he brought home a humid looking robot that is perceived as being more human than machine. Because the Synths look human and sometimes act very human, it is easy to forget that they are not fully human. But therein lies the quandary: if we treat a machine like it is human, does it start to become more human?
In a press call, stars Katherine Parkinson and Tom Goodman-Hill talked about their characters Tom and Laura’s struggle to embrace the Synth into their family home and the resulting issues that arise.
Can you start by talking about what attracted you to the role and why you decided to do it?
KATHERINE: I had a three week old baby when I got the script and was sort of hoping that they wouldn’t be as good as they were, because I wasn’t ready to get back to work so soon. My husband read it and said, “You have to do this — because of the psychological thriller aspect of it.” I just felt I hadn’t read anything like it before — because it’s sci-fi but in a domestic setting. It felt like it was a very original way of doing it.
TOM: I think, just when I read it, I felt like my entire life has led to this point and I needed to be part of it, which sounds kind of flippant, but it’s sort of true. I read very much sci-fi as a kid and as a parent of teenagers, living in a world where my own teenagers engage with technology, I feel like Joe kind of runs headlong into making a decision that I feel like is just around the corner… and something that, in my own life, I wouldn’t quite know how to deal with. So that was quite appealing.
Are there any scenes that you can kind of tease that you are excited for people to get to see?
KATHERINE: I’m so cautious about revealing anything I shouldn’t. I really enjoy my dynamic with our Synth, Anita (Gemma Chan). It’s a scene in Episode 3 that I particularly enjoyed doing where she sort of performs something that only a synthetic can do. Laura is truly amazed to see it.
TOM: Episode 4 for me. Can’t possibly tell you why. I’m really sorry to disappoint you. It’s always the interactions with Anita that are the kind of catalysts for everything that happens to the family. There are two or three of those that just make Joe sit up and look at himself and realize that he hasn’t really thought through this entire situation. There’s a few of those that come up in three and four that set off a chain of events that really make Joe doubt himself and think about the sort of guy he is.
Laura and Joe have such very different opinions about the Synths. Can you talk about your characters take on them and how we’re going to see that play out over the first few episodes?
KATHERINE: I think it’s interesting because they come to it from different points of view. Joe is very anxious that they’re going to take human’s jobs. Later on, I think Laura, because she sort of is a lawyer and thinks about it from the point of view of the rights of the synthetics, it’s not straight forward that the woman is suspicious and the man is not as it is in the first couple of episodes. Within their own family home, Laura is more doubtful about the need for a synthetic presence and doesn’t like the idea at all. Feels threatened by it, is worried that the children, it won’t be good for them, it will mess with their heads. Her youngest will possibly form an emotional attachment which would really threaten her, Laura. Also the eldest sort of starts to talk to the synthetic like she’s a slave. What does that do to her children? But later on, it’s interesting because there’s a bit of a switch. I think Laura starts to think about the rights of synthetics. So that’s interesting.
TOM: Joe just kind of runs into it headstrong without really thinking about what he’s getting himself into. He’s forced to think about the sort of person he is which is not something he’s used to dealing with. He doesn’t intellectualize things. He’s not one to ponder about his own humanity and his own being. He just tends to take things at face value. The presence of Anita forces him to rethink his whole way of going about his life. It makes him think more about his relationship with Laura and about the impact it’s going to have on the kids, which is not something he’s been used to doing in the past. So it kind of knocks him sideways and makes him re-evaluate his life.
We find out that Laura lost her parents really young and we can see how much it’s affecting her in her home life. Can you both talk a little bit about that and what we’re going to see coming up for that as well?
KATHERINE: I think that Laura is emotionally blocked because she perhaps hasn’t revealed the truth to her loved ones. It’s been a long time and her secrets have sort of festered. So things aren’t quite what they seem. I think that’s what gives the complexity to their relationship. I think theirs is a good marriage and there’s love there, but there’s a lack of honesty which stops them being intimate, emotionally intimate and otherwise. So I think it’s a complex situation with them, but it’s not a loveless marriage. It’s something that’s worth saving and I think hopefully that they things improve.
TOM: Yes and Joe just kind of, he feels like he wants his wife back in more ways than one. He knows that she’s going through something. He’s not entirely sure what it is. He believes that purchasing a Synth is going to be the solution to all their problems and will allow them to get their relationship back. Unbeknownst to him, purchasing Anita actually makes Laura address her own problems in a completely different and unexpected way that Joe just doesn’t predict. That kind of makes him, frustrates him because it’s not what he thought was going to happen.
Is there anything you added to your characters that maybe wasn’t originally scripted for you?
TOM: Yes. Joe has superhuman strength and can fly and has the power to become invisible. (Laughs) I’m joking. I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you that Joe has something kind of odd about him, or strange about him, or hidden about him, but the joyous thing for me in playing him is he has none of those things. He doesn’t really have hidden depths. You take him at face value. That’s something that was extremely interesting to play because I’ve never really played anyone like that before. It felt a bit like playing me. I didn’t really have to think too hard about what the guy was like. It meant that it was a very reactive thing to do. I enjoyed just allowing things to happen to him and react to them as naturally as possible. The story allowed me to do that which was great and I really enjoyed that.
KATHERINE: I think the opposite is sort of true of Laura. I think that she is quite complex and sort of very introspective. I think she’s not a resolved person. That was quite tiring to play because it’s a state that you carry around with you and can be quite difficult to get rid of at the end of the day. I’m used to playing lighter characters. I’ve done more comedy than anything else. I found it harder to shake off whereas the comedy, you’re done for the day and you go home and that’s good. It was interesting and a new challenge so I enjoyed it.
The show is set in an alternate timeline where artificial intelligence is more advanced than what we have right now. As actors, what was it like being in that version of our world?
TOM: It didn’t feel so much too different to where we are now. I kind of feel like you’ve just kind of got a walking, talking version of a computer A.I. You’re trying to deal with the kind of conversations that people already have about interacting with artificial intelligence, whether it be online or in the jacket pocket. It just allows you to have a debate about that, with a walking, talking version of that A.I. So setting it in a world that feels very much like our own means that people are forced to engage with that argument and actually think about what it would be like if your iPad had legs.
KATHERINE: (Laughs) And what legs!
Also what makes the show interesting is that artificial intelligence is something we’re hearing a lot about right now. In the show they mention the “singularity.” We’ve been warned by guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk that that is a possibility. Do either of you believe that A.I. will actually exceed human intelligence?
KATHERINE: Oh yes. I mean I started out as of a few weeks ago thinking that possibility was the word. The last couple weeks doing some publicity things that actually it’s inevitable and it’s around the corner and possibly going to happen sooner than we thought. That’s not necessarily a terrifying, awful thing. It’s a wonderful thing first and foremost. It’s about, sort of, knowing that there might be detrimental consequences and hopefully trying to be prepared for them and manage them. So, yes, but I’m quite scared.
TOM: It doesn’t scare me, but I do think if we don’t start having serious debates about it now, then in one way or another, A.I. will run away with it. That’s not about bowing to our robot overlords. It’s more about what impact it has on society. The danger, as people like J.G. Ballard predicted, is that it will fracture society. It will destroy society if everyone purely engages with their A.I. and stops talking to the person sitting next to them.
What kind of hooked me right away is that this is a couple that’s dealing with a lot of real-life issues even though they use a sci-fi solution. Like balancing and career and family and kind of knowing their roles in today’s society. Can you both comment on that aspect of your characters?
KATHERINE: I think I was very interested in playing a woman who is supposed to have it all in terms of wife and career and mother to three children, but actually really feels she has nothing. She feels she’s coming up in short in every sphere of her life. I think that’s something that a lot of modern Western women feel, but managing everything and having it all, they actually end up having none of it. What do you give away of yourself when you delegate the responsibility of waving to your child to bed? You sort of think that you’re passing off more menial tasks to the robot, the machine. But actually, you give a bit of yourself away every time somebody else, robot or nanny changes your child’s nappy. I was very interested in that because as a mother to two very young children, it was something I was thinking about a lot in my own life.
TOM: My children are grown up. They’re 19 and 17 years old. So this show came around at exactly the right time for me. I felt like a lot of the conversations that occur within the show reflect conversations I’d had with my own teenagers when they were the age that Mattie and Toby are in the show. When you add Sophie into the mix, this 8-year-old who is wide-eyed and thrilled about the whole idea of synthetics, it brings up huge questions about parenting. About how you advise your children to engage with subject matter online, with social media. It also throws up questions about security, personal security. They’re important conversations to be having. My 19 year old does his own coding for his website now. Coming from two very creative parents who are not remotely tech savvy, seeing that your average 18 and 19 year olds learn to code now and they do it off their own bat, they’re not even necessarily taught it, shows you that there’s a whole generation that need to have debates about this kind of subject. And the impact it’s going to have on their own family lives when they become parents themselves. Artificial intelligence may have a much greater role in the governance of your own life and the way you have your own family.
Would you say that with our technological advances, and certainly with the robots/androids in series, that we’re kind of losing a little bit of our humanity because we are advancing?
KATHERINE: Absolutely. I’m more allergic than the average person to things like social media. For that reason, I know that Twitter is a great democratic tool and everything, but I’m sort of cautious about anything that’s sort of removes you from normal human experiences. Looking some in the eye. I just sort of think it’s very easy to just become a boast fest basically. What does that do to us all? Sorry, I know it’s great to publicize shows, don’t get me wrong and everything. I think things like Facebook and stuff, once you take away the face to face experience, it can easily become a bit more of a sort of show and tell situation. Where it’s like, “look how great my life is.” If you were actually sitting opposite a person, you’d be more sensitive to their response and more interested perhaps in the person you’re talking to.
TOM: It’s weird enough that if you could see the two of us crouching over a phone in the corner of a hotel room talking to someone who sounds like there might be an office in Torrey because you’re so far away. Just that is kind of strange. At the same time not more than 100 years ago, no one would believe that we would be able to be having the conversation that we’re having now across great distances. The exponential curve in technology is irresistible. That means that you have to have debates about it now.
KATHERINE: If you’ve got something in your house that can cook better than any human, then you’re not going to do much cooking. So the cooking and failing, making bad meals is a huge part of my life and a huge part of what makes me feel human. So I think it’s really true. It’s a good point, that we’re giving away some of our humanity or compromising our humanity in some way with technology and that we need to be aware of that at least. It’s great, just the fact that we’re talking like this shows you that the show is going to have an impact. I think it’s hitting home on what’s going on with us right now.
TOM: I hope so.
In regards to talking about your experiences at home with your kids, you portray parents on the series as well. Have there been any experiences at home? How does that translate and does it help you on screen?
TOM: I was reminded of a thing that happened about ten years ago when we got a manny at home. He was like a 23-year-old guy, he wanted to be a filmmaker. I was at work and I received an email at work which contained a video file. Our manny had been at home and made a film with my son. They’d actually made a proper short film and then posted it online and sent it to me. I burst into tears when I saw it. I was so, kind of, thrilled by it, but at the same time, I thought, “Oh my God they’ve actually done something using technology, sent it to me on email. I’ve viewed it at work and have not have any kind of personal emotional engagement in that process at all.” That was ten years ago. Now, I feel like that was pre-Twitter. So as a parent, that really brought me up short and it makes you feel very guilty. If we’re going to be approaching a world where you can buy a robot in Japan that is purely designed to emote with you and not actually do anything practical at all, then I think we’re on the road to hell.
KATHERINE: I felt it keenly because I had my newborn baby and my toddler at home. Obviously in my absence filming, needed to get some child care which I was, at once, extremely grateful for and also, slightly threatened by, like how Laura is in the show by Anita when she reads to her daughter. I sort of thought, “how great to have a synthetic nanny because she can’t love the child.” But of course, the child can love the synthetic and that you would be threatened by. So yes, I felt like I was sort of being tortured at work. It’s understandable. I’m a parent as well so watching the series, I kind of have some of those feelings as well.
Gemma Chan talked about how they went through training at like, Synth school and stuff of that nature and Dan O’Neill, the choreographer, talked about having to kind of be on set and adjust their quirks and their personality, like little habits and stuff. I also read about how some of the actors playing humans, like your characters see these Synths and then straighten up a little bit. How did that work? Kind of working alongside those that were playing the Synths.
KATHERINE: Tom and I did our own human school and the things with conscious. You have to embrace ideas and crises rather than try and iron them out. Fortunately, we both have plenty of, kind of, speech impediments and quirks in our nature to humanize us. Then I could sort of start thinking, must be human, must be human. And then I thought, no, that’s like when you get elderly actors playing old because they sort of don’t realize that they are, in fact, old. So I quickly stopped doing that and realized that I just had to be. The synthetics are the ones that have to create language. Our language is, thankfully, is already there.
TOM: It makes you hyper aware of your own foibles and physical tics and speech patterns.
KATHERINE: Sorry, I didn’t mean to say you had a speech impediment Tom.
TOM: (Laughs) I do. I have countless speech impediments that I work very hard to control. I don’t always succeed.
One of the show’s big themes is time. Looking at machines today, and we’ve justified it as “this iPhone will probably help me spend more time with my kids.” But then the father is doing email at the desk at the dinner table. Machines have always supposed to be there to give mothers more time, but then mothers have jobs today. It also touches on the slavery aspect, as well. Are the machines becoming more appreciative of time? Just looking at whether the machines can enjoy time — and people are trying to justify getting back time in this show. How do you think that’s relating to the parents, Laura and Tom?
KATHERINE: I think it does feel interestingly, on the show, how we de-humanize people that take the jobs that are supposedly the jobs that we would choose not to do and want as “menial jobs.” Then you sort of think: is being a poet any more worthwhile than being in construction? What does that sort of say about our society? If we’re all sitting around having bought our time with machines. We sort of just sit and think and write rubbish poetry. Is that really going to be good for our human experience? Or is it necessary to engage in menial, supposedly “menial tasks”? I think it definitely holds a mirror up to the way we treat people in our society now who occupy those jobs in a sort of kind of structured society that we have. Where we sort of put certain jobs and certain professions above others.
TOM: It’s all too easy to think that technology is the solution to everything. Actually, the reality is, it just removes the human condition. It kind of just takes it away. If there is any point to being on the planet, it’s to occupy yourself. It’s to have something to do. If you don’t have anything to do, you’re just staring into the abyss. I think much as the march of technology will continue and goes insanely fast, every passing day the curve gets steeper. There’s a point at which we have to consider what human kind is here for if we leave ourselves with nothing to do. That’s one of the things that the show addresses, I hope.
The Synths in some ways are getting more human power in addressing what the purpose of time is, and what that purpose is more than the humans are.
KATHERINE: I think the power thing is really interesting — when you’re in charge of something. What I felt that the most of the grown up aspect of becoming a parent for me, is suddenly being somebody’s boss. Like with child care, with my great nanny. What that does to you though when you realize you’re, you employ somebody. So that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of…
TOM: (Laughs) Great, thanks. You just sent me thinking there. Actually it’s not one that even occurred to me. I’m just sitting here gazing at the floor going, “Wow, I hadn’t really thought about that.” That’s another thing that’s thrown out which is good to see it. Thank you.
The Synths are kind of a device for showing character flaws in the humans. Even amongst the Synths themselves, their own shortcomings, their evolution is kind of pointed out. Can you talk about how Synths are this plot device to show character flaws and shortcomings in characters?
TOM: Yes, because that was the thing that initially appealed to me. Was to see how, despite the stresses on him at the beginning of the show, Joe is pretty secure in who he thinks he is. He hasn’t really thought about that at all. He rushes headlong into purchasing Anita without thinking about what that’s going to do to him personally. He thinks it’s going to solve lots of problems but what he’s not expecting, is to find that talking and engaging with Anita reflects back on himself and makes him sit up and think about the kind of person he is. He suddenly becomes self-aware in a way that he never has been before. That is actually beneficial to him. It’s a good thing to happen to happen to him. Although, as you’ll see, everything unravels in the show for the Hawkins family. Ultimately, it’s a good thing that’s happened to them. It’s made them sit up and think about the kind of people they are.
KATHERINE: Yes. I think from Laura’s point of view she is distracted and a bit emotionally and physically absent in the lives of her children and husband. And yet when the synthetic, when Anita reads her child, she doesn’t want to do it but she certainly doesn’t want something or somebody else to do it. It definitely puts a mirror to the humans, their own flaws.
Joe was awfully quick to hide those 18 plus options on the owner’s manual. What can you say about that?
TOM: That resonates with me immediately. What he’s doing is he’s protecting Toby. It just made me think immediately when you’re teenage kids, or younger than teenage, when your infant children, primary school children start surfing online, you have to talk to them about security. And making sure you’re not visiting sites that you shouldn’t be visiting. You’re putting parent locks on things.
We’ve just given that a physical form. The 18 plus options are something Joe is just very concerned about. He just doesn’t realize the impact it’s going to have on him personally.
Has there been a time when machinery or artificial intelligence, whether it’s your phone, has creeped you out in a way where you kind of make a pause and say, that’s kind of scary?
KATHERINE: Well, I feel like I’m scared of pornography and what it’s doing to society, and how the synthetic, the manufactured images are replacing and competing with real things. What they might do to conjugal relationships, or what that might do to young people’s sexuality. Where they might only be able to be aroused by artificial things. When people talk about Anita in terms of being attractive. The word “attractive” is a word I would not necessarily associate with something that we know is a machine. There’s become a blurring about what is real and what is not. I remember saying to my husband, “Surely fake breasts aren’t attractive because they’re not real” and he just sort of looked at the floor. Women are very visual. If we go down that road too much, I think it could really affect our relationships.
TOM: Every day when I see cookies come up or I know that there’s kind of phishing online. I see targeted adverts in my web browser. I find that every decision I make is now displayed in front of me every time I surf the web. It makes you think about the sort of person you are.
KATHERINE: Very recently I thought, “how come it’s such a coincidence that all the adverts that seem to pop up are about clothes I like and holidays in Cornwall?”
KATHERINE: And then I realized it was this system where they knew that.
TOM: Yes and it’s awful. Actually, what it does is it narrows you, it narrows you down. If the advertisements that come up online are not for anything new and not for anything that you’ve never considered before, then your mind is being narrowed. That’s horrible.
KATHERINE: And I keep dressing badly, so I don’t know if that keeps happening.
TOM: Exactly. If we’re only wearing the same clothes day in, day out because they’re the only ones being sold to us and we’re encouraged to go right back online and buy a version of the same clothes again.
TOM: Then what’s that doing to us? It narrows the mind. So I think one of my favorite lines so far is an interaction between Laura and Anita, when Laura says, “I’m watching you.” And Anita says, “I’m watching you too, Laura, you’re right in front of me.” Katherine, can you talk a little bit about their dynamic because it’s so interesting? Sometimes I feel bad for Anita because of the way Laura treats her.
KATHERINE: Yes, I think that’s good. I mean I think we sort of wanted to Laura to be, or not even an anti-hero, not really, a complex and troubled and not necessarily entirely sympathetic. I think what would have been a big more predictable would have been if this family was very, sort of, comfy and sitcom and sort of immediately affable. I think that what we see in the first few episodes is Laura wondering, “Is she going mad? Is she projecting her, sort of, own issues onto the synthetic?” And imagining that she is scaring her with the spider and looking at her in the mirror. There’s nothing that would send you down the path of madness quicker than feeling that you’re the only person that’s seeing these things.
TOM: I think, hopefully, the audience too won’t know yet who’s right. Is it Anita? Some stodgy creature who is putting Laura’s family in jeopardy. Or is Laura just somebody careering through a nervous breakdown? I think that the ambiguity is something that I hope we’ve tried to maintain.
To see how the Hawkins family fares both with and without Anita and how having a Synth amongst them in their own home changes them, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of HUMANS on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on AMC.