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Thandie Newton on Acting Like a Robot and How Westworld Fights ‘Patriarchal Stereotypes’

Thandie Newton Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Westworld is, to a certain extent, a story about what happens when private desires become public possibilities. By entering the titular no-rules theme park, you open up the possibility of abandoning moral limits and social norms. Of course, that means there’s a lot of screwing. The in-park brothel is a frequent destination for the human “guests,” a place where you can get your rocks off however violently you might want. And when you arrive there, you’ll meet a very special robot: Maeve, the madam. She’s played with cynical aplomb by veteran character actor Thandie Newton, bearing a slightly incongruous British accent and a proud gait. We caught up with Newton to talk about acting like a robot, WikiLeaks, and Westworld’s subversion of the patriarchy.

Westworld’s a bit of a complicated one to describe. How did the showrunners, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, present it to you when you signed on?
Right off the bat, because it’s called Westworld, that was the starting point, that it’s a remake of a Michael Crichton movie. I hadn’t seen it. It was clear that I didn’t need to see it but the premise was described. Right from the beginning, I had my own obstinate opinions challenged because, actually, I love Westerns. Sergio Leone and those movies, that’s what Jonah and Lisa directed me to. And of course, I named my kid Ripley after Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. The stereotype of monsters and the guns and horses and savages, and all the very things that Westworld is challenging from the first episode, were the stereotypes that I really am allergic to. I guess patriarchal stereotypes have, as is true for most people, created painful moments in my life. As a result, I’m an activist. I’m for women’s rights, children’s rights, human rights, animal rights. I want to be part of the solutions to try to correct imbalance. And Westworld for me is that. It is. It’s like mercury: It’s trying to divine a kind of measurement of where we’re at, but in doing so, it’s poison.

There’s been discussion of how the show deals with gender and sexual violence. Did you see Westworld as progressive on those fronts?
Oh, my god, yes! Because we [the female characters] are all stereotypes. You’ve got the damsel in distress on the train tracks — that’s Evan’s character. She looks like she’s come out of a Disney animation, with her powder-blue dress and her bouncy blonde long hair. I expect little birds to be tweeting and singing along in time with her steps. But there is a stereotype of an innocent beautiful, vulnerable female, right? And I am the stereotype slut. I’m the stereotype whore except, obviously, I’m the madam, and I love that because, in culture, if we look at female genital mutilation, for example, it is by and large perpetuated by women — that cycle of it was fine for me, so it’ll be fine for you. It’s this complicity that can very often be worked into tradition, which is just like infrastructure, which is ultimately designed to keep patriarchy. That’s how I saw it. Here [Maeve] is with her stable of beautiful young prostitutes. They’re going to be paid for it, but it’s the worst type of human vice. So much of this stuff is normalized and trivialized in the stuff that we watch on television or the games that we play on our phones, and it desensitizes us. That’s what Westworld is trying to have a look at.

I don’t think there’s anything different between sexual tourism and WestworldYou go to a place where you can do things to people and they are innocent of what’s happening to them because they’re not part of the bigger picture. When they do become part of the bigger picture, they’re going to be horrified at how they’d been mistreated. And the owners, they’re lying. We’re in this amazing frontier of transparency. WikiLeaks. Edward Snowden. Westworld is reflecting that with these robots gaining consciousness. Them coming into consciousness is almost like us, human beings, coming into the truth of the fact that government is corrupt. Police are corrupt. Banks are corrupt. Etcetera, etcetera.

When the guests have sex with the prostitutes within Westworld, do you think of that as rape?
No, no. It’s consensual because they’re prostitutes and they’re being paid for it.

Right. But they don’t really have a choice, given that it’s their programming, right?
But they think they do. When I describe my arrival to Westworld and how someone offered me money to hook, [I say] it was great and it was a lot of money and I said yes. I’ve been programmed to have a backstory, which makes hooking a perfectly decent way to make a living, right? You imagine all the other hosts, all the other prostitutes, have been programmed similarly. They’ve been programmed to like it, which is preposterous. We’re doing this shit all the time. We’re playing games or we’re simulating stuff. Like with the movie Her. There’s no difference between that [and Westworld]. It’s just they’ve found a way to actually make the artificial intelligence look human. That’s the difference. And that’s happening already, as I’m sure you know. When I look at the TV and I’m watching someone being blown up, we’ve got to a point now where you can watch someone being blown up and we’d have to ask, “Is this real or is this a movie?” If someone says, “No, no, no, no. This isn’t real,” we wouldn’t think it was horrible. But if we were told it was real, we wouldn’t be able to watch. We’d leave the room. We’d vomit. It’s simulated visually, which is pretty profound. The next stage is virtual reality. And then there’s the next stage, which is reality, where we can actually touch that thing or feel that thing.

Let’s face it: With sex trafficking, if you feed a human being enough drugs for them to be sloppy and completely just accept whatever you’re doing, that’s the same as programming them to want to [have sex]. I think that it’s really the same thing. Giving drugs is programming, is manipulating, is affecting. It’s like drinks getting spiked.

How do you convey a sense of roboticness without being clichéd?
What they wanted more than anything was for us to be human, but to be minimal with what we do so that everything that we do is deliberate. It was like playing a really chilled-out, focused, well-adjusted person. It would be like me after an amazing meditation session. They don’t have ten thoughts going on at once. There’s none of the static in their heads that we have. They wouldn’t know what insomnia was, unless they’ve been programmed to be an insomniac. It was actually a kind of ideal head space. As humans, it’s what we only dream of reaching, which is clarity of mind. That’s how I played her, and it gives an amazing charisma and power to the character. There’s just that single story line going on in their heads. When the nightmares start, that’s when the robot become more human, because that’s more reflective of what we’re like. Memories, bad dreams, things that we’ve forgotten, programs that were given to us as children, which we can’t remember. That’s exactly what happens. As an adult, you come to question stuff that went on. Just because the voice in your head sounds like you doesn’t mean that it’s actually information in your head that you agree with.

You spend much of your screen time in a corset. How does putting it on help you get into character?
It’s by that design, where it’s supposed to get your back straight and your tummy tight. In retrospect, when I look at those costumes, I’m seeing so many images now of that kind of body type that’s become fashionable, with that teeny-tiny waist and lovely cello-shape hips and full bum. But I actually felt very uncomfortable wearing that costume. I was more comfortable naked, because the costume, by its design — and this is all completely conscious on their part — was to be the most potent objectification of a woman, with the boobs pushed right up, the tiny waist. It’s an invitation for sex. The fishnet tights, the little heels with the laces. It’s all about sensuality. It’s about eroticism. It’s about look, but don’t touch. It’s all there to make the invitation for sex as provocative as possible and then the promise of satisfaction is practically just there. They even made our skin shimmer, literally. That was part of our costume, was to have skin that glowed as an invitation. It’s like we’re chocolate or huge burgers, just in the window of some restaurant. But we’re fast food. And we’re sugar. And we’re salt. And we’re saturated fats. We’re all those things that are just pretty much on the market for you to get addicted to them.

You’ve talked eloquently about the gender issues in the show — do you see it as feminist?
I don’t see it as being in a category like that. It’s too fluid. It’s really far-reaching. It’s going to cover so much territory, in terms of story line. I don’t even know what [the stories are] going to be, so I don’t know. If that idea becomes present to people, I think that’s because it feels truthful to them and they like the strength of it. They want to claim that. That’s obviously a credit to the show, but it’s also credit to the audience member who feels inspired. Whatever you feel, you’re going to see yourself reflected in the show in different ways. And if you look at the show, it’s much more traditional in term of its filmmaking. There aren’t lots of special effects. Not lots of really quick, music-video-style editing. It’s not there to dumb down. It’s not there to bring on a seizure, to hypnotize you. It’s more traditional in how it unfolds with the story and where the camera is placed. It’s more theatrical. It gives you enough distance so you’re still you watching, as opposed to being drawn in, in that kind of virtual reality.

Westworld’s Thandie Newton on Robot Acting