Actors who play robots (or other variations of artificial intelligence) have the difficult task of appearing human enough to develop as characters without ever losing sight of their true mechanized nature. With the right actor, these roles can lead to iconic performances that feel surprisingly human. Each of the actors below has brought life to an artificially intelligent character, memorable for the delicate balance between synthetic nature and human behavior.
These great performances include a variety of artificially created characters, including robots, androids, holograms, and computer programs. Each is designed for different purposes, with some made to be companions and others given extreme strength for physical labor or battle. They all have an appearance that is mostly human-looking - or at least modeled to have a close resemblance. This human appearance makes the subtlety of the performances even more important. Whether in the mechanical behavior of the physicality or the vocal inflection in the delivery of lines, these choices made by actors can define a character.
Which actor gives the most human depiction of artificial life? Vote up your favorite performances.
- Photo: Tri-Star Pictures
The Role: In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an android made of a titanium "hyperalloy" endoskeleton and covered in living skin. This Model 101 Terminator has been reprogrammed by John Connor and sent back in time to protect his younger self (Edward Furlong).
The Performance: Although Schwarzenegger’s breakout role was as the title character of Conan the Barbarian, his role as a Terminator in 1984 seemed a part he was made to play. While his stiff delivery was a hindrance to most performances, it was perfectly suited for the robotic nature of the Model 101 Terminator. The emphasis was entirely on the artificial nature of the character in the first film, but Schwarzenegger returns as a more human android for Terminator 2. His innocent inability to understand the subtleties of human interaction provides humor for the film, while simultaneously showing the robot’s efforts to be more lifelike.
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The Role: In the future world of Blade Runner, bio-engineered humanoids known as Replicants have been created for specific tasks. Rutger Hauer plays Roy Batty, a Nexus-6 combat model created for interstellar conflicts who is among a group of Replicants that travel to Earth in an attempt to expand their life spans.
The Performance: Despite difficulty casting the lead role of Rick Deckard, Ridley Scott knew he wanted to cast Hauer as Batty before ever meeting him. The Dutch actor brings a fiery passion to the role, adding humanity to the artificially engineered elements of his character. Hauer even famously wrote his own monologue given at the film’s climax, which serves as a poetic end for the character.
The Role: Brent Spiner played Lieutenant Commander Data for seven seasons on Star Trek: The Next Generation, along with several films and a reprisal for the Paramount+ series, Star Trek: Picard. Data is a Soong-type android created around the 2330s, with superhuman strength and a higher mental capacity than humans.
The Performance: Although Spiner was initially concerned about the limitations of playing an android, Data’s desire to be more human provided plenty of opportunities for the actor to play with the balance between robot and man. Data was always a bit stiff in his delivery and appearance and showed an absolute ineptitude for certain human qualities like humor. At the same time, his efforts to become more human show a capacity for caring that is not typically associated with machines. After Data received an emotion chip on the show, it allowed Spiner to expand the human characteristics of the android even further. For his portrayal of Data in Star Trek: First Contact, Spiner won a Saturn Award for best supporting actor.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
The Role: In Alien: Covenant, Michael Fassbender returns to the role of David (who first appeared in Prometheus), an android newly activated by the wealthy CEO of the Weyland Corporation, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). He also plays Walter One, a synthetic android believed to be a newer model of David but eventually revealed to be the same one.
The Performance: From the very first scene of Alien: Covenant, the childlike innocence of David has some terrifying implications. The android chooses his own name, inspired by the statue created by Michelangelo and displaying a human-like appreciation for the arts. At the same time, David has a coldly calculating way of making decisions, including ones that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race. Fassbender somehow manages to balance these two elements, conveying the naive innocence of David (and Walter One) in combination with the quiet power of the artificial being.