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Westworld star: 'Each script is a psychedelic birthday cake'

Jeffrey Wright talks HBO’s new sci-fi thriller

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John P. Johnson/HBO

Jeffrey Wright gives us a map to HBO’s wild wild Westworld theme park in this interview below. Wright (Casino Royale, Boardwalk EmpireThe Hunger Games franchise) talks about his digital detective character, the ambitious sci-fi drama’s production hiccups, working with Anthony Hopkins, and more. Westworld premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET; EW.com will have a deep-dive recap and post-episode interview with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, how would you describe Bernard’s role?

Jeffrey Wright: Bernard is the head programmer of this resort where, for a packaged fee, folks can go play out their fantasies of the American West, interacting largely with robots – or, hosts, as we call them – that are indistinguishable from human beings. He’s mentored by a kind of grandfather, Walt Disney-figure of the park, Dr. Ford (as played by Anthony Hopkins). There’s is something of a partnership through which they build and rebuild and program and reprogram the creatures that inhabit the park. As those creatures start to misbehave, it’s there responsibility to figure out what’s going wrong and fix each variable. 

What excited you the most about this project?

When I was asked to be a part of it, I knew three things: I knew that Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy were leading the charge, I knew Anthony Hopkins was on board, and that HBO was buying it. After reading the script, that was pretty much all I needed. I was struck by was the premise, but also the language and the calculus behind the storytelling. It was really clear that Jonah and Lisa had a very tight grip on the vision behind the show, and were able to implement it in a really efficient, sharp, beautifully-written way. And then Bernard’s place in it seemed to provide a lot of room for exploration because he’s very much at the center of this world — and the coming unraveling — much in the same way that an everyman might be leading the journey and bringing the audience along with him. I obviously didn’t have an understanding of where Bernard’s [journey] would lead, but I knew the possibilities were pretty open-ended and curious.

Did you have any feelings about the 1973 Westworld film?

The film is fantastic, and poses a lot of interesting questions, and it’s great fun. It’s a brilliant premise, as expected from Michael Crichton. So it has something of a cult following. But I think in many respects, the premise was ahead of its time. The technology that he was imagining was [so far in the future] relative to now. The performances in that film are wonderful, obviously – Yul Brynner. How do I say this diplomatically? The film was obviously limited by the [special effects] technology and just way ahead of its time. There’s huge room for expansion of almost every element of that film, and I think that’s what we tried to explore through our show. 

In Westworld pilot we see the current park is built on what appears to be the ruins of a Delos set from the original film, hundreds of feet below the surface. That adds a nice history to the new show, reflecting our own cinematic history in the new series. 

That’s a very good way of describing it. Very much so. It speaks not only to the evolution of the technology within our show, but also the evolution of the technology outside of the show. We’re kind of going on an archeological dig back down to the roots of this type of story — back down to the relative beginnings of sci-fi storytelling. We’re siting atop the history of the park and the cinematic history of its storytelling too.  

There were some production delays along the way that got some headlines. How did that impact the cast?

We were frustrated about the time it took. But despite all the rumors and delays, we were all thrilled about putting it together and we really want people to see it. We want the audience to be as tripped out watching this as we were making it. It’s going to be a good times for them. When we were receiving each week’s script it was like a psychadelic birthday cake to all of us.

You’re working with Anthony Hopkins, he’s kind of a legend – what’s that like?

You know, we start early at like 4:30, 5:00 a.m. in the morning; we worked pretty intense and fantastically long hours on each day. So you show up on set with Anthony Hopkins, and he’s your morning triple espresso. He starts up blazing before the sun rises, and is such a joy to work with — both in front of the camera, and also just for me to converse with when the camera’s not rolling. Any actor who has an over-inflated sense of their talent needs to spend a morning working with him. He makes art out of this stuff. He’s like what we all hope to be.

While there’s several major star names in this cast, I feel like Bernard and Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Dolores, are the real focal points of the show. She’s the lead protagonist inside the park, and Bernard is mainly driving the action behind the scenes.  

Bernard’s essentially running the Westworld-tech side of the show. He’s got big responsibilities. There are actually three distinct worlds here – there’s the world of the hosts, the world of the guests, and the tech world. And Bernard is the character who is most involved in all three of those worlds. He’s an even-handed vessel through which the audience can understand exactly what these worlds are that they’re exploring, that are colliding together, as the season progresses. The audience, to some extent, has to take a ride on his shoulders to discover the multiple tunnels down at the bottom of the rabbit hole. 

Can you tease how your character evolves his season?

He’s the guy getting closer to understanding, unraveling the mysteries of the place and the origins of the place and perhaps, through that, some insight into the future of where we’re all heading. That’s really what he’s onto and how he evolves. 

More Westworld: Follow @jameshibberd for ongoing Westworld scoop, recaps, interviews, and more. Come to EW.com after the premiere Sunday night for exclusive coverage. 

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