You Might Be Surprised to Learn Who Westworld’s Elsie Is Based On

Shannon Woodward. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers for season two, episode four of Westworld below.

Ever since Ford unveiled his genocidal new narrative at a particularly ill-fated fete in the season-one finale of Westworld, all the humans in the park have had their burdens to bear. Many of the robotic hosts have chosen to kill and torture their erstwhile oppressors in myriad ways, but only one of them saw fit to force a human to eat PowerBars and take dumps in a bucket. That host was Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and he was, believe it or not, merely trying to save the person in question, programming genius Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward), his onetime protégé.

As we learned in the most recent episode, Bernard did not kill Elsie, as he feared he might have, but instead locked her up in a cave with the aforementioned provisions, far from the rest of the action. The reunited pair then embarked on a little adventure through the dystopian meltdown that is Westworld, with Elsie significantly more suspicious and hair-triggered than she was in the last go-round. We caught up with Woodward to talk about holding Jeffrey Wright at gunpoint, being a fictional stand-in for show co-creator Lisa Joy, and how long, exactly, Elsie was stuck in that dang cave.

Elsie lives!

Did you know you’d be back for the second season when it was implied that you might’ve been killed off in season one?
I did, yeah. I knew.

You just sometimes hear horror stories about actors not knowing if their characters will live from script to script, and being freaked out by apparent deaths that turn out to be misdirections.
Yeah, that seems stressful. I mean, but it was stressful for me to have to not lie about it for an absurdly long time. [Laughs.] Absurd amount of time to be like, “I don’t know, people!” It was tough. It was a test of character.

And now you can — well, wait, we’re talking about this before the episode airs, so you currently still have to be quiet about it with people.
People know I’m still on the show. They just don’t know in what capacity, so.

Right, with all the flashbacks and cycling narratives and such.
The body printing.

Exactly. “The body printing.” What kind of show are you on where we have “body printing” as a keyword that just pops up?
What a dream job.

Maybe you can’t answer this, but what exactly happened to Elsie? What was she up to between when we last saw her and now?
I mean, she’s been changed. She was abandoned with a bunch of protein bars and a bucket and a chain. Essentially becoming incredibly dehydrated.

Yeah, just the protein bars. No water.
I mean, yeah. No water. What is that? I asked, I was like, “Is the bucket for water or for excrement?” They’re like, “It’s probably for the excrement.” I mean, I can’t imagine. It seems like quite a sad state of affairs.

She deserves better. She’s just a humble employee. She’s trying her best.
Come on, guys. Poor Elsie.

How long was she trapped there, roughly?
I don’t know. I think it was around two weeks, but it’s something like that. It’s enough time that it’s a lot of time, but it wasn’t a month.

She’s a survivor. Two weeks. Damn.
Yeah. Wait, just to be fair, I’m not exactly sure it was two weeks. Just around. I know the Reddit people have probably figured this out better than I have. I don’t want them to be upset with me.

Do you ever read the infamous Reddit Westworld threads?
No, I stay away so everyone has their time with the show, because we’ve had our time. It’s such an experience. We get the script week to week and so we kind of become the show’s first audience early on, so we’ve had our journey with arguing with each other about what we think is happening or what’s gonna happen. It feels like voyeuristic for me to go try to watch other people have that experience. It actually makes me nervous to think about reading it. I’m like, That’s not fair. It feels like spying.

Did you have any pet theories of your own just from reading the scripts last season that turned out to not be true? Anything wild that you were really hoping was gonna happen?
I don’t think so.

Fair enough. You predicted it all perfectly.
Well, no. I just don’t know that I made those leaps. I think the truth is that I just couldn’t wait to read it. I have overall liked things that I think, but I don’t venture to make wild predictions just because I think my bosses are so … They’re brilliant and their story is quite intricate, and I think my respect for them limits me from attempting to predict what they’re going to do. I think my brain just kind of stops there.

I’m with you. One of my great deficiencies as a culture writer is that I hate fan theories and trying to predict what’ll happen in shows or movies.
Yeah. I understand why people want to do that, and it’s part of the fun discussing things with your friends and having something that’s dense enough to be able to withstand being deconstructed. It’s exciting to be on something like that. [Showrunners] Lisa [Joy] and Jonah [Nolan] have constructed something so dense that it’s fun to do that. But I think, at some point, they kind of just stop and wait to see what they’re going to present, because the manner in which they present it is also sometimes the more exciting … or, it’s the experience, not the information.

How do you get into the mind-set of somebody who’s been abandoned in a cave for days?
We did spend quite a bit of time in the cave, so I mean, so much happens in that scene so quickly. There are a lot of revelations. One on top of the other, on top of the other, on top of the other, that it’s just second-to-second because it really … What Elsie wants out of the situation in that whole sequence, it really changes every two seconds. At first, it’s like she’s gonna shoot him and get the hell out of there, and it’s like, what’s going on, and he’s a host. And then he’s a host that needs immediate help, and she’s decoding it, and it moves very quickly. Truthfully, the mind-set of being locked in a cave, I mean, that gets thrown out the window pretty immediately.

Is it weird holding Jeffrey Wright at gunpoint?
The thing that was more humbling about it is that Jeffrey is really good with that gun and it’s also 30 pounds, and I’m very small, and so I could only hold the gun up for so much time. I’m constantly breathing heavy through that whole episode because the gun is so heavy. And if we would run long, if one of us forgot a line, I would be like, “I can’t hold the gun up any longer!” He’d be like, “Shannon! Keep going!” I was like, “Ugh!”

In general, what did you learn from working with Jeffrey Wright?
I feel like that question’s too loaded. I don’t know if I can really answer it.

Loaded? What’s loaded about it?
No, I just mean, like, I wouldn’t know how to begin to answer it, I guess is what I’m saying. We have such different temperaments, and I think that was part of why they cast us together. Obviously, I didn’t know that he was playing a host for the first half of season one, and I kept trying to bring my tone back down to where his was because I thought I was out of place. I was worried that I was out of step or something, so I’d start bringing my tone down to match his, and Lisa Joy would come in and be like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. You’re staccato and he’s legato. Just let that happen, okay?” It turns out it was because I’m playing a human and he’s not.

Ah, yes.
Jeffrey is wonderful and I learn from him constantly. I mean, before this I was doing a single-camera sitcom, so it’s a bit of a shift.

What’s it like getting directed by Lisa?
It’s a dream. Especially because I think I kind of play Lisa on the show, or a version of her, and Jonah kind of inserted that into the narrative.

I clocked that after the first season. I told her, I was like, “You know I play you, right?” Now I’ve seen her sign autographs, “The OG Elsie, Lisa Joy.”

Oh, come on. Really?
Yeah! Because she was the first person I read for, and she responded to me so immediately and she said something very kind, and I think the first thing I said to her was, “Are you drunk?” [Laughs.] Because I didn’t think that my first performance was very good. I think I play a version of her, though much, much shorter and much less intelligent.

Be nice to yourself.
Lisa’s brilliant! She can do calculus in her head. Having her there to usher me along or have her watch me rehearse, it’s very obvious to me when something’s missing from my performance or she can tell me, “No, don’t lean into this. Lean into that.” It’s nice to have her around just because it’s the immediate muse. She’s such a good director, which is not at all a surprise, but just having a brilliant woman, it’s nice to be directed by brilliant women. It’s an exciting time.

Can you think of a particularly good piece of direction that she had for the scenes in this episode?
That last scene with Jeffrey and I. We were doing the scene where he asked me if he can come with me and if I can trust him and to let him be his own man for the first time, and we had really just gone through quite a bit in the scene before with Peter Mullan, with Delos, and so my first instinct was to be really vulnerable and I was like swelling up and I was like, “You are never gonna hurt me again.” He’s like, “Never.” [Lisa] was like, “No, let him be emotional and you stay strong. You’re in charge.” I was like, “Oh, right. Okay. Okay. We’ll take it that direction.” She was like, “You guys flip.” It’s much more moving to watch him be vulnerable with me. There’s a role reversal there from last year where he’s like, “Elsie, do your job.” Where now it’s like, “You don’t get to hurt me again.” That was a good direction.

What does your friend Katy Perry think of the show?
Oh, I don’t talk about things like that.

Fair enough! When you first got the show, what did they say they wanted the character to be?
They didn’t. I read just there were just two scenes. I didn’t think there was much of a description. It just said, “A brilliant programmer.” I was like, “I’m not getting this job.” [Laughs.] My dad’s a software designer, so I did grow up … I was on the IBM campus my whole childhood, testing software that they were building, but I will say between the first episode and the second episode, like the pilot and then the next one, we came back, after we’d spend some time together, all of a sudden I saw the second script and her dialogue was like, “Fuck this. Goddamn it. What the fuck was that?” I was like, So they’ve written my voice! [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Westworld’s Shannon Woodward Reveals Who Elsie Is Based On