OPEN THE FLOODGATES: James Marsden regales F*** with tales from Westworld
HBO’s sci-fi drama series Westworld has riveted viewers across the globe. Sure, the violence and sexuality we’ve come to expect from the premium cable channel has raised some eyebrows. However, the show’s heady existential questions, gut-punch twists and commentary on how humanity coexists with technology have provoked much thought. The show, based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, expands on and updates the ideas explored in the 1973 movie.
James Marsden, who was in Singapore to promote the show’s 90-minute-long season finale, spoke to F*** and other journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel. The actor is known for his role as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, as Prince Edward in Enchanted and Jack Lime in Anchorman 2. In Westworld, Marsden plays gunslinger Teddy Flood, who yearns for a quiet life with Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) the farmer’s daughter, but whose programming says otherwise. Teddy and Dolores are two of many ‘hosts’ who populate the titular amusement park. Human guests shed their inhibitions as they immerse themselves in a vivid recreation of the American Old West, indulging their darkest inclinations without real-world consequences.
The series’ characters can be divided into “upstairs”, those who live in or visit the park, and “downstairs”, those involved in running it. “Upstairs” characters include Ed Harris as the enigmatic Man in Black, Jimmi Simpson as reluctant visitor William, Ben Barnes as William’s hedonistic friend Logan and Thandie Newton as Madame Maeve Millay. “Downstairs” is populated by Anthony Hopkins as the park’s creator Dr. Robert Ford, Jeffrey Wright as programming head Bernard Lowe, Sidse Babett Knudsen as Quality Assurance head Theresa Cullen, Tessa Thompson as Westworld board member Charlotte Hale and Luke Hemsworth as director of security Stubbs.
Westworld boasts an all-star creative team too, with screenwriters Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy serving as showrunners. Nolan created Person of Interest and his big screen credits include Interstellar and The Dark Knight, both of which he collaborated on with brother Christopher. Joy has written for Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice. J.J. Abrams, current poster child for mainstream geek culture, is an executive producer.
Marsden remained tight-lipped about whether Teddy will figure in the show’s second season or not, but offered this tantalising hint: “he won’t be target practice forever, let’s just say that.”
This marked Marsden’s first visit to Singapore, which he described as “a vibrant city with a great vibe”. He shared about his experiences acting opposite Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, what it’s like getting naked for the show, the training he undertook to play a cowboy and how much he really knows about where the series is headed.
The following interview contains mild spoilers for the first 9 episodes of Westworld Season 1.
Let’s say that one of your fellow cast-members actually is a robot. Who’s the first one you’d suspect?
That’s a funny question! I don’t know how to answer that without making the person seem dull! I’ll put a positive spin on it. I would say there are some actors who have to stay in character in-between takes, they have to do that method approach, then there are some actors when the cameras roll, they know their lines, they do it perfectly, and every take is brilliant. They do it with perfection, precision, and then when we cut they tell stories. That’s Anthony Hopkins, probably. Because he is so gifted at what he does and so perfect, such a fine-tuned instrument, I would say in that regard he would probably be the one I would think is…a robot. Hopefully, that’s in a positive way. Make sure you put that in there too, I don’t want Anthony Hopkins to see [the headline] “James Thinks Anthony is a Robot!”
What was it like being naked in front of Anthony Hopkins?
I find the best thing with Westworld is to dive in and go for it. If you have any apprehension or if you hesitate, it’s not as fun. Evan, Thandie, Rodrigo, all of us, we all at one point or another end up nude on the table talking to people. It’s just part of the beast. It’s part of the character that you’re playing. I don’t know, I guess you learn not to be too shy in this business.
Did you reference any sci-fi films in preparing to play Teddy?
Ex Machina had just come out…the year we did the pilot. I just thought it was a perfect movie; that was my favourite film of that year. I thought it was just classic science fiction. Cerebral, thought-provoking, a good commentary of where we’re going with A.I. and just brilliantly acted and directed. That was just interesting to watch, Alicia Vikander.
We were definitely doing our own thing with Westworld, and Jonah and Lisa had their own thing, their own specific way they wanted to approach playing these characters. Their main direction was “you’re human. Play this as you would a human. If there’s moments where I need you to show you’re a robot, I’ll let you know. If there’s a moment where I want you to register a shift in an idea or a trajectory, I’ll ask for it, and you give me that.” So he’s masterfully coming in and adjusting us here and there. For the most part, you approach these characters as if they were real. They should be indistinguishable from humans.
What are Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy like as showrunners and writers?
Some of the most supportive people I’ve ever worked with. With a show like this, you really need to dive in and take a leap of faith. I think that goes for any project as an actor, it’s all about having trust, and that’s not always something that you feel with a director or a showrunner. You sometimes can question if you have different opinions on how the scene should unfold, and maybe sometimes disagree, but with Jonah and Lisa, we were always in agreement. We would always follow suit, and we knew they had a very specific vision. I just wanted to, every day, give them that.
They’re also some of the most gregarious and wonderfully warm people to work for as well. They’re terrific, and they want this to be as smart, multi-layered and deep as it can be. Sometimes, when you’re making something really special or intricate and complicated, it‘s not easy. That, to me, is the mark of a good show or a good film, or a painting, whatever it is. It’s never going to be easy. I always worry when it’s too easy, if there are no hiccups or bumps along the way, I always get concerned.
They wanted to get it perfect. If you’ve seen the show up until now, you’ll realise that this is a very complicated show. It’s not a show that you can be on your phone texting and chatting with your friends while you’re watching it. You need to pay attention, but when you do, the rewards of that are so big. Audiences are savvy now. They’re smart, and they know how films are made. Jonah wanted to give them something really unique, and I love to be in his field of gravity. I love the way he thinks, I love the way Lisa thinks as well, they want it to be a great show and they take care of their actors, they’re very generous that way. Couldn’t ask to work for better people.
How much did you know of the trajectory of the story, and how much were you kept in the dark?
We only knew what was happening when we got the script, before we started shooting the script. What I mean by that is when we were doing episode #1 or #2, I had no idea what #3 or #4 was, I had no idea where it was going. Jonah and Lisa would answer your questions, but they would always remain very vague – not that they were trying to keep information from us. They only wanted us to focus on what was necessary at the time. To that end, we would sometimes get the script three days before shooting. Each time you got that script, it was like Christmas. “What happens? I’m confused! Where is this going? Who’s Wyatt? What does this mean, what’s the history?” He would say a little bit about what that is, but never something so concrete that would give us all the answers.
To Evan’s credit, she was one of the ones that put the pieces together earliest on. She was saying in Episode #3 or #4, “I’ve got it figured out.” I was like “no, you don’t have anything figured out! They want you to think that you’ve got everything figure out, they want you to zig so they can zag,” but to her credit, she got a lot of it right. She had this appetite to figure it all out, and I did not. I wanted to know what I needed to know for the scenes I was doing at the time. It speaks to all of our enthusiasm for the show. We’re fans of the show as well, and there are plenty of scenes that we’re not in, and we go “oh my god, I’m enjoying this thing that I’m a part of, but there are a lot of scenes that I get to enjoy.”
There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there and people theorising what it all means. “Who’s a host and who’s a human?” I think the most rewarding way to watch the show is not try to figure out all the mysteries, and let the show give them to you in its own, organic time. It’s the feeling when you’re a kid and you sneak downstairs before Christmas day to peel the wrapping paper back and see what the present is. On Christmas day, it’s not as special. At least that’s my analogy for it. Patience, let the show tell you when it happens, then you get to experience the journey the showrunners want you to experience.
In the show, Teddy dreams of a simple life with Dolores. What is the ideal “simple life” for you?
I think probably similar to what Teddy’s is, which is a simple, peaceful life of goodness. I want to be a good man, I want to make good decisions and bring peace to whoever’s in my world. I think Teddy and I are similar in that way. I love what I do, I love having these opportunities, to be in a special show like this. These don’t come along very often. To be able to continue that, to be looked on as a valuable player in the big picture of it all, that’s important to me. To be a good father. I have no idea if that’s down Teddy’s timeline or not (laughs). That’s genuinely the truth, I have no idea. I’ve learned to not speak in absolutes about the show, too. I think there’s a genuine purity and goodness to him and to Dolores, I think much more than some of the humans in the show. They’re guileless, they’re pure, and I admire that.
What are the challenges in playing Teddy just a little differently each time he’s rebooted?
That’s fun. It was fun to jump from different modes. Evan said it’s an “acting Olympics”. There are great things to grab hold of as a creative artist, to be able to switch between all of those modes. It’s like you’re playing three-four different characters at once, so that’s really exciting. I’m always questioning “is this working, is the audience registering this shift?” Like when [Ford] uploads the Wyatt storyline, my face changed. That was a specific moment that Jonah wanted to get right. In that moment, when [Ford] uploads that story, in Teddy’s consciousness, he has lived with all that knowledge his whole life.
The things that are sometimes difficult for me to wrap my head around are that everything that happened to Teddy in his timeline, he doesn’t remember everything. It’s happening for the very first time. The Man in Black, he could’ve killed me 50 times and each time it happens, it’s Teddy’s first time experiencing that. The Man in Black may remember that, but for Teddy it’s the first time. That’s part of what’s really sad about their existence, is they’re stuck in this box, they keep repeating these loops; they suffer. They may not remember the suffering, but they’re starting to with these ‘reveries’ that were installed in them from the pilot on. These reveries are surfacing a little faster, some faster than others.
With Thandie’s character and Evan’s character, their evolutions are happening a lot quicker which I think probably speaks to women vs. men in general [laughs]. I have a daughter and I have a son, and my daughter is always a little ahead of the game, and my son, it took him a little longer to grasp some of these concepts.
He’s going to read this one day.
Yeah, I probably won’t change my mind about that [laughs].
Did you consciously make each death scene different from the last?
I let Jonah be my guide on that. Look – there’s nothing that happens in this show that’s by accident, that’s what I’ve learned. Everything is there meticulously planned and with great precision. There’s a scene where I get shot, in the second episode. I’m talking to Thandie in the bar, and I just sprawl out over the floor. It doesn’t look anything like how I died when I got shot by the Man in Black. There are certain other times when Jonah comes in and he says “I want you to mimic this, something which you did before, and it’s important that you do it here.” I may not know what he’s thinking, what his grand picture is, I just nod my head and go “yeah, I can do that”. [Laughs]
How did you prepare for the action sequences, what’s your gym regimen like?
It’s amazing when you know you have to be naked opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, that gets you in the gym pretty quick [laughs]. I spent some time getting in shape, as much as I could’ve in the time that I had. Beyond that, I spend all my downtime with a gunsmith, learning how to properly shoot and twirl. It’s not always just pulling the gun and firing at somebody, sometimes you’re riding a horse at full speed and you’re firing two guns, sometimes you have a knife. I wanted to get as good as all that as possible and plus, it was just fun.
Riding a horse, I spent a lot of time practising, getting comfortable on a horse. I grew up riding horses in Oklahoma, I was self-taught, but this was learning “here’s what a lope is, here’s what a canter is, here’s what a gallop is, here’s where your feet should be.” You’re learning all these tricks. All that was fun. There wasn’t anything difficult, I guess.
These creations should be perfect. In [Ford’s] eyes, they’re perfect. Physically, they don’t’ all look like Adonises, but Teddy’s a character who’s programmed to be very good at what he does. He can be lethal if he needs to be, and he’s always been lightning fast with a gun. So, me as James Marsden had to learn how to be lightning fast with a gun. When he’s got his shirt off, he’s a park attraction, so he should probably look good with his shirt off [laughs]. That was my training, learning how to be a real cowboy and learning how to look decent naked.
Ed Harris seems like the kind of actor who would impart great wisdom. What was it like shooting most of your scenes with him?
I grew up in Oklahoma, and Ed is from there as well. He was born there and raised in New Jersey I think, he has a lot of family there in Oklahoma still, so we chatted a lot about that. I was never trying to get them to talk about certain specifics about their history as an actor, I like to be observant. I like to watch them work. Ed and Anthony were the two that I always had my eyes on, just because I figured there’s so much you can learn from those two.
My favourite scene was when we were at the bar together and the Man in Black meets Ford for the first the time, and I’m there, almost dead and listening to them sort of spar with each other. Two acting legends going toe to toe. Everyone has their own method to getting where they need to be. Both actors love what they do, and you can see why they care. Neither one of them were ever phoning it in; they would constantly leave every scene thinking “what could I have done better?” It’s interesting, it’s classic actor neuroses to feel like “what could I have done better?” Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, I’ve never seen them doubt themselves, but it just made me feel better as an actor.
If you were a guest in Westworld, what would you like to do?
I still don’t have a great answer for that, but where my mind always goes is “I want to go with all the people I think I know in real life, my friends, my family, and see how they behave.” Like “I thought I knew you, but you’re sick. We can’t be friends anymore.” [Laughs].
It can be upsetting to me nowadays, how realistic video games can be sometimes, how violent they can be, and this is essentially a video game. Westworld is a fully immersive virtual reality, it’s reality. You’re there with the other characters in the video game. You can actually pull the trigger, you can actually go into a brothel and misbehave, and maybe that’s okay because it’s a robot. You’re acting on all these impulses that you wouldn’t act on in the real world, and that reveals who you really are. It says a lot about where we’re going as a culture.
I don’t know – I think the show is about what it means to be human, the human condition. The beginning of consciousness. We associate being alive with being conscious, without that consciousness, we’re not really alive. You realise that there’s a necessary grief that was programmed into some of the characters to make them feel more alive. It’s an interesting study on what it is to be human and also where we’re going with artificial intelligence.
Westworld’s season 1 finale The Bicameral Mind premieres 5 December 2016, Monday, at 10 am on HBO. Marathon encores of the episodes to date will air on 24 December Saturday and 25 December Sunday. The entire first season of Westworld is also available on HBO On Demand and StarHub Go.
– By Jedd Jong