Reality hews too close to sci-fi dystopia for ‘Westworld’ star Jeffrey Wright

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HBO

Modern technological conveniences like phones that wake you up and cars that drive themselves have either become more commonplace or moved closer to reality in recent years. For Westworld actor Jeffrey Wright, these innovations are indicative of a line being blurred between humans and technology. (Warning: Spoilers follow).

HBO’s hit sci-fi/drama Westworld is set in an adult playground where humans can act out their innermost fantasies with lifelike androids, referred to as hosts. Wright plays Bernard Lowe, the head of behavioral programming at the park, who discovers in season 1 that he has more in common with the hosts he tinkers with than he originally realized.

We knew that we were working on something special early on.

The first season of the series questioned what constitutes reality and consciousness and in season 2, the revolt sparked by those questions intensifies. If you think online forums will help you figure out the secrets of the second season, Wright has one message for you: Good luck.

Digital Trends: With Westworld preparing for its highly anticipated sophomore season, were you surprised at its success at all, or was it evident right away to the cast and crew that you guys were working on something special?

Jeffrey Wright: We knew that we were working on something special early on in the first season. But, at the same time, you never know until you know, and that’s when the audience gets to see what you’ve been up to. It was nice that the fans finally came on board to appreciate this work that we had been appreciating while doing it.

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HBO

Westworld is part of this trend of dystopian television, and along with The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror, these shows are all receiving massive international attention over the last few years. Why do you think these dystopian stories are taking hold at the moment?

More so than ever, it seems like we’re living in some bizarre dystopian perversion of a fantasy right now, with the current leadership in the country and the current dialogue. But Westworld is speaking to the ways in which technology is becoming us and we are becoming technology, and that may be dystopian, [or] it may not be, but that’s the reality now.

More so than ever, it seems like we’re living in some bizarre dystopian perversion of a fantasy right now.

When Michael Crichton wrote this story in 1974 and shot the movie, it was an interesting premise. The film was interesting, but I don’t think that every individual walking down the street at that time was quite as prepared to latch themselves on to the metaphor and to the landscape that he built around this technology. Now, we all get it. [Laughs]

So, we’re all kind of wrestling with this relationship with our technology, and at the same time, the metaphor of these hosts coming into being, trying to discover who they are, where they are, trying to discover a level of consciousness or new level of consciousness, trying to free themselves from a routine that is not of their making, is a metaphor that we all can insert ourselves into. The show is futuristic sci-fi, [but] it’s also filled with these human spaces — even synthetic human spaces — that are compelling for an audience.

How have you approached depicting Bernard in season 2 after the big reveal in season 1 that changes the foundation of the character?

Well, the changes for me are really reflective of the changes for Bernard. At the beginning of season two, Bernard is not the host he used to be. [Laughs]

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HBO

He’s a little bit late to the awakening party. Whereas Maeve and Dolores have come into their own earlier in season one, Bernard is still emerging, and at the same time he’s struggling with his robot health — because having put a bullet into his head at the end of season one, he’s got some health challenges. So there’s a combination of things for him. There’s the unknown of this new chaotic world around him, and then there’s the unknown within him of how he places himself within that world and how he’s going to be able to figure that out when his faculties are kind of shattered. So he’s in an interesting place.

From there, he continues the journey of discovery that he was on in the first season. He kind of guides the audience to understanding the park and understanding the history of the park, and then ultimately understanding something about himself.

Bernard is still a major factor in the show, but he’s not as prominent in the first five episodes of the new season, in my opinion, as he was in the first five episodes of the first season. One of the surprises in season 1 that hasn’t been discussed too deeply is that Arnold, the man Bernard is based on, is responsible for creating Dolores, and the two have a deep, complicated connection. How integral is that relationship to the greater story?

Oh, we’ll explore that as we go forward. We’ll explore many levels of that relationship.

I interviewed Carly Chaikin from Mr. Robot a while back, and she said that after working on that show, she stopped leaving her laptop open when she’s not around. Is there anything that working on Westworld has changed about your everyday life and the way you interact with technology?

I hope we all ask ourselves some interesting and probing questions about our relationship to [technology].

I was always curious about the ways in which technology is being used — not necessarily by consumers, but by those who control and own the technology. It’s a question that’s current now, and it’s a question that we explore in season 2. While I was filming season 2, I was having some weird experiences with my phone. It was almost as though my phone was waking me up in the morning like a puppy licking my face. It was way too attuned to what I was up to.

So I hope we all ask ourselves some interesting and probing questions about our relationship to these things and these entities as the show goes on.

Westworld explores huge technological trends such as artificial intelligence and androids. Is there any other technological trend you witnessed over the last few years that you think could be explored in a show like Westworld?

What I’m most curious about and perhaps most concerned about is who owns the technology and why. There was a lot of concern about the intent of government relative to our privacy, but at least the government has a security imperative. Government has a responsibility to keep us safe. Corporations have a responsibility to make profits. So that’s what I’m looking at when it comes to the questions around technology and data.

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HBO

You spoke with Digital Trends a few years ago, right before season 1 and praised Johnathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for their great cinematic writing and how they are up there with the best that you’ve ever worked with. Do they reveal the show’s secrets to the cast early on, or are you kept in the dark until the big twists happen?

We don’t have any source material with our show. There are no series of books that were written. There’s no British version of the show that we’re trying to replicate. These stories inspired by Michael Crichton are springing from the fertile brains of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. … It’s all tucked into the recesses of their thinking, but they are incredibly generous collaborators and they’re always available to us on set to fill in the blank spaces.

Sometimes Evan [Rachel-Wood] and I would ask ourselves, “What episode are we shooting?”

One of the first things I do before we shoot any scenes is make sure all of the questions I have are answered. This past year, we were shooting scenes without having read the full episodes just because of the nature of the logistics. Sometimes Evan [Rachel-Wood] and I would ask ourselves, “What episode are we shooting?” But, Jonah and Lisa make themselves available, and I just ask a whole roster of questions until I’m satisfied and know enough that I need to know to get through the moment within the scene that I’m playing.

For Bernard this year, it actually served me not to know. It served me to know as much as I do, because Bernard is struggling to understand it all, too. That worked in my favor.

When did you find out that Bernard was a host? What was your reaction when you found out?

Bernard’s a host?

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HBO

Yeah, he’s an Android.

He is? Wow. Wait a minute, I have to think about this. [Laughs].

Nah, I knew going into the second episode [of season 1]. I didn’t know when I signed on. I didn’t know it when we shot the pilot. But, when we came back to full production for season 1, Lisa Joy pulled me aside and dropped the bomb on my robot head.

Bernard has become such a beloved character in the show. Were you surprised by the audience reaction to him?

Well, you could say I’m a Bernard fan. So, it’s gratifying that others are, too.

In some ways, [Bernard is] a lens through which the audience learns about Westworld in the first season.

I think one of the things about Bernard is that in some ways, he’s a lens through which the audience learns about Westworld in the first season. So, he’s empathetic in that regard, because we’re relying on him to fill us in and to provide us information. That pulls people onto his side because he became a bit of a tragic figure, as well. … I just hope that we will be able to continue to entertain our fans and new fans of this show in new ways that are fun and provocative in multiple ways.

The show has prompted a lot of online speculation and extremely active rumor mills on sites like Reddit. Did you keep track of any of the fan theories during season 1? Did any of them impress you?

Yeah some impressed me, [and] some didn’t. Good luck this year.

Season 2 of Westworld premieres April 22 on HBO.