by Fred Topel
It’s already November, but the networks still have one new show to present for the fall TV season. Fox waited until after the World Series to premiere its latest series, but we met the cast this summer when they presented the show to the Television Critics Association. Almost Human comes with a high pedigree, created by Fringe creator Joel Wyman and produced by the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams.
Almost Human is a cop drama set in the near future, where human police officers are paired with android partners. Karl Urban plays John Kennex, a veteran cop reluctant to work with a robot, and even more upset that he himself sports a bionic leg after an accident. His partner, Dorian the android, is played by Michael Ealy.
The genre of cop drama is full of partners who don’t get along. In that way, Almost Human is timeless, even though it is set in the future and has robots and lasers in it. “I don’t think of it as a sci-fi series,” Urban said. “To me, I think of it as a human drama. It’s a buddy buddy cop show. One of the cops happens to be an android. I don’t think I would’ve taken this show if it was a science fiction that was way out in the future with flying cars and spaceships and all that sort of stuff. I’ve done that sort of thing. This is far more aesthetically closer to where we are. It’s more accessible and this is not a TV show just for fans of science fiction and futurism. I think at the heart of the show, it’s about these great characters. That’s going to draw people in week in and week out.”
In the Abrams directed Star Trek films, Urban plays Dr. Bones McCoy, the role originated by DeForest Kelly. Urban has also appeared in science fiction movies like Dredd, The Chronicles of Riddick and The Lord of the Rings. He is a fan as well, so brought a strict criteria with him to Almost Human.
“I watched a lot of television as a kid,” Urban said. “I was always drawn to shows like Star Trek, which presented a wonderful kind of vision of the future where it didn’t matter what race or culture or creed that you came from, that you were accepted on equal terms and that humanity had overcome the warring and the differences and was now united. It’s a very positive and optimistic vision of the future and I think that’s why that show was so successful and people were latching onto that.”
Almost Human is not as far off as Star Trek. We still have a lot of the problems that we face in 2013 in the world of this show.
“We’re not presenting a dystopian vision of the future,” Urban continued. “This is a future that is immediately accessible. We’ve still got mortgages. Mom and dad still take the kids to soccer. It’s just that, in this slightly futuristic vision, society is dealing with elements and difficulties that are just a little bit beyond the curve for us, and I find that interesting. We play characters who are really at the frontline of protecting the society against the misapplication of [technologies], whether it be genetics or robotics, or anything like that. The wonderful thing that I think the show does is it really sort of questions us. It makes us, as an audience, ask what does it mean to be human? And if I was in that situation, how I would react? I think that’s a key of all good shows.”
When he got the role of the android Dorian, Ealy was faced with the same question Urban asked. What does it mean to be human? Then he had to figure out how to make Dorian not quite human.
“As an actor, you tend to draw on your human instincts and your background, what you’ve gone through as an individual,” Ealy said. “The hardest things in terms of playing Dorian is to act like I don’t have that and to bring that kind of innocence to him that he doesn’t have the experience, the life experience that Karl’s character, John Kennex, has. He doesn’t have that. So he’s fascinated with that, and he observes it, and he learns from it. He’s just you know, Joel and I talked about this from the beginning. Let’s make him as observant as possible.”
In turn, Kennex has to deal with his own robotic elements. His leg sometimes glitches, but even when it’s working properly, it causes Kennex some psychological issues. “I enjoyed the frustration Kennex feels about that,” Urban said. “Obviously he has issues with synthetics, with androids who he feels have let him down and are partially responsible for the loss of his partner and a lot of other people. For him, it’s a constant issue. He has to deal with those prejudices. Then to suddenly find himself in a situation where he is part machine sickens him. Also on the flip side of that coin, to have a bionic leg? Come on, that also is an asset. It can be a liability, it can be a huge asset.”
Kennex and Dorian get off to a rocky start as Kennex’s prejudices against robots antagonize Dorian. Even with his programming to serve his human partner, Dorian can be sensitive. More than that, he wants to be as human as possible, which doesn’t quite compute with an android brain.
“I go through this as Michael playing Dorian,” Ealy said. “[It’s] something we can’t really conceive. We can’t step outside of ourselves and imagine what it’s like to watch [officers] talk about something that she doesn’t like very much and understand why they’re having this conversation. I think it’s so hard for us to step outside of ourselves. For me, what it comes down to is, I hate to simplify it but I tend to try and reduce Dorian sometimes to make him somewhat childlike in that he’s just innocent in terms of observing what’s going on around him. It’s interesting to play someone who’s constantly trying to grasp something that he’ll never have.”
As Ealy began playing Dorian, he started to notice other things we take for granted in human interaction. If he’s not going to be human, he’s going to have to respond to humanity a bit differently.
“It’s making me more observant as a person,” Ealy continued. “I think I observe human behavior now a lot more than I did in the past. I remember being a waiter, waiting tables in the beginning, and this sounds a little crass, but I could always tell when a guy hadn’t had sex with the girl that he’s on a date with because I could observe the human behavior. Then you could tell, as they came back into the restaurant, when it had happened. You could tell. You could totally tell. And it said something about us as guys. I hate to say it. It said something really bad about us, really, to be honest with you. We lose some of our manners. We do. I hate to say it. We do. And this role has thrust me back into that. So I pay attention to the TSA agent and how they are. I start paying attention to what’s going on around me a lot more.”
That could also make Dorian a vital asset as as detective too. If Kennex takes some clues for granted as a human, he’s got Dorian to question them. That will make the cases they solve inherently different than the cases on Law & Order or CSI.
“I think what makes Almost Human unique and original is the fact that if you can see the case on another cop show, we are not going to do it,” Urban said. “We are going to show the audience something that they haven’t seen. To me, that’s one of the more interesting and compelling elements of the show.”
Having a lucrative career in film, signing on to a TV series will take Urban out of the running for some roles. However, the director of his biggest film role offered him Almost Human, so he knew it was something special. “
“I got a call from J.J. saying, ‘I’ve got an amazing project for you. I want you to have a look at it.’” Urban said. “I read it and was immediately captivated by not only the character of Kennex and his situation, but his relationship with this android. I really responded to the fact that Kennex was quite damaged material. In some unlikely way finds a machine that somehow draws out his humanity. That interested me. Added to that was the synergy of again working with J.J. Abrams who I absolutely adore and respect, and Joel Wyman who I also have a lot of respect and appreciation for. At the end of the day, I was just drawn to the characters and I thought why not? I’m looking forward to the challenge of being able to tell the journey and the evolution of a character over, touch wood, 22 episodes as opposed to two hours.”
In success, Almost Human will keep Urban busy for most of the year, but Abrams will make sure he’s free to film a third Star Trek movie. “I’m not concerned about not being available to do features for nine months of the year because I’m working and I’m exercising my craft and working with great material,” Urban said. “That being said, I know that I will continue to work in the feature film industry. I’ll continue to make Star Treks, God willing another Dredd and whatever else. I just see it as a real positive.”
The craft of television isn’t such a new challenge for Urban. He has been working on feature films, and very technically complicated feature films, but his directors have been so efficient it’s prepared him for the fast paced world of television.
“Working on Star Trek, you have to understand. J.J. comes from a television sensibility,” Urban said. “You are working at quite a clip. For me, personally, I like being in that place. I like being having being forced to think quick on your feet. It makes you more resourceful. It stretches you as an actor. I think you get better work for it as a result. I feel truly blessed to be working with such a phenomenal cast as we have got and such a phenomenal crew. These guys have been working together for five years on Fringe. So we are not stepping into a new situation. We are stepping into a well oiled machine, and we are hitting the ground running, and I think that the results speak for themselves.”
Ealy comes from a wealth of shows like Sleeper Cell, The Good Wife, Californication and Common Law. He’s enjoying Almost Human already.
“It’s a very fun role,” Ealy said. “It’s actually been one of the more fun roles that I’ve ever had because, on paper, it doesn’t look like it would be that much fun. Okay. I can’t lie. When I first read it, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have a love interest. I really did. I started thinking long term. That was a concern of mine but the more I read the script, and the more I embraced the characters, the more I realized that’s actually a good thing. Stretch yourself. Don’t go the way that you’ve gone before, and play something different. So, yes, I am having a ball, and working with this cast has been a lot of fun, especially this guy right here: [Urban.]”
Almost Human premieres November 17 on Fox.