In the premiere episode of HBO’s Westworld, star Evan Rachel Wood is an innocent racher’s daughter, the victim of a horrible crime, a creepy complex android, and, perhaps, a slyly deceptive newborn consciousness – all within the first hour. Below the actress (True Blood, The Wrestler) talks to EW about playing the sci-fi theme park’s oldest “host,” Dolores Abernathy…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You get to play so many colors just within the show’s first two episodes, you must be really excited about this project.
Evan Rachel Wood:I can’t wait for everyone to see the rest. That’s just the beginning.
The benefits of this role are pretty apparent, but what excited you most?
Everything. It’s a dream role. I really didn’t know where the story was going. They didn’t tell us what our arcs were going to be. I was just given vague hints. But the more the show went on and the more I got to know the character the more excited I became when I realized what they were doing. It’s really revolutionary for women. It’s so fun to play with all the different colors and the different modes, because when you’re playing AI you just approach it completely differently. I read The Singularity Is Near and watched TED talks and talked to futurists. I was like, “So how do I work?” It really did inform the performance. In her character she’s this innocent prairie girl and damsel-in-distress princess, but underneath that she’s a very advanced, intelligent, strong being. Playing the two laters was really fun.
How did you prepare for this part?
There were many questions – questions of strength, questions of thought process. Can the hosts tell when someone’s lying? They’re so advanced and they’re set up to read the guest so well. I realized, “Oh, I can detect a bead of sweat on your forehead and know that you’re nervous.” Once you start realizing the power they have and the possibilities of manipulation and misdirection, suddenly it’s everybody’s game. You never really know who’s good, who’s bad, who’s lying. Playing with all those layers was really interesting.
You probably even asked some questions the showrunners hadn’t thought about.
Honestly, they had everything covered. Sometimes we were kept so much in the dark that the direction would be, “I need you to run away from something to be reunited with somebody,” and that’s it. That’s all you get! I just do the best version of what I think that is. I just have the utmost faith in them. It’s like being in the park – you just have to surrender to the experience and know that I was going to end up where I was supposed to be and know that they weren’t going to let me do anything that didn’t work.
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In some of the scenes, the viewer is watching your face so closely for every little thing that you do, that must add a certain amount of pressure to get that exactly right every time.
Especially in those scenes we call “Analysis Mode” where they can be questioned and won’t remember anything, those were just so technical and every little beat and every moment and every flicker of your eye means something. Finding that balance and knowing how far to go was really interesting. I actually fell asleep during one take with Jeffrey Wright because you have to be in this sort of hypnotic state, and I just nodded off. I came to and looked at him and he was looking at me, and it was definitely my line.
You have these scenes that you’ve called the Acting Olympics, where you just had to totally freak out and then just shut down.
Those are the things you’re hungry for as an actor – to really show everything that you can do. I felt very at home flip-flopping back and forth and doing my best to freak out [showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy]. If they came up to me after a scene and were just like, “I don’t know how you’re doing that, are you really a robot?” then I knew I was doing it well.
What’s the secret to playing total stillness in a scene?
Whenever I had to shift into sleep mode, I do the trick with your eyes when you change your depth perception. I tried to change the focus and to look in someone’s eye but to be looking past them at the same time to get that kind of far away, disconnected look. By the end my eyes were pretty wanky and tired. Hopefully people see my subtle shift in focus.
You realize if the show’s successful you’re going to have, like, random baristas saying to you, “You can now rest in a deep and breathless slumber.”
All the voice commands, absolutely.
What was the most challenging about this part in particular?
It was physically demanding and emotionally demanding because this character really just gets put through the ringer – and doing it all in a corset! But she is also a robot so she’s much stronger than I am. Keeping up with her was a challenge but so rewarding in every way. And I loved being out in the desert. I grew up around horses and with cowboys and so I felt very at home in that setting. But yeah, it was rough.
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The big question being posed by the show – and the scene of Dolores being attacked in the pilot – is whether it’s ethical to treat something inhuman in an inhuman way. If I were to break my phone, no one would feel sorry for my phone no matter how sophisticated it is, but you take a creation like Dolores and things get far more complicated. What’s your perspective on that?
It’s something we explore a lot on the show. What is consciousness? We still don’t really know what that thing is that makes us conscious and how we measure and pain and suffering. If you wanna get really meta with it, we don’t even know if [our current reality] is real or what memories are or what dreams are. What reality are we living in? It raises all of those questions. And those are questions raised with animals as well. Just because they’re animals and they can’t tell us how they’re feeling, that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. If something is programmed to experience and understand what pain and suffering is, then who are we to say that they can’t understand it on some level and if they are really suffering? I’m not really sure.
If you had a synthetic humanoid robot, what would you have it do for you?
I would have a laundry robot. And maybe a robot that would drive.
Can you tease to how your character evolves this season?
There’s so many layers to her. If you just think about how long she’s been in that park – about 30 years. In the first episode you see what happens to her over the course of two days. I can’t even imagine all the different lives that she’s lived and the people that she’s met and people that she’s fallen in love with that she doesn’t remember. Once you open up that Pandora’s box, you realize, “Oh, there’s infinite possibilities here and we really don’t know what her story is.” And if she is the oldest host in the park she would be the most advanced. So who knows? The things we were called upon to do – and we had to be really professional while doing them – was sometimes hilarious and sometimes really trying. Midway through the season you’ll start to understand what I’m talking about. If anything is possible in that park, then you can bet things are gonna get pretty weird.