Created for television by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the HBO series Westworld is back for Season 3, as it continues its exploration of artificial consciousness and the question of free will. Now set in the futuristic present day of 2058, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is out in the real world and digging deeper into all of the unanswered questions from the past two seasons, and things will get very interesting when she crosses paths with a human named Caleb (Aaron Paul), who she brings along for the ride.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Aaron Paul talked about joining this series as a major fan, how much he knew about the season arc before shooting, how closely the show followed the initial plan that he was pitched, why co-stars Marshawn Lynch and Lena Waithe make such great cohorts, the Caleb-Dolores dynamic, why he was so impressed with Evan Rachel Wood, and what most surprised him about making this show.
Collider: When you join a show like this, that’s thought-provoking and challenging, and I would imagine, just like the audience, you sometimes have no clue what’s going on, is there a lot of catch up, so that you don’t feel like your brain is exploding when you’re making this show?
AARON PAUL: To be honest, I always feel like my brain is exploding, no matter what show I’m making. No. I feel what you’re saying. I was such a massive fan of this show, from the beginning, week to week. It’s one of those shows that I had to watch, the moment it came out. I didn’t want any spoilers to spoil anything. And when the second season was done, I had to just sit back and think to myself, “Oh, god, did I not pay attention enough?” I had to rewatch it, but that’s what I love about the show. It’s one of those shows that you have to earn the right to know what the hell is going on. You can’t just have it on in the background, and have your phone by your side and check your social media or text certain friends while the show is playing, otherwise you’re gonna be completely lost. With that, my wife had never seen the show before. She knew how complicated the show was and she wanted to get caught up before it started airing its third season, with me involved in it. And so, she kept her phone away, I rewatched this series with her, and she never once was lost. She completely understood the story that they were telling. It’s just all about paying attention, with these scripts. It’s just like when you’re watching an episode, without the visual elements right in front of you. You’ve got your imagination, but it’s a tough thing. You’ve gotta really sit down and pay attention and stay focused.
How much were you actually told about what the season arc would be and what your character’s journey within it would be? Did you have a full sense of where that would go?
PAUL: Kind of, yeah. I was actually moments away from closing a deal for another series, a new series that was gonna take me up to Canada to shoot. It was a really great, fun show. But then, I got a phone call from my team, saying that Lisa [Joy] and Jonah [Nolan] wanted to sit down with me and pitch me their idea, how they saw me in the future of Westworld, and my jaw hit the floor. I was so excited. Sci-fi is easily my favorite genre, and what Lisa and Jonah do is just the best of the best. It was hard for me not to instantly pull out of the other project, to say an instant yes. I sat down with them and that they pitched me the story arc of this guy and this season, and how he fit into this world. He was gonna be the audience’s point of view of what it’s like to live as a civilian, within this futuristic society, and what that really entails. The fact that I got a peek behind the velvet curtain, in a way, at the future of Westworld, was such a dream come true. It was an instant yes from me.
It’s one thing to be pitched on what something will be, but it’s another thing entirely for it to actually end up sticking to that, since there are sometimes huge changes, over the course of a season of a show. Did it end up staying pretty close to what you were told?
PAUL: Truthfully, to a T. They really know the story that they are telling. In the room, they even pitched me the teaser trailer that they wanted to show people the first glimpse of Westworld. They saw the whole trailer being Caleb, my character, and his day to day life. They even talked about the drone shot that comes in on Caleb, within the teaser trailer. And then, at the end of the teaser, ‘cause it looks like it’s just a new futuristic show starring me, he stumbles upon a girl in distress in a tunnel, and she comes into the light and the world realizes that it’s Dolores. They pitched that to me, in our very first meeting, and I thought to myself, “Okay, that is a very nice idea. That’s so sweet and so flattering.” But to hear the creators of Westworld, telling me, as a huge fan of Westworld, that this is how they wanted to announce the new look and direction of the show, was insane to me. And the fact that they actually stuck to that, is just a testament to the storytellers that they are.
Since you were essentially putting yourself in the hands of Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, did it help to have Jonah directing the first episode of the season?
PAUL: Yeah, of course. Even when Lisa and Jonah aren’t directing, they still very much are so hands on. They’re on set as much as possible, and they’re just a phone call away, if you have any questions or concerns. But yes, it was so nice to have the showrunner and creator duo there on set, especially being the new kid in school. Everyone just welcomed me with such open arms. It’s just such a beautiful family and they were so excited to be back together. It had been so long since they had wrapped Season 2. It was nice to be introduced to this family that puts this whole monster together, and then quickly just dive in and become part of it.
Your cohorts this season are played by Marshawn Lynch and Lena Waithe, who both come to acting from very different backgrounds. How has the experience of working with them? What did you enjoy about exploring that dynamic and having the two of them to play that with?
PAUL: It was so perfect. They are both, separately, just such incredible people and really such great talents. Marshawn, other than some commercials, hasn’t really acted before, and he is gonna blow everyone away. Just to be around their energies, they just have such good vibes about them. They were just great. It’s such a beautiful dynamic that all of us brought to the picture. There’s some really fun things ahead with that group.
Caleb meets Dolores in a very memorable way. What does he think about her, in that moment, and why do you think he’s so drawn in by her?
PAUL: He’s at a point in his life where he’s struggling. You realize that this guy has a pretty battered past. He’s dealing with some PTSD, and going through what he needs to go through, to overcome that. Just before he encounters Dolores, he makes a decision, in his life, that he just needs to find something real. He comes to this complete stranger’s aid, inside of a tunnel, and then she takes him on a pretty wild journey, to say the least.
She clearly has a mission, even if we don’t fully know what that exact mission is. As a result of how deep she’s digging, would you say that we’ll have a much better feel for the inner workings of everything, by the end of the season?
PAUL: One hundred percent. I think a lot of unanswered questions will, in fact, be answered. A lot of new questions will surface, but in a really interesting, fun way. I’m excited for the world to see exactly what those questions and answers will be.
And since clearly nothing is ever quite what it seems on the show, when will we start to really understand what’s going on between Caleb and Dolores and what they’re involved in, and how do you think audiences will feel about how that dynamic evolves?
PAUL: That’s really up to the audience member. I think some people will pick up on certain things, a little earlier on than others. Some people will still never know what the hell is going on, which I think is great. You’ve gotta really pay attention to what is going on, to understand what is going on. There are definitely some really eye opening moments, down the road, for sure.
Would you say that Caleb and Dolores are more alike or more different than we initially think they are?
PAUL: Interesting. I think they have a lot of similarities, and I also think not so much. They see eye to eye on a lot of things.
I think this cast is tremendous, and everybody on this show does such great work. Watching you and Evan Rachel Wood together, this season, is just so fascinating and exciting to watch. What did you find out about her, as an actress, from working with her, and what was it like to go on this ride with her?
PAUL: I’ve been such a huge fan of hers, for as long as I can remember. One of the first things that comes to mind, when I think about what it was that made me fall in love with her, as an artist, was when I saw the movie Thirteen. I just could not believe what she was doing in that. Everything was so honest and pure and raw, and just left out in the open. I was just so blown away, and have followed her work, ever since. It’s an embarrassment of riches, with this show. You’re working with the best of the best in the industry, on screen and off. And the fact that I got to go toe to toe with someone I admire on such a massive level, it was a dream for me. And then, getting to know her on a personal level, and really understanding, truly, what a bad ass she is, what a fighter she is, and what a survivor she is, and the fact that she’s an actual lawmaker now, it’s amazing, the gambit that she has. She’s truly such a inspiration, to be honest.
What has most surprised you, when it came to making and being a part of this show?
PAUL: That all of the rumors were true. It is truly such a hard show to do. But with all of that said, I wouldn’t change it, for the world. I had the best time doing it. I had no sleep doing it. None of the crew did. None of the writers or directors did. It’s just a brutal shoot. A lot of that had to do with the future futuristic setting that we were in. Jonah said, “Look, the future looks better at night,” so most of our stuff was shot at night. We did have some day stuff, so Mondays were our daytime shoots. On Tuesdays, we’d be into splits, so our call times would be at 2:00pm, and then we would wrap around 2:00am. And then, by Wednesday or Thursday, our call times weren’t until 6:00pm, and we’d wrap around 8:00 or 9:00am So, to go back and forth on that schedule for six months is pretty brutal.
Once we get to the end of Season 3 and we see where the journey of the season takes us, do you think it would change the perspective, to go back and watch it, having that knowledge?
PAUL: Yeah, I think so. The more you watch anything, or the more you read something, you get a deeper look at it, just ‘cause you have a better grasp of what you think is up ahead. Now that I’ve actually seen the second season a total of three times, I really have such a grasp on what is going on. I do understand that some people were a little taken back by what the hell was happening in this show. As a society that takes in a lot of information, constantly, and that takes in a lot of TV shows and films, we’re used to just sitting back and not necessarily just turning our brain off ‘cause there are definitely some stories out there that really make you think, this being one of the stories that really makes you think. It’s a little bit more complicated than people are used to, but I really think that, if you give it a shot, anyone can understand this show. You just have to pay attention. The sweetest fan mail comes in saying, “I’m so happy that you’re a part of Westworld. I wish I was smarter to understand what the hell was going on, but I still love watching it.” I get that. You’ve gotta just sit back and think outside the box, a little bit, and really just lean in to the sci-fi of it all. It’s a pretty interesting thing.
You talked about the crazy schedule of doing this show. By the end, because it is a show that really pushes all of the actors, were you exhilarated by it and ready to go right back to work, or did you need a break?
PAUL: We all needed a break. But with that said, now that it’s done, I can’t wait to go back to fight another day. When your days are done, you’re just like, “Oh, my god, what a brutal week that was.” But then, you can’t wait to go back to the battlefield.
Westworld airs on Sunday nights on HBO.