Carrie-Anne Moss currently stars on the second season of AMC’s Humans as Athena, a scientist who studies the possibility of imbuing “synthetics” — the show’s version of robots — with human consciousness. Both that subject matter and the show’s ongoing conflict between people and machines share some thematic connective tissue with The Matrix, the 1999 film that launched Moss’s career.
But during a recent conversation with Vulture, Moss says she didn’t connect any dots between the two. “It never crossed my mind, honestly,” she says. “I think that I’m attracted to this kind of material because it’s very much what I’m interested in in my own life, which is this conversation about humanity and consciousness. When I read things like that, my interest is piqued because it’s speaking to some of the inner questions that I have.” Vulture spoke with Moss about those inner questions, her concerns about electromagnetic waves, and how Humans makes her think more deeply about our digitally driven world.
One of the things I really like about Humans is that parts of the show don’t seem out of the realm of possibility. As an actor, does it ever feel disconcerting to deal directly with the synths?
What’s coming to mind right now, I remember walking through a scene, a restaurant scene. There was a synth there to seat me and a synth there handing me the menu and handing me my jacket, and I just imagined, in the moment of doing it, “Wow, imagine if all of these jobs were taken over by synths? Who would I be in that?” And then, of course, the character I’m playing — who would she be? How would you react to a machine taking your jacket? I consciously chose to acknowledge them. There was this thing in me that felt it was important to acknowledge them.
It sounds so silly: Here I am, handing my jacket to my synthetic and I can’t help but say thank you. And I’m the one who’s asking my children to say thank you to Siri when they ask her something, you know? I am Canadian, after all. But it reminded me of anyone in history who has been used and disrespected and disregarded, in a way. As it progresses in the second season, [the show] brings up this idea of human compassion. When we don’t have that compassion at all, even if it’s toward a machine, we really are lost and it’s such a dark road to imagine.
I feel like we’re at this really interesting place in the world. Technology is just so fast. As convenient as it is, it’s stressing a lot of us out. It’s just too much, too quick. And I’m interested in that conversation. I want people to be thinking about that as they’re handing their small children devices. There’s a story line with the young girl in season two that I think is a really relevant conversation, you know? She becomes so attached to this synthetic, and we see that with children and devices, for instance. They’re attached to them. You really want your kids to be attached to human beings who are caring about them.
As you mention, kids now are accustomed to having interactions with Siri and things like that. When my son started using devices, I didn’t even have to teach him what to do. He instinctively understood.
I know. I mean, I could probably become politically active in this conversation because it’s so important to me. Because we don’t understand the ramifications of what we’re doing. And our children are the guinea pigs. I don’t know how old your child is …
So I have an 11-year old, a 13-year-old, and 7-year-old. And these are the guinea pigs.
I often think about my mom being pregnant with me. At that time, all the moms were smoking. Like, your doctor even actually recommended it to you. You look back and you think, “Well, gosh, I would know better than that. I would know that’s not a good thing to do.” I think we’ll look back at technology in the same way. When we’re discovering that all of the electromagnetic waves and all of that is actually making people sick and who knows what — I could go on and on for days with that conversation. Even the detachment that it creates, it really lulls people to sleep. It lulls them into this idea, myself included, where you’ve spent hours somewhere and you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something and you’ve accomplished nothing. You’ve just been surfing your phone from one thing to another, under the guise that it’s really helpful, right? I have a lot of faith that the young people are going to rebel on it all at some point, hopefully.
The synthetics on our show were put through this boot-camp training, which was just beautifully executed. It made me want to totally play one. The choreographer taught them what it would be like to be a synthetic, and it was really interesting to listen to him. Human beings feel like that when they put themselves in their phones and they’re not fully present. It’s like you’re in another dimension. You’re in another reality when you’re looking down at your phone, walking across the street and almost getting hit by a car.
There’s that zombie-ish loss of expression.
Totally. Most of the time when you look around, everyone is just plugged in and doing that. You see it everywhere. I’m plugged in, too. I’m one of those people a lot of the time, but I have a lot of moments where I look around and I go, “Holy shit, what are we doing?”
While the conscious synths are starting to deal with actual emotions, Athena keeps trying to control her emotions and hold things in check. Do you think of her as a corollary to the synths, but moving in the opposite direction?
I didn’t really think of it that way. I thought about it more as someone who is in a lot of grief and who is living their life in a way that is manageable and very controlled. As you get to know her and you get to find out what’s going on in her life, you see a little bit more.
When the creators of the show gave me her bio, they showed the beginning of her life and where this mechanism was created. I think we all have mechanisms that we use, each of us individually, to deal with pain that we’ve had or just dealing with life or whatever. Everyone’s story is different, but we all have some kind of mechanism that we use to deal with stuff, that we create pretty young. Which is one of the things I love about acting, because you get to really explore that.
If synths actually existed in our society like they do on the show, would you consider having one in your home?
No, I wouldn’t. But I also can see the slippery slope of how easy it is. I swore that my kids would never have cell phones or an Xbox or whatever. And suddenly you’re saying yes to one thing and suddenly you have it all, right?
I think it’s so brilliantly told in Humans with the family. Everyone’s so stressed and harried and here’s this extra set of hands, but without any emotional baggage. You know they’re going to be dependable and they’re just going to show up and do their job. You can see how tempting it would be to have that. But I feel like when we outsource all the bits of our lives, we miss our lives. And that’s not to say I don’t outsource parts of what I do, too. But, like, raising your kids? I wouldn’t want that at all.
V, the operating system Athena communicates with, isn’t that far off from Siri. It’s a far more sophisticated version, but the relationship between them isn’t much of a stretch.
No, and I think she gets a lot of comfort from that relationship. Every time Athena talked to V, I just felt her guard go down. Slowly and slowly, as we see her talking to V, the more you get to see a different side of her. She’s more vulnerable with V. She’s more human with V.
I think this conversation is amazing to be having — and to be having it around a show that is able to talk about it in a way that everyone can grasp, and it’s not such an outrageous concept. That’s really exciting storytelling for me. Sometimes, you’ll watch shows and you won’t be able to relate to any of it, but it’s fun.
If you think about The Matrix and how high-concept it was, it had these incredible ideas that really penetrated people’s consciousness. It really was a film of awakening. I think a lot of people woke up around that film. But you really weren’t putting yourself in their shoes, right? There was a little bit of distance, I think. I haven’t seen it in years, so I could be wrong. Maybe I’m missing it. But in Humans, you can really relate to the characters and what they are going through.
This interview has been edited and condensed.