Jimmi Simpson on Shooting That Westworld Orgy

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Jimmi Simpson

It’s very trendy for men to be “woke” these days. In the pleasuredome that is the titular theme park in HBO’s Westworld, the woke-est of all the human visitors is meek William, played by longtime character actor Jimmi Simpson. He goes on a trip there with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, a louche Goofus to William’s Gallant, and quickly finds himself in hot water. William had an especially wild ride on tonight’s episode, getting coerced into a highway robbery that went horribly awry and resulted in him murdering a few robots, getting stuck in an orgy that made Eyes Wide Shut look like a kindergarten play date, and escaping from a group of Confederate soldiers. We caught up with Simpson to talk about building a character when you have virtually no information about him, how the show depicts violence against women, and whether or not we can expect a nude scene from him.

William’s often out of place in Westworld, but he’s never looked more awkward than when he attends the massive sex party in this episode. What’s it like filming a live orgy?
I wasn't part of it. I was a bystander at the orgy. It really plays into the scene, so it was great.

Oh, come on. You don’t have any stories? Wasn’t it one of the weirder shoots you’ve done in your career?
Yeah, of course. It's bizarre, dude! They send out the flyers saying, "Hey, would you get naked on film?" Then the people that are there that night are all the people that said, "I will." It's a bunch of proud, naked, human adults, in a room together. Some are made-up, some have gold genitals even, or are wearing masks of animals. They're all there, and they're glad to be there. It's just like they were all wearing T-shirts and jeans, but instead of T-shirts and jeans, they had naked bodies.

Let’s jump back in time to when you first got the part. The show is unusual, and the showrunners, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, are notoriously secretive about it, even with the actors. What were you told about your character?
Very little. I was told that he’s brought into the park by his more hooked-up friend, co-worker, and soon-to-be family member, Logan. This is not his experience. He's brought along. He's a simple guy, and he's worked hard for everything. He's just a little bit more present. He's a little bit more observant of what's happening around him. That's basically all they let me know was happening. Then each scene was just per script, where you'd get a little bit more information, always speculating what would be happening next. It wasn't a militant denial of information. It was just a lovely unfolding of the story before us, as we were doing it.

Doesn’t that kind of informational withholding make it hard to build a character?
I think it's much more natural. It was way more conducive to creating a three-dimensional character for me. Generally, of course, you're going to read the script; the script is where you have all of your keys and your clues as to who the person is. You read the whole thing, and you know where the person goes. The task of an actor is generally to not play the end of their arc, to not know what's going to happen, and to fool that audience into believing that you are going along, having no idea. If you have a great ending or a terrible ending, this character needs to be clueless of that fact. All of these actors [in Westworld] were clueless as to where it's going to end up, and I think it made for a really rich garden for in-the-moment work from all these really top-notch actors.

I interviewed your co-star, Evan Rachel Wood, a few weeks ago, and she said the actors were so clueless that some of them would gather around the campfire to share fan theories. Were you a part of that?
Oh, constantly. It was probably me and Evan more than anyone else, sitting by her campfire in her backyard, just freaking out. We would go after we'd get off work and we'd sit there for an hour and a half just chatting and excited and energized. We would work on the scenes that we did know ahead of time because we were just so engaged with this story and these roles.

You spend a huge chunk of your screen time interacting with Ben Barnes’s Logan, and you two have built a compelling chemistry. Did that come right away, or did you guys have to hammer it out?
Ben and my chemistry was instantaneous. We're both very emotionally connected men. He showed up right before we started, and I saw him in the costume shop. I went over, and I hugged him. He was so delighted because he had just flown in from London. He wasn't sure if everyone would be nice. He didn't know anybody. I started with a hug since I was excited, and I'm a hugger. He's a hugger as well. We were so excited to be figuring this thing out together.

So a huge portion of the show’s location shoots were done in either Santa Clarita, California, or Utah’s Castle Valley. What challenges and opportunities did those environments provide?
Santa Clarita is this beautifully preserved, almost Western town that I think is privately owned and a family takes care of. They let it out to the right people. It was so helpful in creating this illusion that we were all truly in a different place. It helped in spades. Then, when you take it to Utah, it's like that times ten because there’s no edge of this fabricated reality. There are no trailers. There's no office space. It's just the desert. All of those beautiful vistas behind us in these scenes, they're real. It's not green screen. That was also conducive to us transporting ourselves. It was truly breathtaking on a fundamental level, and so, gosh, it helps the scene.

And the challenges?
Utah was ten days of a huge group of people just fighting all the odds and working our asses off, shooting three units at once, bouncing from unit to unit. I don't know how excruciating things can get on a film set, but I would say it was close to excruciating. We had limited time, we had limited daylight. We had very few resources because it was far away from any kind of electricity. Everyone was always racing to get to the next moment. Then we'd do it until it's perfect, or as close to it as possible with the time we had. It was a whirlwind, ten days I'll never forget. They're burned on my brain.

Any particularly difficult days you can remember?
Evan and I were working all day, and we didn't know but they were trying to get us into a crazy scene. [Pause.] This is coming out around episode five, right?

Right, the one that ends with you and Evan escaping from the orgy.
[Pause.] I can't tell it because this is not in five. But I'll just say one day in particular, the elements almost defeated Evan and I and the entire crew. We all made it out alive by the skin of our teeth. It brought us all closer.

Elements meaning what? Rain? Sleet? Snow?
I just can't. It's too specific.

So William’s probably the most morally minded of all the guests. He has a deeply moral view of the world. How did the show change your view of your own world, if at all?
That’s something I think about a lot. I think about what our responsibility is, as individuals. As Americans, we're raised with this idea of, We're number one. As an individual, you absorb and you consume until you skyrocket to the top with your money and your whatever. That's not my philosophy. My philosophy is quite the opposite, in that there's limited space, we have limited resources, and so it's not about the individual. It has to be about all of us, or else it's not going to work. That's what [Nolan and Joy] are asking you to look at. It fortified my idea that we need to think more about others. I'm just grateful that someone is discussing this in a form that is so gorgeous, so consuming, so beautiful.

Along those lines: A big part of the show’s moral universe is the question of why men commit violence against women and what can be done about it. What do you make of the show’s take on all that?
Here's the difference between Westworld and other shows that portray that kind of violence: This is not to just get your attention, to turn your stomach, to get you engaged in a superficial way. On Westworld, it's a commentary that will come back around. There's never anything to turn your head without a purpose. What these people have done is they are taking it apart piece by piece. By the end of this first season, it's going to be very clear that any kind of violence against women on this show is not ... I don't know what I'm trying to say. I kind of just fall apart on this one.

Do you mean the show’s violence against women is supposed to question rather than to titillate?
Exactly. “Titillate” is the perfect word, yeah. It's just not that. It's always a mirror and then, I think, the next level. They're turning the page, as far as the use of that kind of thing.

William doesn’t want to sexually engage with the hosts. How much of that is him being moral and how much of it is him being scared of his own desires?
I think it comes down to responsibility, most of all. It's just something that everybody overlooks. It's something that a lot of people don't really think about much these days. For some reason there's this idea of "me," and "I should be able to do whatever I want. I'm a human. If I want that, and if you think I'm being bitchy, well, don't be a hater." I was raised by humans who are now in their 70s. You just had to be responsible. You had to follow through. When you say something, you do it.

It's a multilayered kind of thing for William. It's not like he's just scared or it's just a moral obligation. First of all, he's engaged. It's pretty weird to start fooling around with a robot, regardless of the "I can and she won't find out." That's lame. I wouldn't want her to do that, so I wouldn't do it. Then there's the fact that he does empathize. Sure, [a host] is saying, "You can just fuck me and cum, and I don't care." I think for anyone that thinks about things before they do them, you're like, "Well, that's kind of base." It's not like he's a prude, it's just a little bit of a weird thing to do when you haven't ever really indulged yourself in that way. You've never indulged your id, and you've never been entitled to take from others without thinking about it and the consequences. I think all of us would be pretty slow to hump a smiling robot.

You really wouldn't let your freak flag fly if you, Jimmi Simpson, were actually in Westworld?
Maybe it is my freak flag that I wouldn't do that. Maybe it's my freak flag that, when I go to a haunted mansion, I would rather blend in with them and be part of the story, rather than have someone jump out at me. To be part of the fantasy seems way more interesting to me, to embed myself in there and just drop in, in that way. Maybe star in a little relationship.

Dare I hope for a William nude scene?
I don’t know. Depends on what they keep in.

This interview has been edited and condensed.