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Westworld’s Peter Mullan Loves Smashing Rooms Up Almost As Much As Burning Them Down

Peter Mullan. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers for season two, episode four of Westworld below.

Few accents are as mellifluous as those of Scotland, and few Scottish accents are as indelible as that of Peter Mullan. The veteran writer, director, and actor has inserted his smoker’s brogue into tentpole pictures (the Harry Potter films, in which he played Death Eater Corban Yaxley), cult classics (Children of Men, which features him as the pot-smoking fascist Syd), and prestige TV (he drew particular acclaim for his portrayal of town elder Matt Mitcham in Top of the Lake). This year, he’s taken his talents to the wilds of HBO’s Westworld, where we meet him in the role of James Delos, the insanely wealthy initial owner of the Westworld park. He turned in a fierce performance in the most recent episode, and we caught up with him to chat about sparring with Ed Harris, observing Jimmi Simpson, and initially being cast as someone else entirely.

You got to be a killer robot and destroy a room!
Oh, yeah! [Laughs.]

Was smashing the room up cathartic? Was that a good feeling?
There’s only two things you can do in films that are even more fun than smashing a room, and one is burning a room. And for some bizarre reason that is the best fun, it’s the most fun you can have. Especially burning buildings. And smashing up motor cars, smashing motor cars is always good fun.

How’d you end up on Westworld?
I got a phone call from the agency, that they’d like to talk to me. So I spoke to [show creators] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] on the phone and yeah, we had a really nice chat and then they sent me a script, and then literally it was as simple as that. Originally, way back in the day I was supposed to do the pilot for it.

Yeah, the original pilot. I was all set to do it and then they changed the dates of it and by that time I had already committed to another film. And so I couldn’t do it and I was devastated. I was really, really upset because I really wanted to do the Westworld pilot but I couldn’t do it. So then, finally Jonah remembered me and then yeah, years later they offered me the other part.

Oh, so when you were reading for the pilot, it wasn’t for this part?
No. No, the pilot — originally what was talked about was the Man in Black. That was on offer, that was discussed. And then they offered to have me play the farmer. Is it Peter Abernathy, I think it is? I was asked to play him. So when I saw the pilot, and I saw … Oh, God, who plays him again? [The actor is Louis Herthum.] Oh, I love it, it’s a beautiful performance. So that was fine, when you can’t do something and you see a really good performance. You never mind that kind of thing.

What was it about the show that reached out to you? What made you wanna be a part of this?
I love the ambition of it. I love the fact that Lisa and Jonah are unashamedly intelligent, really. I’m not embarrassed by the fact that they want to do a show that looks at the nature of self-determination and the nature of the human condition and the nature of the soul, the mind, questions of free will. For me it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite shows as a kid, The Prisoner, with Patrick McGoohan. Like, it doesn’t worry too much if you can’t … It doesn’t feel it has to keep explaining the plot all the time. So when I watch it, I don’t care if I completely understand what’s going on or not, I just love being on that kind of journey. That was the big thing for me. I loved it.

And when they approached you to talk about playing Delos, what did they tell you about him?
We didn’t really talk much about the character, really, other than he was obviously … strong-willed, shall we say. Personally, I would say he’s a narcissistic maniac. Jonah and Lisa, what they said to me was they wanted to get in an actor who wanted to go kinda head-to-head with Ed Harris. They wanted an actor that they thought would enjoy that and not be intimidated by it and all that kind of stuff. And they were right, because I had an absolute ball. I was embarrassed to be getting paid for it because, you know, I’ve just spent a couple of days in a room with Ed Harris and Jimmi Simpson and I had an absolute ball. Just one of those gigs that was such fun and Ed’s such a lovely, lovely guy, absolute sweetheart. And him and I got on really well and we laughed a lot, and then we’d just do the scene and then continue chatting and stuff.

What sticks out to you about shooting your scenes with Ed Harris?
There was a wonderful moment when he told me that I was about to die shortly, in a none-too-pleasant kind of way, and then he walked through … The doors closed too early and he walked straight into these doors, which just cracked me up. [Laughs.] You know, he’s telling me I’m gonna die this really unpleasant death, and then he walks into a closed door. I mean, for me, that was priceless. The Man in Black never puts a foot wrong and he bloody walks into these two doors. And him and I just cracked up on that one. Things like that always make the best moments, particularly when it’s a serious moment and you’re being terribly thespian and serious and you know, in character, it’s always the funniest moment when someone in character goes crashing into a wall.

And how about working with Jimmi Simpson? What stands out in your mind from your time with him?
He had whole different journey for him, ’cause Jimmi has got the incredibly difficult task of having to lay the grounds of, obviously, he’s gonna become the Man in Black. So Jimmi would study Ed’s stuff quite forensically so that he could feed that into his own performance.

Oh, so you saw him doing that? Observing Ed Harris and then mimicking him?
Oh yeah, yeah. Jimmi was quite open about it. He would be watching as Ed and I were doing it. Jimmi would watch the monitor. ’Cause you would have to do that when, ultimately, he’s then gonna go on and play the Man in Black, you know.

Oh, interesting. So you shot it out of order. Along those lines: How do you keep the dialogue fresh, given that you’re not only doing a bunch of takes of a given scene, but then doing tons of takes of scenes that are near identical to each other?
It’s actually, because of the way it was written, it wasn’t difficult. It’s a good piece of writing, so you know you’re always playing the subtext and that’s always fun. If you’re just saying dialogue that’s really difficult, then there’s nothing. There’s no emotional kind of recall, you can’t bring anything to it. But when you’re actually playing the scene knowing that even though you’re still on the same lines, exactly the same as you did the previous scene, you’re working in a subtext, you’re working with what the character’s going through.

Were there any real-life bajillionaires you drew inspiration from?
With guys like him, you would always go to Scotland’s most famous one, [Andrew] Carnegie. I know a little bit about Carnegie, and all these guys, the world they came from was always a street-life kind of world. When they were very young they would’ve been street fighters. They’re cunning. They’re not necessarily the brightest people in the world, but they have a cunning and a ruthlessness. And guys like the ones going around us now, like Murdoch and Bezos and all those guys, what they have in common is they’re ruthless. I mean, Zuckerberg — that generation interests me because they put on this façade that they’re cool kids, and it’s nonsense. They’re no different from Carnegie or Murdoch or any of those other gazillionaires. They’re obsessed with power and their own legacies as they see it. And I don’t think any of those guys would hesitate to do what Delos does. You know, if they had the opportunity, if they thought that they could clone themselves to live forever, they would do it, in a heartbeat they would do it.

I love this idea of Delos coming up as a street brawler.
So many of these guys … a lot of them don’t do particularly well in school. A lot of them are dyslexic. A lot of self-made millionaires have dyslexia, which is strange. A lot of them have that in common because they struggle at school, but they’re not stupid. That also feeds into a sense of grievance, that a lot of these guys feel aggrieved. They feel that they had no choice but to be the masters of the universe because they were mistreated when they were young. Or they weren’t appreciated when they were young.

What kind of directing did Lisa Joy give you in the episode?
It was Ed told me, I think, just towards the end, we were working, Ed said, “Y’know, this is the first time Lisa’s directed.” And I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that Lisa hadn’t directed before. I can’t speak highly enough; she was absolutely wonderful. She does what any good director does, which is she gives actors lots and lots of confidence to try things and to relax, and she takes on the responsibility for everything else. So then the actors ultimately are encouraged just to relax and have a good time. And that really is, that’s a huge part of directing, is when the director doesn’t foist upon the actor. A really good director allows an actor to breathe and to explore and ultimately to feel confident and to enjoy themselves.

Have we seen the last of Delos? Or can you not tell me?
I don’t think I can tell you, no. I don’t think I can.

You’re being a responsible actor.
No, I’m just worried in case they sue me. I’m worried about a lawyer telling me they’re gonna take my house away from me and the kids.

Do you have a particular favorite Delos line that you got to deliver?
Oh yeah, actually one of my favorites — it won’t interest anyone else — but my favorite was when I have to look at the wonderful Ed Harris and say, “Who the fuck are you?” [Laughs.] The idea of me looking at Ed Harris and saying “Who the fuck are you?” just makes me laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Westworld’s Peter Mullan Originally Had a Different Role