Spoilers ahead for Westworld season 1.
HBO’s Westworld is about robots, power, and the nature of humanity, among other things. In season 2 of the show, Westworld park programming head Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is a cornerstone character, the audience’s window into understanding what’s going on in a number of plots. As he pieces together his faulty memories, the viewers are putting together clues to understand the larger story. But as season 1 revealed, Bernard is a host — a fully humanoid robot — which complicates both his memory issues and his identity issues. Created as an artificial replica of Westworld co-creator Arnold Weber, Bernard entered the story not knowing he was a host. Last Friday, Wright sat down at New York’s Split Screens Festival to discuss how the craft of playing a robot differs from playing a human.
Festival director and moderator Matt Zoller Seitz interviewed Wright about topics ranging from Westworld and Reddit to Wright’s previous roles, including Dr. Martin Luther King in the 2001 film Boycott and Jean Michel Basquiat in the 1996 film Basquiat. The highlights of the night’s conversation seem especially prescient as season 2 approaches its end.
One thing Seitz asked was whether Wright knew his character had been a host all along. “I just knew going in, when we shot the pilot, that he was kind of an everyman. Understated, good old Bernard, just kind of spinning his hamster wheel,” Wright says. “I got the sense that we’d follow him on this journey of discovery as we move through the season.”
But once HBO picked up the show, executive producer Lisa Joy got back to Wright with feedback. He says she’s normally brilliantly articulate, but she stumbled over how to break the news: “Okay, what I want to tell you — okay, so it’s written — okay, so your character — it’s complicated. Uhh, okay. You’re not — you’re a host.” Wright was shocked at first, but in retrospect, he says, “It was exciting because it added so much obvious new dimension to what we were able to do. And I held it close to my vest because they asked me to.”
“That’s who my character is based on: a Reddit user.”
When shooting season 2, Wright says the writers and producers gave him even less to go on. “They wanted to keep me in the dark. [But] in the first four weeks of this season, I shot scenes from about seven or eight different episodes, so I got clued in.” He elaborates, “I had these little bits and pieces, and I had these little breadcrumbs, and then I get the first script and I go, ‘Oh, okay.’”
He jokes that his character is essentially one of the large community of fans on Reddit who come together online every Sunday during seasons of Westworld to decipher the show’s extremely complicated clues. “That’s what I try to emulate, you know? That’s who my character is based on: a Reddit user.” More seriously, he explains that he’s like Bernard, who’s “trying to feel his way toward his survival” because neither of them have all the pieces of the puzzle yet.
Given the show’s many time-shifts and the way it sets scenes set in the same place but in different periods, Wright says he often has to play Bernard by staring off into the air. But he says that stare has to be purposeful: “You can’t just stare off blankly. You have to have a very specific understanding of what it is you’re looking at and why you’re looking at it. You’re kind of acting and you’re editing and you’re envisioning all at once.”
That kind of mechanical, almost mathematical calculation extends to the physicality of his performance. Seitz asked an intriguing question about whether the actors playing hosts have any sort of playbook for how they should move and walk. Wright says their movement isn’t uniform by any means, but that he uses Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her father (Louis Herthum) as archetypes. “They were very early bad robots. So they set the parameters.”
To act like a machine, Wright says he thinks of the next action or emotion that’s programmed into his queue, then carries it out. “It’s very much about the moment… I try to be as efficient as possible. Got to be mathematical. What’s the most force I can deliver with the least amount of physical energy exerted? Where’s the jugular?”
But just as Bernard struggles to find his own free will, there are still glimpses of humanity within robots. For the touch of life, Wright says, “In theater, the primary tool for me was voice. On-screen, it’s the eyes. That’s what I play more than anything else... I try to infuse intent through the eyes.”