Having appeared in such film and television projects as Code 8, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, The X-Files, The Flash, and Upload to name but a small few, Robbie Amell is obviously no stranger to sci-fi. However, it still takes a strong script to draw a genre veteran back into a familiar sandbox, something director April Mullen accomplished with Simulant.
The futuristic thriller – which releases on digital, VOD, and in select theaters this coming Friday – finds Amell heading up a star-studded cast that includes Fast & Furious veteran Jordana Brewster, Avatar‘s Sam Worthington, and Marvel Cinematic Universe breakout Simu Liu as Evan, a man who discovers he died in an accident and has been brought back to life as a sentient AI.
Naturally, the film has become incredibly prescient given the ongoing conversations surrounding similar technology that’s been dominating the discourse, adding an unexpected layer of immediacy and prescience to Simulant, something Amell was keenly aware of when he spoke to We Got This Covered about his experience.
During our chat, we cover what drew him back to the world of sci-fi all over again, the looming shadows of all-time classics with similar conceits, what he would do if he woke up and discovered he was no longer flesh and blood, and much more – which you can check out below.
You’ve done quite a bit of sci-fi in your career, but is there ever any apprehension on your part when a script hits your desk, or is it all dependent on the quality of the material?
Robbie Amell: Totally dependent. So there’s a few things. The script, obviously, just the writing and reading it. Whether it’s the character, dialogue or the story, or there’s a great hook or something like that. The director; April’s awesome. I really liked our conversation and what she had to say.
And the cast. I mean, getting an opportunity to act alongside Sam Worthington and Jordana Brewster and Simu Liu is a pretty big deal for me. So that was super cool. Also, selfishly, there’s the convenience aspect of it. I have a three year-old, and the movie shot in Toronto and Hamilton, so I got to be home while I was doing it. So it checked a lot of boxes.
But yeah, I mean, I’ve done a lot of sci fi, but I also watch a lot of sci fi, I really enjoy it. I’m comfortable with the world and the tone. And I like to think that I have a good grasp of what – hopefully – works in a sci fi movie. But I don’t know, maybe I should branch out and do some other stuff!
You’ve appeared in a few movies and TV shows within that space, whether it’s Upload, The X-Files, or Code 8, but there’s never been any repetition character or performance-wise, and that’s something that carries on through Simulant, because Evan isn’t quite the person you believe him to be in more ways than one.
Robbie Amell: Without giving too much away, it was a fun role for me to play. It was cool to talk to April right off the bat and just kind of be like, “Okay, well, how much should he feel like a robot?” And she’s like, “Not at all.” She was like, “There are moments that the audience will recognize that he’s a robot, but it should just be kind of a sad story about a guy who thinks that he’s a person and finds out that he isn’t.”
And I thought that was really interesting. I also think the movie, just in general, raises some points that are a little polarizing. Like, April and I had different ideas about whether or not we would bring someone back as a Simulant. And I really sympathize with Jordana’s character, I think that I would probably do it, and regret it, and not be able to put this thing down and try and find it a new life.
So I actually really understood Jordana’s character, which was weird to sympathize with her, you know, playing opposite her. But I guess I just kind of found some stuff. I don’t know what the question was anymore, I’m just kind of talking about that!
It’s a love story first and foremost, which isn’t only something that audiences may not be expecting, but it definitely doesn’t play out the way they’d expect it to, so did you relish that opportunity as an actor to take on something that sounds familiar on the surface, but is actually very subversive?
Robbie Amell: Yeah, I like that it’s subjective. And that, you know, there’s no… I wouldn’t say there’s any heroes in the movie. I don’t know… a lot of the Simulants kind of feel more like people than the people in the movie. It feels like they’re trying to live, and they’re looking for things that are less material. They’re just looking for life, and enjoyment, and love.
And that’s what they’re trying to get out of this world – even though they’re the robots – and I just found that kind of interesting. Sam’s character is very by-the-book, and he’s trying to shut these things down, and you understand why, but I kind of sympathize with these robots, which says that we’re probably going to a really scary place with where we are with AI, and how far it’s going to go.
The big reveal surrounding Evan’s existence is made right at the beginning of the movie, when in other stories it could have potentially been saved for later down the line as a major twist, which sets out a stall right from the beginning that Simulant is going to be something different. Did that help your performance at all, knowing that you were getting to grips with it right away instead of having to hold any cards closer to your chest for the sake of a rug-pull?
Robbie Amell: It’s tough to answer that question. Because if it was written with a twist, then the answer might be yes. But the way that it was written, it was… The main conversation I had with with April was kind of like, “How real do you play this guy?” And I think that was the nice thing was, although he’s a robot – that’s done in visual effects, and that’s done in kind of the world that he’s put into – I just wanted to play him a little more like a person.
And I don’t know, I mean, it’s kind of it’s interesting that as he finds out he’s a robot and starts to lose things in his life, it’s almost like it makes him more… it pushes him more that way, than if he didn’t know. It’s that ignorance is bliss thing, where maybe if he didn’t know, it just would have felt if the audience didn’t know, and he didn’t know, then we wouldn’t have been a sci fi movie; he just would have been a person.
There are homages to some iconic stories, and any story about androids in a dystopia is always going to have the shadow of Blade Runner overhead, but did you see that as more of a challenge to put your own spin on it, as opposed to the pressure of comparisons that may or may not be made?
Robbie Amell: Well, I mean, there’s always going to be comparisons, like you said, and there’s a reason movies like Blade Runner are so famous and so good. And it’s because they’re so smart, and interesting, and make people think, and there’s always going to be overlap when you’re dealing with AI and Simulants.
And I thought what was nice was it took pieces of all of these movies – I thought there was some Ex Machina to it when I read it, I thought there was some Blade Runner, obviously – but like these other movies at its core, if you don’t care about the people in the movie, it’s not going to be worth watching. So I think from an acting standpoint, you just want to try and focus on the human aspect of these robots, or these characters, and try and find things to mirror there, to let people see themselves in.
And even though they’ve never been in this exact situation, just show them what it would be like. The thing that stood out for me was reading it, and thinking I would probably do this, and also thinking about how we’re probably not that far away from some kind of version of this.
If you woke up tomorrow and discovered you were a Simulant, what would your first reaction be, after the obvious freakout was out of the way?
Robbie Amell: Boy… I would want upgrades! I would be like, “If I’m a Simulant, like, give me every language I want to be able to speak.” Once I was done with being terrified and pissed off and sad, I’d be like, “Okay, well, I’m still the version of me that I was the day before, so hit me with all the upgrades.”
Just the best possible version of yourself?
Robbie Amell: Yeah, why not?
That’s what we should all be aiming for anyway, really.
Robbie Amell: Exactly!
Simulant releases on digital, VOD, and select theaters this coming Friday, June 2.