As the 34th annual Paleyfest winds toward its conclusion, The Paley Center for Media has saved some of the best panels for last, with an evening session Saturday for hit HBO series Westworld. Based on the 1973 film directed by Michael Crichton, the sci-fi series has embraced the mysteries at its core, dropping clues for viewers as to the future of the Westworld amusement park and its androids coming to self-awareness, and generating record ratings and serious fan engagement in the process.
Representing Westworld during a night full of laughs but few significant revelations at the Dolby Theatre were series co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, along with executive producer Robert Patino. The key ensemble cast also appeared including Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, James Marsden and Jimmi Simpson, who discussed their reasons for taking on the project.
For the actors, the key takeaway was how little the stars knew throughout the entirety of the process—about key twists, the fate of their characters and the future of the amusement park—something that was helpful to the process of approaching their roles.
“I didn’t know this show—I didn’t know the scope—so I honestly thought it was going to be kind of like a goofy CHIPS remake,” Simpson admitted, drawing laughs from the crowd.
“We all had a lot of questions—a barrage of questions—but I got comfortable with not having all the answers,” Marsden added. “Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, but when you let the show come to you, and reveal itself in its own time, it’s much more satisfying.”
With Westworld wrapping its first season in December, and a Season 2 premiere set for 2018, the series’ creators were cagey and hesitant to offer many insights about what’s to come. “It’s a musical,” Nolan joked of the upcoming season.
“There will be a story, and it will f*ck with the metaphysical at some point,” Patino offered.
“We’re writing right now — we’re terribly excited about what we’re writing,” Nolan continued. “Reddit has already figured out the third episode twist, so we’re changing that right now.”
Social media was a major topic of conversation, with Nolan revealing himself as a Reddit frequenter and commenting on the fan engagement the series has stimulated. The executive producer spoke to his frustration at fans guessing major plot twists, or clocking his visual influences, down to the particular film and shot. “It’s annoying sometimes when people guess the twists and then blog about it, but the engagement is gratifying, on one level, because if someone guesses your twist, it means you’ve done an adequate job [of structuring the series],” Nolan said. “You can’t complain when people are that engaged. It’s very gratifying—but stop doing it, please.”
In one of the night’s highlight moments, Newton tackled the show’s portrayal of violence towards women head-on—as well as her frequent nude scenes—referencing her work as an activist, combating violence towards women.
“When we were going into the publicity for the show, and people saw little bits, there was a lot of comment on, ‘Is this going to be gratuitous?’ Violence against women…It’s valid. And even though we were all terrified, because we just desperately wanted to stick with it—stick with this—we also knew that that was the point. The point we’re trying to make is, look at where we are, and is there a road out from here?” she said.
“I was just filled with excitement of where this show could go—of where this show could not really take us not as actors, but the audience, and people; and I know this is hyperbolic, but the world,” Newton said. “Here we are right now at a crossroads, and I think Westworld, for me anyway, is part of the solution, not the problem. With so many of the roles I’ve played—[speaking about] roles for women—it’s tough out there, and very often I feel like I have to put my activism behind. I have to just be the actor, do what I have to do, but [on Westworld], I was an activist every single day I went to work. I felt part of the solution every single day.”
One intriguing element of Westworld among many is its music—Season 1 featured player piano covers of everything from Radiohead to Nine Inch Nails—and a fan question about Season 2’s music proved to be one of the panel’s only (slightly) revelatory moments. “At home, we have a little girl, so we spend a lot of time watching children’s movies, and one of them has proven to be, musically, incredibly inspiring,” Joy revealed. “So there may be a strange shoutout to a very kind of innocently joyful song, that we’ll take, and co-opt, and make dark.”
“Perverted,” Nolan joked.
While alternate amusement park Samurai World was hinted at in the final episodes of Season 1, Nolan wouldn’t speak to the possibility of venturing into new worlds—and you shouldn’t expect Ed Harris to jump into a samurai suit anytime soon.
“It’s ‘Man in Black,’ not ‘Man in a Samurai suit,'” he joked. “Samurais don’t wear hats.”