Thandie Newton: 'For me to agree to be totally naked is a big deal ... but it’s worth it'
Note: This story discusses a major sequence in the second episode of HBO’s Westworld, which the network has released early. Read this if you’ve watched the episode. If you haven’t yet, come back later!
Thandie Newton’s Westworld character Maeve Millay was put through the existential wringer in the second episode of the acclaimed sci-fi drama. In an extended sequence near the end of the hour, Maeve wakes up during surgery, fully conscious in her 19th-century saloon-owner identity, while “backstage” at the luxury theme park. Maeve then wanders the impossibly modern and clinical facility, fully nude, with an open abdominal wound, horrified at the reality of the real world — including seeing a chamber where her fellow “hosts” are decontaminated like waste products after being “killed.” It’s a deeply disturbing sequence, and below Newton (Mission Impossible II, ER) discusses that and her role on the HBO drama.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, what drew you to this project?
Thandie Newton: I read the pilot first and was a bit confused because there was a lot of violence, a lot of objectification of women — saloon hookers and savages and so forth. The pilot’s political incorrectness was so extreme that made me sit up, especially since [showrunner] Jonathan Nolan is the most evolved feminist I know. [Fellow showrunner] Lisa Joy is a complete badass. They’re fabulous and both represent diversity and politics for women’s rights. So I met them on Skype and they explained how Westworld is aiming to show what human beings are capable of — that depravity — and subverting it. Artificial intelligence comments on human behavior, and that’s the real hook of the show. We can show all these things because they’re also going to be questioned. They’re going to be challenged and the real consequences will come to bear. So I was in!
My life’s work is trying to be part of the solution in terms of the violence against women and girls, and gender inequality. When I started working as actress I thought, “Oh, this is a great way to tell those types of stories.” But it became more and more disheartening as I went along trying to fight directors on making women’s roles more interesting and multi-dimensional. Then Westworld turns up, and everyday that I was on the set, I felt like a women’s right activist. Maybe that sounds uncool, and it certainly it’s not to diminish the fun elements of Westworld. But underlying everything is a motivation by Jonah and Lisa and the cast of people to be really conscious about social and political issues.
In terms of your performance, you also talked about feeling empowered by the meditative quality of having to do those scenes where you’re entirely still — when a host is in “Analysis Mode.”
I’ve always felt like working as an actor is meditation because all the mental chit-chat goes away .. and that’s what’s enlightenment, isn’t it? It’s getting all that junk out of your head because it’s just stimulus from around us. It’s not who we really are, and I’m fascinated by that. So playing a host has allowed me to take that further because I actually think that we are programmed — that’s the nature vs. nurture argument. There are things we don’t even remember from when we’re children that were “installed” in us that motivate our behavior. So who’s to say that’s any different from being “programmed”? Once you’re been programmed, you can go to therapy and get unprogrammed. Or you go to the football game and scream your lungs out for a hour and that’s turning off the program.
You’re changing your state.
Exactly. So by playing a robot I got into that. People who have reached that enlightened place are pretty badass — and that’s what these robots are. They’re very clear. There’s no junk. They’re utterly focused and motivated and get the sh– done. I think that’s a comment on us, too.
You also have this heartbreaking sequence at the end of the second episode where you had to show some real vulnerability, both physically and in your performance. What was it like filming that?
That was like one of my first scenes to film. That was originally in the pilot. But it was so powerful that the producers wanted to draw the sequence out a little longer and add more to it. So they moved it to the end of episode 2. You know, everyone wants to put everything into the pilot, but I thought it was brave to take one of the biggest elements from the front of the show and move it.
One of the biggest questions they had was whether I would comfortable being naked — completely and utterly naked. I wanted to know more about that, obviously. They explained the context. Like I’ve said before, I was a campaigner of violence against women. And I have argued with producers about nudity in the past. There was one scene [on another show where] I wasn’t comfortable taking my top off. It just seemed completely gratuitous. The producer literally said to me, “Thandie Newton. Top off. Ratings.”
That’s horrifying. What show was that?
I said, “Thank you for saying that because now I know what is truly inside your head and I know what I’m dealing with.” I mean, let’s face it: That’s what people think, they just don’t say it. I’d rather know what was on the f—ing table.
Anyway, that is the culture that we’re in. So for me to agree to be totally naked is a big deal. But that is the level to which I trust these people. I don’t want to be naked everyday on set. I don’t want my kids to have other people tease them, because they will. But it is worth it because of the value of what that nudity is going to impress upon people. It is vulnerability. The hosts are treated like carcasses of meat, and that nudity relates to our vulnerability, to our complete lack of dignity, as seen by our programmers. What you’re seeing shouldn’t be happening. It’s not of a sexual nature — of course, there are scenes in the show that are sexual where there is nudity. But because you’ve seen nudity in this vulnerable, awful [Westworld backstage facility] it also translates into those prostitution scenes — because that’s been placed in your mind it will make you more conscious of the nudity in general.
I hadn’t thought of how it might impact the brothel nudity, but that’s an interesting point.
You will feel that when you see those girls as prostitutes naked because you’ve seen that vulnerability.
Then there’s also the other thing, which was so shocking to me: So I’m naked on the set, and I’m dressed. You would assume that being dressed is a relief. But I’ve got this tiny corset with this incredibly short skirt with ruffles that invite you to look up it, fishnet stockings, garters … all the typical madam-at-the-saloon prostitute stuff. My boobs were up to here, by the way. And I was nursing at the time, so that’s why my boobs were so big, so it’s even more inappropriate that they were sexualized. And every day that I had to wear that costume I would be feeling so physically disempowered. When I was naked, I was completely comfortable because I was not objectified as an actual object. Isn’t that fascinating? I felt more empowered when naked and people treated me with more respect. People were very respectful on set in general, but when I was wearing the corset people looked at my tits all the time. They couldn’t help it! Man or woman, they couldn’t not look. What does that say about the images we see in the media of girls, and Instagram-ing and looking at themselves? I’m certainly not advocating for nudity everywhere, but it was an interesting revelation to feel more empowered naked than wearing an overly sexually objectified corset.
Easier question: If you had a synthetic humanoid robot, what would you have it do for you?
I would have it take over from me on the trampoline — because my son can go at that sh– for five hours straight. It’s just stamina and being 43 stops me.
RELATED: Your Burning Westworld Questions Answered
More Westworld coverage to come!
We’re working on our recap and an intriguing interview with the showrunners. Follow @jameshibberd for updates.