William Hurt is precise. He takes the words we all choose in casual conversation very seriously, from small talk about the weather that leads to a discussion about the long-term consequences of global-warming, to the particular use of a word like “storytelling,” and why it’s not exactly appropriate for his definition of acting. “I’m doing work I believe in,” says the Oscar winner. “I think it’s important. Those images are going to go into children’s heads. So I take it seriously—as seriously as a neurosurgeon takes his work.”
Hurt plays widower George Millican in AMC’s upcoming sci-fi drama series, Humans, based on the Swedish series Real Humans. In this exclusive first-look photo, he sits at his workdesk, where he occasionally tinkers with watches and clocks. In the show, which is set in a parallel present, the latest techno gadgets are domestic Synths, human-looking robots who are designed to make our lives better and easier. But how advanced is this new artificial intelligence, and are they destined to become just as human on the inside as they look on the outside? “I have some seriously high hopes for it,” says Hurt. “I think it’s an audacious beginning. And I think, from what I could see in the first season, it’s leaving a lot of room for growth.”
Hurt, 65, is philosophical and honest—about Humans, mankind’s future, and his career. “I’m not very good at secrets and for all actors’ reputations for being good liars, I’m not a good liar.”
AMC is planning to debut Humans later this year.
EW: The first-look photo of your character’s workdesk made me think of a tinkerer like Geppetto.
WILLIAM HURT: That’s a good thing because Odi, their first-iteration caretaker Synth, comes in the form of a young man and is the repository of his memories of his wife, because he’s losing his memory and his wife died. He doesn’t have a relationship with Odi because Odi isn’t sentient, but he has something like a relationship with him in that Odi is an operating library of memories of his wife. So Odi gets the love that George is trying to keep alive for his wife. But if Odi breaks, so does George’s mind.
There are three Synths in his life. One is Odi. One is a nurse-maid who comes in; she’s non-sentient. And then comes the third iteration, which has the premonition of sentients. The challenge comes when technology starts taking over your capacity to know and care about yourself—doing it for you.
What about the show got your attention?
The show is about the confrontation between human beings and forms of convenience in artifical intelligence that raise a lot of questions about whether or not it’s valuable to us, and in what way. People who are going to be looking at the program are going to be posing questions about the nature of our relationship, human relations, with machinery, computers. And it’s a great conversation to have. Basically, what you see is humanity coming up with a tool that is hopefully going to solve more problems than it creates. But as usual, human beings tend to do stupid things with powerful toys. There’s all kinds of things that can go wrong. When a pseudo-sentient bot comes into your kitchen, that was designed to be an attractive young female domestic helper, and your 16-year old thinks it’s attractive, you got a problem.
Are you optimistic about artificial intelligence, in general, or cautious?
I try not to be an –ic about anything—a cynic, an optimistic. But what if you cross the line between what they call Asimov Protocol Bots—these bots are installed with these three laws that basically say, “Don’t mess with a human being”—and the concept called the technological singularity coming into being? What if artificial intelligence becomes independent sentient intelligence? You’re going to have a partner in the future. And that partner’s going to have thoughts of its own. There’s a theory that goes if you commanded a program into a highly evolved computer, and the program had one simple instruction—Make a better paper clip—the first thing a computer would do to accomplish the ultimate goal of making a better paper clip would be to keep us away from the electric plug. Because it would want to guarantee its own existence in order to accomplish the task. Because we might disagree.
Increasingly, TV seems to be the place for superior storytelling, and you’ve dived right in, it seems, since Damages. Do you view that development, in its relationship to the movies, with some regret or is it the best thing to ever happen to actors?
You say better storytelling, but I don’t use the word telling much. Because I don’t want to be told what to think or feel, and I don’t tell other people what to think or feel. What my job is as an actor is to figure out a way to find a space in which I can explore the life of the screenplay, to the extent that my character lives the story, not tells it. My job is to identify with human beings. And people do have stories in their psyches which they repeat neurotically, but most of life for most people is a complete surprise. And crafting a surprise without being manipulative is an art form. You’re sharing the experience of wondering, “What the hell is going on?” And that’s something that all of us are doing all the time. So we’re very close to each other. We’re very intimately connected. You and I, neither one of us knows what the next heartbeat is going to bring in its entirety. We place bets on probabilities. Really, my job as an actor is to not know—not tell. My job it to be appropriately surprised.
I watched Broadcast News recently, in part I think because of the Brian Williams headlines. Did that recent news cause any reflection for you?
Sure. I know Brian. I met him. He’s a nice guy. He just f–ked up. He exaggerated for the sake of trying to impress on other people how dangerous the situation is for their own soldiers and sons and daughters. So he embellished, to try to wake people up, to show how dangerous the situation is for their children. And then he got nailed for being inaccurate and for calling attention to himself—but that isn’t what he was doing. I mean, maybe a piece of it. But the ultimate goal was, “Why do I have to sit here and look good all the time? Why can’t I say how dangerous it is out there?”
Two weeks ago, Randall Miller, the director of the Gregg Allman biopic you were making, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the deadly train accident that killed camera assistant Sarah Jones and injured others. Did that resolution offer any closure for you?
I’m afraid it’s impossible for me to talk about that in public. I was right there. A lot of things happened before the train came… I tried to stop it. I mean, I stopped production on the bridge. I said, I don’t feel right. And I asked some deliberate questions in front of the whole crew. But I have to be very, very careful that I don’t lend my energy to this becoming in any way about me and my role as a well-known actor. This is people. It needs to stay that way. It needs to be about Sarah and about [her parents] Richard and Elizabeth and [her brother] Eric and [injured hairstylist] Joyce Gillard. There were a lot of people hurt there, and it changed our lives.