'Westworld' Star on Theresa's Devastating Discovery

"It's really existential," Sidse Babett Knudsen tells THR about her character's big turn in episode seven.
John P. Johnson/HBO

[Warning: This story contains massive spoilers for the seventh episode of HBO's Westworld.]

There's a promise baked into the premise of Westworld, stemming from Michael Crichton's original 1973 film. The hosts are on a journey of self-discovery, and when they arrive at their destination, the results will be catastrophic for the humans in their vicinity.

Consider that promise fulfilled, at least in part. 

The seventh episode of the series, called "Trompe L'Oeil," finally sees a host kill a human being, though not at all in the way anyone anticipated. At the end of the hour, former lovers and colleagues Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) explore a secret cottage hidden within the park, where misanthropic scientist Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) creates and cares for his own secret hosts. At first, it appears that Bernard is trying to show Theresa the true extent of Ford's madness. In actuality, Bernard is unknowingly leading Theresa to her doom. Ford is there, and he swiftly reveals that Bernard is a host, delivering a massive shock to the characters and viewers alike. What's more, he commands Bernard to murder Theresa, a feat he accomplishes with one swift punch. 

It's a stunning series of events, one that marks the first time a host has claimed a human life on the show. But it was also an inevitable outcome: Sidse Babett Knudsen tells THR that she signed on to Westworld knowing that her days were numbered. What she didn't know was how Theresa would die — and in that regard, she was as shocked as anyone, even if she found the experience of shooting the death scene "pure pleasure." Read on for more of Knudsen's take on Theresa's death and the "existential" nature of the character's final moments.

How far in advance did you know about Theresa's death?

I knew that [she would die] when [showrunners Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan and Lisa Joy] asked me [to take the role]. They proposed the role with its limits, so I knew exactly how many episodes I was going to do.

Was that part of the appeal? That you would have a limited time to dig into this character?

Yes, I was very excited about that. Plus, it made it possible for me to do it. I had a film that I had to go back to Europe for. It turned out they could do all of Theresa's scenes within the time limit that I had, so it was amazing. It was kind of miraculous in that sense. The whole sport, I feel like saying, was to make it as fast as possible when she goes. It's a really strange and different way of thinking. I enjoyed it very much.

Did you know how she would die?

No, and that's the thing. I knew I was going to die, but not how, and they were not telling me. That became an ongoing joke every time I would see them: "Come on, tell me!" And they would just say, "You're going to love it." To me, I thought it was very fun in the beginning. I really liked that idea going in — the live short, die young sort of thing. But the further we got in the shooting process, you would get a little bit more sad. I only knew it once I read the script. And that's when I knew the other big secret that's revealed in that episode — I didn't know that either.

What was your reaction when you learned Bernard is a host, then?

Oh, man. Oh. Ah, that was terrible. Terrible. (Laughs) I really felt with Theresa that there's so much to play on now, because it's not just being executed. It's not just being removed or finished by someone who sees me as inappropriate. It's been done by the hands of the only person I could trust. There was so much going on. My backstory with Theresa was that she doesn't let that many people in. She's not very prone to having emotions toward anyone. Her affair with Bernard was so strictly just an affair, and we know the rules, and it's not going to be dangerous for her. Then, little by little, she does get emotional. First of all, that the object of all her emotions is a robot? That's just sickening. But that she is so easy to read that Ford could create just the right amount, just the right spices for her to go all in? It must be so humiliating, just in the core of her. I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was devastating.

It's a nightmare of an ending for Theresa. It's not just that she allowed herself to start caring for Bernard, but we also know how she feels about Westworld. She does not care for this place at all. To have the central thrust of the park flipped on her in these final moments must be absolutely devastating.

Yes. And it's really existential as well. Everything she believes in…they got her. He got her. I understood why [Nolan and Joy] thought I would be so excited about it, because I really was.

Over the past few episodes, we've seen a pronounced duality within Theresa. She's very tough in public and guarded, but privately, to me it seems like she's on edge. She's smoking a lot, staring into mirrors and out windows. I sensed some dread in her, as though she knows something very bad is on the way. Was that intentional in your performance?

I think the sense of dread is how they chose to shoot it. That's not my doing. To me, there's something about going over to the dark side. I think she's safe when she's neutral and on neutral ground. She has no affection for these robots. She's not impressed by the whole thing. She's neutral. It's not up to her. What's up to her is getting these files out of the park and securing whatever she has to secure. She's very pragmatic. Then, suddenly, having to really go into the big espionage and lie and pretend and that whole thing with Charlotte Hale, that performance, showing that the robots are having [problems]. Suddenly she felt that there were morals and things at stake. I played her as somebody who was about to leave very soon. I think she was fed up and finished with the park. "This is my last assignment. I don't really care about my reputation anymore. I don't really care about what people say. I'll be out of here in three or four months." It's very much like that.

What were the conversations like about how Theresa's death scene would play out?

They used words like "dignity" very often. It had to be dignified. It wasn't going to be…I mean, nothing is. But all of the blood, intestines all splattering around — all of that is just for the guests. That's not how the [hosts] play when it's not necessary. So they wanted something that was closer to dignity and elegance. We also wanted it to be extremely short. It was not something we were going to indulge in. It's not something we were going to stay on. We might not even see it. I think Jonah said that: "We might not see it. We might just hear a snap." He wasn't interested in dwelling on it. We spent much more time on Bernard afterwards putting on his tie, taking it easy, being a slow robot. But the death itself, they wanted something very snappy and dignified. Both Jonah and Lisa were on set when we filmed it, and it was so interesting. There was so much to play on in that scene. So many elements and directions we could go. They really gave it time. We talked a lot about it. We tried different things. Theresa still tries to keep her dignity until the very end. We could have gone in the other direction, of her just going completely crazy! (Laughs) But that day when we shot that scene…it was just the most pleasurable day. It was fantastic.

You'd already had a memorable scene with Anthony Hopkins earlier in the series, during the restaurant scene in episode four. What was it like to shoot this final scene with him here?

It was pure pleasure. We talked about that room, and about the movements in it. There was an idea that he would be walking around her. But Anthony Hopkins was very much like, "No. Let's just stay there. Let's just stand." It became very still. 

He literally has her cornered.

Yes, exactly. So we had to find that point from which I couldn't escape from. It was important that she doesn't look frozen. She would run if she could. If she could run and get away with it, she would have. But she couldn't. She's in that corner and Bernard is just standing there in that triangle. That distance that we had between us was pretty constant in those last minutes. But when he just moves two centimeters forward, the tiniest movement made such a difference. It felt very, very organic. And I just remember when he came up and whispered in my ear. It was something that he just did. It was just…ah. Clarice never got that! (Laughs)

What do you think the impact of Theresa's death will be moving forward?

I have no idea. Moving forward, I have no idea what's going to happen. I don't know any more than you do about what's going to happen in episode eight. I don't know more than anyone else now. I'm just a fan now. I'm just going to watch the show and see what's going to happen. But that's one of my questions: What impact will that have? Obviously, something's going to happen with the board and the company behind it. They're going to ask some questions. What's going to happen with that? And Bernard as well. He was one of the most human characters up until now. What I would be looking for in the next episode is who is the hottest — and I mean that in the sense of human warmth — where is that now in the show? 

You signed on knowing that Theresa's days were numbered. Was it still hard parting ways with the series?

Oh, yeah. I was surprised. You get involved, and then suddenly, it felt so wrong to leave before the others, to leave before curtain. I got attached. I really, really liked the universe and how it was developing. I wanted to be a part of that. So I sort of tried to complain a little bit to Jonah. And he was like, "Come on, you're going back to France, you shit." (Laughs) "You made your own bed, now lie in it!" But it was sad. I was sad to leave. 

Follow THR's Westworld coverage for more interviews, news and analysis.

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