Channel 4’s new synth tells Janet Christie about getting in touch with her inner robot
That woman sitting next to you on the bus. Is there something a bit strange about her? She doesn’t twitch or fidget, tap away on her mobile phone. And isn’t there a somewhat glazed look about her stare? Maybe there’s more to her than meets the eye. Perhaps she’s a synth, a synthetic humanoid, a synthetic intelligence unit, or a robot to you and me.
If you’d been on the Tube in London in the past few months and wondered about the young woman with the perfect dark brown hair and big brown, somewhat blank, eyes sitting opposite, you’d have been right to notice her. It could well have been Sonya Cassidy practising her robot skills for her role as the new synth in Channel 4 and AMC’s BAFTA-award-nominated sci-fi series Humans, now back on our screens for a second season of eight 45-minute episodes.
“I’d practise getting on and off the Tube, and walking around London. Because robots have an economy of movement to save power, you’re not sending off physical signals, and people clock that there’s something weird. They look human but there’s something off. Living in a city especially, we’re used to dodging around each other, cutting in front and picking up cues, but if you’re a synth you don’t do that. You let others go first and you don’t get riled. We could learn a lot from synths,” says the 29-year-old. “Their economy of movement: there’s a gravitas to being still, that’s something to hold on to. And it’s great fun to get in touch with your inner robot.
“It was great for my flatmates because I used to practise going round the flat tidying, and cooking, using as little movement as possible. But since we wrapped I’m royally back to human form.” She laughs.
Set in a parallel present and starring Gemma Chan, Katherine Parkinson, Colin Morgan and William Hurt, Humans is the most highly-rated Channel 4 drama for 20 years. The first series, shown last year, was a hit with audiences fascinated by its exploration of artificial intelligence and the questions their existence throws up. It followed the journeys of the highly developed anthropomorphs used as servants and workers by humans, and the people they interact with. In homes, the synths are the must-have gadget and life-saving servant, costing about the same as a family car, while in factories they are the workhorses of the manufacturing process. But something happens and the synths become conscious, or “online” as Humans has it, and the drama unfolds. Series two returns to the original synths and humans, this time round joined by new synth character, Hester, played by Cassidy.
“I’m so excited to be in the show because I loved season one. But you can just go straight into season two even if you haven’t seen it,” she says.
Humans gets under the skin by locating its drama in our contemporary world, peopling it with characters just like us, teenagers, middle aged mums and dads struggling with work and relationship problems. It’s a recognisable world just like ours, as opposed to a shiny new future zone with moving walkways in the sky, jetpacks and capsule meals instead of mince and tatties.
“I think that the show has been so successful because it is very relatable,” says Cassidy. “There are a lot of people that have families, that are working hard for their marriage and their children, and doing their very best to juggle all that, along with changes in technology that society throws up.”
Humans’ robots are relatable too, so life-like it’s almost impossible to tell the difference in fact. They look just like you and me, not Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO or the iconic Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis.
“A lot of sci-fi is set in space and they’re light years away, but this is rooted in a world we can relate to. A synth is affordable, unlike a ticket for a trip to space,” says Cassidy.
As the series progresses, our sympathies are drawn more and more to the synths and their struggles.
“Although the synths are grown up, these characters are childlike when they first become conscious. We see them develop and learn about themselves in a very human way. So they are struggling with being human and consciousness, and so are the humans.”
Cassidy puts the success of the show down to the fact that it’s dealing with issues we’re all beginning to think about as technology advances.
“I defy anyone to watch an episode and not think, ‘what do I think about that?’ It’s raising questions about what it is to be human and free thinking, and also about the impact of technology. It’s part of the political social agenda. We’re trying to understand the possibilities of technology and how it can improve our lives.
“We’re already so attached to our technology, with our smartphones and laptops which we talk to, and we give our cars names. It’s just they’re not human-like form whereas synths are what robots would look like if they were made by Apple or Google.
“Humans shows us the pros and cons of technology in a more complex way than, ‘oh, robots are out to destroy humanity’.”
Cassidy’s synth, Hester, is an industrial model who works in a chemical plant and comes online one day in the middle of loading barrels in a factory.
“The world as Hester knows it is totally different to the one the other synths have experienced. They were created to be loving and social in an environment that is loving and supporting. For Hester, things hit the ground running because she’s in an environment where a conscious synth is a threat and would be immediately destroyed. So she’s on the run. She’s been badly treated and her stored memory hits her all at once when she’s reborn as an adult. She has to fight or fly and is struggling to understand what is going on. Despite being a synth, there’s something very human about her story,” she says.
“Hester has been especially challenging to get my teeth into because everything is so minimal.
Humans has a synth school, where they teach us movement. It was brilliant. Synths don’t move unnecessarily and also they don’t breathe. So the scenes where I was running robotically fast, I can’t puff and pant. That took a lot of takes.”
Hester couldn’t be further from Cassidy’s other big TV role, as Clara from Ladieswear in BBC TV period drama The Paradise. She’s also appeared alongside Brenda Blethyn in Vera, and had roles in Lewis, Midsomer Murders and epic saga, The Tudors. Last year she was the lead in Syfy series Olympus.
Film credits include Breaking the Bank with Kelsey Grammer and Tamsin Greig, Survivor opposite Pierce Brosnan and The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Alicia Vikander.
“Those actors I have worked with that have been in the industry a lot longer than me, the thing that cements my work ethic, is seeing how they love the job, give it 100 per cent then go home. They have a balance between life and work. Actors like Kevin Spacey, Kelsey Grammer and Tamsin Greig, they are brilliant at what they do and have respect for it, but they know that work is work and life is life. So I try to focus on that and not get caught up in irrelevant things, like too much social media.”
Cassidy was raised in the West Country, the daughter of a West Country fire fighter father and a Scottish mother.
“My mother’s from Glasgow, so I have links with Scotland which I love. I was filming in Glasgow earlier this year, for Rillington Place,” she says.
“Growing up I was never the all-singing, all-dancing child. I was quiet but was always fascinated by people watching and what makes them tick. Then I remember my parents teaching me how to read and loving the way the characters would come in and the plot would develop. At school I loved drama and my mum got me involved in local youth theatre in Bristol where I got the bug.”
Cassidy left the West Country for RADA at 18, an experience she loved, and after graduating in 2008 landed a leading role in the Old Vic’s Inherit The Wind starring Kevin Spacey. Other stage roles include The Lion in Winter where she starred opposite Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley.
“I did a lot of theatre when I graduated and want to keep doing that, but it’s really nice to delve more into screen work at the moment. I’ve gone from corsets to robots, which has been really nice,” she says.
“For the last five or six years I’ve been able to live off acting, which I’m really pleased about, but in between times are part of acting. Taking jobs in between is a time to build material. It’s also when I volunteer for Amnesty International, and I love reading too. When I’m not working I catch up on the pile of books beside my bed, and with Humans I’ve subscribed to New Scientist, which I love. I was rubbish in science at school.
“I’m so pleased that since graduating the stuff I’ve done has been so varied. I don’t have one role I’d really like to play. I want to play a variety of people, or robots, or even an amoeba, to find out what makes them tick.”
One thing Cassidy won’t consider is one-dimensional roles, whatever the life form.
“As a woman in this industry I won’t look at scripts that are lazy or outdated and not true to life. They have to be interesting. We’re all drawn to complex characters. Early on when you go up for stuff if you try to add another layer or dimension, they say, can you just stick to the brief, which is three lines long, and make her sexy? But I still tried to make it more.”
As for the future Cassidy is busy with meetings for projects that won’t start shooting until the New Year and can’t talk about them as nothing is confirmed. What she can say is that as long as the next job is exciting and challenging, she’ll be happy.
“And one day I’d like to try directing. I enjoy being in front of the camera, but I would like to get my teeth into that at some point in the future. A lot more films are directed by women now and as for acting, the people that inspire me are the ones that have made interesting choices on their way up, worked at creating a diverse career. Tilda Swinton, Ellen Burstyn, Annette Bening, Meryl Streep: the ones where you don’t know anything about their private lives, or where they go on holiday, just about their work.”
Oh, yes, what about her private life, and where does she go on holiday and with whom, now that she mentions it?
She laughs. “I’m boring, I live in London. I don’t have pets, and talking about relationships isn’t for me. My characters are much more interesting,” she says, efficiently and politely closing down that line of questioning. Sometimes robot training and economy of words can come in very handy. n