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Why ‘Westworld’ star Clifton Collins Jr. dons his grandfather’s gun belt

With only two seasons of Game of Thrones left, HBO has big hopes for Westworld.

Clifton Collins Jr. (2009’s Star Trek, Triple 9) stars as Lawrence in Westworld, an exploration of a futuristic theme park that allows those with money to explore an Old West experience brought to life by advanced artificial intelligence. In this exclusive interview, the actor explains how this role allowed him to fulfill a lifelong wish, and why virtual reality could be taking us a step closer to the future of Westworld.

Digital Trends: There’s been a lot of buzz online about Westworld being the next Game of Thrones. Did you feel any of that pressure heading into this new series?

Clifton Collins Jr.: It is a big and obviously very ambitious, but what better showrunners than (J.J.) Abrams, (Jonathan) Nolan and (Lisa) Joy? Even South Park was talking about J.J. Abrams bringing us a brand new national anthem, because he can fix anything. I’m very proud of what we’ve done. I’ve been working in Abrams’ camp for a little while now (Star Trek, Alias) and it’s just a sheer joy and pleasure.

But you can’t really look at it like that. You want people to ultimately receive it (positively), but the moment of actually acting, and preparing this world, and preparing these characters — the focus must always remain on that.

How familiar were you with Michael Crichton’s original Westworld?

My grandfather is Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, who was a contract player for John Wayne. He did all of these fantastic films like Rio Bravo and The High and the Mighty. So I grew up watching Westerns, and my grandpa knew half of those people.

I watched Westworld, and even the less successful Futureworld that followed it. Then I revisited it again (for this show), which is always fun. One of the great joys of acting is doing this kind of research. You get to go back and watch the old films, and study the old characters, the actors, and things of that nature.

The original Westworld was the first to introduce digital image processing, which pixelates photography to simulate the androids point-of-view. How is this series pushing technology forward?

It’s so advanced and evolved. The extremes of how far they’ve gone … it’s almost like reinventing the wheel. Michael Crichton’s film was such a benchmark for this kind of technology. Obviously, it evolved into Jurassic Park, but there were also several shots in the original Westworld that you will also see in The Terminator. He inspired so many things with that movie, which was ahead of its time. Having Yul Brynner wear a similar outfit to what he wore in The Magnificent Seven was a fantastic little tie-in.

Can you give us a sense of the scope of this first season, given that depth of material?

My vocabulary can’t even articulate the scope and the magnitude of this piece. I’ve watched the first two episodes, and it’s the kind of thing that you want to rewatch over and over. It’s like the best Western and sci-fi feature film, crammed into an hour.

What was it like for you to step into this Western backdrop, given your grandfather’s career?

It was really special. Here I am over 20 years deep in my career, and I’ve never had a chance to do what my grandfather did. He grew up doing rodeos and Westerns, and all the cowboy movies that he loved dearly, and I had longed to do that. And to finally be on something that has merit — because so many of these Westerns fall short, and this is certainly one that does not.

Were you able to honor your grandfather in this show?

I was talking to both J.J. and Jonathan Nolan, and I mentioned that I had my grandfather’s gun belt from Rio Bravo, and they all looked at me. I asked if I’d be able to wear it and they wanted to know what kind of condition it was in, because they had designed a really beautiful belt for me that I was in love with, too. But when they saw my grandfather’s belt, they said, “Oh no, you’re wearing grandpa’s belt.” It’s something magical. It’s sentimental. When I put on grandpa’s gun belt, I feel like I’m badass.

Westworld and The Magnificent Seven kind of go hand-in-hand, but Westworld is just filled with things that will challenge you over and over and over.

What can you tell us about the character, Lawrence, that you play in Westworld?

I’m kind of an offshoot a little bit of the “Man in Black.” I don’t know if offshoot’s the right word, because it’s so encompassing of so many different multitudes of facts, views and ideas that are consistently evolving. It’s hard to really put your finger on it, but it will challenge you. It’s thought-provoking. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry.

There’s a beautiful homage to a classic Western when you see me, I’ll give you that clue.

Westworld is coming on the heels of The Magnificent Seven. What are your thoughts on this latest revival of the genre?

(Director) Antoine Fuqua is a friend, and I’ve worked with him before. He’s a really badass visionary, and the screenplay to The Magnificent Seven is so wonderfully relevant today, with all the stuff that’s going on, from water lines, to fracking, and things of that nature. They’re so clever in how they crafted this story.

Westworld and The Magnificent Seven kind of go hand-in-hand, but Westworld is just filled with things that will challenge you over and over and over.

Westworld has a virtual reality experience anyone can play. Have you been able to check it out?

I’m wearing my gun belt right now as we speak. I’m doing this interview from my horse. (Laughs.)  I’ve heard stories. Mike Judge actually told me a couple of days ago that he went up to check that out, and that it was amazing.

What are your thoughts about the fact that virtual reality is a reality today, even though this show is looking at a future iteration of that technology?

It’s kind of awesome, really. I have the Galaxy 7S with the Gear virtual reality glasses. Samsung hooked me up with their white glove program, so I’ve put them on in the comfort of my own room, and it’s amazing.

VR is so cool. I have a lot of different friends that are tapping into this, and directing, and experimenting. It still has glitches, which is just like Westworld. It’s just an exciting time for entertainment, and it’s exciting that things are evolving in this fashion.

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Samsung Gear VR is being used in Six Flags theme parks on roller coasters.

I read about that. They have the jet one…

And Superman is the other one.

Oh wow, I’d love to try it. I’m like, “Damn, don’t those things fall off?”

They have a special version so it doesn’t fall off for putting on a roller coaster.

So they don’t have 20 employees running around with nets to catch them!

What are your thoughts on the future of theme parks, given today’s theme parks are already exploring virtual reality?

My grandfather, and the whole Gonzalez family, used to do a lot of shows at Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland. I couldn’t help but think, like, “Wow, I’m finally doing a Western that I’m so thrilled about that I don’t even want to go home when I wrap at the end of the day. I just want to hang out on set.” And I thought, “Man, is there going to come a time when they do make that amusement park? And if they do, are we going to all have to go work there?” But then I thought, “Well, it’s virtual reality, so there will be some kind of film thing. I hope.”

I got to go to (San Diego) Comic Con and talk about Westworld, and I love Comic Con. That’s like an amusement park, too. I did think about this over the weekend, like, “Am I going to have to do this, too?” It’s going to be new and exciting.