It is a testament to the head-spinning twists and turns of what we have seen of Westworld so far that for all its very many outrageous visuals, often it’s what is going on underneath that is the most shocking.
Layered, brutal and intense, the fact it has taken the crown of The Hottest TV Show of 2016 (with our sincere apologies to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead) is perhaps not surprising, given the talent behind the cameras and that in front of it – the amazing one-two of Thandie Newton and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Newton plays Maeve Millay, the sharp-tongued madame of Westworld, which, unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably know by now is a Wild West theme park where visitors can indulge their darkest desires.
And, like most of the characters in the show, Millay is a more complex individual than she first appears.
“It’s like peeling an onion,” grins Newton. “Layer after layer. It’s just been a wonderful experience as an actor. Working with Jonah and Lisa [show producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] is fantastic. They’re a great couple. Well, they’re great people, I should say. That sounds better… but they are a great couple as well! And have committed their absolute ambition and core to this show.”
It was Newton’s faith in the pair that made her feel comfortable with her difficult early scenes. “They said to me, ‘You’re going to be exposed, Thandie, a lot…’ And, I mean, I’ve been through every exploitative situation an actress can go through – literally, I have – in this industry. But I trusted them totally. And I think the show is the synthesis of the two of them – Jonah is probably the most evolved feminist I’ve ever met and Lisa is a powerful woman who is just in her element. I feel like throughout the show they’ve been challenging each other in the writing, just raising each other up. They made a very early decision that TV was the platform for them to make a show that could promote social betterment; that could be a platform for asking questions. It is a meditation of where we are.
“The Western is history, sci-fi is the future – and you bring those two things together and that’s the human experience right now.” Ambitious stuff. And the actress, who is a committed activist for a variety of causes in her spare time (“Don’t get me started – my kids roll their eyes if I start going on at home…”), actually found her regular costume as a madame more uncomfortable than even her more outre scenes.
“When I was on set without any costume on at all, people were so respectful. But when I was wearing my corset, short skirt, ruffles and so on I felt more exposed and objectified as a woman. I felt, when I was dressed like that, that I was inviting the gaze of people. They couldn’t help it – it was literally in their faces. I put on a dressing gown, even if it was a hot set, because I felt more vulnerable in that outfit than anything else.”
Newton began her career primarily working in film. From her acclaimed debut in John Duigan’s Flirting (1991) to blockbuster fare like Mission: Impossible II (2000) and Academy Award-winner Crash (2004), she was well established on the big screen but has transitioned increasingly to television of late. (Trivia fans take note: this is not the first time Newton has been in a show originally created by author Michael Crichton. She was also a series regular in ER.)
“To be honest,” she says, “every episode of Westworld feels like a film in its own right. Each episode should be called Westworld I, Westworld II, etc. Like the continuing instalments of a franchise. It’s so ambitious. I think that’s why TV is taking over from film. I know some of it is simply that we have bigger screens at home and people want to be at home and not spend the outrageous sums you can spend on a trip to the movies. But I do think cinema is a dying artform. And we’re seeing the transfer of all that skill and all that experience, and reputation, too, with filmmakers moving to television.”
As for the future, Newton can’t wait to continue the “franchise”. “Oh, there is so much more!” she teases. “What you’ve seen this season is just the tip of the iceberg, I promise…”
The Dark Half
I’ve always known how to scare people,” says Sir Anthony Hopkins, cheerfully. “When I was a young boy I would tell the girls stories about Dracula and I would end with a…” He makes a sound. That sound. You know the one. Licking his lips and slurping. It’s as though Hannibal Lecter has just entered the room and ordered some fava beans and something to wash them down with.
It is, genuinely, chilling.
Hopkins grins, aware of the effect. He recalls that the first time he sat at a table read for The Silence of the Lambs he literally drew gasps around the room when he began speaking. Director Jonathan Demme practically gurgled while one of the producers simply said: “Wow! That was scary. Don’t change a thing!”
“Scaring people is like a form of controlling them,” says Hopkins. “And I guess I know how to play control freaks. That’s why they keep casting me in these roles.”
Hopkins’ latest role, in the year’s undisputed TV smash Westworld, is arguably the ultimate control freak: the show’s eccentric genius Dr Robert Ford, a man who wants to both invent the world and to own it. Ford is the creator of the robot “hosts” who populate the Wild West theme park and he can’t resist constantly “improving” his creations, tinkering with their emotional responses and memories.
But Hopkins, generally considered one of the finest actors alive today, doesn’t play him as a raging megalomaniac. Instead he imbues the character with an almost lethargic world-weariness, instantly adding layers of melancholy and ambiguity to a story already layered with plenty of both.
Today, as the sun beats down on us in Los Angeles, Hopkins is here to talk to us about Westworld’s runaway success, although you get the sense he isn’t too comfortable talking about himself. A self-confessed loner (“I’ve never really been close to anyone,” he says simply),
Hopkins began studying acting after encouragement from Richard Burton, was subsequently championed by Laurence Olivier and, to date, has been Oscar-nominated four times (winning, of course, for The Silence of the Lambs). But he’s not keen to take himself, or anything else for that matter, too seriously.
Ask him why he plays Ford the way he does and he’ll just shrug. “I don’t know…” he laughs. “All I can tell you is that it was a lot of lines to learn! And I suppose I always make an attempt to go the opposite way the audience might expect.”
He is equally nonchalant when asked why he decided to do the first TV series of his career. “My agent said, ‘Television is the thing now.’ So I said ‘Okay!’ I mean, if someone offers me work and I think it’s interesting, I’ll do it! It beats hanging around the streets, doesn’t it? Or working for a living…”
Does he believe this is a golden age for TV? He shrugs again. “I’m not one for theories… Is that what they say? I don’t know, tomorrow it’ll be the golden age of something else. I have no idea. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed doing this. I enjoyed getting the next script.
Although I wasn’t used to all the secrecy – there has been so much security around everything. They didn’t even want to email them in case something leaked out. But eventually, somehow, it would get to you. You’d always read it and go: ‘Oh! There’s a surprise…’ For the whole series you never knew what was going to happen next. I’m still not sure how it all plays out, in fact.”
He laughs. “The truth is, I’m no spring chicken. I’m very happy just to be working.
I enjoy it and it’s fun. My wife is always trying to get me to slow down but I just say, ‘Why?
I’ll just die if I slow down.’”
Westworld is available on OSN Play now.