By Kerry Potter
From Channel 4’s acclaimed Humans to the upcoming Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, there’s something about science fiction that keeps actress RUTH BRADLEY coming back – and she has even been to robot acting school, as Kerry Potter discovers
Ruth Bradley is as cool as a cucumber. She’s poised, serious, so quiet my Dictaphone struggles to pick up her Dublin brogue, and extremely still. Over the course of an hour, she doesn’t once wave her arms around animatedly, nor does she fiddle with her mobile phone. The star of Humans, The Fall and new sci-fi anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams declares herself ‘pretty bad at small talk. And you know how Irish people are great at embellishing a story? I can’t do it. I’ll say, “No, sorry, that bit wasn’t true.”’
That almost otherworldly calmness is the legacy of her best-known role: DI Karen Voss in Humans, Channel 4’s sci-fi drama about a parallel universe populated by both people and life-like, highly developed robots known as synths. The channel’s most popular homegrown drama for 20 years – which also stars Gemma Chan, Emily Berrington and, in series one, William Hurt and Rebecca Front – will return for a third series next year.
Ruth plays the most conscious of the synths, a detective who falls for her police partner, the lovable, 100 per cent human Pete (Neil Maskell, best known for playing menacing Cockney hardnut types in British flicks such as Kill List and The Football Factory). Their love story, with all its complications (what’s it like when your bedfellow has to plug into the mains overnight to recharge?), made for some of the most moving scenes in the last series, including the tear-jerking moment when Pete was murdered by a rogue robot while Karen looked on helplessly from behind a glass wall.
Playing a synth changed her, says Ruth. ‘I was more emotional and likely to gesticulate before. It has made me more aware of physicality,’ she says. The producers set up a ‘synth school’ for all the actors who played robots, which involved seminars about artificial intelligence and choreography classes. ‘You learn about economy of movement – how do you use the least energy so you don’t need recharging? You have to use really subtle eye movements: the eyes move first and then the head.’
Humans has also affected Ruth’s relationship with technology: ‘I’m not googling as aimlessly as I once was, falling down a rabbit hole finding out things I don’t need to know about. I’m trying to be in control of it rather than letting it be in control of me. That’s probably why the show is so successful – because we all feel like we’re having that battle.’ Channel 4 has yet to confirm that Karen is returning for series three, but given that series two ended with her deeply bonding with the synth-child that she and Pete had unofficially adopted, I’d hazard a guess that the new episodes will explore maternal robot love.
Despite having binge-watched Humans, I didn’t immediately recognise Ruth as I arrived to meet her. And it’s not just because her long mid-brown hair today is so different to the severe dark bob she sports in the show. ‘I never get recognised. I must have one of those forgettable faces, ha! And that’s not a bad thing,’ she says.
Ruth throws herself so completely into her characters, thoroughly researching each role – attending relevant seminars, reading around the subject and writing endless character notes in her journal – and utterly transforming herself. The result is that the viewer might vaguely know the face, but struggles to place it. And flying under the radar is just how she likes it: ‘It’s not, “I’ll do this and make lots of money and I’ll be a star.” It’s more, “I know what art I want to make,”’ she says.
You might also not recognise Ruth from the third series of The Fall, which explored the fate of serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan). She played Spector’s rookie assistant lawyer, who has a key role in the most shocking scene of the show’s entire run. When a seemingly subdued Spector suddenly leaps from his seat and savagely beats Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson, the terrified lawyer resigns on the spot. With Jamie being so attractive, some critics said the show glamorised violence.
Ruth disagrees. ‘It’s disturbing we have this idea that a serial killer has to look a certain way. You could have a monster who looks like the loveliest person. When I filmed In Her Skin [the 2009 Australian movie based on a true story, in which Ruth played a teenager who murdered a girl she babysat for] I did a lot of research on the nature of psychopathy. These people have the intelligence to convince you how charming they are.’
Working alongside Jamie, did Ruth get the whole ‘sex god’ thing? ‘He’s just a really lovely, extremely normal Belfast boy. The kind of guy you chat to about where you went to school.’ Did she see Fifty Shades of Grey before she worked with him? ‘I did. It’s fun, isn’t it?’ she smirks, before shovelling a well-timed forkful of salad into her mouth.
Next we’ll see her in Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, a ten-part adaptation of the sci-fi writer’s short stories, which boasts a cast including Timothy Spall, Anna Paquin and Steve Buscemi. Each episode is a standalone story and Ruth’s episode, Human Is, is about a woman (played by Essie Davis of Game of Thrones) in an emotionally abusive marriage to a man (Bryan Cranston) who suddenly undergoes a complete personality change. Ruth plays Essie’s confidante, Yaro – who may or may not be acting in her friend’s best interests.
‘You don’t really know if she’s trustworthy,’ says Ruth. More sci-fi, then? ‘I’m definitely a fan of the genre – women are pretty well represented in it. Like Ellen Ripley in Alien and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, you get characters who are not defined by their gender but instead by their story. I’m drawn to anything that features women like these.’ One of the things that attracted her to the role of Yaro is that it was originally scripted as a man. ‘With any good script you should be able to swap the genders and it shouldn’t make a difference.’
Working with Bryan, Breaking Bad’s iconic teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White, left a big impression: ‘I was a massive fan of that show and the evolution of Walter – you start out rooting for him but by the end you think, “Oh God, he’s a psychopath.” I was struck by how playful and fun Bryan was. And he’s got this great work/life balance with his family – that’s the way I want to be when I’m at that stage in my life,’ she says. She would like children ‘some day’ and although she isn’t dating at the moment, she’s ‘totally open to it’, whoever that person may be.
‘Gender is a pointless label. If you fall in love with someone it doesn’t really matter what gender they are. All those things are at odds with the idea of loving somebody. Nobody is a label, we constantly evolve and change. I think we need fewer labels and more listening,’ she says, earnestly. Then she breaks into a self-deprecating giggle: ‘I have to put that on Instagram – an inspirational mantra!’
Ruth’s composure and self-assuredness come from the fact that this bright young thing is actually a 30-year-old veteran of the theatre. Aged seven she was treading the boards at London’s Donmar Warehouse in a touring Irish theatre company, alongside her mother Charlotte Bradley, an IFTA (Ireland’s BAFTA)-winning actor. ‘I always knew I was going to act like I always knew I was going to eat food,’ says Ruth.
At 18 she dropped out of a language degree at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College just three weeks in. ‘It was wasted on me. I knew I wanted to act. I had the right amount of cockiness and naivety. I thought: “If I don’t leave now, I’m going to get really comfortable, so I need to drop out of college and move to London.”’
Big city life was a struggle at first, though. Despite being a child theatre star, off stage she lacked confidence, ‘looked about 12’ and felt out of her depth and lonely. ‘I rented a room in a flat on Gumtree and didn’t know how adults interacted with each other, so I’d run and hide in my room to avoid chatting with my flatmates.’ But she dug in, worked as a waitress and a shop girl while auditioning and, after a disappointing spell in Hollywood appearing in pilots that didn’t get commissioned, eventually started landing roles.
She now describes herself as ‘pootling along in my career’, but that’s underplaying it somewhat. Like her mother, she’s an IFTA-winner for her work in Irish TV drama and film, although British viewers will probably have first clocked her playing a time-travelling Victorian woman in Primeval, ITV’s sci-fi (that genre again) drama that ran from 2007 to 2011.
One of her early Irish movies, Alarm, saw her play a Dubliner in a troubled relationship with a broodingly handsome young man played by another Dubliner, one Aidan Turner. ‘We’ve been great mates since then. It’s a small acting community in Ireland. There’s this running joke that all Irish people know each other. We’re, like, [huffily] “No, actually, we don’t.” But, yeah, we do!’ So that’s another sex god in her mobile phone contacts, then? ‘This whole Poldark thing! It’s just massive,’ she says.
Is she a fan of that scything scene? ‘I didn’t sit down especially to watch it! But he’s a very handsome man. He hasn’t changed a bit and I’m sure he won’t. He’s a lovely boy.’ They occasionally catch up in London for a coffee and a chat. Does she tease him about his heart-throb status? ‘No, he’s so gorgeous, you wouldn’t tease him. He’s very self-deprecating anyway.’
Her dream is to return to the stage to play Lady Macbeth, but later today she’s going to get her hair chopped and dyed for her role as an undercover cop in Three Seconds, alongside Rosamund Pike. (The film is based on the bestselling Swedish novel by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström.)
She’s supremely relaxed about drastic appearance changes for roles: “You have to put your vanity to one side,” she shrugs. For In Her Skin, she had to put on three stone. ‘It was a story that needed to be told so I was, like, “Of course I’ll gain weight.” It was a no-brainer. I wasn’t allowed to shave my underarms or legs either, so I really went there! I revel in roles where you don’t have to be aware of how you look.’
The film’s nutritionist advised her to eat avocados and other healthy high-fat foods, but she wanted a convincing grey pallor and sluggish demeanour so went Method and gorged on junk food instead. Afterwards, the first two stone fell off but it took her six months of working with a personal trainer three times a week to lose the final one, a prospect that would make most women shudder. ‘It didn’t affect my confidence because there was a purpose to it – it was all part of the character I’d created,’ she says. ‘The frustration lay in not being able to immediately shed the character, as opposed to the weight, because it was all intertwined.’
For all her seriousness and relentless professionalism, Ruth is good company: warm, quick to laugh – usually at herself – and nowhere near as bad at small talk as she claims. But whatever you do, don’t call her nice. ‘When I was younger I felt as though I had to be nice to make people feel like everything was OK,’ she explains. ‘Then I realised it’s more important to be honest. Women are people-pleasers and that’s the way we’ve been programmed, but I hope that when I die people don’t go, “Aww, she was so nice.”’ We wouldn’t dare.
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams will be on Channel 4 later this month