Sunny Apple TV+ Stars & Producers Talk Show Rashida Jones' Suzie, Robots & More (Exclusive)

By Russ Milheim Posted:
Rashida Jones in Sunny on Apple TV+

Rashida Jones is back on TV in Apple TV+’s new sci-fi show, Sunny, where she plays a grumpy mourning mother Suzie, a widow who is left saddled with what she hates: a robot.

The series takes place in a world not all too dissimilar to the real one, but there are some big differences. Namely, in this world, at least in Japan, society has become dependent on HomeBots, personal companions, and helpers around the house.

Suzie is an American who just lost her husband and kid in a mysterious plane crash which she is having trouble accepting the outcome of. Things do not get any easier when she receives a HomeBot named Sunny programmed just for her, courtesy of her now-dead husband.

Rashida Jones and Filmmakers Talk Apple TV+'s Sunny

Rashida Jones in Sunny Apple TV
Apple TV+

While speaking in an exclusive interview with The Direct's Russ Milheim, the creative talent, from both on and off screen, talked all about Apple TV+'s upcoming sci-fi series Sunny.

Rashida Jones, who plays the lead character Suzie in the show, called her protagonist "a grump," which is very much not like herself. To add to that, she wanted to make sure audiences still wanted to hang out with this person despite that:

"I guess Suzie's a grump, and Rashida's not. And I think that maybe just making sure that it was somebody you want to spend time with? Because I don't know. You don't want to spend that much time with grumpy people. Did I make her vulnerable enough so that there was a way in which she was relatable and charming in her misanthropic pursuits?"

One of the biggest challenges for actor Hidetoshi Nishijima was how his character Masa would continually have new facets revealed throughout the story, to which he would need to adjust his performance to convey:

"In the beginning, Masa is very simple. He's a very gentle husband and a nice father. But then, gradually, you see other masks on him. And I, myself, didn't read up until the last script. So even while playing him, I had these fresh surprises. So, I was discovering new facets or new aspects of Masa, and I had to play him. And that was very difficult for me to do."

One of the biggest parts of Sunny is its world, which is full of fun, robotic HomeBots, and A.I. companions who help people with their day-to-day lives. The show is named after one that Suzie gets in the very first episode from her missing husband, Masa.

On how they worked to have these creations come to life on set, Jones made sure to give credit to their "very talented robotics team:"

"We had a very talented robotics team, but it took a village to make it seem that kind of seamless on screen, and to make the audience even question if, is this something that's replicating humanity? It wasn't quite that, it wasn't quite as organic as we filmed it. But there were moments, because you do, ultimately, we did have actors playing robots, and that really does, it changes the kind of connection that you can have with an object."

Nishijima admitted that before production started, he "imagined that there would be a robot with a green screen"—but that's not at all what happened:

"In the beginning, I imagined that there would be a robot with a green screen. And I thought I would have to use imagination to play against the character. But actually, on set in real-time, Joanna was making these facial expressions... I didn't really have as many scenes with Sunny, so for Rashida, I think it was a big if it's a different story."

Rashida added how she loves that Sunny "is appropriately named" and "irritatingly" optimistic:

"I really love how Sunny is appropriately named. She's irritatingly optimistic. And I think that's a really funny way into this world because she's supposed to be a reflection of Suzie. Suzie comes to find out she's kind of designed for her. And then she's like, why would anybody who knows me decide that this pepe, perky, boundary-less thing would be the right design for me?"

"Ultimately, it kind of is the right design for her," the actress added:

"And then, ultimately, it kind of is the right design for her. But I like that she starts out being this absolute, dreadful annoyance to her. There's something kind of--it's a good place to start. It's very like John Candy in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' with a lot of room to grow from there."

Sunny Creator Katie Robbins explained how, in designing Sunny herself, they "wanted a robot who was corporeal" and "not overly humanoid:"

"In building Sunny, we wanted a corporeal robot that was not overly humanoid. We didn't want to get into any kind of uncanny valley territory. We wanted to draw on Japanese lines. So there's a sort of sleekness and beauty to her, but also like a kawaii, like a very cute, emotionally accessible robot."

"We worked with WETA Workshop to build a practical Sunny puppet," she went to reveal, which allowed Sunny actress Joanna Sotormura to "act in real-time:"

"Then, we worked with WETA Workshop to build a practical Sunny puppet that used multiple people to create but was acted and voiced by Joanna [Sotomura]. We worked with WETA Workshop to create this helmet that was a motion capture kind of thing so that Joanna [Sotomura] could act in real-time and have her face rear-projected onto the screen. So it does a version of when Joanna smiles and Sunny Smiles. When Joanna frowns, Sunny frowns."

Robbins elaborated how important it was to "have the authenticity of a real robot in camera on screen:"

"So, in real-time, our other actors would have a real scene partner, and Lucy [Tcherniak] could go and give a note to Joanna. And in real-time, you would see that happening on camera. That felt so important because this show is about a character who is drawn out from loneliness and isolation by a physical robot. And so we really wanted to have the authenticity of a real robot on screen."

There are a lot of stories out there about robots and A.I., so what exactly makes this one stand out from the rest?

Robbins feels it lies with Sunny's "sense of optimism,"—which is fitting given it is one of Rashida Jones' favorite parts of the series:

"There is a sense of optimism within Sunny that you don't often see in these kinds of shows and films. The themes of loneliness and isolation were important in grounding and establishing these characters and their primal needs. And so to solve that, you need a character, an antidote to that that has a brightness and a sunniness…"

Robbins admitted how the topic of A.I. is a complicated one, especially being a writer herself, but that there is "an optimism" and "danger" to it:

"I have very complicated feelings about A.I.… It's a hard moment to be a writer and thinking about the capacity and potential of A.I. And yet, like things that are human created, it had a piece of us in it. Thus, there is a potential and an optimism to it, and also a danger. And so we're trying to get at both sides of that same coin. But I think the sense of optimism and hope is at the fore in a way that I don't think is always the case with this kind of show."

Sunny Director Lucy Tcherniak revealed that when crafting how the world of the show would look, she first tackled a "music playlist" to start building that foundation:

"When we were talking about the world of the show and the visual style of 'Sunny'... I think, first, I had to come up with things like the music playlist based on Katie's original outline before there was even a script. And what was so fascinating was this sort of tension between old and new. Like, this grounded sci-fi show set in this ancient city. And so that was a North Star for us, in all of the various elements from music and costume and color palette."

When it came to the music, the director explained how "Japanese 60s pop" played a key role in creating tension within the series:

"And so music-wise, I was very much drawn to the sort of Japanese 60s pop that created this tension between this nostalgic music that was sort of upbeat with the slight sort of darker and darker scenes that felt like it was really capturing the tone that we wanted to create. And then I went into these colorful Japanese 60s noir movies by Seijun Suzuki, one of which is 'Tokyo Drifter,' which we paid particular homage to in Episode 4..."

On the color palette of the show, Tcherniak admitted the team "hadn't really settled on the distinct color palette until coming to Japan:"

"Looking at the color palette, Katie had written that Masa had yellow shoes, and just from the outline that was there... We hadn't really settled on the distinct color palette until coming to Japan. I kept on just seeing this sort of powder blue, which, incidentally, ended up being the same color as the Tokyo Drifter suit... Then, the fire engine red felt powerful. It ended up being the primary color palette that felt like an unusual kind of tension you wouldn't normally have in a thriller. But it also meant that it was feeling like the family that Suzie was losing. There's something childlike about those colors as well that was sort of dotted around the home."

The first two episodes of Sunny are now streaming on Apple TV+.

Read more about other Apple TV+ shows:

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- About The Author: Russ Milheim
Russ Milheim is the Industry Relations Coordinator at The Direct. On top of utilizing his expertise on the many corners of today’s entertainment to cover the latest news and theories, he establishes and maintains communication and relations between the outlet and the many studio and talent representatives.