“Westworld” has always been a show that inspires deep thought — not just for those who watch it, but those who make it. As proof, look no further than star Jeffrey Wright, who spent his time at this year’s SXSW basically enjoying a busman’s holiday.
“When I was at SXSW, I attended a panel on robotics — they didn’t know I was a host and they let me in the front door,” he told IndieWire with a smile. “One of the panelists was talking about this A.I. that can look into a crowd and make a determination as to who might be a threat. I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘This guy is problematic.’ Because it’s not the technology, but it’s the hand behind the technology. In this case, it’s the biases of the programmer and the programming as a result of those biases that may be skewed, that could misinterpret certain cultural and physical traits, could misinterpret skin color or height. Any number of variables could be skewed by the human that programmed these things.”
Wright plays both the original co-founder of the Westworld park, Arnold, as well as Bernard, the host modeled after Arnold following Arnold’s death. True to “Westworld’s” fascination with this new form of evolving life, Bernard is the most prominent role of the two, and one which meant that during Season 1, Wright was given more information than his co-stars about some of the biggest twists, including the official reveal that Bernard wasn’t truly human after all.
For Season 2, though, things have changed. “This season by design was going to be the opposite, that I would be told very little,” he said. “That had to do to some extent with the nature of Bernard’s place […] as this year kicks off. He took a bullet — a self-imposed bullet, to a robot brain, late in the season — so that has health consequences. He’s dealing with that, his cognitive abilities are diminished, and he finds himself in the middle of a really treacherous, chaotic rebellion within the park. Like everyone, he’s trying to survive through this new scenario, but he’s doing so with diminished abilities to some extent. My being kept in the dark a little bit helped further align me with Bernard.”
Wright wasn’t completely in the dark, though, due to the production schedule, which involved many episodes shooting simultaneously. “We were shooting multiple units any given day, shoveling from unit to unit,” he said. “Sometime I’d be in my Bernard costume on [Interstate 5] driving from one set to another midday. I shot a number of different episodes out of sequence very early on, so I was able to piece together things because I was shooting all over the season over the course of the first few weeks.”
That being said, Wright noted, “You can never get ahead of Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy]. It’s just not a good idea to even think you can. You’ll inevitably run up against the wall of disappointment. They’re way ahead of you.”
Added Wright, “I think the most fun is really just digging down deeper into Bernard and giving more shape and more layers to Bernard. To really sink into this character in a way that I could not have at the beginning of Season 1, simply because I had not done the work. Now I know what and who he is, and because we have writing that is as strong and inventive as it is, it’s just a real joy to continue to play his music.”
Having wrapped production on Season 2, he felt that he understood the scope of the show better than he had when they first started, and he echoed something he also mentioned during the “Westworld” panel at SXSW: “If you go back and watch the pilot,” he said, “the evolution from then is significant, but woven within that first episode are some threads that lead to Season 2.”
However, he wouldn’t reveal what scenes from the pilot should be re-examined. “Figure it out for yourself,” he said (in a non-mean way). “At the end of Season 2, you’ll go back and look at a couple things and they’ll look like red lights, sirens flashing off.”
More importantly, the real-world implications behind what “Westworld” depicts cannot be ignored. “[The show is] an exploration relative to this technology of ownership and control, and abuse of these tools and this power,” he said. “I think that theme is one that speaks to abuse of power and ownership and control of these technologies that have infiltrated our world outside of our show.”
It wasn’t a topic that was new for him. “It was something that I had been thinking about prior to coming onto the show, the ways in which the technology we’ve all become so married to, the ways it’s being exploited for purposes beyond personal productivity and the like. The ways that technology is being manipulated for profit by the companies that own them… We understand we’re not working in a vacuum, even though we’re a pretty fantastical show. There’s very much a grounding in the world beyond the set.”
Wright felt this was a distinct change from the original 1973 take on “Westworld,” as created by Michael Crichton, because “the technology is more prevalent now. The technologies and implications we are exploring are so much more accessible to the understanding of our audience. We’re not falling in love… well, most of us aren’t falling in love with robotic mates. But we’re pretty married to the phones that we carry around with us all day and all night. We get it in a way that folks didn’t quite in the mid-1970s.”
Added Wright, “Again, for me, my fascination is with the ownership and the control of the technology. The purpose behind our addiction to these things and what the end game is, or what the corporate intent is behind that. That’s something we should all consider more. For example there’s been a conversation around the implications of government surveillance, but there hasn’t been as nearly as involved a conversation around corporate surveillance. The big tech companies know more about us than the government. They got more access to our day to day lives than our government, and we seem to be giving them over willingly.”
That’s something we’re seeing unveiled so far in “Westworld” Season 2. For a show that’s already pretty scary, it makes things seem even scarier.
“Westworld” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.