Four episodes into “Westworld,” Jimmi Simpson’s William is the character most easy to empathize with. A sensitive guy with a taste for adventure, but not for the seedier aspects of the fictional, anything-goes theme park he finds himself in, William is who most “Westworld” viewers probably imagine they would be if they were in the world of the show.
It’s not the sort of character that Simpson has often played.
“I’m normally jumping out of the closet and scaring people,” Simpson says. “I didn’t expect to play anything other than the variety of cool parts I’ve had. To be able to try my hand at playing a real human boy was just not something I expected anyone to let me do.”
Simpson spoke with Variety about his work on HBO’s “Westworld” and this week’s episode, “Dissonance Theory.”
Why is it that Jimmy appears to be more sensitive to the hosts than most of the other guests in the park are?
The general clientele is wealthy and privileged and are used to getting what they want. The park is designed for people like that — for folks who want to go in there and tear s–t up, whereas William is brought in by his family member, his coworker, as a bit of a vetting process. So William is not there with any intention. He’s just there to cover himself and make sure he doesn’t do anything too sh–ty. So he’s got his eyes open and is just watching what happens.
Do you think William works as a proxy for the viewer?
I do, because I think most of us are more like William than Logan. Most of us aren’t handed everything. So we all are trained to pay attention before we make moves and figure out our surroundings. That’s what William’s doing, and that’s what most of us would do.
Why is Logan such a jerk?
It’s about that degree of entitlement being turned up. We all know someone who has always had everything they wanted, and some of those people are completely unable to see everyone else around them. All they’re able to do is indulge themselves. When Logan steps into the park he takes it to another level. He doesn’t even feel the need to be polite, because it’s not the real world. He is just who he would truly be if he was given a god scepter.
How much of William’s backstory did [executive producers] Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy discuss with you before you started shooting?
They gave us all pretty extensive and personal backstories. There was enough to know who William is and how he was raised and what he was raised with, which is not much, and how he got to where he is now. And that was all that was needed. In most situations you’re given the higher arc of the character to the finish off the story. In this situation we were not. We were told what these people or hosts were like before, and here’s what they’re experiencing now. Because of that, I think all the actors were giving 190%, because like William in the park, we were asked to be present, observant, understand what’s happening and work with that. They gave us backstory, but they would give us the current story piece by piece.
How tight a lid did they keep on the events that would unfold as the season progressed?
If you didn’t need to know something, you wouldn’t know it. We were all kept equally in the dark. No one knew what the other person was doing, much less themselves. It was pretty tight-lipped, but it never felt militant. It felt like the best way to tell the story. When you asked them for more information, you generally got it.
So there was no black-ops level secrecy?
No, they were loving showrunners. It was more like parents not divulging what they got you for Christmas.
Did that stop you as castmembers from trying to game out what would happen?
Oh no, it encouraged it. They were so delighted to not share with us, so we knew it was good.
Do you read online fan theories about what might happen or what is happening?
My friends always send them. My family sends them. The cast sends them to each other. We’re aware of all the cool stuff you guys are saying, and a lot of it rings familiar, because a lot of them are similar to somewhat on the nose and somewhat way off ideas we were coming up with as we were shooting the show.
The scene in this week’s episode where William and Dolores are talking and she looks up at the moon and a flashback is triggered — can you unpack that? What is going on with William and Dolores? What are you doing in that scene and how does it relate to what Evan Rachel Wood is doing?
That’s one of my favorite scenes of the show, because what Jonah and Lisa did was write a scene between two individuals that is like three scenes at once. It’s one individual, the host, Dolores, trying to make sense of her current journey. She found herself for the first time outside of her loop, which is the only thing she knows. She’s breaking into a new consciousness, and she’s trying to figure out what to do. At the same time she’s interacting with this new man in her life and she’s sharing with him her truth. And at the same time, he’s doing that with her. He’s just a boy talking to a girl.
And the third scene is William trying to make sense of what Logan has made clear, which is that these hosts are devices used to engage the guests. He’s aware of that. While he’s wooing and flirting with this new woman, he’s aware of the fact that she’s on a mission to woo and flirt with him. He breaks through, in that scene, his disbelief — from “This is all bullshit” to “I am somewhat a believer. She has sold me.” For me as a performer in that scene it was this wonderful exercise where I could try something I had never done. Meanwhile I’m getting to watch Evan Rachel Wood play these layers of this artificial being so brilliantly and so stunningly artfully that I had to catch my breath.
There’s a lot that has been written about the show being a metaphor for video gaming. Does that idea hold up?
Absolutely. I think video games were one thing that Jonah and Lisa were thinking about as they were putting this thing together. A metaphor for video games, a metaphor for our interaction with a variety of new technology that’s changing the interface of communication — and who we communicate with is not just breathing fleshbots anymore. It’s things that we’ve created.