Initially having started out with a career in politics, Emily trained at Guildhall drama school and has starred in The Inbetweeners 2 as well as 24: Live another Day. She has come a long way since her first role on stage at the Almeida Theatre in 'Children's Children', a play by Matthew Dunster. In her role as a teenage fashion blogger and model she says she was able to become the misbehaved teenager that she never was. At the moment she can be seen on screen as the Synth (a synthetic human) Niska in the critically acclaimed sci-fi drama Humans on Channel 4. With highest viewer numbers of an original Channel 4 drama in two decades, Humans has the British as well as American audience captured with it's gripping story about relationships, family, love, fear and the role of technology. Raising many philosophical questions, Humans is set in an alternate reality where people are able to purchase Synths which become part of their daily lives.
Emily shows great discipline and we are looking forward to see more of her - whether on screen, in a second series of Humans (she has her fingers crossed!) or perhaps on stage next time.
In our interview we got the chance to talk about Hollywood glamour, her background in politics and got to know more about her character in Humans and her preparation for this role.
What is the main difference of perceiving actors and actresses nowadays as opposed to the golden age of Hollywood for you?
In the golden age of Hollywood people didn’t know as much about actors and that was wonderful and mysterious! You would go to the cinema and could see them transform on the screen. Now people can access information about actors’ and actresses’ lives and people feel like they’re supposed to know you. That’s fine but at the same time that can make it slightly harder to transform. When seeing an actress on screen and recognising her people might think ‘oh I know she’s not really like that in real life, she doesn’t really have that accent’ for example.
Does knowing ever more about the person behind a role take away from the allure and magic around an actor a bit?
I think this can take away a bit of the mystery. I personally really love watching films with actors in it that I don’t recognise because it’s easier to instantly forget that they’re an actor and to buy into the story. The more you know the harder it is to forget, but equally it's lovely to see someone and say ‘oh I love everything they’ve done and I will go and see their next thing because I love everything they’re in’.
What role does social media play?
I’m just on twitter, that’s the only social media I have, and it can be very valuable. But I also know a lot of very successful actors who don't social media full stop. It is hard to say really because I don’t think it's something you have to do if it's not something you feel comfortable with. That said, social media can be brilliant for promoting things and getting it out there. When I did an independent film a couple of years ago social media played a huge part in the advertising of it.
Do you enjoy red carpet events and press taking photos of you?
I did a lot of it last year and I do enjoy it. It's quite nerve racking to put yourself out there and know that there are going to be photographs taken and I'm always terrified of wardrobe malfunctions and things like that (laughs) - but actually I love getting dressed up, I love wearing beautiful clothes and learning about new designers and trying things, so I love that side of it. Getting your hair and make up done is a real treat! I really enjoy all of that and I actually do like interviews as well. If you’re passionate about a project then it’s quite easy and enjoyable to talk about it.
In fact you have a politics background - has acting always been a passion of yours?
Yes, I always wanted to be an actress but I didn’t know how anyone became one. It just seemed so mysterious and none of my contemporaries had done it! When I left school I thought I'll do a degree and I really enjoyed my degree, loved it. From that I ended up working for an MP and yes, it was only when I was in parliament and I thought that if somebody had said to me ‘how do you get a job working for an MP?’ a few years ago, I would have said ‘well I have no idea’ but you just work it out as you go along. I thought maybe I can work out how to become an actress, too. A friend of mine went to drama school and I watched her and after some time I applied for drama school. It might have been a slow burn but it was always in the back of my mind.
What I would really love to do is to play a politician, having worked in parliament, I feel I’ve done the research (laughs). I would love if there was a biography of Glenda Jackson and I would like to play her in it. If anyone out there is reading this who is writing one, then please consider me (laughs)!
- a question that I was going to ask next actually! I was going to ask about parts such as Meryl Streep’s part as Margaret Thatcher and how you feel about playing a similar role?
Yes absolutely, I would love that. Glenda Jackson would be a dream, I read her biography recently and she had the most phenomenal acting career and also was a really well respected and brilliant MP. She’s ticked all the boxes for me, and she’s a very powerful and impressive woman. I’d love someone to make a film about her.
You have starred in The Inbetweeners 2, the series 24: Live Another Day and most recently in the series Humans, most watched sci-fi drama on Channel 4 in a long time, what has been your favourite project up to date?
That's very difficult... what I’ve been really fortunate about is that every job I’ve done has been very different to the last one. I went straight from the The Inbetweeners 2 to filming something about the American revolution and from there I went on to doing Humans, where I’m playing a robot. I did particularly enjoy Humans because the character I play is so complex. It has been a real stretch as an actress. Also I’ve never played a robot or even thought about playing a robot before so I loved trying to get my mind round that!
Is there a certain type of role you enjoy playing?
A robot! (laughs) - well, apart from that I really do like and have loved doing comedy. It was great to discover that bit of my career, that I could do comedy and really enjoyed comedy, but I like the diversity more than anything.
In Humans you play a very powerful role as the Synth Niska. Can you tell us more about that?
I was so thrilled to be playing this character because she is very tough but also vulnerable, she’s very intelligent but also completely ignorant of a lot of how the world works. It's been very interesting to discover the world through the eyes of the character as somebody who hasn’t experienced much 'normal' life, and is learning as she goes along. There was something very satisfying about playing that. As soon as I read the script last year, my first reaction was ‘well you know, I’m not necessarily a huge sci-fi fan , what’s this gonna be like?' and as soon as I read it, I just loved it and thought it was the best script I had read in a really long time.
Would you describe Humans as a typical sci-fi production? If not, what is different?
No, exactly, its not. I read it and thought that it isn’t a sci-fi in the traditional sense. It is a drama about relationships and about people and that’s what I’m interested in as an actress. I didn't imagine my role as a robot in any way it turned out to be, it turned out to be playing a synthetic human, with all the emotions of a human being!
What do you think has been the crucial ingredient for making Humans the huge success it already is?
I was thinking about this the other day - why has it worked? It is hard to know how you are going to come across with anything that you’re acting in but I think the writers have really captured things that everyone can relate to in this series. So many people have said to me 'I really identify with Laura' (the mum of the Hawkins family in the series, played by Katherine Parkinson) or 'I can really identify with so and so' and you think isn’t that amazing that people are saying they can identify with a character who has a problem because a robot lives in their home (laughs)? You wouldn’t think that would be a common issue but the writers have written really really ‘stick-humour’ relationships and technology is a part of everybody’s lives now. The writers have captured real human relationships within the context of the wider issue of what technology is doing to us.
There already is a big fan base in the US and it just started airing there – do you think the co-production of Humans hit the spot of an American audience?
I do think so. The fact that it has been going down really well there is fantastic news. Obviously there is William Hurt in Humans, who’s one of the greatest American actors of all time, so I think that’s helped! But I think anywhere in the world where technology is dominating people’s lives as it does here and in America, I think it could relate to anybody.
Do you see part of the success of Humans in the fact that it raises many questions that of philosophical nature?
Yes! I’ve ended up reading a lot about the ethics of artificial intelligence and advancements of technology. I’ve found it so interesting and one of the things I came across was the discussion about ethical issues involved with advancing technology. If a self drive car crashes or has to swerve to avoid something and ends up hitting a person, who’s responsibility is it if the technology is making decisions on its own, is it the person sitting in the car, is it the manufacturer of the car, is it the designer, is it the person who sold it?
Where do you see the qualities of British TV productions? Do you think Humans has some of these?
I’ve always been very proud of the British work that I’ve done, because I think that British production companies and writers and directors take a lot of risks in their work. This show, Humans, is a risk and it's quite an unusual concept. It's brilliant that Kudos and AMC were willing to take it on as a new show. There was a successful Swedish original version of the series but nobody in the UK had heard of it!
How did you prepare for Humans and your role as the Synth Niska in particular?
We had a workshop with Dan O’Neill leading up to the filming, who actually stayed on set after that as well which was brilliant. We had three weeks and worked out together how the robots would move and talk. We spent hours talking about whether or not they would blink - and obviously we were kind of thinking ‘oh god I hope they blink’; we decided luckily that the Synths have a blink mechanism. We did many improvisations, where we were all robots on a train for example and there was a fire and improvising how the robots would respond to the fire. I even went out into the outside world and would walk around as my robot and see what happens - I walked round Hackney for a few weeks, probably scaring people (laughs)!
Posture and movement are obviously very important in acting – and politics – is that something you have studied before?
I do remember in parliament there were a lot of discussions about what makes a good handshake. You’d see these people doing ‘power-play’ handshakes, which I loved. I think I’ve always been very aware of what body language can do. You learn techniques for job interviews and things about how to show nice open body language. At Guildhall we did movement classes every day and constantly studying body language, even what the tiniest change in your body suggests. The robots in Humans never do or at least avoid bending or distorting their bodies in a way that isn’t symmetrical, which is something quite inhuman. I would sit with my legs crossed and my arms folded and I’d scratch my ear and fiddle and move around - and when you see someone who doesn’t do that, well they’re either a robot or they’re someone who has done 20 years of yoga (laughs)! I actually thought of people who have done lots of Alexander technique and yoga and have that unnervingly brilliant posture. I definitely finished the show feeling like I had a better posture!
How did you work around not using a lot of body language when acting as Niska?
I talk with my hands so much and Gemma Chan (who plays the Synth Anita) does as well, we both are such ‘handsy’ chatters. Sometimes I would rehearse the scenes at home sitting on my hands, to make sure they did not get involved and when we got to set I was ready to just place them down and not use them.
When Niska is introduced, she is in a ‘Synth brothel’ and has an incredibly hard time, do you think these episodes also raise moral issues in connection with the sex industry in our reality?
When I read those scenes, I found them so shocking. Niska was in a brothel and being treated in such a terrible way and afterwards I was thinking about why I am finding that more shocking than the idea that that happens everyday in real life. I think it's shining a light on an issue that most people probably accept as part of our world. Obviously they might not like it but they know its there. I had a lot of amazing discussions about whether it would be better if people could go to a robot brothel so that no actual people were involved, but then it raises questions about whether that would encourage a certain form of behaviour towards other humans and encouraging people to treat other people like robots or things without feelings.
Your character as Synth shows very human treats in the series; do you think your role has been more difficult or easier to get into than, say, Will Tudor’s role as the Synth Odi that is simply ‘a machine’?
I guess in some ways it was easier because rather than playing something that’s 100% Synth, you’re playing a Synth that has human emotions, so that is easier. At the same time the hardest thing was that sometimes in the emotional moments I would just lose the Synth and physicality. For example my eyes would well up if there was something emotional happening and Synths don’t cry. There were a number of takes that were lost because of eyes welling up or even just something bothering you like a little bit of hair going in your face and you wanted to flick it away.
What are your favourite characters in the series?
Well, I don’t know if this is the same but my favourite relationship is between Odi and George so William Hurt, the two Wills, and Will Tudor. It is the sweetest relationship I’ve just ever seen on TV and its made even more lovely by one side of the relationship not having any feelings but though Odi can’t feel anything, he holds George’s memories as George starts to lose some of his memories. If you have a little memento of a grandparent for example, if anything happens to it you feel devastated even though it's not the human being. But it feels like a connection to that human being. I like that the honouring how powerful that relationship is, even if that object doesn’t feel anything back for you.
Is there one great actor or actress you can name that you admire?
Cate Blanchett I adore! I think she’s had a really interesting career; she does a lot of theatre and also fantastic films. She always looks absolutely beautiful and is very eloquent when she speaks. She is clearly a very intelligent actress and definitely someone I look up to!
As the shoot drew to a close, we could see Emily's character transform to various film soundtracks from Psycho to The Godfather. It felt that she could have easily been seen in some of those iconic classics, as she possesses a real 'star' quality - something which we are sure to see much more of.
Photography Assistants: Max Glatzhofer and Katie Bairsto