Created for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the HBO drama series Westworld is as ambitious as it is thought-provoking, exploring fascinating themes of humanity and human intelligence, and with a cast that couldn’t get any better. It is a dark odyssey about artificial consciousness, in a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged, if you pay the right price. The series stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes and Rodrigo Santoro, among many others.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Jimmi Simpson (who plays William, a hesitant first-time guest at Westworld) talked about how he got involved with Westworld, never knowing just what was coming next, why the production break they took during filming was both necessary and crucial, why William is in Westworld, working with this insanely talented group of actors, and what his own personal theme park would be like. He also talked about the great experience he had on the Sundance TV series Hap and Leonard.
Collider: Westworld is such an interesting show because it feels like each layer that you peel back just has so many more layers underneath.
JIMMI SIMPSON: A lot of shows start at one place, and then each episode is like a new little circle, often getting smaller. I feel like with this series, each episode adds to the largeness of the preceding circle. You’re literally just warming up, with Episodes 1 through 4.
How did this come about for you? Did having worked on Person of Interest give you an in with Jonah Nolan, when it came to the casting for this show?
SIMPSON: Not at all. We hadn’t actually spent any time together when I shot Person of Interest. But Jonah claims that, when I did that character on his show, he thought, “I see that kid doing other stuff, too.” I didn’t have an in. I was just one of the many, many, many people auditioning for that role. I think it was more, “Oh, that guy!” I did have a warm reception because it was a fun little character on Person of Interest, but this was such a different part. It’s very rare that people let me hop off the crazy wagon. I don’t know what gave him the idea to let me do that. I’m just grateful because it doesn’t happen too often and I didn’t expect it. It’s a new role for me, which I love.
Did Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy give you a full season character arc?
SIMPSON: Not even. I had no idea what was going on. I just really don’t have my finger on the pulse of Hollywood. I didn’t know there was a huge, epic pilot made the year before. I really just assumed it was a redo. But I tend to throw everything I have into what it is, so I did my best at the audition. And then, I got it and my agent and manager were really excited, but people in Hollywood get excited about all kinds of stuff I don’t understand. So then, I walked on set and saw the scope of what was happening. Jonah showed me the pilot before I started work and I was like, “Oh, my god, what is going on?!” I still just assumed I’d be a satellite, at best, character. I auditioned with just sides. I didn’t have a script. We would get a script at a time ‘cause they were writing them as we shot. And then, there was a period where we were starting to beat the scripts, so you wouldn’t even get a full script of the episode before you started shooting the episode.
I believe that Jonah, Lisa and J.J. [Abrams] are three of the smartest people I’ve met. If you needed an essential thing, they would tell you, but they withheld information, as much as possible. You would ask, “Please?!,” and they would say, “Just trust us.” Each thing was specific to the character and the situation we were in, and they guided us through, half-blindfolded for a bit. We got about half-way through and people really started understanding where they were headed, but even then, we were still always getting surprised. Evan [Rachel Wood] and Ben [Barnes] and myself would guess, each day we went to work, what would be happening and what something in our script meant. I’m going to have that experience all over again, watching it. The scripts are so beautifully dense, there are things you miss, even reading them five times each.
There was a lot of discussion and speculation about why the show took a hiatus during production, and the showrunners have been pretty clear that it’s such a complex series that they needed the writing to catch up with the production side of things. As one of the actors helping to tell this story, did it feel necessary and crucial to take that break, especially with the scope of the story you’re telling?
SIMPSON: I would say absolutely. I don’t know anything about the business side, but I know it’s a very, very expensive decision to make, to put production on hold to make the story as good as possible. That’s just not the medium of television. It’s just one of those examples of HBO not being about the bottom line, per se. It’s gotta get there, at some point, but they seem to be willing to take risks to break ground. It was a little bit past the half-way mark when production took a break for two or three months, and that first half was so brilliant, but everyone worked so hard and I don’t think they realized how much they all needed a break. It was like we were going to war to make the greatest show, ever, and we just lost ourselves. The crew, the directors and the actors really just gave everything, and we were all spinning out, but we didn’t know that because the work was so good. In that time off, the actors who I spoke to, during that time, were just like, “Woah, what just happened? I need to catch my breath.” And then, when we jumped back in, we were so energized and ready to kill the rest of filming. I think it was an amazing decision. There were no problems. It was Jonah, Lisa and J.J. saying, “This is so good. Let’s make it that good, for the whole thing.”
We don’t really get to see who these people are, outside of Westworld, and what their life was like before they got there, but we do get a little bit of your character’s history through the interactions between William and Logan (Ben Barnes). What can you say about their dynamic and how much more we’ll learn about those guys, through that relationship?
SIMPSON: Logan’s father is very wealthy and he owns the company that we both work at. Logan is used to privilege. He’s been to Westworld and he’s used to indulging himself, in that way, not just in Westworld, but in the real world. William was a kid with no money and he worked his way up, through very simple means, to have a decent position in this company. Logan has brought William to Westworld, for the first time, and where Logan loves to indulge himself, in that way, William has no desire to do that. That’s never been a part of his life. He’s dragged to this place by Logan. It’s Logan’s choice to be there and they are friends, but it’s also a business relationship. All of that stuff becomes clearer and clearer, as you go along. And William is currently engaged to Logan’s sister. So, there’s a vetting nature to Logan taking William to Westworld. It’s not just about showing him a good time. It’s Logan saying, “I want to see how much you can handle. I want to see how cool you are. And I want to see if you can hang with our family.”
It seems like William is looking for a genuine adventure, while Logan just wants to be debaucherous.
SIMPSON: Yeah. Logan has a mission. He wants to fuck shit up. And William is dragged there. If you’re not there with expectation, you are a little bit more open to what truly is available. It wasn’t his choice to go there, but as long as he’s there, he’s going to experience the park. But he really doesn’t have any interest in shooting and fucking, like Logan. He’s a sweet guy, and he’s got a girl at home. It’s that ability to empathize. Logan probably would have crushed bugs, as a child, and he doesn’t really think about that, but William does. William projects a lot of human emotion on everything. The robots that look like humans will, of course, be the target of that, as well.
Why do you think William is drawn to and curious about Dolores, in particular, to the point where he almost becomes protective of her?
SIMPSON: I think he recognizes her simplicity. Every other human in the park and every other host seems to be geared toward indulgence, and that’s just not William’s nature. So, the first person that seems human and with her feet on the ground happens to be a host. He seems to have a stronger ability to empathize than most. It’s that inability to write something off, just because the intelligence is not your own.
Aside from this show being ridiculously impressive to look at, the cast is incredible and would be anyone’s dream cast. What was it like to work with this group of actors, or at least the ones you got to work with?
SIMPSON: I didn’t know Evan. Of course, I knew her work from Thirteen, but I don’t see a lot of stuff. Right away, I was confronted with this young woman, who’s so passionate about the craft that she’s so good at, and it was so clear that she was so ready for this really difficult opportunity, portraying one of the hardest characters I’ve seen on TV. It’s almost like she was born to play this part. She was so excited, the whole time, and that was just such a pleasure to watch. When the #1 on the call sheet is so into it, that just sets the tone for everybody. And then, to be on a set with Ed Harris, he’s just one of those actors that young actors look up to. You’re like, “That’s a guy who does it right.” He’s always great. He doesn’t go Hollywood or weird with his choice or his behavior, and he’s just as nice as possible. And then, he’s doing work that you’ve never quite seen him do. The darkness is so deep and penetrating, and he just kills it. And I’m in a different part of the park than Mr. Hopkins, so I didn’t really work with him, but to see him at ADR, I’m like, “There’s Anthony Hopkins. He’s on the same show as me.” I had to just stop and lather my gratitude for being near him and on a show that he’s on. He’s just so sweet, and he’s as happy as the rest of us are. It’s just a whole bunch of grateful people. It’s really cool.
Can you go too far in Westworld and actually get kicked out, or is it a situation where, as long as you’re paying, you’re staying?
SIMPSON: The hosts are basically there for fodder. You’re only going to get an eye roll from the programmers because they’ve seen it before. I think you would have to somehow try to change the programming or injure another human. But as far as what they provide you, you can wreck it all, according to them.
Is it a Vegas situation, where what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld, or will the actions of some of these guests affect them more than they think?
SIMPSON: Psychologically, we all have that cross to bear when we do shady things. But Westworld seems very specifically designed to hold in your transgressions and save them for you, for the next time you come back. It is a break from the real world, so you’re not supposed to take stuff out of Westworld. You get to be a completely different person and you’re not held to the standards that the world holds you to. It is a closed circuit. It is its own thing.
If you were someone who could be a guest in a place like this, have you thought about what your ideal world would look and be like and who your ideal host would be?
SIMPSON: No, I haven’t. That’s a pretty original question. People ask me if I would shoot and kill people, and I don’t think I would. Maybe in the third or fourth round, if I got a bug up my butt. But, I would like to explore the reality and see how true I could make it feel. As far as creating my own theme park, it would probably just have to do with things I like, like my dog and other people’s dogs, and lots of dogs and cats.
Westworld is a pretty sexy place, but it’s also very violent and, at times, disturbing. At what point, in this season, do you think viewers will have the best grasp on just how vast this world actually is?
SIMPSON: I believe they will come to the conclusion that they’ve grasped how big it is four times before the end. I think they’ll keep grasping and go, “Oh, my god, now I see!” And then, two episodes later, they’ll go, “Oh, shit, now I see!” And then, in the final episodes, they’ll be like, “What?!” That’s what it’s going to be like.
You were also so great on Hap and Leonard, which was so different and with such an unusual bunch of characters. How was that experience for you?
SIMPSON: I loved that show! I think Westworld and Hap and Leonard are two of the greatest things that you can do with this oversized pool of the television medium. It’s so big. There are so many ways to go, and so many networks and platforms, that you can do anything. All you have to do is be a little bit specific, and all of a sudden, you have your own little niche and people are going to watch. What I think Hap and Leonard has done is go, “Okay, we have enough people watching that we can be so specific that we can basically make an independent film television show where everything is so legit and super noir, and we’re basing it on the novels of this great pulp writer with an independent film director at the helm.” Sundance let him and the writers do as they pleased. They said, “You make your story. We’re not going to tell you how the story comes out.” Jim Mickle did that, and I thought the outcome was a total success. So then, Westworld said, “This is what we can do with all of these resources and all of these money. This is how beautiful, clear, pertinent and big we can make it.” And I can’t believe I got to be a part of both of those things.
Westworld airs on Sunday nights on HBO.