If you’re a genre fan, you’re going to recognise Ruth Bradley. Over the last few years she’s delivered superb performances in some of our favourite SF TV series and movies, starring as mysterious synth Karen in Channel 4’s brilliant Humans, woman out of time Emily Merchant in Primeval, and straight-laced Garda turned boozed-up alien-battler Lisa Nolan in cult favourite Grabbers (she was also ace in The Fall, but that’s out of our genre remit, sadly…). Now she’s a part of epic anthology TV series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, starring alongside Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis and Liam Cunningham in the episode ‘Human Is’.
We talked to Bradley about her work on the show, what makes Philip K Dick so special, exploring the heart of an android in Humans, and the brilliance of Sigourney Weaver.
What can you tell us about your episode and your character in Electric Dreams?
It’s centred around a relationship between two characters, Silas and Vera who are Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis, and it’s kind of an emotional story about human nature and relationships. He comes back quite changed and then it’s just about what it is to be human.
I play a character called Yaro. She’s Vera’s right-hand woman and she works pretty high up in the state. It’s set in the future, the whole thing is you figure out what these characters are about as you watch it. She was originally written as a man and that was really nice for me because I guess so often as an actress you’re somebody’s girlfriend or wife, so it was really nice to be like “This is just like real life where women have a story of their own regardless of what their gender is!”
Were you familiar with Philip K Dick’s work beforehand?
Yeah, I had read The Man In The High Castle but I wasn’t familiar with the short stories at all, and what’s great about these short stories, and the whole series, is some of them are like six pages long but there’s so much other story to mine. He just had an endless wealth of stories to tell inside him and you could go any direction with them, which I think is what’s really cool about the show. Because if you are familiar with the short stories, which I am now, you wouldn’t expect where they’ve gone and so far, the ones that have aired, it’s just like you could keep making them and making them and making them. Such a mind he has.
And so prolific! They’re weirdly inspirational and you could make anything out of them, wherever your imagination takes you. They’re not locked in which I think is why they’re still so successful now.
So much of his work hasn’t dated at all…
Completely, yeah, and I think that’s his genius too. Even the ones that do feel like they are removed or fantastical, they all are still rooted in humanity and there’s always such a human thread going through. Which is probably why they’re still relevant.
Did you have any idea what was going on with the other episodes?
Not a clue. I went and met the director and casting director and it was like meeting for a film because essentially they’re like 10 separate feature films. I knew they were making 10 but all I knew was our story and our cast and then when we went to shoot it, ours was the last one that they shot. So the crew had been working on it for the whole thing and that was the first time I heard about any of the other films. I was completely unaware of what was going on. And now only as a viewer when I’m watching it I see how completely different they all are. Which is brilliant.
You’ve worked with director Francesca Gregorini before, how was it teaming up with her again?
Yeah! I worked with her on the second series of Humans which is lovely, I really like working with her as a director. She’s got a really great vibe on set, she knows what she wants and she’s got a really calm, cool way of expressing it. We had a nice shorthand this year which is really lovely, to work with someone you enjoy working with.
The sci-fi you’ve done before, like Humans, has been set a lot closer to our present. How was it working on something with a more obviously “sci-fi” setting?
Well, I guess you kind of approach it the same way whether it’s sci-fi or drama or comedy, for me anyway, I just like to base it in truth and reality and play the honesty of it. So even if you’re playing, for example, a robot in Humans you still approach it from a real place. I think as long as you do that, they are grounded and they are real to you when you get there, you don’t have many questions. You don’t think “This much more fantastical” or “This is much more sci-fi than what I’m used to”, you just go “Well, I do this in this completely futuristic world” and it becomes your reality.
Essie Davis is so brilliant, what was it like working with her?
She is, yeah. She’s so much fun. I thought she was amazing too, I’m a big fan of hers but she’s really great craic as well! That was lovely, and so was Bryan [Cranston] and Liam [Cunningham], who I’ve known from before, it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever done. Lots of fun and laughter, and I don’t know if that’s something about working with actors who are pretty established or have been around or are really great, but there were no egos on the set.
Everybody was just there to make the best of the work and to have fun while they were doing it and to explore and be free in it which I think always produces the best stuff. I think when you have a tight grasp on something it can lose stuff which just comes out of play, I suppose, so I really loved working with Bryan and Essie and Liam because everybody shares that sense of play. It so didn’t feel like ever too heavy…which it, is in fact!
And Bryan Cranston is one of the producers on the show…
Actually, he’s such a warm and open creative artist I kind of forgot sometimes he was a producer. One day he wasn’t shooting and he was sitting one of the monitor chairs and I wondered “What’s he doing? Oh god he’s producing the whole show!” So, I think the fact that he’s so open and such fun and such an actor in that sense in that he’s so involved with the play of it all, I never felt like he had his producer’s hat on and then he’s acting, he’s just such a consummate professional. And within that he’s really able to have fun which for me is such an important part of our job so that our emotions are liquid and fluid. Nothing is too tightly wound, and he’s an example of how that works so well.
Moving on to Humans, we really got to know your character in Series Two. What was it like getting to explore Nina in greater depth?
For me, because I had created a whole inner world in the first series, I felt like all of those decisions had been made and all those things were quite set for me, even though we didn’t even shoot them. In the first series I knew from the get-go what she really was, so it felt like by the time we got to the second series we were just letting the audience in on who she is and what she is, but essentially her quest remained the same from the first and second series. She wants to fit in and seem human.
She just took it too far in the second series and ended up losing the most important thing to her, which she didn’t realise until it was gone. But it was really interesting to explore that idea of: if you create something man-made and you try and create something which is so close to what it is to be human, you can’t control it, you don’t know what consciousness is, none of us can quantify what it is.
So, the fact that she cries in the second series was really interesting to me because if you put something together you can’t control how it’s going to be so that was something that obviously came about because of the depth of the emotion she felt, so that was really interesting to play with. The writers gave me such a gift there because that was something we talked about in the first series. But I suppose the nature of greed that she wanted everything, love, and a lovely life, and she was going, “I want this and I want this”, and I’m going, “Oh god you had it all and now it’s gone”, which is so human for all of us.
Do you know anything about what’s coming up in Series Three?
Well I know about it because we’re doing it but that’s all I can say! God, I’m a terrible interviewee, I can’t say anything! [maniacal laugh] But it’s good, very exciting.
We’re also huge fans of Grabbers, where you got to play some pretty brilliant comedy as a Garda who has to get drunk to fight alien monsters!
That much fun, that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a job. That character was a dream because she was so straight-laced at the beginning and obviously it’s her first time getting drunk and she happens to be an adult, so wondering what kind of a drunk you are when you get drunk and how it would affect you trying to save everybody’s life and how everything seems funny when it shouldn’t. Your reactions would be so wrong, so inappropriate.
And then we had such fun because the director said, “I have this crazy idea, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I’d like all of us to go out before shooting, get drunk and let me film you.” And we were like, “Let’s just do it.” That was the funnest experiment ever, I mean it’s horrendous, but then when you watch the video, there are so many physical tells that people do when they’re drunk. So that was really interesting to see all these things that you do and then incorporate this idea that you flirt inappropriately and that’s what you might do when you first have a few drinks, you’re far more tactile. So much fun to play with and create that character.
It’s developed this cult audience too, you always see people talking about it on Twitter…
I know! I’ve heard there’s a drinking game too which is absolutely hilarious! Every time someone says the word grabber you take a drink, that’s only a few times, maybe you drink on other words too! Maybe you drink whenever they drink, that would get you pretty drunk. Totally! But great fun! Again, that’s the thing with sci-fi, there’s so many different genres, genres within genres, comedy sci-fi, horror sci-fi, drama sci-fi….
And you’ve done some horror with anthology movie Holidays. Your segment ‘St Patrick’s Day’ is pretty mad, playing a woman who’s pregnant with a monster…
Completely mad film! [laughs] So much fun though. That was random and out of the blue. [Director] Gary Shore, we would have grown up around the same area, and he was like, “I’ve got this film would you like to do it?” And it was such a quick shoot. I read it and I was like, “I’m fascinated by this but I have absolutely no idea what it’s about, what the story is…” But he’s quite an auteur and he was like, “Let’s just do it!” and he made quite a black comedy. Because when I read it I was like, “Is this a drama?” There was a lot of improvisation and a lot of letting go, going with the flow, a lot of takes that went on and on. But so much fun, an absolutely mad little film! A crazy dark comedy fable.
Do you ever think about genre when you’re thinking about taking a role?
It’s never genre, it’s always character and story. Number one: story, because if you’re reading something and you can’t put it down that’s a really good sign, or if you have to put it down to do something and you’re like “Oh god, I can’t wait to find out what happens next!” like a good book, that’s a really good sign. And then character, the character need to be something interesting and something challenging. You can’t really fake the reaction that you have to a script or a character, you can’t manifest it if it’s not there, so that gut feeling is what I look for and generally that ends up being what you work on because there’s a two-way thing happening. And I suppose with sci-fi there’s so many great female roles.
Is there a genre that you haven’t done that you’d like to try?
I suppose I’ve never really done action. I don’t know how interested I’d be, I think if it was a great character I’d try anything but I definitely don’t really read for a lot of action films. But I have no great desire, I’ve never woken up and gone “Jesus, I’d love to be in an action film!” But listen, if one came along I’d do it! But I’m really happy with what I’m doing at the moment. I’d be happy doing a bit more comedy, actually, probably could do with a bit more of that these days.
Do you find that people mostly recognise you for Humans?
Actually, I never get recognised, ever. No, never. It’s because I have a pretty thick Dublin accent and my hair is long dark blonde and I’m always wearing wigs. I have no idea. Somebody said to me the other day that they watched Humans and I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m in that” and they were like “Oh, are you? You’re so smiley in real life, you’re not like a robot at all!” “Oh yeah, it’s my job.” [laughs] Robots don’t really go around laughing and pulling faces, so no I never really get recognised for that.
You were announced as being part of British horror anthology Its Walls Were Blood a couple of years ago, has there been any news about that happening?
Yeah…it’s like so many of these things, you’re waiting for them to get funding together and hopefully do it down the line.
So what are you working on next?
Right now, I’m doing Humans but I just finished a really cool film called Three Seconds that’s based on a Swedish book set in New York and it’s basically about the NYPD and FBI. It’s a great cast, this really cool director Andrea Di Stefano directed it, it’s got Rosamund Pike in it and Clive Owen and Joel Kinnaman and Common. So yeah, that was really different again. I’m playing a Brooklyn woman, I won’t get recognised for that either.
Finally, was there a sci-fi movie that you remember loving as a kid?
Definitely Alien was one, and Terminator, probably because they had two women as the focal point. I hadn’t quite realised that but in hindsight it might be that, which wasn’t that common in other genres when I was a kid, I suppose. I was really blown away by them, particularly Sigourney Weaver. Ripley is always there somewhere in my heart.
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is currently airing on Channel 4 and you can watch ‘Human Is’ on All4.