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Breaking Bot Boundaries

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Sci-fi is a bit of a gamble on the small screen. It can either be a hit like Revolution or Falling Skies or a flop like Terra Nova, Under the Dome and RoboCop. Now Almost Human hopes to curry favour, with big screen star Karl Urban turning to TV along with Michael Ealy, who already has a foot in both camps, as the show’s leads. Debashine Thangevelo looks at how their characters – one an embittered human, the other an expressive android – help each other to find their humanity…

KARL URBAN

DETECTIVE JOHN KENNEX

A CONFLICTED protagonist always makes for an arresting storyline. In the same way we have enjoyed the turbulent journey of Detective Inspector John Luther in BBC Entertainment’s Luther, the creators of Almost Human, which is set 35 years in the future, hope to enjoy similar success with Detective John Kennex.

With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Bourne Supremacy, The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Riddick to his credit, Urban has followed Hollywood’s latest trend by exploring small screen offerings.

His character comes from an era when it is the norm to be partnered with an android – something he isn’t happy about because of an incident years before when he lost his injured partner and his own leg during an attack on the police department. And if it weren’t for the assisting android’s logical approach, he believes the situation would have turned out differently.

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Urban explains: “Almost Human is a little glimpse into our future. The story centres on my character; a human cop named John Kennex. Detective Kennex comes out of a two-year coma and has to learn how to live in a world that’s vastly different from the one he remembers.

“He and his colleagues are at the forefront of protecting society from new technologies, which are being used by various criminals, organisations and corporations. And these technologies aren’t wild science fiction; they have all been researched and are just around the corner.”

After he is cajoled out of his sabbatical, Kennex is paired with Dorian, who is more part-human, despite being an android.

Urban notes: “At the heart of the show is the relationship between all of these characters, and, in particular, between my character and an android called Dorian (Michael Ealy).

“John and Dorian learn from each other and put each other in touch with their humanity. Essentially, it’s about a relationship between a walking computer and his partner – and I think that’s a really compelling concept. It’s interesting that John resists accepting his new partner to start with, but Dorian slowly breaks down his tough shell. Ironically, even though Dorian is an android, it’s his sheer humanity that gets through to John.”

Although Kennex is a dinosaur of a cop, Urban says he loves that the series is character-driven: “You want to tune in every week to see how the chalk-and-cheese combination of John and Dorian will work together to solve a case. Beyond that, I think it is an interesting showcase for technologies.”

An unmistakably damaged individual, every day is a struggle for Kennex as he nurses feelings of pain, anger and guilty.

Of his foray into TV – not that he hasn’t explored a few roles already – he offers: “I’m working with Joel Wyman and JJ Abrams as well as a brilliant cast. The production quality of Almost Human is just like a film and I get to tell my character’s story over a longer period of time.

“I think the divisions between film and TV have changed dramatically over the past few years. Historically, I think there was a stark contrast between movie and TV actors, but now I find it’s much more acceptable to interweave between the two.”

With opportunity and scope in both sectors, Urban is making the most of the breaks coming his way.

MICHAEL EALY

DORIAN, AKA DRN-0167

BEING at odds with your partner on the job is something that comes easily to Ealy, especially after Common Law, a police drama in which he and his partner had to go for counselling because of their unrelenting bickering.

Although, in Almost Human, the dynamics are different as he plays an android (the term “robot” is deemed offensive in the future) with human emotions.

On what drew him to the character, Ealy shares: “I think it was probably the script that attracted me. The pedigree of the producers didn’t hurt either. When you’re signing up for potentially five or more seasons of television, it’s a large commitment. You really need to know that the people driving the ship have a license. JJ Abrams (co-executive producer) and Joel Wyman (creator and co-executive producer) have got a license. You feel confident knowing these guys have more than a couple of hits under their belt.”

Shedding light on the compassionate side of his character, he offers: “When you delve years into the future, political correctness is still present and the term ‘robot’ is offensive, so he’s a synthetic. I like to define him as a reflection of the humanity we all take for granted. His heart, or his search engine, if you will, is designed on a program called Synthetic Soul. He can basically take in data like a machine or a computer – but at the same time, he can learn from it.

“I’m trying to approach this character with a certain fearlessness I’ve garnered from Joel. My first meeting with him about the character took three hours. I’ve never had a meeting last that long. One of the things we talked about was his confidence in where I can go with this character and what I can bring to him.

“To be honest, it was very reassuring. I talk to Joel all the time about how to make Dorian who he is. I’ll give him a lot of credit because a lot of Dorian was already on the page.

“I’ve been collaborating with Joel about whether Dorian is more of a Mac or a PC. I switched to a Mac because I couldn’t stand opening up my PC and waiting for it to go through the virus protection software and everything else. You turn on a Mac and it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re ready to go!’

“I’d like to think of Dorian as the new, improved, less-baggage version of a synthetic. And, more importantly, unlike the MX43 robots, you have to reckon with him. You can’t just tell him what to do because he has an opinion. That’s fun to play. His opinion annoys John a lot.”

Ealy says the show’s drawcard is a fluid blend of action, technology and relationships. And, then there is the whole “reluctant buddy” element that takes root in a very endearing way.

Almost Human airs on M-Net (DStv channel 101) on Friday at 8.30pm.


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