Never underestimate the comedic timing of a robot: Despite his humanoid name, the character Charles Petrescu in the charming new comedy Brian and Charles is actually a lo-fi 7-foot robot with a washing machine for a body and a mannequin head.
And if you think Charles’ emotional range might be limited by his mannequin face — he is only capable of slight mouth movements dictated by co-writer Chris Hayward, who controls Charles from the inside of his boxy suit — you’d only be partly right. Turns out, audiences can easily respond emotionally to Charles’ performance throughout the movie.
“It shows how little you need to do, as an actor even,” Brian and Charles director Jim Archer told MovieMaker when the film premiered at Sundance in 2021. It is in theaters today.
“You impart a lot on to Charles. His face has one movement, but you feel it when he’s sad, you feel it when he’s happy. That loss and anger he feels, you feel it — yet his face doesn’t change.”
Sometimes this is achieved through music cues, but the majority of the time, the emotions are relayed through Hayward’s subtle performance.
“Chris does a great job of those tiny little movements, the little lean forwards. When he’s angry, he sort of shuffles — It’s very subtle things. I love the blank slate that Charles is, and what you can do with it.”
“I love just filming his face doing nothing,” he adds. “And just put some music under it, and just get Brian to react to it in a certain way. And suddenly it’s super sad.”
The robot character of Charles debuted in comedy stage shows in the U.K. Charles’ voice, a robotic text-to-speech relay chat, would be controlled backstage by Brian and Charles producer Rupert Majendie on a laptop. For those shows, the material any given evening would largely depend on how much Majendie had to drink backstage. “It can get pretty blue,” Archer says.
The 2017 short of the same name — also directed by Archer — is where Charles developed into more of a childlike robot that his inventor Brian Gittles (comedian David Earl) would have to raise and teach about the world.
Despite his supreme naivety about the world and how it works — in an early scene, Charles asks Brian how far the outside goes, “Does it all stop at the tree?” — Charles has a “cheeky” streak, as Brian describes. He quickly learns to rebel and relishes mischief.
Charles Petrescu is one of Brian’s more successful inventions. An early scene has a flying cuckoo clock go down in flames. His cottage in the Welsh countryside is cluttered with similarly non-essential, although less ambitious inventions. This includes an egg belt, which allows one to carry a half-dozen eggs — presumably hard-boiled — around with them.
Brian and Charles follows a mockumentary format and Archer and his team thought a lot about the form and how to adapt it in a more contemporary manner.
“We were very keen to emulate this modern style of doc, which is keeping the camera free, but also building all that atmosphere. Music was a big part of that.”
“We got rid of zooms — that’s such a trope of mockumentary, so we only used prime lenses,” he adds.
The comedy of Earl and Hayward’s performance as an odd-ball duo is only aided by this modern approach to the mockumentary format.
“It could only make it funnier, to make it more serious and to make it look like ‘Oh, this could be a Netflix doc on the Welsh countryside, but there’s a robot in it,’” Archer says.
“The more real we tried to make it, the funnier the situation is,” he adds.
Despite the increased budget, there was one limitation that remained from the short to the feature version: Earl’s inability to see anything while performing in the Charles suit.
“We never really solved that issue. We went into being OK, well, we’re making a feature film now, so we’ll figure out some really cool high tech way for you to be able to see,” Archer says.
“But no, never solved that. In the end, Chris kind of just can see out the top and out the bottom, and if it was windy, maybe through maybe through the gaps in the shirt. But basically, he can see very little.”
The text-to-speech relay service used for Charles’ voice is critical to his character and the comedy in Brian and Charles.
“Our absolute ace in the hole is just the way that particular text-to-speech voice is constantly surprising us all the time,” Archer says.
“There’s something about the almost-posh intonation on it, but on a computer voice that just feels really silly,” he adds.
Because the voice is completely computerized, the team had flexibility on set with the performance and the words Charles would say. Sometimes Earl would talk in his own version of a robot voice that could be replaced in the edit.
“I never know how Charles is going to say something, because a lot of it we reword in the edit, because we can just change anything we want. So we will just type something, then he would just have such a weird intonation, and be like, Oh, that just has to go in,” he continues. “And we would improvise with it on set as well with Rupert on the laptop.
The surprises with the intonation were welcome much of the time but needed to be scaled back in other moments.
“Just the most normal sentence you think he’ll say, and he just says it completely differently, which is hard sometimes when you want him to say something quite powerful in the more dramatic scenes. So we had to really write phonetically to try and get him to say it properly,” Archer explains.
A particularly funny moment comes when Charles decides he wants to wear a dress fashioned out of old curtains for his first trip into town. He tells Brian “I feel pretty cool” and the computerized line reading is laugh-out-loud funny.
“I think Chris said ‘I feel debonair’ when he came out, which is funny, but it never quite worked in Charles’ voice,” Archer says.
“There’s something about him thinking he’s ‘pretty cool,’ not ‘really cool’ — it’s just funny.”
Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, opens in theaters today.
This article was originally published during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Main image: David Earl as Brian Gittles and Chris Hayward as Charles Petrescu in Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer. Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute / Focus Features