Humans series 3: Tom Goodman-Hill interview

Ahead of Humans series 3’s arrival this week, we chatted to Tom Goodman-Hill about Joe Hawkins, a human struggling in a world of Synths…

Spoilers ahead for Humans series 1 and 2.

Joe Hawkins never meant for any of this to happen. When he looked around the disorganised family home in episode one of Humans and had the brainwave ‘I know what’ll make life easier – a Synth!’ the poor guy just thought he’d be getting the equivalent of a new Dyson.

Joe wasn’t to know that dormant inside domestic servant Anita was conscious being Mia, the first of her species. He wasn’t to know that Mia’s brothers and sisters would come looking for her and in the process embroil his family in a life-threatening conspiracy.

Joe also wasn’t to know that his wife’s Synth-rights legal work would make her a target for abuse. He certainly wasn’t to know that their hacker daughter Mattie would irreversibly change the world by awakening the consciousness of every road-sweeping, factory working, bus-driving Synth on the planet.

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(Joe did know, of course, that enabling his new Synth’s Over 18 function and shagging her on the family sofa wouldn’t go down well with wife Laura or the kids, but then, that’s Joe Hawkins for you – he never met an impulsive, poorly thought-out decision he didn’t like.)

We chatted to actor Tom Goodman-Hill about where series three takes Joe and the rest of the Hawkins family…

Joe Hawkins, then. He’s a completely—pardon the pun—average Joe, an ordinary man who wants a happy family, summer BBQs, a Sunday roast, socks for Christmas, all that. Then along comes this world-changing international AI plot and it’s fair to say that he doesn’t handle it brilliantly?

No, no, he’s not really built for it [laughs]. Even though he kind of got them into this situation by buying Anita in the first place, he’s just not prepared for any of this to come along. He’s unwittingly opened a can of worms that he’s totally unprepared for. He’s a simple guy, he wants the best life for his kids, he’s trying desperately to keep his marriage together and it all just goes tits-up because of one impulsive decision that he made.

Which was?

Buying Anita in the first place. He did it because he thought it was going to give him and Laura more time to build their marriage and remember why they were together in the first place. Ultimately, it did the opposite and drove them further apart.

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That wasn’t the only rash, unthinking decision Joe has ever made though is it?

Oh no! Absolutely. He did sleep with her too! But that’s a bottle of wine and a completely misplaced sense of curiosity talking [laughs].

Also, Joe called the authorities on Leo and Max in series one, bringing Hobb down on them. That was all him…

Yeah, but then to be fair to Joe he had no clue who they were, he wasn’t in on any of that. In his version of things and worldview, he just thought they were endangering the family and the kids. At that stage, unless you were Mattie, you wouldn’t really know what on earth those Synths and that strange guy were all about. Although it appeared to be quite an underhand thing to do, I think he was doing it from a sense of needing to protect his family, which is what most of his decisions are about.

Does that explain Joe’s latest decision – his series three move to the Synth-free town of Waltringham to work as a greengrocer?

Yeah. In many ways, it’s the best thing he’s done so far, because at least he’s sticking to his guns, he’s following through his logical process which is that he wants to get the children away from AI as much as possible. He’s being as good as his word and saying ‘I’m going to live there, I’m going to give them a life without AI and try and show them that there’s a different way of living’.

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It’s completely narrow-minded of course! [laughs] It’s sending him down a cul-de-sac and obviously it’s not the most progressive attitude to take but he’s doing what he thinks is the right thing and he’s not harming anybody by doing it. He’s trying to do what he thinks is the safest thing for his kids. Of course, it massively backfires because Laura is quite happy for him to go and do that. She’s just not interested in coming anything like halfway to meet him on it.

She’s moved on?

Yeah, she’s kind of moved on, but he hasn’t. He’s still in love with her.

They’re not an obvious match, are they? She’s out there, changing international law, and Joe’s not quite at her level. Is that hard for him?

He’s always supported Laura. He admires Laura, respects her, encourages her and wants her to do as brilliantly well as she possibly can. He just mourns the fact that in doing so that takes her away from him. He loves her, but he’s not her intellectual equal and that’s tough for him to live with. He finds that hard and he kind of hates himself for it a bit. That’s difficult.

Unlike a certain Neil Summer [new series three character played by Mark Bonnar] then, who I gather is Laura’s intellectual equal?

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Precisely, which is why they end up at loggerheads because Neil represents all that intellectual power that Joe just doesn’t have at his fingertips and so that’s a trying situation. Neil absolutely infuriates Joe because he represents everything that Joe isn’t.

At the series three launch, one of the writers said that the Joe/Neil rivalry is going to provide some much-needed humour against the backdrop of the war and battle lines being drawn elsewhere.

Well I’m glad they find it funny! [Laughing] It’s not funny for Joe! It’s horrible for Joe. It’s his whole life falling apart in front of his eyes.

Well that’s always funny for viewers.

Of course, of course. Very funny for the audience, but hell for Joe. It’s horrible. Everything he holds dear is falling apart in front of his eyes.

The writers said to look out for one scene in particular between Joe and Neil, that they’ve said is one of the funniest that’s ever been on Humans.

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It’s just the [laughs] two of them in the same room basically! That’s basically what it comes down to, because Joe is completely unaware of Neil Summer’s existence, which is very amusing. We had a lot of fun. Mark is a fantastic actor and a great comic actor so we had a lot of fun just playing with expectation and realisation between those two characters. It was hugely enjoyable filming those scenes.

It sounds like we’re going to need a bit of comedy, even if it is derived from Joe’s utter degradation and humiliation!

[Huge laugh]

Back to Waltringham – how does it work? There are no Synths, but where’s the cut-off point for technology? Are there no microwaves, mobile phones…?

If you think of the world as it is now, that’s Waltringham. It’s not that they don’t have modern technology, they just don’t have Synths so in that respect it’s not so much 1952 as modern day. It’s specifically this parallel present in 2018, post-Brexit referendum.

Laura’s very disparaging about Waltringham. In episode one she jokes to the kids when she picks them up from Joe’s, “How was your weekend in 1952?” It raised a big laugh at the screening.

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Part of that laugh is a bit of a Brexit laugh and I think that’s inevitably where people are seeing the parallels between a place like Waltringham and the current political situation, in the sense that a part of society wants to move backwards, not forwards.

Is the show inviting us to laugh at Joe’s retrograde decision or empathise with it?

It’s a story that we hope resonates widely across shifting political landscapes. That laugh comes out of that, really. I suppose it honours the idea that not everyone who voted for Brexit necessarily wanted to go back to 1952 but people were doing it for what they thought of as the right reasons, but they were ill-informed reasons and that’s true of Joe as well.

We can obviously draw parallels between Synths and real-life oppressed groups in terms of race or religion or sexuality… in that light, Waltringham isn’t a sort of funny little backwards idyll that we can laugh at, is it? It’s the acceptable face of a terrifyingly bigoted world view.

Absolutely. Joe doesn’t really realise when he moves there what the implications of a move to somewhere like Waltringham are. To him, because he is a very straightforward, two-dimensional man, it’s a move away from something dangerous but I think it’s safe to say as the series goes on, he realises it’s a move towards something dangerous.

As ever with Joe, he learns after the fact. We do find out that Waltringham isn’t necessarily somewhere you would ever consider safe, it’s just absolutely not. Joe’s learning process is long and slow and painful, as always!

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Laura and Joe’s separation is intended to be a kind of allegory then, for the divisions drawn between families along Brexit lines?

That’s absolutely right, yeah. When series two came up, that Waltringham decision was one that was made just as part of the natural arc of Joe and Laura’s storyline but then in the intervening time, Sam and Jon [Brackley and Vincent, writers] took a look at it and thought, actually, that could stand for something much bigger, hence Joe acting on that decision between series two and series three. It made sense to make that a catalyst for some larger arguments to be had.

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It’s always been a very British-feeling show, Humans, it’s not blandly transatlantic. But you do have an American audience on AMC. Do you think the Brexit allegories will resonate in the US? Is [We Are People leader] Claudia Nowak trying to make people great again?

I don’t doubt that they will see parallels. Let’s face it, the Brexit referendum has echoed around the world and I’m sure that US viewers will see that there are parallels to be drawn in the Trump era. I hope so! That’s part of the idea. I sincerely hope they see that, that [anti-Synth group] We Are People is a strange, proto-Fascistic organisation.

What’s Joe’s involvement with them in series three?

There isn’t any. As we saw in series two, he kind of brushed obliquely with We Are People when he spoke to one of their supporters at a job-seeking initiative and realised that what he thought was an innocent flirtation was a conversation with someone who was dangerous. He doesn’t consider them to be anything but dangerous and that’s not going to change.

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He’s not a political animal, Joe, he’s just forced to become so as a consequence of his choices. The whole point of his arc in series three is to make him realise that every choice he makes is political whether he likes it or not, and that’s a good thing. People can make choices that may be reactionary and knee-jerk and that they see as being in their own interests, but they’re political on a wider canvas and you have to live with the consequences of the choices that you make. Those choices are not necessarily going to have the outcome that you think they’re going to have, brackets Brexit. That’s part of the reason that Joe following through on that decision is so important.

Joe starts off series three staunchly rejecting Synths, so his arc could go one of two ways, he could either dig in and get more entrenched in his prejudice or he could go through a kind of softening enlightenment towards Synths. Is that the choice he faces?

As you can see from the series trailer, there are two beings in Waltringham that he’s not expecting to be there. He comes face to face with them and that brings him to a point where he has to make decisions personal and political about his future relationship to them. It makes him sit up and realise the consequences of his actions.

Series three then, is where Humans’ domestic, intimate focus explodes and it’s all big ‘p’ politics and war?

That’s absolutely right. Jon and Sam gave each series its own particular arc. Series one was the domestic implications, series two was always about what it means to be human, series three is what it means to have a society. Each one opens up the question further and further about what it means to be human, to have intelligence, to have emotions, to be responsible for your own actions and to have a conscience. In that respect it gets broader and broader for each series.

God knows what they’re thinking of for series four! You’re never quite sure where they’re going to take it but you can be sure they’re thinking about it as we speak.

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There’s a thread in series three about rebellion isn’t there, and the most effective ways to rebel?

That’s absolutely right. Joe, in his own way, is rebelling just by going to Waltringham. That’s his own form of rebellion. It’s also denial, he’s burying his head in the sand by going there but it’s his way of saying ‘I don’t need to engage with your kind’. That’s not progress. It’s rebellion against progress. What exists cannot be made to cease to exist, you have to engage with it and work out how to go forward.

That’s what [Joe and Laura’s daughter] Mattie does so well, she always engages with the choices that she’s made, she always reasons with herself and with those around her about what to do next and then she’ll make the best informed decision. She continues to do that in series three and it moves her further and further away from Joe. Joe’s desperate to have his relationship with his daughter back but he respects that Mattie is an incredible intelligent being who has to make decisions of her own. She’s inherited Laura’s inheritance and Joe’s stubbornness and is using them both to the best of her ability.

It’s all starting to sound quite tragic for Joe in series three?

Yeah it is! I’d love to neatly wrap that up and tie it with a bow but basically it is pretty tragic for Joe in series three [laughs].

In series two, there was a thread about Joe’s redundancy having been engineered behind the scenes by Synths? Is that something that’s picked up again this year?

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No. It’s interesting, because I think a lot of people picked up on that and went ‘oh! We’re going to see Synth overlords!’ but it was always intended to be incidental. Jon and Sam just wanted to illustrate that if AI is capable of making decisions like that, it will make decisions like that. There was nothing to stop those AI bots from making informed decisions on employment at that company. The writers just wanted to show that that would happen. There’s no great conspiracy.

The appearance of the singularity won’t necessarily be some huge cataclysmic event, it’ll be small, tiny, incremental changes that slowly but surely build up. That was just one of those instances where Joe realises that he’s not in control of his own destiny. It’s not some huge conspiracy, it’s just a fact of AI and how, if they can make an informed decision that is better than a human decision, they’ll make it.

I don’t know how much TV you get a chance to watch—are you a fan of other AI dramas like Battlestar Galactica a few years back, or Westworld?

I watched all of Battlestar and loved it. I watched all of Westworld season one and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought it was a great riff on the original movie but I found it to be almost too full of stuff that didn’t necessarily come to fruition so I’m going to be interested to see season two to see if it all starts to make sense. I thought a lot of questions went unanswered and not in a good way at the end of season one.

It was designed for internet forums in a way, which meant the casual viewer could be perhaps a bit left in the dark.

I always get a bit annoyed when series are aired and clearly aired with a view to internet forums, because then I’m always slightly suspicious that the show creators go to the forums and go ‘oh that’s a great theory, let’s write that’. That annoys me slightly. I always want the show’s creator to know what they’re doing and the forums to be secondary to that. When they become a slave to fan theory and then adapt the fan theory and turn that into the show then that’s a bit daft.

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The tail wagging the dog.


On the subject of internet forums and fan theories, one that kept coming up in series one was the mystery over why two redheads—Joe and Laura—would have had three non-redheaded children?

I know! I argued that it could work and had it flung back in my face. Apparently at least one of them ought to be a redhead!

I looked into it and my limited understanding is that because the redheaded gene is recessive, there’s a twenty-five per cent chance of two carriers passing it on to a child, which means that if the Hawkins had a fourth child, then that child would have to be the redhead.

Well there you go! I’m glad you said that because I didn’t think I was entirely wrong about that! I did remember getting into a discussion about that and being sure I was right. I’m glad to hear you say that. It is a twenty-five per cent chance, I’ll remember that.

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With those AI shows I mentioned, and Humans—I think it started on TV with Battlestar probably—it used to be the case in sci-fi that the robots, or their creators, were the villains but more and more robots and AI are being used in drama as a way to urge empathy and make us accept people who are Other. It’s a shift. Would you say that Humans is essentially urging its audience to do that?

Absolutely. It’s sci-fi using allegory in order to discuss universal themes and I think that is when science fiction is at its best.

At the launch we were all given these little promotional leaflets mocked up to look like they’re by We Are People asking ‘Has AI stolen your job?’ It strikes me that your job as an actor is probably one of the only ones that couldn’t be replaced by robots?

Don’t be so sure! There was a feeling that it was going that way fifteen years ago when movies like Polar Express came out and everybody thought ‘oh no! We don’t need actors we can just have computer-generated versions and actors will just provide voiceovers.’ But I think that seems to have been fairly roundly rejected. CGI seems to harness a lot of performance in certain types of movies but I don’t think as it stands that it will actually replace actors. I think people still want to see other people playing other people [laughs] with other people!

God, I hope not anyway. That’s going to be a difficult future to live in. I don’t know what I’d do.

Open a greengrocer’s?

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Open a greengrocer’s! Exactly. I could move to Hitchin and open a greengrocer’s!

Tom Goodman-Hill, thank you very much!

Humans series 3 starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday the 17th of May.