Gemma Chan talks to Stylist about robots, dolphins and her obsession with dungarees

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Helen Bownass
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Gemma Chan models the hottest high street trends and talks to Stylist about robots, dolphins and her obsession with dungarees

Photography: Tom Van Schelven
Fashion: Lucy Reber
Photography Direction: Tom Gormer

You can hear a pin drop in the photo studio. Everyone is frozen, from the photographer to the make-up artist to the set-builders. All of us gathered together in a tense cluster, anxious about the important cover shot we know we have to get in the next 20 minutes. Everyone that is, except Gemma Chan who, the second she sets eyes on Masai (a majestic 400kg Chapman’s zebra), serenely walks straight onto the set and, without missing a beat, strikes a pose with him, as if she hangs out with zebras every day of the week.

And suddenly the whole vibe changes. Shoulders drop. Photography director Tom exhales for about 15 seconds. We all creep a little closer to Masai and his handlers. Vogue Japan is shooting next door; even they can’t resist coming out of their studio, phones aloft, trying to get a selfie with Masai. “I’ve never worked with a zebra before,” laughs Chan later. “I once filmed with a dog, that’s about it. I love how when the flashes went off he just held his pose.”

Her calm, the grace of her movements, her lack of fear on set when faced with a large exotic animal at close quarters remind me of Anita, the ‘synth’ Chan plays in Humans. The smart, potent Channel 4 sci-fi thriller was one of the biggest hits of 2015, both here and in the USA. It is set in a dystopian (depending on your point of view, that is) not-too-distant future where robots or synths live side by side with humans, servicing their every domestic – and non-domestic – need. Anita is ‘employed’ by the Hawkins family when (spoiler alert: skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t watched it yet) it turns out she’s actually rather sentient. The end of series one saw her, alongside her synth ‘brothers and sisters’, make a bid for freedom. Series two picks up with the robots out in the world, trying to navigate their way through it and continues to explore existential questions of what it truly means to be human.

Chan is the show’s standout star, a role which made everyone sit up and really take notice after previous supporting roles in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, Sherlock, Fresh Meat (where she met her boyfriend, comic Jack Whitehall), indie film Submarine and Pinter’s Homecoming, which ran in the West End last year. It’s also led to a presenting job – her first – for a documentary about artificial intelligence for Channel 4 called How To Build A Human, which she is currently filming. “There are a team of experts creating the most realistic robotic version of me that they can to see how close we are to the world depicted in Humans, or maybe we aren’t close at all,” she says. “It’s completely bonkers.” There is also a role in upcoming blockbuster Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them from the hand of JK Rowling this November. “If I’m not cut from it that is,” she laughs.

Born in Kent – her father is an engineer from Hong Kong and her mother a Chinese-Scottish pharmacist; her sister Helen is a PR – prior to acting, Chan read law at Oxford. Rather than following the path to the bar, she worked as a model for a year so she could study drama in the Drama Centre in London. That experience shows. Chan is considered in every shot. She knows what she’s doing in front of a camera. Even when confronted with a potentially narky zebra.

After Masai is safely returned to his stable, Chan nestles on the sofa next to me, excited about the pack of cola Chewits she’s found in the studio tuckbox and shares some of the things she’s learnt in her 33 years: about artificial intelligence, the importance of fashion when it comes to getting roles, and her secret dream to work with dolphins.

As it’s our high street fashion issue, let’s begin by talking about style. Is there any logic to how you dress?
I’m not a planner! My style is pretty laid-back. Comfortable. I was going to say I’m a little bit ashamed of that, but actually you shouldn’t be. You have to wear what makes you happy. I’d live in a polo neck and dungarees if I could – I’ve got three pairs on rotation currently.

What was your style like growing up? Were you always so relaxed?
I wore some terrible things. I was a bit grungy as a teenager, I had a burgundy waistcoat I was obsessed with – actually I’d probably wear that now. I’d wear denim shorts with tights a lot. And I loved brown lipstick.

You’re wearing the best of the high street today, which are your most visited stores?
I buy loads from Uniqlo. It’s great for cashmere and polo necks and cotton shirts. Zara does amazing silk shirts and I’ve just bought a bomber jacket in Whistles – it’s reversible so you get two jackets in one, which I love!

What is your most treasured item of clothing?
I have a delicate cream cardigan from my granny from the Sixties. It’s one of the few things she treated herself to – she passed it on to my mum, and then my mum gave it to me. It’s so beautiful, but I’m too scared to wear it because I’m worried about losing it or staining it – guaranteed I’d be stuffing something into my mouth and would spill food down it.

Are you quite disciplined with shopping? Do you operate a one in, one out policy for example?
I try to do a big wardrobe clear out every couple of months, although I often think, ‘I wouldn’t wear that as me, but I might in character’. I have a section of the wardrobe for audition clothes. For my first audition for Humans I wore a green silk shirt and jeans – in the script they referenced a mint green uniform (which became a little different). Clothes are so instrumental in making you feel a certain way. If you’re wearing the wrong shoes for your character it sets you off on, literally, the wrong foot. I’ve gone to auditions in a rush, and pulled on shoes and it’s felt completely wrong.

As well as series two of Humans, you’re also presenting a show on AI. What have been some of the most fascinating things you’ve learnt?
I’ve spoken to a philosopher at the University of Oxford called Nick Bostrom and he said that if we create a super intelligence – a machine that is more clever than the most clever humans in various fields – then that is the last creation man will ever have to make as it will be better than us and can replicate itself, and once that happens we won’t be able to stop its process.

Where does that leave us?
Well, we need to have these discussions now before we let the genie out of the lamp. Debates are becoming very real with driverless cars on the road. How do you program ethics into this car when it has to make life or death decisions? You have a car on the road and there is an obstruction. The car can either crash into the obstruction killing you, it can swerve right killing school children or go left and kill an old couple. How does your car make that decision and why would you want that car to make the decision for you?

One of the big themes in Humans is obsolescence – why we would train people to do things when machines could do it better?
Yes! Are we going to be redundant as a species? I met a man called Martin Ford, who has written a book called The Rise Of The Robots, who says that in the past technological advancements have always enhanced our way of life. We have always created new jobs for ourselves so we have had something to do. Now we are finding that computers are doing our jobs – even highly skilled jobs, such as a radiologist looking at X-rays and scans – but we are not creating new jobs to replace them. That could change our whole economy. We could be facing mass unemployment; there won’t be any consumer demand, as people won’t be earning money to buy the products that are drivers of our economy. So our economic structure may have to be rethought.

These are some very complex arguments, how have you learnt about this field?
I was naturally very interested and was reading around the subject with Humans; since working on the documentary I have given myself a crash course. I have always admired scientists such as David Attenborough, Professor Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist. At one point, I thought I wanted to be an astrophysicist before I realised I probably wasn’t clever enough.

Were there other careers you considered?
I once wanted to be a marine biologist, but I have always had curiosity about different things. There is an arrogance of humanity that we feel everything is unique to us; but, for example, dolphins are extremely intelligent, communicate in many ways and have complicated social structures, which are not unique to us.

Which women do you look up to?
Phoebe Waller Bridge is my girl crush at the moment. With Fleabag she’s written something so raw, funny, heartfelt and uncomfortable.

You said in an interview a couple of years ago that you’d love to go back to Hong Kong with your family to see relations. Has that happened?
No that is still on the to-do list. I would love to go back. It is such a vibrant place. I have worked in Shanghai, filming a French movie [Families, in 2015] and loved it. I wish I had done more travelling when I was younger. I would love to spend time in Argentina – I’ve been there for just a day. I have quite a romantic idea of what it might be like with the tango and going to smoky clubs.

Did your family speak Cantonese at home?
My parents spoke Cantonese to me until I was three so I only have the bad Cantonese of a three year old. They spoke English after that, but I wish they had carried on. I can order food in Chinese though.

What do you always order?
If it’s dim sum I go for turnip cake and har gow, which are prawn dumplings. I went to Yauatcha in Soho recently, which I really enjoyed but usually I ask my mum and dad to recommend places in China Town as restaurants go in and out of fashion. I don’t know where they get their insider tips!

What have you inherited from your parents?
They are very hard working, which they have instilled in me. I’ve always worked from a young age – I stocked shelves in Boots, I was a lifeguard, I pulled pints. I think when you have done that and been paid £3 an hour, you realise the value of work and money.

You’ve said previously you were shy growing up, what was the appeal of a career that put you in the spotlight?
I have found a real freedom in acting. I feel less shy when I’m acting than any other time. I don’t like being the centre of attention. I find birthdays excruciating. I don’t like the focus to be on me. I would much rather be listening and observing. But in character I can be as outrageous and as wild as I like straight away. I think it’s because there is a layer of protection when you are in character.

What gives you energy?
Good people. I don’t care how cool you are, if you are kind, considerate and thoughtful that is the most appealing thing. I can’t bear actors who behave badly on set, I always try and keep myself in check, even if I’ve had a hard day. One of my best friends is a doctor, so if I meet her and I’ve had a shit day, her shit days are always going to be worse. You feel smaller in a good way if you look out to the world; obviously there is a lot of depressing news, but looking outwards and staying curious is good.

It’s been a monumental year for current affairs hasn’t it? It’s felt like a tangible swell of people wanting to have an influence…
There is definitely an enthusiasm and wanting to get involved but because there has been a lot of bad news I think people have felt powerless, I certainly have. There was a period where I had to watch the news less. Not because you don’t care, its just overwhelming. Trying to find small ways that you can help is the way forward and not just to sink into despair; that will not do anyone any good.

Are you a planner or do you live in the moment?
I live in the moment, maybe too much. My mother would say, “You need to grow up and actually make a few plans,” but it’s hard to do. I think as a generation we find it hard to commit. There is something to be gained from committing.

In terms of your own commitments, what else are you looking forward to professionally?
I have optioned a book and am moving into more producing. Finding stories that haven’t been told. That’s the best way, rather than wait for someone else to make the story you want to see.

Humans starts on Sunday 30 October at 9pm on Channel 4

Main image: dress, £169, Warehouse; roll-neck, £59, Phase Eight; boots, £255, Russell & Bromley