'Westworld' Season 3 Hollywood Premiere: A Look Inside the HBO Thriller's "Dystopian Future"

Creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy give a look at what's ahead in the genre-bending series' return: "Is humanity embodied by what we've seen in the park?"
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"Is this now?" It's a frequent refrain heard throughout Westworld, and when it comes to the HBO drama's upcoming third season, the answer is two-fold: it's almost now, and it's also fairly far from now.

Put another way: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's unsettling tech-driven thriller returns March 15, but the world it inhabits is a few decades down the line from ours. Bursting free from the confines of the titular park for the first time in show history, Westworld season three takes place largely in "our world," albeit one set in the 2050s, with technological advances that feel light years away: literally killer apps, surgical implants designed to alleviate stress, humanoid robots built to work in construction, self-driving cars and more.

In the process, it may also offer something else that Westworld has only barely touched on over the course of two seasons: the possibility that human beings are not, as a rule, awful.

"The show took a fairly dim view of humanity through the first two seasons," Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter at the Westworld world premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood on Thursday (March 5). "Now we get to ask the question: is humanity embodied by what we've seen in the park? If Dolores, Maeve and the rest of the hosts have only been exposed to the kinds of people who would go to Westworld, is that really all that humanity is made of? One of the ideas at the end of the second season is that free will is maybe an illusion. We're excited to dig into that question more."

The question is largely framed through the perspective of Aaron Paul's Caleb, a disenchanted man suffering from loneliness and post-traumatic stress, yearning to find something real — perfectly timed for a rendezvous with Evan Rachel Wood's Dolores, still up to her regular human-hunting tricks. For Joy, the Aaron Paul character represents the idea that even with new technologies designed to bring the world closer together, they can actually make people feel even more alone — a sentiment echoed by one of Paul's fellow newcomer castmembers John Gallagher Jr., who features heavily in the new season as a self-doubting tech giant.

"Because of the show, Jonathan and Lisa really get to rub shoulders with the heavyweights of the tech industry," says the actor. "Without giving it away, we've heard a few of the things they've seen — a prototype of a thing that's going to be available next year — and some of what they told me blew my mind. It's equal parts terrifying and exciting. It feels like it's ramping up so much."

Paul and Gallagher Jr. are only two of several different castmembers circling the world of Westworld this season. Another example: Sons of Anarchy fan-favorite Tommy Flanagan, who steps into the role of a tough-as-nails security guard who is more than meets the eye; he describes his reaction to the various twists surrounding his character as "a chain reaction of reactions." Even with history working on a number of high-profile projects, the erstwhile motorcycle gang leader couldn't help feeling initially intimidated by the scope of Westworld.

"I had a lot of jitters on the show when it first started," he says. "You're not given a lot of information. You don't really know what's going on. As the show progresses, I got to know more and more, and every time it just blew my mind. I ended up walking away a happy man."

Of course, Flanagan wasn't the only one feeling jittery about Westworld, certainly not on the red carpet, where castmembers mostly stopped for photos before hurrying inside the TCL Chinese Theater for the screening. Ahead of the premiere of the first season three installment (directed by Jonathan Nolan and written by Lisa Joy and Nolan), HBO's Casey Bloys thanked everyone for attending, even rattling off a coronavirus joke: "We're all learning how to fist bump and elbow bump. We appreciate you coming down."

"The world's a bit nuts right now," Lisa Joy said to the packed audience, introducing the series. "The show, frankly, has nothing positive to say about it. But ironically, the experience of working with this group to build a dystopian future leaves us a bit of hope. When you bring together a group of unbelievably talented, kind and generous people, they can do anything — which almost gives us hope for the future."

"Almost," Nolan added, "but not quite."

The explosive premiere unfurled for gathered attendees, and as promised, it truly does feel like an entirely new world in many respects. "In a weird way, it feels like the premiere of the show again," Tessa Thompson remarked earlier on the red carpet. Saying too much about the story would not only be a sin for those who have yet to experience it, but also an almost fruitless endeavor; in the words of another mythologically-driven Bad Robot production, "We're going to need to watch that again."

Following the premiere, attendees gathered at the Ray Dolby Ballroom for an expansive afterparty where current and former Westworld castmembers alike mixed and mingled — newcomers like Paul, Flanagan and Lena Waithe, as well as Westworld alumni including Angela Sarafyan and Katja Herbers. Other notable attendees included Kid Cudi and Marshawn Lynch (both of whom boast roles in the season three premiere), Jaden Smith and Christopher Nolan.

Attendees enjoyed a full bar of liquor and wine, albeit no specialty cocktails (a sadly missed opportunity to offer up a "Bernardold Palmer"), as well as a bountiful display of food befitting a Delos corporate gathering: passed hors d'oeuvres such as macadamia-crusted chicken, sunchoke pierogis, tuna sashimi cups with soy-lime ginger and pulled pork on mini arepas, a clear winner among the lot. Entree options included three types of flatbread: classic margarita, a grilled sausage offering and one topped with fig, ricotta and arugula. Heartier fare included New York steak with charred tomatoes, steak house fries and sautéed spinach, a winter squash tortelloni with crispy sage and brown butter and a brioche and wild mushroom-stuffed chicken. A sprawling dessert set-up featured mixed berry and vanilla bean custard tarts, buttermilk cake with strawberries and creme fraiche and valrhona chocolate truffle cakes with whipped cream. 

A personal note from yours truly to other attendees: please don't mind that one fallen truffle cake near the dessert station at the ten o'clock hour; indeed, it doesn't look like anything to me.

Follow THR.com/Westworld for more coverage.