behind the seams

Get Inside Westworld’s Spooky Robot Flesh Suit

You gotta be taller than Aaron Paul. Photo: John Johnson/HBO

In case you haven’t heard, the AI hosts of Westworld let their hair down this season. They’re having some fun, and by fun I mean making humans do their bidding via a mind-controlling signal tower in the New York City harbor. They’re also rooting out dissenters with the help of their spooky blue-white muscle: faceless enforcers who look like half-finished versions of real hosts but are called “Drone Hosts” by the show’s creators. (Thumb Thumbs would be more appropriate.) Bernard discovered them in the depths of the Delos labs back in season two, but now that the hosts are in charge in season four, they’re deploying the Drone Hosts with emotionless vengeance. In the latest episode, one scans a crowd of frozen humans to find the ones who’ve shaken off the robot signal’s influence, while another loses a fight with Aaron Paul’s Caleb (turns out Drone Hosts still bleed red). Here, stunt performer Joey Wilson breaks down what it’s like to play a sinister, faceless, incredibly swole being on prestige television.

Which scenes did you film in this last episode?
I was the one who walked off to the back behind the fight scene. My buddy Marti [Matulis] was the guy attacking Aaron Paul. Being around that was such a cool experience, because he’s doing it with limited visibility and restricted movement. The suit is a four-inch-thick wetsuit, essentially. It’s very tight and you’ve got to be a slim dude, but in the process from season two to season four they’ve made a lot of improvements.

How have they improved the technology?
They’ve strengthened them in parts so they can be thinner. There’s more room and breathability in the shoulder region. They’re more comfortable and you can take care of yourself a bit more. Just like the robots — always improving.

How long does it take to get into the full suit?
If you’re getting fully into the costume, it’s a 15- to 20-minute process: You strip down to your Under Armour and then you put on the feet and the bodysuit and the gloves and the head. If we’re shooting for a day, we’ll be wearing the bodysuits but maybe not on the upper body or something when we’re not filming.

Once you have the head on, how do you see?
It depends because we have a lot of different visors. Some have a few windows in the upper portion so you can kind of see out in front of you … a little bit. There are some visors where you can see through the lower portion, so you can see what you’d be doing if you’re typing on a keyboard or something. And then some of them are just completely blind!

So then you’re memorizing where you have to move beforehand?
You’re taking a really good look around the room and familiarizing yourself before you do a scene.

Do they give you directions on how exactly you’re supposed to move? Is there a sinister, slow style they want?
I watched the seasons before to see the people who were playing them before. The Drone Hosts are calculated, efficient machines that just do what they’re told to do. There’s a level of intimidation that comes in with a blank slate of a character — the stillness is what makes it intimidating. That’s always fun. You don’t realize how difficult it is to stand perfectly still until you have to.

Do you talk much with the other actors playing Drones? Is there a group chat?
We definitely took a moment to make sure it looked like we were all the same person. We’ll hit each other up every now and then and be like, “What’s up, how have you been, what’s new?”

How does playing a Drone compare to the stunt work you’ve done for other shows?
I typically do creature work and stunt work. Most of the time, if you’re doing a stunt, you’re a person. You can see! That’s never quite the same as a full suit or prosthetic.

I have to imagine those suits get really hot if you’re stuck in them all day.
It’s so hot. You find ways to cool down, and you get out as much as you can in between. When you’re working outside you find the shade. They also have these cooling vests that are a lot like the suit the Man in Black wears in his chamber, whatever that cryo stuff is. It’s essentially a shirt we wear underneath that they can hook up to tubes and pump cold water around us.

Casting wise, what did they say they were looking for in a Drone Host actor?
The suit was originally modeled after one specific guy, Alex Ward, who was one of the original Drone Hosts. When they built the suit, they built it off him, so you have to find people who have his body type and can mimic the character he originated. The way my buddy put it once is that you need really thin, tall guys who are “like folded steel.” You’re not very heavy, but you’re strong. Those suits look like they’re real buff dudes, but the guys underneath them are usually relatively thin. It’s great standing in the suit, looking in the mirror like, Ooh, do I look like this? I’ll take it.

They also look for your background in stunt work, and that’s where I come in. I may not be exactly that body type, but I’m close.

You were also out in the real world dressed up as a Drone Host for some HBO publicity events. What’s that like?
It’s more of an “always on” feeling than being in the show. When you’re filming, you have cuts and breaks where you can go back to being you. But at an event, you’re always moving around people. It was fun, too, because you can’t have the window or the visor where you can see, so you’ve got to learn to look through your peripherals and your small holes really well. And since you’re being a machine, you don’t do something if somebody talks to you. They have to initiate it and say “I want you to do this.” It lends to the character; you’re like, I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m going to go with it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Get Inside Westworld’s Spooky Robot Flesh Suit