Dan Stevens, who plays a charming robot in ‘I’m Your Man,’ says humans are weird

SEP 19, 2021

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert in the new film “I’m Your Man.” (Photo by Christine Fenzl/Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Of technology, Stevens says, 'Usually, the things we’re afraid of turn out not to be the things we should have been worried about.'

When Alma, an archaeologist who spends her days studying ancient worlds, agrees to test a humanoid robot designed to be the perfect mate, she does it unenthusiastically, mostly to appease her boss and help fund her studies. Played by Maren Eggert in the new film “I’m Your Man,” Alma is resistant to the charms of Tom, even though he is programmed to match her needs and desires. Also, he looks like Dan Stevens.

Stevens, the British actor who rose to fame in “Downton Abbey” and has since starred in “Legion,” manages to capture Tom’s precise, programmed manner and his gradual transformation into someone more human that the audience can root for — even as we might worry that specimens like this might one day replace us.

The German-language film, directed by Maria Schrader (“Unorthodox”) and released on Sept. 24, is set in Berlin. Stevens, who also speaks fluent German and French, was adopted as a baby, and he says he has always seen himself as something of an outsider, which has often informed the roles he has chosen.

Stevens spoke recently via Zoom about the character, artificial intelligence and dancing the rhumba. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Looking at your roles in “The Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Legion,” “Night at the Museum” and now this, one wonders, are you, in fact, human? Seriously, though, is there something about these roles that draws you in or is there something about you that makes directors want you for these roles?

It’s funny how people start to see patterns in things not deliberate on my part. I’m certainly an odd human being, maybe that helps. They’re outsiders and outsiders make for very interesting roles.

Dan Stevens and Maren Eggert in the new film “I’m Your Man.” (Photo by Christine Fenzl/Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Q. How do you try to get inside your character’s mind when he’s a constructed humanoid?

You’re still trying to get inside the process of the mind, looking at what Tom is thinking about. He’s a very mission-oriented character. It’s all programming, where he thinks, ‘This isn’t working, how can I change this behavior to make it function better.’ Tom tries traditional romantic routes with Alma, then realizes that’s not the way to go and takes another path.

Q. When he reorganizes her apartment, it’s so perfect and neat, which makes sense to a machine but her way was better for her, and a symbol of the messiness of our lives.

His version looked good for Instagram. But it’s not for Alma. He had learned according to a different set of rules. That’s common in human relationships. By making Tom a robot, we get to see those beats in any relationship — there’s an evolution in how we behave, how we think, how we learn from our other half. Charting that with Maria was great.

Q. You talk with your hands, but Tom is much more constrained. You also changed the way you carried your body, like the posture of your head and shoulders. How important was that?

Physical preparation is a big part of character discovery for me. There was constant discussion in pre-production about how much of a machine do we want to see in Tom at any given point and how much do we want to see him evolve, learning human mannerisms and characteristics.

The first time we see Tom he’s moving more robotically — he’s dancing the rhumba, which, I discovered while learning it, is a very precise dance. It feels almost robotic.

But Tom evolves. So we wanted to show that he started with pre-programmed mannerisms: He’d come into a room and put his hands on his hips because that’s what a guy does or sit on a sofa and just [Stevens demonstrates manspreading]. Why do we do these things? Why do we put our hand on our chin when we’re thinking, it makes no sense; it has zero contribution to the thought process but it’s what we do.

I think about those things anyway, so I was lucky to find a job that focused on that. The film is gently, or not so gently, suggesting how weird humans are.

Q. There are the things we know or understand and then the things we desire, sometimes despite what we know and understand. Alma really doesn’t want to fall for Tom. Are we all just suckers, but in the best way possible?

That’s definitely true where love is concerned — against your better judgment and all of your intellect, you’ll still fall for this person and there’s no logic behind that. What’s funny about the dynamic is that Tom’s the ultimate logician yet it’s a totally illogical relationship.

Q. Unlike a movie like “Ex Machina,” “I’m Your Man” has a benevolent, almost humane view of these creations… even as it never lets us forget what makes our humanity so vital through Alma’s concerns and behavior. What’s your take on our future with humanoids?

That question has been around since we had any technology and taps into people’s fears about the future.

Technology is only as benevolent as the people who develop it make it, whether it’s an app or a humanoid. Usually, the things we’re afraid of turn out not to be the things we should have been worried about. When Twitter started, many people said, ‘This is a wonderful new democratic thing.’ There were some concerns, but I don’t think anyone dreamed of the problems it would cause.

There’s a scene in the movie with an angry guy in a crosswalk that reminds us that while we have this fear that humanoid robots will turn on us, we’re already doing that to ourselves just fine.

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