behind the scenes

What It’s Like to Play One of Westworld’s ‘Inhuman’ Drone Hosts

Photo: HBO

In this week’s Westworld episode, we’re re-introduced to a new character that scares the bejesus out of Bernard when he first encounters it in a secret underground facility. It’s a Drone Host — the textbook definition of a robotic creature stripped down to its essentials — whose sole job is to seemingly glide around and gather DNA from the park’s guests, all without a pesky moral compass holding it back. It’s a fascinatingly detailed visual, boosted further by the fact it’s devoid of sound.

The man behind the “main” Drone Host, Alexander Ward, hopped on the phone with Vulture last week to discuss the character’s movements and what it’s like playing something “completely devoid of emotion and humanity.” Also, how uncomfortable wearing corsets can be, even with a tiny waist.

How were you recruited to play this spooky Drone Host?
I’m an actor who specializes in playing monsters and creatures. I work with a lot of different makeup artists, and I’d worked with the company that was making the suit. They gave me a call and let me know they had a creature, a thing, they wanted me to try. So I went to a couple of test fittings and the rest is history. They needed someone to do something weird, and they knew I’d be down for that. [Laughs.]

I think people will be surprised that this wasn’t a motion-capture situation, and you were actually in this very intricately created and executed prosthetic suit. Can you walk me through all of the steps it took to get it on, and how long that process lasted?
The suit was relatively easy, surprisingly, compared to other suits I’ve worn in the past. It was essentially this: I was wearing a grey undersuit like a morph suit, and someone would zip up the back. And I had a hood with a foam face of the drone on it, which would come over the top. We would then slide into the full-body suit of the Drone, and there was another piece strapped over the face. Those were all sealed, and a blank face piece would be magnetized onto the front. All in all, it was about a half-hour process. I usually play these dirty, gross, or dead monsters. I don’t often get to be weirdly pretty. So this was very cool for me.

How difficult was it to breathe? The corsets in the video didn’t look too pleasant.
Not at all. [Laughs.] The producers wanted us to look like we didn’t have the same internal organs as a human being. So they wanted us to have big, built-out chests and really thin waists. I’m pretty thin as it is — I’m six-four and 150 pounds — I’m not a big guy. But they wanted us to be very thin. So what they did was do a 3-D scan of my body and then printed it out via a 3-D printer. They had a statue of me, essentially, so they can make the suit as perfectly as possible. They did that scan with me wearing a corset, so I already had that shape. And then when I got into the suit, I was wearing a corset on top of my undersuit. It wasn’t so bad, I swear. I’ve worn worse.

Did you see out of the suit at all? The Drones’ faces appear totally obstructed.
There were two different face masks that snapped onto the front. One was completely opaque and I couldn’t see through it. So that’s what was used for close-up shots or shots where I’m not doing much — because I was totally blind. I’ve done a couple of characters that have no eyes, so I was used to doing stuff like that, without sight. But in the scenes where I was doing movement or walking long distances, there was one face mask that had slight vision out of it. A little slit I could see out of.

What kind of directives were you given in terms of the way these Drones move and present themselves? How strict was it?
We had a couple of rehearsal days for movement and stuff like that. We had a dance coordinator who came in to talk about preferred body movements. What they wanted with the Drones was interesting to me — they’re things that were made out of the same substance as the other drones at the park, but had no human aspect to them. They wanted them completely devoid of emotion and humanity. They wanted their movements to be inhuman in their fluidity; this thing just moves very conservatively, only moving for the specific purpose it needs to do. A smooth, inhuman quality to it. The Drones are there to perform prescribed tasks, essentially, and that’s what their lives are down in the lab. To just do whatever was needed.

What was the most surprising or challenging aspect of mastering those movements?
It was a fun challenge to do, making these things look like they didn’t need to look at what they were seeing, because they have no eyes — like they were using sensors to pick everything up. So, doing things without necessarily looking at what you were doing was an interesting challenge. There were times that it was inevitable, because I do have eyes and need to see what I’m doing, but most of the times it was like, Do these things while standing up, continue to do this without turning. Just move the arms while putting something away, not the head. It’s very robotic.

Movement aside, what else did these rehearsals entail?
We were there for two or three days. There were four of us in total — there was me in the lead Drone suit, with two other guys wearing far-background versions of the suit. They weren’t applicable to up-close camera shots. And there was another guy in a very minimal outfit who was used behind glass and scenes like that, so you would just see a silhouette. We rehearsed with all four of us quite a bit, like roaming around the room in patterns, so it would look like we’re doing prescribed tasks that we were constantly repeating. One person would walk from one room to another, take something and bring it back, while another person crossed at a specific point. And repeat, and repeat. It was like a ballet. Of course, when we actually got on set, it all fell out the window since we didn’t know what exactly we would be doing until we got there. [Laughs.] But it was fun while we were doing it.

Jeffrey Wright’s character has a pretty terrified reaction to a Drone Host when he first sees it. Do you recall how the actors responded when they saw you fully in the suit for the first time?
The first time I met Jeffrey in the suit, he was pretty jazzed about it. He thought it was really cool. I got a really fun reaction when we did an Entertainment Weekly photo shoot that had all of us standing in one room together. That was the first time Evan Rachel Wood and most people had seen me, and that was a big reaction. Whoa, look at this thing, can we touch it? It’s a cool thing to look at for the first time. There’s so much detail that the guys in production put into this suit. It really draws your attention to it when it walks into a room.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What It’s Like Playing Westworld’s ‘Inhuman’ Drone Hosts