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, actress Thandie Newton (who plays brothel madam Maeve) talked about being a part of a TV show that has a larger conversation associated with it, what she’s most enjoyed about collaborating with showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, that no one on this show is phoning it in, why she wanted to play Maeve, the duality of the character, and why stripping herself naked (literally and figuratively) was so empowering.
Collider: What’s it like for you, as an actress, to be a part of something like Westworld that not only sparks conversation about the series itself, but also about larger issues in the world?
THANDIE NEWTON: If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s cool. But if it is, wow, it’s so rich! I love it! I absolutely love it, so much! Every moment of working, it was me in my capacity as an activist, as well as being an actor. I never thought I’d be able to further my interests politically or socially, while I was being an actress. I just thought it’s not the place for that to happen. I do try my hardest to push boundaries of stereotypes with my work, but you’re limited, as an actor. But then, I met Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] and I was like, “Oh, my God!” We could literally be on the frontlines of a rally or peaceful protest together.
What have you most enjoyed about collaborating with Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy?
NEWTON: Both Lisa and Jonah come from film, as well as television. They told me, “This is where we want to put all our most important ideas because it has the long form.” Because they’re from film, each episode is like a movie. Most of the actors involved in the project started their careers in film, and there’s something very important about that. If you think about the first episode, it’s not typical filmmaking now. It’s much more traditional and slower, and it allows you to sit in a scene with a wide shot, as opposed to immediately, kinetically, madly cutting like a pop video, which is what we’re now used to. When you see anything from the ‘70s, you’re like, “Wow, this is slow!” It’s just because this is allowing you to participate. That’s all. It’s not trying to distract you and hypnotize you into having no thoughts, at all. I love that about Westworld. Not only does it risk revealing a lot of really rough stuff, in the first couple of episodes, because otherwise how are we going to subvert that stuff, if we don’t show it, but it was scary because there was so much attention around that, understandably. There was the fear that it was going to be exploitational and sensational, but it’s the opposite, in fact. It’s actually trying to get to the root of why we’re all so fucking addicted. It’s beautiful. And when you know what happens by the end, it’s going to deliver in ways you weren’t expecting. It’s incredible!
The journeys that both Dolores and Maeve seem to be on are so compelling and fascinating. Have you spent much or any time talking to Evan Rachel Wood about that aspect of the story that you’re telling?
NEWTON: When I was at work, Evan Rachel Wood had days off, and when I had days off, she was at work. That’s just how it worked out. But when we did cross paths in the trailer, it was usually when we were crossing over into a new episode and we would just scream in the make-up trailer over the latest script. It was like, “Oh, my God, Thandie! The stuff we’re getting to do is amazing!” And I would be the same. Just being able to look at a woman I have such high regard for, and who is a complicated, amazing, powerful, uncompromising person – which is how I would describe Evan – and to see her shine, on her own terms, through the voice of this character, was so fucking awesome.
All of these actors together is anyone’s dream cast. What’s it like to be a part of that?
NEWTON: And we’re all taking it really, really seriously. No one is phoning this in. We were all so keen to live this and to get it right. It’s complicated stuff, and we didn’t want it to be difficult for the audience to understand because you need to keep up with it, so that you can get everything it can give you. But I think it begs for viewing more than once, which I think people like to do anyway, these days.
When it came to the casting for this show, you’ve said that you were presented with the choice between two roles. How difficult of a decision was it, for you to decide which character to play, and what ultimately sold you on Maeve?
NEWTON: Because it put my teeth on edge, I found it very challenging, and I felt uncomfortable with the idea of where she was coming from, while also knowing the scope of the character’s journey and the ambition of it. I knew that, even though it was going to be challenging to play someone who was farming out women, and who had been programmed to abuse and to allow abuse, I understood that the purpose of it was to have this character fall from grace, even though she was not responsible for the way she was programmed. All of us are programmed. It’s the nature vs. nurture argument. We are influenced by our surroundings, our parents, our siblings, our diet, our schooling, and this and that. We are programmed and, at some point in our lives, we’ll have a breakdown or we’ll have a shit relationship and we’ll be like, “Why am I like this?” And then, we go back and pick through it and make our own decisions about how we want to live. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. It’s no one’s fault. Maybe the influences that we had don’t chime with what we want to be. Then, as an adult and with a greater awareness, we can make choices.
We see your character on two very distinct levels, the one when she’s in Westworld and all dressed up inside of the brothel to sell herself a particular way, and then the one where she’s stripped down and naked, both literally and figuratively, when she’s being serviced, essentially like a computer.
NEWTON: And that’s when she’s most powerful. With the objectification, being in those clothes with the corset pushing the boobs up to my chin and the fishnets, people thought I must be really happy wearing that stuff because it’s so beautiful. I hated it! I totally recognize that it was a beautiful costume. There was no doubt about that. And I was very grateful for the level of expertise, but I couldn’t wait to get out of that fucking corset. It invited looks, even from the crew, and it made people slightly uncomfortable because my boobs were in my chin and they didn’t know where to look. What it did, actually, was devalue our communication. Our communication was second to this discomfort that we felt, but that discomfort is called eroticism. Very often, if you think about what’s erotic and break it down, as we’re feeling the excitement of eroticism, we’re feeling fear. We want to try to dominate our fear and get rid of our fear, so we go towards it and have sex with it, basically. That’s really sad.
So, I was in those clothes, feeling a bit uncomfortable. When I was naked, people were really respectful and in awe of my “bravery.” The thing about sexy, lacy undies is that you’re covering up the sacred stuff, so that you can forget about that. You’re inviting people to think about what’s underneath, but not see what’s underneath. It’s the allure of the unknown. You’re inviting hysteria with your boobs that are nearly showing nipple and your skirt that’s nearly showing muff. You’re exciting this hysteria that leads to a lack of control, which then leads to, “It wasn’t my fault.” But naked, I have all the power because I got there before you did, and what is actually there is vulnerable, life-giving and hasn’t been tampered with. I don’t wax or anything. All of the hosts have full body hair because it’s more period, and even that it shocking. I haven’t done anything to try to invite you in to think about my clitoris, my labia or my vagina. I’ve left myself as I am. And that was really empowering. I used to work as a bar maiden in a pub in London, years and years ago, when I was 18 or 19. When you’ve got the bar between you and the customers, the shit they feel they can say! And then, when you step out behind the bar, there’s silence and muttering into their navels. I feel like the sexy clothes put a bar between you. It’s like putting an alcohol drenched piece of wood between you and the person, and it’s inviting them to be able to think and say the things that they hate about themselves.
Maeve has a totally fabricated history that led to her being the madam of this brothel. It’s really only when all of that is stripped away when we see who and what she actually is.
NEWTON: That’s who you actually are. I’m so glad you said that! I’ll be borrowing that because it’s so true. The reality is that who you are is who you are right this second, not who you were at any moment in the past because it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s done. It’s over. There are some things worth remembering, and it’s that oral history that we passed on from generation to generation, in order to help and to warn us about survival and what we need to do. It was all really, really functional. Now, because we’ve gotten into such a state where we take pills, so that we don’t feel ill or feel pain, we don’t want to deal with anything that’s even slightly challenging. Humans are really interesting. We’re so clever, what we do with our brain. How we manage to con ourselves into thinking all sorts of things is really fascinating. By the same token, if we could just convince ourselves of things that would gather us together and powerfully turn things around for the good, that would be awesome. It’s doubtful because we’re such a fear-based species. We have to be looked after, for our survival, for two years. What other animal needs to be looked after for two years? Fear is just part of our DNA and our make-up. By definition, if we’ve had to be looked after for two years, it means we can’t do it on our own and we need other people. That makes trust enormously important and it makes fear massive. Massive fear and trust issues really just defines us. The partner to belief is truth. If we’re being fed lies, that’s so powerful. And then, when we realize we’re being lied to, it’s going to make us really angry.
Westworld airs on Sunday nights on HBO.