Breakout British TV star Gemma Chan of Humans makes her own luck

Gemma Chan makes her mark as a robot servant in British TV series Humans

British-Chinese actress Gemma Chan is on the road to becoming the next big thing - and she has herself to thank for it.

One could say she made her own luck in snagging the lead role of a robot servant in the British television series Humans, which has quickly become one of the most talked-about shows of the year.

The 32-year-old star first got a whiff of the show in a newspaper article, which reported that a British production company had bought the rights to adapt it from the original Swedish TV series, Real Humans (2012).

While she had not watched the Swedish version, she "had a feeling about the show" and wanted to be a part of it.

"I sent a copy of the article to my agent, which is something I don't normally do, with a note saying, 'This sounds interesting and right up my street. Please let me know if and when they start to cast it,'" she tells Life over the telephone from her home in London.

It was really learning all the basics - how to stand up, sit down, walk and turn a corner. The things sound so easy, but you have to really pare back your physicality and do it in the most economic way.

ACTRESS GEMMA CHAN, who stars as domestic helper robot Anita, on attending bootcamp to learn how to behave uniformly robot-like before filming

Six months later, she was called to audition for the main role of robot Anita, which she says she nailed in one session.

"I was asked to go 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 facade.

"It was a fascinating experience and unlike any other audition I'd done," she adds.

How the character moves is crucial to making her performance as a robot appear authentic.

Known as Synths in the show, the robots are realistic-looking machines designed to serve humans, whether in the household as housekeepers and nannies, or in more skilled jobs, such as technicians and nurses.

Chan's Anita is a new domestic helper in the Hawkins family. While the father of the household (played by Tom Goodman-Hill) relishes the extra help around the home, his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is more wary of the foreign presence, especially when Anita starts displaying hints of human-like emotions.

Since Humans premiered in Britain in August, it has been getting rave reviews and has become the highest-rated original drama in 20 years for its broadcaster Channel 4.

Chan, who has played supporting roles in TV series such as Sherlock (2010-present) and Secret Diary Of A Call Girl (2007-2011), is often singled out for her especially convincing and intricate performance.

Popular entertainment website Deadline Hollywood says she played the role "to precision", while The Boston Globe calls her "a standout" who "brings a slight, but always detectable, sense of menace".

Getting all the physicalities of the role right is no easy feat, Chan says.

Before filming began, she and the rest of the actors playing Synths had to attend what is informally known as "Synth School", or bootcamp to learn how to behave uniformly robot-like.

She recalls: "It was really learning all the basics - how to stand up, sit down, walk and turn a corner. The things sound so easy, but you have to really pare back your physicality and do it in the most economic way.

"It's really hard when you realise how many physical tics you have and you have to strip those back."

The show has been renewed for a second season and, already, the actress is nervous about having to "get back into Synth bootcamp mode" again.

"It was physically exhausting and I remember I would come home and just collapse on the sofa when we shot the first series. I just wanted not to have perfect posture all the time and I had aches and pains all over," she says with a chuckle.

The physical torment is paying off though. She has been snagging roles in prominent films of late, such as London Fields, alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Amber Heard, which is adapted from the best-selling Martin Amis novel.

She has also been cast in upcoming British actioner Stratton: First Into Action, alongside Tom Felton and Dominic Cooper.

"I'm very lucky that the role in Humans shows what I can do as an actor and not every actor gets parts that can demonstrate that.

"It's great that people have really liked my performance in the show and it does seem that people are a bit more aware of me now, which is really nice," says the actress, who is reportedly dating British actor and comedian Jack Whitehall.

She repeatedly points out that while she "has been very fortunate in my career", she believes there is still a long way to go in terms of better acting opportunities for Asian women.

"There have been instances when I've been told that I'm up for a part, only to have the auditions cancelled because they were 'going white'. It's a shame because you want it to be about the best actor cast for the role, period," she says.

"But I also recognise that things have been improving over the years. I'm certainly very happy with the representation on Humans, but this is a conversation that we'll have to keep talking about and discussing for a very long time. People tend to become complacent and things go back to the way they used to be."

For now, she is relishing her rise in fame, although not for the reason you would think.

"What's really nice is that when people see me and recognise me on the street, they want to really talk about the show.

"It's not just about, 'Oh, that's the actress, she's so-and-so, let's take a picture'. They are really engaged with the show's issues, which is really, really nice. I'm so happy that people are watching the show and interested in all that it's about."


Humans airs on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) every Monday at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Rise of the robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe