Some complex data for Gemma Chan’s interface to scan: does it compute that Humans, the Channel 4 sci-fi series that features the young Anglo-Chinese actress as an increasingly sentient AI robot living among human beings, is actually a clever satire on racial integration? Is the notion of these apparently benign, subservient and initially obedient alien figures invading white middle-class homes and very gradually taking over communities making some sort of political point about the fear and panic scaremongered by the likes of UKIP?
Chan pauses to break the foil seal on a bar of Galaxy, her brackish, almond-shaped eyes staring at me pitifully. She swallows her first chunk of chocolate then patiently offers a kind, non-judgmental correction. ‘I think we tried not to be quite so… simplistic,’ she says (and then quickly apologises for suggesting that I’m simple). ‘I thinkHumans is more about provoking the idea that there is a class of beings in society that we treat as less than… as subordinates; people who we treat badly and take for granted. Often they are the same people who work hard to keep the city going. We need to think about that.’
We talk about the technical challenges of acting like a subservient robot: how this required the full-of-life and expressive Chan — spray-on, acid-wash jeans; Converse high-tops; grey sweatshirt; tomboyish terrace geezer parka; choppy, highlighted hair cut and coloured at Charles Worthington, etc — to deny her everyday mannerisms and relearn simple, regular actions so that they would become more efficient and less of a drain on her battery. Looking blank was complex. ‘A certain amount of stillness and economy was required — quite a challenge because I am usually very demonstrative with my hands and arms.’ Chan’s hard work (‘I collapsed with exhaustion on the sofa every night after shooting’) paid off. Now fans of Humans come up to her on the street and repeat her replicant catchphrase — ‘I’m sorry, Laura, I don’t understand the question’ — as an opening gambit. (‘Most of the time they want me to record it on to their phones as a ring tone,’ Chan says.)
She’s nice, is Gemma Chan. Drop-dead gorgeous and dead clever. But rather serious (at some points during our interview I think she’d like to reach for my ‘off’ button). She beats herself up about things; worries a little too much about how she may be incorrectly perceived (I detect the modifying vernacular of media training in some of her answers). One minute she’ll talk earnestly about race, about the lack of opportunities for Asian actors, her desire to commit more of her time to human rights groups (she’s already contributed to campaigns on the global hunger crisis and women’s rights for the likes of UNICEF and Amnesty International), but then she’ll doubt her right to speak out at all. ‘I hate the idea that people should listen to what actors have to say on certain issues more than anyone else. Actors have no more right to be heard than anyone.’
Listening to this it’s hard to imagine Chan raving in Ibiza (‘I go several times a year,’ she says) or trekking up to the Emirates stadium to cheer on her beloved Arsenal (she has a season ticket and sleeps under a Gunners duvet cover). Does she play straight man to her boyfriend of four years Jack Whitehall’s comedy act? The way Chan tells it, the Liz and Hugh de nos jours mostly like to go out to eat. They like comfort food, bistro cuisine and Maltesers (their first date was a fried chicken dinner at Nando’s — they split the bill). She and Jack dine at ‘brunchy places that serve breakfast until 6pm’; Raoul’s deli in Notting Hill and Blanchette in Soho. For drinks they hang at The Electric on Portobello Road with people like Laura Bailey and Douglas Booth. At weekends Chan meets her parents in Chinatown for dim sum. She cooks Jack a warming chicken on Sundays. Does the former competitive swimmer like to keep her willowy fembot figure in shape with regular visits to the pool? ‘I loathe exercise,’ she says. ‘And I hate gyms. I’ve never had a personal trainer.’ And with that, she pops the last chunk of Galaxy into her mouth.(She won’t talk Jack, because she read an interview with Rachel Weisz that referred to her as ‘Mrs James Bond’. ‘I thought, “She’s an Oscar-winning actress who is amazing; don’t reduce her to being an appendage.” ’)
While growing up in the village of Locks-bottom and attending Newstead Wood School girls’ grammar in Orpington, Kent, Chan’s Chinese-Scottish pharmacist mother (‘a gentle tiger mum’) and her Hong Kong-born engineer father encouraged their eldest daughter to spend her evenings doing ballet, playing the violin and swimming. Chan excelled at all three: playing the fiddle to Grade 8 standard by the age of 14 and swimming competitively at national level. Did I mention that she also speaks Cantonese?
Choosing to read law at Oxford rather than go to music college, Chan gained prestigious work experience with the ‘magic circle’ corporate law firm Slaughter and May. But soon after, she decided to give up law in favour of a part-time modelling-funded course at Drama Centre London (alumni include Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender), a decision that didn’t go down too well with her parents. Chan and her father weren’t on speaking terms for months — a rift not helped by her accountancy graduate younger sister opting for a career in public relations. ‘Can you imagine?’ says Chan. ‘My parents thought they were getting an accountant and a lawyer. Instead they ended up with a PR and an actress.’
How are things with gentle tiger mum and dad now? ‘I’ll sometimes remind them that we fell out and they’ll say, “You do realise that we are very proud of you, don’t you?” ’ she says. Do they watch her in stuff like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which she plays dominatrix Charlotte all trussed-up in rubbery couture and coming out with choice lines such as, ‘Do you want me to use the clamps?’ and ‘I beat men for a living’? ‘Put it this way, we haven’t watched it together,’ says Chan, grinning. Now her parents have more reasons to be proud. Humans will return for a second series next year with Chan’s character (now rebooted as the more sentient and less robotic Mia) freed from the family environment and out on the razz. ‘I’ve made a few suggestions,’ says Chan. ‘I want Mia to see the world a bit. Maybe go out dancing somewhere.’ The new series also sees Chan rekindling her musical talent. When Humans’ score composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer discovered that Chan was classically trained he asked her to contribute to the soundtrack. ‘So I cut my nails and picked up the violin for the first time the other day. Re-corded it on my iPhone and emailed it to him.’
In November Chan starts a 12-week run in a proper, grown-up play: a Jamie Lloyd-directed production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, with co-stars John Simm, Gary Kemp and Keith Allen. ‘And I am really keen to discuss it,’ says Chan cautiously. ‘The only thing is… it’s quite hard to talk about doing theatre without sounding like, you know… a complete wanker.’It’s a rare moment of potty mouth from prim and careful Chan, but you can see where she’s coming from. What would Whitehall or her friend Harry Styles say if she became one of those actors who started banging on about the ‘struggle’ and the ‘craft’ while on a night out at Chiltern Firehouse?
The Homecoming is about one woman among five men. Chan’s character Ruth comes back to live in London after being in America ‘and all hell breaks loose… She is plunged into a household that hasn’t had a woman in it for years, since the family’s mother died, and she has to try to negotiate her way with these men who have been living like animals. Ruth has been in a claustrophobic marriage, had three children, experienced some sort of breakdown and not really been living a life that is hers. Battling with these men seems to reawaken something in her. Like all Pinter’s plays, it’s about dominance and power. There’s never a dead or a dull moment.’
Chan says she’s never been involved with a play as intense as this — ‘where I am on stage pretty much all the time’. Are you worried you might forget your lines? ‘I’ve never forgotten my lines,’ she says flatly. I believe her.
Set in the 1960s, four of the play’s five male characters are white Anglo-Saxons. Is it culturally and historically credible for the female to be played by an Anglo-Chinese actress? ‘Of course,’ says Chan. ‘Our perception of the past is often wrong. It is not as if non-white people only suddenly started appearing in London in the middle of the 20th century, is it?’
But during the early part of her career Chan’s Asian background ruled her out of roles in period dramas and declined certain auditions as the directors were ‘only going to see white people’. Parts such as Soo Lin Yao in an episode of BBC’s Sherlock, involving a Susie Wong dress and an opium den, were more readily picked up. ‘Actors of East Asian descent don’t get the opportunities white actors do,’ she has said. ‘I have to fight so hard to get parts that don’t have something to do with China. In the early part of my career it happened a lot.’ (‘You are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood film than an Asian woman,’ she once claimed.)
Chan has form as a theatre actress. ‘Beautiful svelte omniscience’ is how a critic described her performance as Athena in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Ajax a couple of years ago. It’s quite a compliment, implying pulchritude, a great figure, unlimited knowledge and perception — thespian catnip, basically.
I read the gusher accolade back to Chan, but I stumble over ‘omniscience’, pronouncing the last bit of the word — like the ineloquent, uneducated dunce that I am — as ‘science’. Tolerantly she corrects me once more. ‘I think it’s “om-nis-cience”,’ she says coolly.