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. Set in the futuristic present day of 2058, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is out of the Westworld park and moving around in the real world, digging deeper into all of the unanswered questions from the past two seasons — a definite threat to the mysterious Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel), who has ties to what’s been going on in the Delos theme parks.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Cassel talked about joining the show as a fan of the first two seasons, staying focused specifically on who Serac is, why co-showrunners Nolan and Joy are the real Serac of the show, how he views his character, how much you can get away with when you’re endlessly rich and also anonymous, the fun of being a part of the show’s bigger mystery, the Serac-Maeve dynamic, and what surprised him most about making this show.
Some light spoilers for Westworld Season 3 ahead.
COLLIDER: When you join a show like Westworld that’s thought-provoking and challenging, I would imagine, just like the audience, you sometimes have no clue what’s going on. Is there a lot of catch-up to do so that you don’t feel like your brain is exploding when you’re making the show?
VINCENT CASSEL: First of all, I’d seen both seasons. I was a fan of the show before they actually hired me, so I knew what it was about and I knew what kind of mind trick it could be. But then, once you’re involved with the show and they tell you the whole concept and everything, I kept very focused on what I had to do because there are too many things that are not gonna change anything on my path. To get involved with each and every idea of the show would be too complicated, so I really stayed focused on who he is, how I should talk, his goal, and what he believes in. That’s how I saved myself.
When I spoke to Aaron Paul about joining the show, he told me that he was given a lot of detail about his character. 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 things would go during the season?
CASSEL: We had long talks, over the phone [and] on FaceTime, before I got hired about the whole idea of this guy and his philosophy, and why he became the man he is now. Then, I would discover the episodes, one by one. I was actually amazed because I felt like I had a lot of freedom. It’s very weird to work with different directors, on every episode, and still feel the presence of [co-showrunners] Lisa [Joy] and Jonah [Nolan], in every choice. The real Serac of the show is actually those two.
How would you describe who this man is? We’re told that he’s the antagonist of the season, but how would you describe him?
CASSEL: He’s a philanthropist, he’s a tyrant, he’s a messiah, he is the richest man in the world, and he’s definitely a great match for [Maeve,] the character that Thandie Newton plays. That’s another thing that I really liked about the whole thing. Suddenly, the only match you find on this earth is a fucking robot. I thought there was really such a paradox in there. He’s all of those things and more, I would say.
We know that he’s the richest man in the world and that he’s completely anonymous. Does that make him feel like he can do and get away with anything he wants?
CASSEL: If nobody knows anything about you, I’m sure you can get away with, more or less, everything, especially in those days — that start now, by the way. Every little move you make is filmed. Every money transaction you do with a card is, we know exactly what time it was, what you bought, where, why and for who. The real luxury, nowadays, would be that nobody knows anything about you.
Is there a fun and getting to be at the center of the mystery that’s being unraveled while also playing a character that’s a mystery himself?
CASSEL: It’s wonderful. As an actor, you don’t need to do much. Everything is so arranged around each and every appearance that you’ll have. People talk so much about him that he doesn’t have to look mean. He could be the nicest guy, and he’ll still be scary, with what everybody has said about him, before he even appears.
The tagline for Season 3 is, “Free will is not free,” and it feels like your character, in particular, is really exerting that over Maeve, at this point. How would you describe the dynamic between Serac and Maeve, and what can we expect to see develop between them, as the season continues?
CASSEL: They’re partners right now. They need to be partners. There’s no other way. He’s definitely trying to control her, but as you know, you don’t control Maeve. At a certain point, it becomes this game of, who’s controlling who. It’s a mind battle. She’s a wonderful match for him, and he’s supposed to be one of the smartest. She’s so enhanced that she can figure out every little thing that he will do. You’ll see how that will develop. She really fights, and there’s this mind battle between those two. You’ll see where it goes. She’s really strong. And that’s another thing, it’s a woman’s show, let’s face it. All of the strong characters are women, and a lot of the directors were women. There’s a feminine print in the show.
Does Serac fully understand what he’s getting himself into with Maeve?
CASSEL: Yes, of course. He’s seen everything about her. He knows the whole story. He knows how she reinvented herself, how she fought an army, and how she rewrote her own code. That’s why he needs her. She’s the only one. At some point, he realizes that she’s the only way. When you have somebody that valuable, he has to charm her, to the point where she will do what he needs her to do.
This cast really is tremendous, and everybody on this show does such great work. Watching you and Thandie Newton together this season is so fascinating and exciting to watch because of that dynamic between your characters. What did you find out about her, as an actress, from working with her, and what was it like to get to go on this ride with her?
CASSEL: She’s easygoing and likes to have fun, and I’m like that, too. To me, acting should be easy. When it suddenly gets hard, it’s because there’s a problem in the writing, or between people on set, or whatever. Otherwise, it should be a great pleasure, even when you need to play dramatic things. She’s like that, too, so it was very easygoing. Plus, they’d done two seasons already. It’s like when you have to run a long distance, you realize that your body only does the movements that are necessary, and everything that is not useful just disappears. That’s the way we worked – easy, and with no bullshit. On this show, the hours were crazy. You work any time of the day. Once it’s going, it’s a huge machine with so many people involved, and it can’t stop. When you’re in the middle of that, you feel like you’re this little thing.
Is Serac someone who has a moral compass? Does he have his own set of rules that guides him?
CASSEL: Definitely. There is a whole philosophy and reason behind each and everything tha the does. As the show goes on, you will understand that. There’s nothing gratuitous. You’ll see. Even though the show doesn’t explain anything, and it manages to never explain anything, you will see things about him that makes you understand why he became that man.
We initially think Serac is a new antagonist in this world, but then it turns out that Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) was working for him, all along, which connects your character to the previous seasons, even though we didn’t see him. Do you think that that really makes the character even more of the man behind the curtain of it all, since he’s been there all this time, whether we knew it or not?
CASSEL: Definitely. It’s the kind of part that Anthony Hopkins had before. This guy is behind and controls everything, but to what point. The villain, if you want to call him that, on this show, you never know if he’s really bad. Anthony Hopkins wasn’t bad, really, when you think about. He was very demanding, and he was willing to do a lot of things to get to his goal, but the whole idea was towards freedom.
What does Serac think of Dolores? Does he see her as a threat? Is she something that scares him?
CASSEL: I don’t think he gets scared. But he knows that she’s a threat and he knows what’s gonna happen. When you know what’s gonna happen and you know it’s coming, you have to solve the problem for humanity. He wants to control everything, but he cannot control these women.
When it came to making and being a part of this show and seeing what it really takes to make this show, what has most surprised you about it?
CASSEL: First was how they can manage to have this result, knowing that they’re almost never there, and I’m talking about Jonah and Lisa. They control everything and every choice from a distance, and that’s really amazing. The other thing is the amount of freedom you have on a show like this. It’s a huge machine and you don’t know much. I ended up in a house in L.A., and after a week or ten days, they call you and say, “Come tomorrow.” You never know what’s gonna happen. You have to be ready, at any time. They could call you at eight at night, and suddenly, you would work at nine in the morning. And even though there was this freedom that I had, and that everybody had, they still managed to control the whole thing, so the show looks exactly like what they had in mind.
Westworld Season 3 airs on Sunday nights on HBO at 9/8c.