Last weekend’s episode of “Westworld” saw Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy venturing into the unknown — literally. Having broken from the narrative loop in which she repeatedly watch her parents be killed, then becomes a victim of assault, robot host Dolores is traveling with William (Jimmi Simpson), a guest in the theme park where privileged people go to act out their fantasies, and often their worst impulses.
At the end of episode four, William’s less principled pal Logan implores William to “go black hat” with him, as they decide where, with Dolores tagging along, to head next. Episode five will find William and Dolores venturing far from the park’s relatively safe center.
Wood spoke with Variety about the upcoming episode. She also talked about showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s ambitions for the series, the challenges of playing an artificial intelligence with what appears to be an ever-increasing number of layers, and criticism of the show’s portrayal of sexual violence against women.
It felt like the first four episodes capped the show’s beginning phase.
Absolutely. We set it up beautifully, and episode five is one of my favorite episodes, because that’s when we’re leaving the main town of Sweetwater and we’re finally getting to the outskirts of Westworld. We’ve established that the further out you go, the more intense the game gets. In five, we go to a little place called Pariah. I describe it as the Vegas of Westworld, and in a place that’s already lawless, without consequences, you can only imagine what that would be like. Also with Dolores, we’re going to see more sides to her and we’re peeling back the layers more and more. She’s making leaps and bounds and really going against her programming and we’re noticing something coming out of her that we really haven’t seen yet. She gets a new outfit. She gets kind of a new attitude. And the romance between her and William sort of starts, and it’s solidified in episode five.
Seeing her in a new outfit is going to be jarring.
It was a lot of fun for me. But I kind of missed the blue dress. I was so excited for pants, then I kind of missed my dress.
Pants, the big spoiler.
There’s a moment in episode four where the marshal confronts her in the village …
Yeah, you caught that.
What’s happening in her head in that moment? It looks like the character is falling away and there’s something else underneath.
Yes. I can’t say yet what’s going on. But something is obviously in her that comes out in that moment that we haven’t seen before. I think we’re going to see more of that and I think we’ll be slowly finding out what that is and where it comes from and whether she’s in control of that or not.
Is it the same thing that we see when she tells Maeve the “These violent delights” line?
I think it’s along the same lines. I would say yes.
What’s her motivation when she tells Maeve that? Is she trying to f–k with Maeve’s head?
The only thing I think we’ve established at that point, and what I believe, is that once that phrase is said to a host, something unlocks in them. They work off of voice commands, and I think that sentence in particular really means something, because everyone starts malfunctioning when they hear it. But how she connects to that thing and where she’s coming from, I don’t think we understand quite yet.
When you first talked to Jonah and Lisa about the show, how much did they tell you about its arc and about Dolores’ arc?
Oh my god — I had no idea, man. I knew I was going to be a part of this really amazing HBO show about robots. I knew that Jonah and Lisa were incredible and J.J. Abrams was amazing. They gave me a really brief rundown of Dolores and told me she had a really incredible arc and told me that she wouldn’t necessarily stay the innocent prairie girl. But I had no idea until around episode five what show I was really on and what character was entrusted to me. And I was honored and felt very privileged to play her. She’s a great character for women on-screen and I just loved playing her. She’s my favorite character I’ve ever played.
They pitched it to me, and they said, “We want this to be the greatest show of all time.” And I said, kind of writing it off, “Oh, yeah. Don’t we all? Isn’t that the goal? Ha ha ha.” And then halfway through the season I realized they might not be kidding, and this may be one of the best shows we’ve seen in our generation. And I almost had a panic attack.
Were you at all hesitant to sign up for something where you didn’t know who the character would be after she was transformed?
Not really, no. We found out episode by episode, the same way the audience was going to find out. So we couldn’t foreshadow anything. We had to prepare. Sometimes we’d get the scripts three days before we had to start an episode. But I sort of love working that way where I don’t have time to digest or overthink things. You’re kind of on the journey that the character is on. And I trusted the writers and the showrunners so much, because they’re absolutely brilliant, that I just always accepted that there’s a reason behind the madness and there are certain things that I’m not supposed to know, and as the show started unfolding, I realized why they didn’t want us to know — because we’re supposed to be confused on the show, especially Dolores. So it really put me exactly were I needed to be.
Where there moments when you would go to them and say, “Hey, I need a little bit more”?
Yes, and they were very good at giving us enough information and explaining it so beautifully and leading us to where we needed to go and putting us where we needed to be without giving everything away. Lisa and Jonah were brilliant at that. So yes, when we needed a bit more, we would get it, but within reason.
Do you think of Dolores as a person?
I do, because this show brings up a lot of questions as to what’s real. And if it’s real to her, what’s to say she’s not a person? I think especially the Dolores character is really experiencing these things. To her, her father is dead, and this is very real, and her suffering is happening and is very painful to her. So it was interesting playing the layers of being in character mode and truly not understanding what’s going on and thinking you’re losing your mind. And the other side is this core analysis mode, where you are actually a highly evolved being and fiercely intelligent and beyond pain and beyond death and a supernatural being almost. So to play with the juxtaposition of that and the internal conflict that Dolores had was a ride.
How hard is it to pivot between those different states of consciousness?
It takes extreme focus, for sure. Even in the scenes where we have to stay very still and everything is very subtle and the shifts are so slight, it takes a lot of meditation and hyper focus to do them as precise as that. Jonah and I worked on it a lot together to make sure it was just the right amount. We were never pushing it too far, because I think what really makes it so unsettling is that it is so subtle.
In episode three, there’s the implication from Ford that Dolores exists essentially for guests to rape her. Does that inform how you portray her, the fact that she’s been subjected to this intense amount of violence?
Of course. Just speaking from experience, most of the scripts I get, I’m a prop or a device for the male lead or to be abused or to be sexualized in some way. So you really have to sift through a lot of scripts that really do not speak to me or to most of the women that I know, which is another reason why I loved playing Dolores. It’s all also a metaphor for an awakening that is happening in the world, especially with women — which is not to say that men aren’t abused as well, but I think it’s certainly an epidemic of how women are perceived and the gender roles and where our place is. And I think we’re starting to say, “Enough. I’m going to write my own story and I’m going to decide what I am and what my place is and claim it.” And I think that’s getting mirrored in Dolores and her arc.
There was some criticism of the show early on about the amount of sexual violence and the way it’s used in the story.
Which I thought was interesting because there are no scenes of rape. It’s all implied. Early on when we were getting that criticism, I just encouraged people to stick with it and wait for the context, because obviously that was the starting point, and it’s so we have a place to go to show the motivation of this character — and also a conversation about rape culture and what’s acceptable and entertaining and what has become the social norm. We are making this up, but if this park really did exist, there really are those people who would come in and do that for fun. I think we’re really examining that — not in a gratuitous way, but in a way that really looks at the crime and the pain that’s inflicted and gives us all sides of it. It’s not just a device or there to be gratuitous. It really is there for a reason, to send a message, and for us to take a good hard look in the mirror to understand it more and to not write it off.
You have an obligation as an artist sometimes, where you’re left with the question of do we perpetuate this and put it out into the world, do we censor it, or do we show it for what it is? And there’s also something to be said for showing it so that people don’t get desensitized and they are traumatized by it and see it for what it is, which is a horrendous act. We also have responsibilities to not whitewash over it. And I think that’s the angle that “Westworld” takes with it. And that’s why I was okay with it. As somebody who advocates for victims of sexual assault and a survivor myself, I never would do anything that I felt was gratuitous or fed into that in any way.
When Dolores says at the beginning of episode four “I think I want to be free,” what does she mean?
I don’t think she knows what she means. I think she has a general understanding of what free means. I think it’s like Michael Crichton and “Jurassic Park,” when Jeff Goldblum says, “Life finds a way.” No matter what, we can’t hold back progress or life. They say it in the show — if you have kids, you know that eventually they all rebel and they want to be in control and they want to be free. We all want to be free. I don’t know if she understands what that means in the grand scheme of things, but she knows that she wants something more than what’s being offered.