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Westworld at PaleyFest 2017: Laughter Abounds As Cast and Creatives Discuss the Show’s Complexities

"Westworld is going to be part of the solution, not part of the problem." - Thandie Newton

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

While the brilliant ladies and showrunners of Westworld were whisked off the red carpet almost as quickly as they had come, there was plenty of opportunity to hear what they had to say during PaleyFest’s Westworld panel, which ended up being one of the most delightful and funny evenings I’ve had in a long time. Surprising, given the near-complete seriousness of the show itself.

Before the panel came out, we were treated to a 90-second clip featuring Westworld bloopers. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Dolores flipping the bird at Arnold’s voice, or alternately seeing a horse take a crap right next to her as the camera pulls back for a long, dramatic shot. I’d gotten used to thinking of the animals as hosts on the show, so I never really pondered the logistics of horses on set but, yeah, that was probably a regular occurrence!

Then the cast and Executive Producers came out for the panel, which was moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen and was an exercise in figuring out new and exciting ways to tell fans nothing. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan is a lockbox when it comes to Westworld secrets, whereas his Co-creator (and wife) Lisa Joy seems to be the kind of person who will spill all the secrets if you look at her the wrong way. (Wanna know Westworld secrets? Corner her in conversation at a party when she’s by herself. She’ll tell you everything.)

Meanwhile, the actors know absolutely nothing about what’s coming for Season Two, and they barely knew what was going on even as they were filming Season One! Despite the fact that Nolan and Joy developed the show as “one 10-hour movie” rather than 10 1-hour episodes, and had the story of the season written before they began filming (which is how they’re approaching S2, and why it’s going to take so long for more Westworld to arrive), they didn’t tell the actors anything ahead of time. So, the actors just had to trust the direction they were given in any one scene, even if they didn’t understand what the motivations for certain things were.

Image via Michael Bulbenko for the Paley Center

Image via Michael Bulbenko for the Paley Center

For example, Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson had no idea that they were playing older/younger versions of each other until they got to filming the last couple of episodes, and it was only certain practical things that tipped Simpson off. Simpson told the story of how one day, one of the hair and make-up artists on the show came up to him and randomly asked him if he’d mind having his eyebrows re-shaped. It was only after his eyebrows were done that he started thinking about why they were doing that, and it occurred to him that they’re probably trying to get him to look like someone else. Suddenly, he thought, “Am I…am I Ed?”

He then started paying much more attention to Harris whenever he was playing The Man in Black. He also remembers passing Joy on set once this thought had occurred to him, and he asked her “Am I Ed?” and she immediately made an Oh my God, I got caught! face and ran away before she could give anything away. She says, “I felt bad, because I didn’t want him to feel insecure about his eyebrows!” To which Harris responded, “I’m just wondering what’s wrong with my eyebrows.”

Apparently, Evan Rachel Wood was the best of the cast in figuring out answers (or, at least getting the closest) to Westworld‘s myriad twists and turns, and the cast confirmed that she figured out she was Wyatt pretty early on.

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

Wood got emotional when talking about how much the role of Dolores has meant to her, calling it by far the best role she’s ever played. And she loved that information was kept from them until last-minute, because “everything was so raw and fresh” as they played each scene. She said that her ability to play a naive host that knew nothing of the world was made easier, because “it helped that a lot of the time I didn’t know what was going on.”

Thandie Newton, however, made sure to emphasize that Wood’s performance was due more to her skill than to the logistics of how they received information from the showrunners, calling her Dolores “a tour-de-force performance” and gushing over the intricacies of Wood’s portrayal. Wood returned the favor, praising Newton’s Maeve, and each of them expressed the regret that they barely shared any scenes together and the hope that they would be able to do so more in Season Two. (BTW, I WANT THIS TOO, KTHXBYE!)

Newton went on to praise the show, particularly in the context of early criticism of the show that was wary of its depiction of violence against women. When Nolan and Joy first told Newton that she’d be playing a madam in this world, she thought, “do you know that I fight violence against women in my spare time?” She was skeptical, until they explained their vision for the show, which won her over right away.

“That was the point,” she explains, regarding the harsh depiction of the treatment of the female hosts in the beginning, followed by their self-emancipation by the end. “Look at where we are, and where we can go from here.” As she continued to film, she grew more and more confident that the show was far from demeaning, and that there’s a huge difference between depicting harsh realities, and exploiting them. She was thrilled that Nolan and Joy are the kinds of showrunners who expect their cast and crew to be as political in their work as they choose to be in the rest of their lives, and so Newton “was an activist every single day I went to work.”

Westworld is going to be part of the solution,” she said, emphatically. “Not part of the problem.”

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

Image via Imeh Bryant for the Paley Center

As is the case with all the PaleyFest 2017 panels, the full Westworld panel will be available on Hulu, a PaleyFest sponsor, in a few days. So, I’ll just share a couple more fun or interesting tidbits I thought you’d enjoy!


  • Jonathan Nolan on what attracted him to developing Westworld as a series: “[It’s] about everything we’d ever want to take on.” Though many themes course through the show, he ultimately sees it as a show about human nature. “We’re so fucked up,” he says. “Especially in the past year, we’re struggling with so many questions about human nature.”
  • Executive Producer, Roberto Patino, agreed, saying “There’s a fun, fertile playground to play in when you’re indicting humanity.”
  • Thandie Newton on acting while nude: “It’s one less thing to worry about!” [laughs]
  • As Jonathan Nolan directed the moment where Bernard tells Maeve that even her choices are part of a created narrative, since Jeffrey Wright had just found out that his own character was a host, and they each had just received this script not that long ago, Newton was completely raw and really, genuinely pissed in the scene. So much so that Nolan had to ask her to rein it in, like, a lot. She humorously describes smashing the data pad Bernard gives Maeve to bits, completely losing her shit, as Nolan continually tells her, “all you have to do is snap that thing in half and be cool.”
  • Nolan describes the moment Maeve gets off the train at the end of the Westworld S1 finale as “the birth of Free Will,” and “the first decision she’s ever made.”
  • James Marsden took the role of Teddy, in part, because he was looking forward to acquiring new skills like shooting and riding horses, but “I didn’t know I’d spend the whole season learning how to get shot.”
  • Everyone thinks the show is a better experience if you let it work on you, rather than trying to figure out the twists before they’re revealed. Marsden says, “When you let the show come to you…it’s a more satisfying experience in my opinion.” Nolan thinks the fan engagement in trying to figure things out is great on one hand, but on the other hand, he wishes people wouldn’t “guess a twist and blog about it…you spend two years working on something…” Joy suggests people speculate with their friends in real life rather than post things publicly online, but that ultimately “I don’t believe knowing the end spoils things.” She likens it to revisiting favorite films and shows, or rereading favorite books. Storytelling is storytelling, and people generally appreciate a story well told even if they know how it’s going to end. Nolan jokingly suggests writing our speculations down and mailing them to ourselves registered mail, so that when the season is over we can open the envelope up and brag then. Meanwhile, Thandie loves watching the fan responses on Twitter, but is amazed that people can watch a show and tweet at the same time.
  • Joy also loves fan art, so keep it coming, people!
  • Wood talked about the time Marsden made the connection between the hosts, and their own lives as actors: how both hosts and actors have to pretend to be other people, have their narratives told to them, and how the performance is always layered on top of a real personality, etc.
  • Ed Harris explained that Nolan and Joy had him at his character name, The Man in Black, saying, “How do you pass that up.” He goes on to say that he was impressed by their vision for the show, and felt safe trusting them to tell a good story. “Whether I understand it, that’s not the point,” he says. Rather, it’s his job to be an actor and help them create their vision. He has no problem following them blindly. Unless, of course, they want to drag him into Samurai World next season. “I don’t wanna wear a samurai suit, and I’m saying that publicly.”
  • Jimmi Simpson was amazed that they even wanted him for this show, considering his track record is mostly in comedy. He read for both William and Logan, and figured he’d be playing Logan, because that kind of a broad villain seemed more in his wheelhouse. When he was cast as William, he was worried, as William is much harder for him to wrap his head around. But ultimately he was thrilled with the role. He also talked about how when he first heard they were doing a TV version of the Westworld film, “I thought it was gonna be like a little CHiPS remake.” Nolan and Joy laughed hysterically at the notion. Simpson got more and more nervous as the high-caliber cast continued to grow, thinking, “Wait, Jeffrey Wright is gonna be in this? Wait, Anthony Hopkins is gonna be in this? Are you kidding me?”
  • Regarding the amazing music on the show, Joy was able to tell us one thing about Season Two. Now that she and Nolan are parents to a new daughter, they’ve been listening to a lot of children’s music, and there’s a song from one animated film their daughter loves that has made its way into the player piano on Westworld. Joy tells us to expect “a strange shout-out to a cute kids’ song.”

Here are more photos from the panel than you can shake a stick at!

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Need to catch up on HBO’s Westworld? Remember that we’ve got some very thorough recaps going on here at TMS. Hopefully, reading those and chatting with fans in the comments will help us all get through the long wait for Season Two!

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.