'Westworld' Director on the Man in Black's "Quest," 'Lost' Comparisons and Anthony Hopkins' Dancing Skills

"Tony will confirm that he learned how to fist-bump and dance to Drake's 'Hotline Bling' by hanging out with me," Stephen Williams tells THR.
John P. Johnson/HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from episode eight of HBO's Westworld.]

A bald man with killer instincts, a sharp gaze and an even sharper knife searches a mysterious world for answers to life's greatest questions: purpose, existence — and above all else, destiny.

Does that description apply to the Man in Black of Westworld or John Locke of Lost? You be the judge. In either case, director Stephen Williams certainly knows a thing or two about both characters.

Williams, who directed several episodes of the erstwhile island drama, was the man behind the lens on Sunday's episode of Westworld, called "Trace Decay," featuring a more vulnerable side of Ed Harris' brooding gunslinger. As the Man inches closer to the maze he seeks, other characters on the board further unravel in their own right: Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), shell-shocked in the wake of discovering he's a host; Maeve (Thandie Newton), now capable of rewriting other hosts' programming with nothing more than voice commands; and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), no longer sure where or when she is.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Williams opens up about all of those storylines and more, including comparisons between Westworld and Lost, and a side of Anthony Hopkins the world desperately needs to see.

As an extremely detail-oriented show and world built on an elaborate mystery, Westworld has earned more than a few comparisons to Lost. As someone who worked on both shows, do you see the comparison, and did you feel it at all as you worked on episode eight?

That's an interesting observation. Really, there are similarities. Just in terms of the overall construction of a huge, epic narrative that has, in many ways, a series of Russian nesting egg mysteries at its core that need to be peeled back by an ever attentive audience and viewership. There are similarities in that regard for sure. They're both complex, epic narratives. 

Last week's episode ended with the bombshell reveal that Bernard is really a host. This is the first full episode where we know the truth. What were your conversations like with Jeffrey about how best to show this new side of Bernard?

The first thing to say about Jeffrey Wright is that he is a legend among actors. He's literally capable of doing anything. There is a subtlety and intelligence to everything he does and everything he brings to the screen, and his essaying of a role. We talked first and foremost about the fact that killing Theresa is horrifying to him. It's a betrayal of everything he was. He genuinely had real feelings for her. The sadness and horror of his manipulation makes that feel even more real. Our discussions were in general terms about how to portray that. But Jeffrey shows up with an incredible actor's toolbox. He needs very little in the way of direction.

Ford remarks that the only thing more sublime than a host's array of emotions is the ability to silence those emotions in an instant. It's certainly sublime within the world of the show, as much as it is in the context of Westworld as a show and as an acting challenge — Evan Rachel Wood refers to these scenes where hosts lose and gain emotional affect on a loop as "the acting Olympics." What were your observations of these performances, from your side of the camera?

Both Jeffrey and Evan are actors that have amazing access to a deep and seemingly endless emotional reservoir. At the same time, they are incredible technical actors. They can turn on a dime. It's really quite astonishing and mesmerizing to watch. What's really cool in that moment in this episode is you're reminded at the same time about the immense power Ford commands as the creator of this place. There's an extraordinary power there. With Tony there, you just don't ever quite know where you stand with him, because of that power and him wielding that power. In many way, it's a symbiotic actor moment.

Bernard asks Ford if he's ever hurt anyone other than Theresa. Ford says no, and as he does, Bernard experiences a vision in which he's choking Elsie. Some are taking that as confirmation that Bernard killed Elsie (Shannon Woodward). Is that the right read?

Very nicely done. (Laughs) Let me refer you to your earlier question about Lost. There's a form of storytelling that I happen to be somewhat partial to, which embraces the thrill of ambiguity. So I will only say this: I will answer your question with this question. Are we in fact sure that that was Elsie?

Elsewhere in the episode, The Man in Black and Teddy (James Marsden) encounter one of Wyatt's minions, someone who looks like Westworld's answer to The Mountain from Game of Thrones. Can you confirm that this is not indeed The Mountain?

That's hilarious. (Laughs) I can neither confirm nor deny.

What did you want to accomplish with the staging of this fight between the Man in Black, Teddy and this mountain man?

The overarching idea is that the Man in Black is on this quest for the maze. The further out from the epicenter of the park he goes, the greater the ante is upped in terms of the dangers he faces. He can be seriously affected, hurt and impacted by the park. In a way, that huge mountain man as you call him is a reflection of the increasing jeopardy that the Man in Black faces as he continues his quest for the maze, using Teddy as his guide to Wyatt, which he thinks will be a key that unlocks his path toward the maze.

We see several of Wyatt's minions at the end of the episode, shrouded in darkness but clearly covered in fur and animal parts. Can you shed any light on Wyatt's followers in terms of character design?

Our costume designer Ane Crabtree is brilliant. She does a huge amount of research into the costumes that everybody wears on the show. She takes great pains and care in having them constructed, the materials that are used. In this particular case, it speaks to the outlier nature of this group of marauders. It's all meant to create a scary and terrifying and feral no-holds-barred, no-rules kind of environment that our heroes confront.

The Man in Black opens up about his dark past and reasons for playing Arnold's game in what's easily the most revealing scene about the character so far. It's a heavy story he tells, about killing Maeve and her daughter, but he says that he felt "nothing" after the act — and there's an absence of emotion, a weariness or resignation, in how he tells the tale. Was that an active part of your conversations with Ed Harris about how best to relate this story about an atrocious act that made him feel nothing?

I don't think that's actually true. I think he does feel something. I think it resonates and lands with him in a way that only confirms for him his need to continue on this quest. Like so many of the characters on Westworld, he's on a journey of his own self-discovery. While he's outside the confines of this park a titan of industry, and as we got a clue in an earlier episode he's a philanthropist on the outside, he's nonetheless aware that there's a darkness in him that he doesn't quite understand, that he grapples with, and is desperate and needful of unraveling and deciphering and figuring out. He tells that story because it really held a mirror up to himself. The experience he had with his wife and his daughter outside the park really held the mirror up to himself about this dark mystery at his core. He's trying to figure out what that all means.

Throughout the episode, Maeve experiences old memories of her life on the homestead with her daughter, before it was ruined by the Man in Black. These are incredibly emotional scenes, a stark contrast to the modern Maeve, mostly in control of her emotional affect. What are your memories of how Thandie played these scenes?

You mentioned earlier this analogy between athletes and actors. There's an analogy to be had. If in fact being a thespian is analogous to being a creative athlete, then Thandie Newton is an Olympian, straight up. She plays a full spectrum of emotions. She is so in touch with her interior landscape. As a character, Maeve is looking outward and trying to figure out and understand the larger context of this world. She's trying to find meaning in her own story and free herself and come into a knowledge and awareness of herself. Her journey takes her from strength to vulnerability and back again. Thandie is just an amazing actor.

Maeve also gains the power to "write her own story," changing hosts' programming at will, with little more than voice commands. There's a theatricality to it, as Maeve waltzes through Hector's heist and rewrites the hosts. It's dark in many respects, but it's also one of the lighter scenes of the episode.

Right. That whole sequence was tricky to achieve, tonally. We shot it in long takes, particularly once Hector and his gang arrive. But the idea was that Thandie has obviously talked Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) into updating her core code, which allows her to do two things: one, actually hurt, harm or potentially even kill humans; and secondly, actually impact the behavior of other hosts in a way that beforehand we really largely only saw Ford was able to do. As she tries out this new skill set, this new ability, as she practices it in the real world — and I use that term advisedly — we get to see her shape the narrative that we've seen in previous episodes play out in a particular way. Her growing awareness that she can have that impact is one that obviously pleases her, because it speaks to her ability to assemble the team she's going to need in order to ultimately secure her own freedom. You see her go through that cycle of being tentative at first, trying it out, then growing in confidence and satisfaction as she confirms for herself that she can now actually effect these narratives and rewrite stories in the way we see her do in this episode.

Returning to Lost, you directed "Lockdown," which fans will always remember as the episode with the elaborate blast door map. I can't tell you how many hours I invested in analyzing that thing. Even if it's not a visual, is there something in this episode you feel is worth poring over in as much detail as the blast door map — a scene, a performance, an image, something else?

How about everything? (Laughs) That episode, "Lockdown," the equations that appear on the blast door in the hatch were in fact co-created by Zack Grobler, our production designer on Lost. He's also our production designer on Westworld [alongside Nathan Crowley, production designer for the pilot]. He and his wife cooked up that series of equations. So that's a good place for fans to start: Hit Zack Grobler's e-mail up relentlessly, and hopefully it'll shake something loose from the trees. (Laughs) I also want to mention Jeffrey Wright. He's an actor I have admired for ages. Just before I went off to be a producing director on Lost, Jeffrey generously agreed to appear in an indie movie that I was on the verge of doing, which ultimately we didn't make because of a scheduling conflict with Lost. But I had wanted to work with Jeffrey since 2004, so this was an amazing connection of the circle. And then there's my main man, Tony Hopkins. I have to say, we have become very close. Tony will confirm that he learned how to fist-bump and dance to Drake's "Hotline Bling" by hanging out with me. It's an honor and a privilege to not only work with this material that [showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] have constructed so elaborately and so painstakingly and so thoughtfully and so carefully, but to have a chance to make all of their hard work manifest with this amazing cast and crew has been an insane opportunity.

Does an Anthony Hopkins "Hotline Bling" video exist somewhere on the planet? How do we see this?

(Laughs) Maybe on the DVD extras of season one.

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

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