Ruth Bradley, who plays Karen Voss on AMC’s HUMANS, discusses why Karen struggles to accept who she is, why seeing the Seraphim child gives Karen hope and why it was so impactful for Karen to cry for the first time.
A: I was hoping that’s what would happen. I just thought there was so much interesting stuff there to mine; such interesting questions about a relationship between a Synth and a human; and also coming from where they have both come from the first season with Karen trying to hide and separate herself from what she was. Pete’s had so much animosity towards Synths, so I thought it was a really interesting place to start from.
Q: What was it like working with Neil Maskell this season, now that there’s an extra layer of intimacy to your characters’ partnership?
A: It helps that we are great friends anyway, but I think what became apparent really quickly was that we don’t meet Karen and Pete where they’re completely happy with the greatest relationship. It’s difficult, and it’s like there’s an elephant in the room. There are things they want that they can’t have, and she still wants to be a human. I think it was interesting and a little bit more brave in the sense that it wasn’t all sweet and nice. It was a much more complex kind of relationship, but it was clear that they loved each other and that’s the main part.
Q: Despite Pete’s protestations that Karen doesn’t need to pretend to be human for him, she does anyway, even in private. Why do you think that is?
A: Probably because she doesn’t like who she is and doesn’t want to be who she is. There’s definitely a Pinocchio-type thing going on for Karen this season. Essentially, she wants to be a human. Pete is constantly reminding her that he loves her no matter what, but it’s kind of like when people completely change their situations or leave a relationship or are building a new life for themselves, and sometimes people can remind them of what they were before. I thought that was an interesting thing to play with for Karen – that he is the constant reminder of what she really is and nobody else knows. He’s harboring secrets, and Karen realizes it would be better if he didn’t know.
Q: What do you think it’s like for Karen to be in a relationship with someone who is a different species from her?
A: I think it’s really difficult. She’s not going to age with him and she’s not going to die the same way he will. They can’t sit around and talk about children because obviously Synths can’t give birth. There are all these things she can’t do that I think she really wants to be able to do. The main thing is that they love each other and he is, as she’s said in the first season, her favorite person in the world. I also think it’s something she’s seeing in human relationships. She’s seen couples and wants to emulate that instead of just accepting what she is and making their own personal thing. She’s trying to be something that she’s not.
Q: What goes through Karen’s mind in Episode 6, when she first sees Sam, the Seraphim child?
A: I think for Karen, it’s essentially what she’s been built to do, which is be a mother. That was her sole purpose, so when she sees this boy, he is what she’s essentially been made for. He’s so vulnerable and needs a mother, so I think there’s an instant connection between them. I think she instantly feels that maternal instinct, which is at the core of what she really is and probably something she has been denying.
Q: When Pete finds out Karen was toying with the idea of taking on yet another identity, how does she feel? Does she understand how it’s hurt him or does she believe he doesn’t fully understand her?
A: I think that really hurts him and at that stage, Karen is all over the place and considering just leaving. [Sam is] a new beginning and a reason for her to stay. She gets what she wanted so badly, but everything has changed because she was about to walk out the door. I think she realizes that it’s not going to be enough for [Pete]. He’s said they can’t keep him, so it’s a last ditch attempt to go to Athena and become a human.
Q: Karen has spent much of the season struggling with her identity. Is it hard to play someone struggling with — and somewhat rejecting — the most fundamental aspects of her character?
A: I think that’s the genius of the show. Under the guise of robots and A.I., you really get to explore human nature. It’s much more about what makes us human, what makes us tick and what it is to be human. She’s essentially like a child. She was essentially rejected from birth because Leo didn’t want her. I think so much of her personality has been a result of that initial rejection and abandonment. She’s been struggling to make her way in the world and was forced to be completely independent and live a lie. It’s really interesting to approach it from the perspective of children. What makes them who they are? When does their personality fully form? We’re all a result of our early years and our nature and nurture. It’s endlessly fascinating.
Q: How do you portray such profound emotions when, as a Synth, you can’t really emote too much?
A: That is a challenge. You have to let go and trust that it’s going to be seen and the camera’s going to see it. You have to feel everything, but not let yourself cry or move your face. [Laughs] It’s quite technical, but I suppose it’s kind of like having two separate machines that work at the same time. It’s the technical aspect of not blinking or moving your eyeballs and then doing your job of feeling everything and reacting to whatever’s happening in the room. It’s like having two opposite forces that work at the same time. It’s a constant challenge, and then you just hope that the audience can see what you’re doing.
Q: That being said, just as Pete is sadly breathing his last breath, Karen discovers she actually can cry. Why do you think the writers made a point of adding that in?
A: I loved that. I thought it was brilliant, obviously selfishly because then I could just do normal acting. [Laughs] I thought it was a great twist. I remember going to an exhibition on A.I. when we did the first [season] and one of the scientists said that if you created consciousness with artificial intelligence, you wouldn’t have any idea of what you’ve created, you couldn’t control it and you wouldn’t know how it would manifest itself. So, I feel like that really rang true when Pete died. Synths don’t cry, but this depth of human emotion and the heartbreak and loss for Karen seems to bypass the rules, which I think is possible for any Synth. I loved that because it’s an endless scope and was exactly like that scientist had said. You don’t know what you’ve created, where it’s coming from or what it’s going to trigger.
Q: Does she feel more human when feeling that pain?
A: I think what was so lovely about that moment was that she kind of forgets about who she is or what she is, and essentially just is. She’s just reacting and feeling this loss, as a human does, in that awful moment. Maybe that’s what we all really are when you stop thinking about who you are and what you haven’t done. You’re not a combination of all your labels. You just are. I’m not sure she even considered it. It’s only when Athena pulls her out of the moment that she adopts her Synth-side to get away from that deep, dark emotion. I’m not sure she’s aware of what she’s doing. She’s just there with him in that final moment.
Q: Now two seasons in, have your thoughts and ideas about technology changed at all? For the better or worse?
A: I definitely am more aware of how much time I spend on my iPhone or iPad. It just made me more aware of all of us walking around in the world, looking at our phones and bumping into each other. On the tube, you never see anyone looking you in your eye. They’re all looking down at their screen. It’s made me hyper-aware of that and things like supermarket checkout machines. [Laughs] It’s everywhere and I think it’s moving much faster than we’re aiming for.
Read a Q&A with Neil Maskell, who plays Pete Drummond.
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