Westworld is, more or less, the highest-stakes HBO project since Game of Thrones. Its budget is extraordinary, its corporate goals are lofty (the network is reportedly hoping it’ll be the new GOT after the dragons fly away for the last time). Who was tasked with kicking the whole enterprise off this past Sunday? It was none other than Thirteen and True Blood alum Evan Rachel Wood. She plays a lifelike robot named Dolores Abernathy, one of the many human simulacra that work, slave-like, in the titular fantasy park. When a glitch strikes the android population, Dolores is one of the 'bots who starts to gain some degree of autonomy. Spooky! We caught up with Wood to talk about studying the singularity to get into character, coming up with fan theories about the show with James Marsden, and weeping after working with Anthony Hopkins.
When Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy recruited you for the show, what did they tell you about it and about your character?
They let me know that she could be compared to a Disney princess at first. She is the quintessential farm girl, the girl next door. So, of course, the people that come to Westworld to wreak havoc just want to take advantage of her and torture her. The heroes want to come to save her, which we'll explore more. There's also beautiful parts about Westworld. But that's just her character build. Underneath that, she's a highly intelligent superhuman. Now that we know she's the oldest host in the park, that also means she has the most history with everyone. Dolores is full of surprises, let's just say that.
And did they give you a reading list or a viewing list to prep?
Not really. Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa are incredibly well-versed in the technology. But I talked to some futurists and I devoured TED talks and I read a lot of Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity Is Near sort of became my Stanislavski-actor handbook.
That might be a first for a screen actor.
It kind of predicts and breaks down what a sentient being might look like in the future and how they would work. I used that a lot.
Was there a specific passage or idea in there that really helped you get into Dolores?
Certain things that you wouldn't think about. The things that they would be able to detect in a human being that we wouldn't, like a bead of sweat or certain body language. They would be programmed to be able to read people incredibly well, which the hosts in Westworld also are — that's why they're so good at being tailor-made to a guest and to an experience. That I found really fascinating.
Along those lines, how did you figure out how to act like a robot without coming across as a cliché?
Jonah and I realized that the more subtle the transitions were and the more lifelike the robots were, the more unsettling it was. Rather than us being kind of pop-and-lock-y and over the top and cartoony about it. It's the things that make them human which make it the most scary. Filming those scenes — we call it “analysis mode” — when they're in this sort of examination, it's like they're dreaming. We just go into this meditative state. I actually fell asleep during one of those scenes once because I had to be so still and zoned out. Not blinking. It's like actor Olympics. She's my favorite character I've ever played, really.
One element of the show that’s been much discussed is its depictions of sexual violence. Right in the first few minutes, Dolores is dragged off by the Gunslinger for what we assume is a rape. HBO’s undergone a lot of criticism for the way its shows deal with rape, especially Game of Thrones. Did the cast and crew talk much about how to handle that stuff in a tasteful way?
Absolutely. It's funny — I read a few articles talking about these brutal rape scenes and there actually are no scenes of rape. It's everything leading up to it, then it's all implied. There's no gratuitous violence against women because we were all not into that, especially Jonah and Lisa. But we wanted to show the pain and the fear and the trauma. We're exploring that side of it more and not glamorizing it at all. We're showing the ramifications of it. The perpetrators, the victims — we're showing the dark side of it. There's nothing titillating about what we're doing. In the pilot, you see [Dolores] just being put through the ringer and crying and screaming and the pain on her face. We don't see the act and I think that's actually really important, so that we don't forget how brutal it is. We're going about it in tasteful way and in a way that is more cautionary, to show that side of our humanity. Because it does exist. The thing is, we are not making this stuff up. This is the dark side of human beings. And that's one of the things we're exploring on the show. I think people should stick with it and also see where it's going and what the context is. People will be really taken aback and surprised about how we may be flipping it on its head.
On a cheerier note: There’s a recurring overhead shot of you in your bed. The idea is that it shows your character looping back to the beginning of her scenario, unaware of what happened before. Is every shot of that a different take or is there one that gets reused?
[Laughs.] Every shot's a different take. A lot of what we see in the show are loops the characters are on, so it was funny doing certain scenes over and over with slight variations, remembering which one you're in. That one, we did multiple takes and Jonah kind of called out a different way for me to wake up every time. So we have an arsenal of waking-up takes that we use throughout the show.
Did you have a dialogue coach to help you achieve the accent?
I did have a dialogue coach during the pilot. But I was born and raised in North Carolina, so I drew upon that a lot. We also toyed around the idea of sounding like an Old Hollywood movie star. Like, not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what somebody would sound like in the Old West.
Speaking of Old Hollywood: The show was shot in Castle Valley, a location where John Ford did a lot of shooting back in the day. What challenges did you face, shooting there? Was it brutally hot?
Oh, yeah. It was brutally hot, brutally cold. Working from when the sun comes up to when the sun goes down to when it comes back up again. [Laughs.] But I love it. I'm kind of a desert child and I'm a tomboy, so I got to be in the desert for six months with a bunch of cowboys riding horses in a sort of childhood dream. I loved it. It is incredibly harsh and difficult. And this is one of the most physically demanding roles I've ever done.
In what way was it physically demanding?
The terrain that we were in, and the elements, horseback riding, stunts, fighting. A lot of it was stuff that I haven't quite done before onscreen, so I was excited to tackle that.
The show’s about fantasy, and you got to live out a fantasy shared by countless viewers around the world: You got to flirt with James Marsden.
What was the first conversation you and he had on set?
A lot of the times, because we're not allowed to talk to anybody [not on the show] about what's going on, all the cast members huddle up and discuss our theories about the show and try to figure out what is happening. James and I had a lot of that. And James will tell you, I started coming to him with theories. I was like, “James, I think it's this. I think it's that.” And he'd be like, “No, no, no. Evan thinks she has it figured out!” And then turned out I was right. [Laughs.]
Did you have much interaction with Anthony Hopkins?
As much as I could, but I do still get quite starstruck around him. I can't help it. And he's so down-to-earth and sweet and very approachable, but I just could not get over it. [Laughs.] So I would say a couple words and then I would have to sort of run away. He really is the greatest actor I've ever worked with. I did a couple scenes and afterwards just had to go into a corner and weep. And someone found me and said, “Oh my God, are you okay? Did the scene go badly?” I was crying. And I went [imitates crying], “No, it went really well. I'm just crying because I've hit a milestone as an actor. That's a little overwhelming and I'm taking a moment.” It's almost like when you see a forest and you think the trees are really large and you're like, “Wow. That's a really beautiful forest.” And then you go and see a tree that's been around for thousands and thousands of years and it's huge and the trunk is so large. And you go, “Oh, I thought I saw a tree, but I had no idea what a tree was. That's a tree.” That's kind of what it's like working with Anthony. He's connected to something that's completely out of my realm and he can do so little and yet do so much. It's even more breathtaking when it's right in front of you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.