Emily Berrington, who plays Niska on AMC’s HUMANS, discusses what it’s like for a Synth to fall in love for the first time, Niska’s reaction to releasing the consciousness code and why Niska feels it’s important to be tried as a human.
Q: What was it like returning this season? Did you have to reorient yourself as a Synth?
A: We had another week of Synth school with our amazing director. The first day felt so alien and difficult having had a year of not doing it, and then suddenly it all came back. I think it was quite helpful having new actors playing Synths, as well, because it meant that we were kind of telling them things that we remembered. So, it all came flooding back, but it was definitely worthwhile having a refresher course. We needed it.
Q: Did you have to alter your performance since you’re now playing a Synth who’s pretending to be a human?
A: It was a bit odd playing a human via playing a Synth. The way we tried to work that out – [movement director Dan O’Neill] and I – was [find] the most obvious choices that someone might make if they were trying to go from being a Synth to a human. So, things like putting her hands in her pocket and how, as human beings, we quite often shift our weight from one leg to the other. We imagined what Niska would notice first about how humans stand as opposed to how Synths stand, which is very straight and neutral, and the first couple of things she might notice. You’ll notice I have my hands in my pockets for a lot of the series. [Laughs]
Q: We open Season 2 with Niska in Berlin. Why do you think she was drawn to that city?
A: There’s a practical side to it, which is that she can’t fly. She says herself she can’t do airport security because she’s made of metal. We knew it had to be somewhere that she could get to on a train. I’ve never been to Berlin before we filmed there, so when I got there, I did think, “Oh, this makes sense.” It’s got a real buzzy vibrancy about it, loads of people and an underground nightlife scene that you can imagine it’s easy to disappear into. It feels quite safe. You can just go on your own and you don’t have to meet anybody. You can just dance away with whomever and then go home at the end of the night. It did make sense that there was obviously this feeling that you can just disappear on your own there, which is exactly what she wanted to do.
Q: Though George had a somewhat softening effect on Niska, we left her in Season 1 still relatively anti-human. What do you think it is about Astrid that changes Niska’s mind?
A: George began to open the little window of possibility to Niska that not all humans are bad, but she’s definitely still suspicious at the end of Season 1. I think, if anything, it’s something nonintellectual for Niska. She deals with everything on an intellectual, decision-making, logical basis and actually, she just meets someone and feels something about them, finds them attractive and likes that they’re interested in her. I think the reason she allows that to develop is her own curiosity. This is the first time she’s maybe ever felt a physical attraction and an emotional attraction to someone else.
Q: What’s it like playing such an emotionally muted character testing the waters of intimacy for the first time?
A: It’s fantastic to play and to really try to reset your mind to not know how anything feels. It was wonderful to have Dan there — even the first time they kissed, [there’s] this idea of what that would feel like to someone that had in some ways experienced so much, but in this area had experienced nothing. We talked a lot about whether it would be something akin to many electric shocks through the Synth system and that there is a physical reaction to what’s happening so that you didn’t have to make it an emotional performance. Maybe there’s an actual physical response to something so enormous happening. It was a challenge in many ways not to play something over the top. There’s surprise and shock in how amazing it is to meet someone and feel something, but that’s not who Niska is. We would sometimes rehearse the scenes without all the Synth physicality to allow full expression of emotion in your voice and face and body, and then put the Synth aspect back on top of it.
Q: When we interviewed you after the Season 1 finale, you said that you hoped Niska would take the code and release it. What was your reaction when you realized that she would do so almost immediately in Season 2?
A: I think I was surprised that it was so quick, but it made perfect sense because I just knew she couldn’t wait with something so enormous — her inherent curiosity would just eventually get the better of her and she would absolutely have to find out what this thing meant, good or not. I think her overriding force is her desire to know and learn. She just wouldn’t be able to sit on something as enormous as the code. I was actually really glad she did it because I wanted to find out as much as she did. [Laughs]
Q: When the code doesn’t seem to take affect right away, what is Niska thinking?
A: I think it was kind of what went through my mind when I read it. I wanted every Synth in the world to explode in this huge response, and I think that’s what she’s anticipating, even if she’s frightened of it. That is what she’s got her mind around happening for the few months between Season 1 and Season 2. She’s reconciled herself to the idea of that and had this enormous buildup, and then it doesn’t happen. For her, that’s the one chance they thought they had to create more of themselves which is potentially the only way they’ll ever be treated equal to humans. I think it’s devastating to her that it doesn’t work as she hoped it would.
Q: When she begins to realize later that it has worked, how does Niska choose between staying with Astrid or leaving to pursue her cause?
A: I think the problem Niska faces, especially early on in Season 2, is she doesn’t realize you can have more than one thing you care about in your life. You don’t have to choose to either love someone and be in a relationship or fight your cause. You can have both. She’s so used to black-and-white decisions and her life has always been about purely one thing, like survival. I don’t think she realizes that you can have both, so maybe if the code hadn’t worked at all and had done absolutely nothing, she would have taken that as a sign to stay where she is and keep living the life that she discovered. I think she knows very much when she’s with Astrid that it can’t go on forever because there’s so much that she has to hide – even things like if they were together for 10 years, Astrid might notice she hasn’t aged at all. [Laughs] So, I think she’s very much living in the moment, knowing full well that things can’t just carry on forever.
Q: At the end of the episode, Niska shows up on Laura’s doorstep. Were you excited to get to work with Katherine, Tom, Pixie, Lucy and Theo again?
A: I was so pleased to see them all. Although, because the scene was happening outside the front door, I spent a lot of the time outside with the door shut. [Laughs] Niska has often had, in Season 1 as well, a lonely storyline because of who she is and the fact that she wants to go off on her own and do her own thing. I spent so much time alone without the rest of the cast, so any chance I get to be with the rest of them is such a joy. It was really exciting.
Q: Submitting herself to the justice system with hopes to be tried as a human could backfire on Niska. Why does she think this is the best course of action?
A: I think she’s gotten to a point in life where she can no longer hide. That’s definitely not the existence she wants anymore. She knows her only other option is to face up to what she did, which was commit a violent crime. I think she knows that this is her chance to maybe start a bit of a movement because of the potential excitement that it will cause and the idea of testing humans to see if they can cope with what she’s asking. It’s a test for humans to see if Laura will defend her, to see if a court system will take her seriously or even believe she is what she says she is. It is dangerous, but I think for her, she feels there’s nothing to lose. If it’s that or go back into hiding, nothing’s going to make her go back into hiding.
Q: Has the show changed the way you relate to technology?
A: I’m not very technologically-savvy, so I always feel worried that I rely so heavily on something and I don’t know how it works at all. If anything, the research I’ve done as part of the show has made me more and more nervous about what it does to us. I read an article about how… by using your smartphone on a daily basis to get information, your own brain actually gets worse at certain things. I find that completely true. I can’t find an address I’d been to 10 times because I’m so used to using my phone. The people who are developing technology and A.I. are not necessarily also responsible about whether we should have that stuff. The people making driverless cars aren’t necessarily the ones also saying, “But should we have these?” because their passion is to see what’s possible. I do feel concerned about who’s in charge of if it’s going to benefit us.
Q: What are you most excited for fans to see in Niska’s journey this season?
A: My favorite bit by far is her relationship with Astrid and getting to play Niska in a scenario that is completely different to anything we’ve seen or imagined before. I’m most excited about fans seeing her in a romantic, more vulnerable place while still very much being inherently who she is.
Read a Q&A with executive producers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent.
HUMANS airs Mondays at 10/9c. For the latest information and exclusives sign up for the Insiders Club.Read More