'Westworld': How Jimmi Simpson Transformed Into Season 2's "Dark Element"

"It was relatively traumatic," the actor tells THR about playing a young version of Ed Harris' Man in Black.
HBO

[This story contains spoilers through season two, episode two of HBO's Westworld, "Reunion."]

"You really are just a thing. I can't believe I fell in love with you."

These are the petulant words of a monster, powerfully towering over an innocent: William and Dolores, together again at long last. Played by Jimmi Simpson and Evan Rachel Wood, William and Dolores were at the heart of one of the most adventurous and romantic stories in the first season of Westworld, exploring the park together on a journey of self-discovery. What they discovered at the end of the line, however, wasn't the light of fairy tale endings; it was the darkness of an abyss. So dark, in fact, that it put William on the path toward becoming the Man in Black, the hard-edged gunslinger played by Ed Harris.

While some fans caught onto the twist ahead of time, many others were blindsided and gobsmacked by the reveal that Dolores' adventure with William took place decades before the main action of season one, effectively serving as a Man in Black origin story. With the reveal out of the way, it was far from a certain thing that Simpson would be returning as a younger version of William in season two — and now, after the character's dark return in the latest episode, there's no longer any doubt about Simpson's continued role and importance in Westworld lore.

"It wasn't a certainty, but there was an absolute indication from [creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] that there was some more stuff they wanted to do with William," Simpson tells The Hollywood Reporter about how he was clued in on his season two role. "They keep everything close to their chest. It's not because they're withholding. They just want everything to be the best it can be. A lot of the times, I've found on Westworld that Jonah and Lisa's gentle control over information makes the show better. It helps the actors' performance, it helps the audience get to have more of a revelatory experience if everything was being bandied about. I think they set it up perfectly in that way."

Entering season two, Simpson finds himself steeped in the Man in Black's signature darkness, if not exactly his uniform. The actor says his process involves reverse-engineering Ed Harris' work as the character in the modern-day storyline, and trying to carve his way toward meeting that menace from his end of the timeline. The result of playing this new version of William, according to Simpson? "Quite honestly, it was relatively traumatic."

"Clearly, I've built a career that's studded with assholes: hard-to-tolerate personalities," says the actor, who counts the absurd antagonist Liam McPoyle of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame as one of his most recognizable roles, prior to Westworld. "William was so not that high status jerk. He's one of my favorite roles I've ever had the opportunity to try to articulate. I was there for the entire filming of season one, that man's experience. That's what I was feeling. With season two, I was expecting a slower shift from William. I expected more of a gradual fall from grace ... and when I returned to William, he was so spun out from his experience that he was a shell of who he was [in season one], but one hundred times the business man. He had adapted to his circumstances a lot faster than I was prepared for."

Simpson was forced to engage William's darkness very early on when he returned to set. Among his first scenes: William confronting Dolores in analysis mode, lording over her naked visage, describing her as even "less than a thing." It's a brutal scene for fans of the characters, who know their shared history all too well. "As an actor, I would dare say it was even more brutal," Simpson says.

In the first scene, Simpson and Wood "would rehearse together on our own for days just to make sure these scenes were beautiful and clear and narratively sound," says the actor. "This was one of the earliest scenes in season two, and it was going to be our first time working together again, and all of the sudden my friend as an actor and my lover in the story was going to be nothing more than a piece of meat. It's now my job to treat her that way. It felt so incongruous with what I had done as William. It felt awful to do. It felt like I was probably failing creatively, because of how emotionally wrong it felt."

"The whole time, I was a wreck," he continues. "It was such a shift from a character I had spent so much time establishing. It felt like that man who's so outside of his skin wish such a smashed ego, that he is watching himself across the room and thinking: 'Why is he being such a dick? What's his problem?' He's eating himself alive, he's falling apart more inside than he's actually taking her down. That's what it felt like. It was one of the more incredible scenes I've had to act in — and I've nailed a woman's hand to a table! It was a really hard scene to play."

Of course, Simpson was allowed moments of familiarity while filming the new season, such as his first onscreen appearance of the year alongside Logan (Ben Barnes), long before the two of them ever visited the park, and long before William started walking down the path toward the Man in Black.

"For me, as the performer, that was like putting on your comfy sneakers after you went skiing for a day," he says of the scene. "Here I am, just myself, giving quick props to Logan before getting out of the way, and not offending anyone. It was nice to be able to play that version of William again."

Unfortunately, more often than not, Simpson was hitting the slopes as William continued skiing into darkness, performing in fewer scenes opposite Wood and Barnes, his friends and most reliable scene partners in season one — and when they were in scenes together?

"It was a bit alienating," the actor says. "I worked with [my friends] occasionally, but everything was shifted; all of the stakes were upside down. When I got to Westworld this year, I knew I would have to show up, do some dark shit and get out quick. It was a completely different experience than when I was part of that sweet love story that supplied the heart of season one. To show up now and be the ball-buster? It was such a different experience. Every day, going to Westworld, I was going to the biggest production I have ever been on — and I was the dark element." 

"I wonder if Ed felt this way every day last year," he continues, musing on what other members of the production must have thought as the gunslinger rode up to the set: "'Oh, look! Here comes the dick!'"

What do you make of Simpson's work as William so far? Sound off in the comments below and keep checking THR.com/Westworld for more coverage all season long.