“Nothing’s ever taken for granted on this show let me tell you,” says Thandie Newton from the Season 2 set of Westworld. Certainly, with a drama topping 22 Emmy nominations this year, the much watched and much discussed HBO series based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 movie has emerged as the premium cabler’s new blockbuster in more ways than one.
For the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama nominee, the Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan showrun series drills into deep notions of identity, freedom and professional satisfaction. Traits that take on heightened significance for her character of brothel madam Maeve Millay and the android’s newly emerged realization of the deceptions of her existence.
With 22 Emmy nominations, including an Outstanding Supporting Actress nod for you, Westworld is tied with SNL as the most nominated series this year. What does that say to you for a first season drama?
Goodness, it says that our peers are supportive of the work that we’ve been doing. To get that kind of validation is really special because it’s very hard these days to know what an audience is going to want, because there’s so much available. It means a hell of a lot to be recognized in that way, a hell of a lot.
We had a glimpse of Season 2 from the trailer unveiled at Comic-Con but where does the upcoming cycle take your Maeve Millay character?
In Season 2, we’re going to see her going back into the world that she has abandoned, which felt to me like an incredibly courageous and ultimately rebellious choice. Particularly as Maeve was informed by Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard character that everything that she’s done, like escaping the park, was programmed. I found that deeply disturbing, and Maeve also found it violently disturbing, to feel like your mind is not your own, that these acts of defiance that were brave and rebelling against her oppressors were preordained. It’s terrifying.
Like the lives of the androids and, in many ways, the humans of Westworld the theme park, the show has few rough edges. It feels so tightly constructed…
Nothing’s ever taken for granted on this show, let me tell you. I’m in awe of our showrunners, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, because they have a whole other world inside their heads, and it’s watertight. It’s really consistent. Whenever you ask them, they have the answers. They’ve got a very strong sense of what will and can happen.
Speaking of a strong sense, you are well known for your human rights work and a few years ago you gave a TED talk entitled “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself,” where you asked a lot of questions of yourself, questions on identity. Did some of that inform this role?
I think it’s a lovely parallel, and I do feel that Maeve came at a fantastically profound moment in my life. A moment where there is this whole idea of ego and how we as humans operate in order to be socially accepted, but also just to sort of be emotionally and psychologically acceptable to oneself. You know, the robots to me are the oppressed human beings in the world, they’re oppressed in our world.
And how does that impact you as a person and an actor?
Well, Westworld fell into this already spicy stew of existential questions that I’ve been asking myself as I’ve been getting older and heading into my 40s. It’s something that I think a lot of people do. That’s why there are so many mid-life crises; we’ve got to question what and who we are. So, it’s really satisfying playing a role, which called on those themes. Whether or not it’s apparent to the audience, it was very much for me, and I found that really fed into what I was doing with the character.
In many ways, it does sometimes feel like there’s a parallel between the androids and what the role and the life of an actor must be, as narrative, and story, and plot, and endpoint, and journey are all dictated to you.
Yeah, the one fundamental difference is that there’s the matter of choice. That’s what turns it into the rights of the individual. Freedom is having choice in the matter and having conscious choice in the matter, taking it one step further. So, as an actor, yeah, we play roles, but at any point, we can stop and say, “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
You know, when I think about issues like sex trafficking and the work that I do as a human rights activist, that feels far closer to the life of these robots, as opposed to the lives of actors. It’s much, much closer.
What about what’s happening right now without any technology, just what human minds can actually create, what human minds can drive forward in vast numbers? You know, international crime that is literally relying on sex slavery and the rape of innocent people, it’s happening all the time.
For me personally, Westworld is a way to think about those things as opposed to think about the artificial intelligence. I think artificial intelligence is absolutely fascinating, but for me, the urgency is helping people who are voiceless and who are oppressed in our world right now. So, I think that Westworld is an incredible meditation and gives great potential to how we think about those things and how we possibly try to end those things going on in the world.
Sounds like many different threads of who you are, professionally and personally, truly united in Maeve?
Well, I just love the potential to go incredibly deep and wide with these ideas and this material, to embrace questions that are so terrifying for us right now, you know? It’s a very interesting time, and I feel like Westworld falls into that place of allowing us to get out of our heads, but firmly into our bodies.