'Westworld': Tessa Thompson Breaks Down That Deadly (and "Heartbreaking") Twist

Westworld -Tessa Thompson - HBO Publicity - H 2020
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[This story contains spoilers for season three, episode six of HBO's Westworld, "Decoherence."]

In Westworld, hosts have an extreme advantage on humanity in at least one key way: they can die and come back to life countless amounts of times — but sometimes, even for the artificial intelligence entities at the heart of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's HBO series, death is a permanent condition.

For example: There's Hector Escaton, the gunslinging cowboy played by Lost veteran Rodrigo Santoro. The black-hatted rogue finally woke back up to the nature of his reality in season three's sixth installment, "Decoherence," just in time to lose his life forever, his pearl crushed to bits in the palm of another host's hand: Dolores, played primarily by Evan Rachel Wood, but in this instance played by Tessa Thompson, the other most recognizable face associated with the revolutionary robot these days.

Indeed, Thompson's take on Dolores (or "Chalores," as Thompson calls her) is front and center in "Decoherence," as the host posing as Delos executive Charlotte Hale is finally rooted out by the vicious Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel). The result: a daring escape scene in which Charlotte goes into full on Terminator mode, as Thompson herself describes it. She enlists the aid of riot drones and withstands a hail of gunfire on her way out the door, having destroyed Hector's pearl in the process. Death follows her all the way home, too, as Charlotte does her best to bring her new family — the real Charlotte Hale's husband and young son — to safety. Instead of saving their lives, she condemns them, as a rocket annihilates their vehicle. Only Charlotte survives the attack, crawling out of the car, charred from head to toe, but still alive. 

Already on the verge of veering away from Dolores Prime's mission, the Dolores locked inside of Charlotte Hale's body and life is poised to chart a deadly new destiny of her own — and with only two installments left in Westworld season three, her final destination is anyone's guess. Ahead, Thompson speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about crafting the episode, the work she poured into the new Charlotte this season and what's still ahead.

What was your first reaction to reading the script for "Decoherence," and finding out what was coming for the Charlotte storyline?

Every time that I read an episode of this show, whether I play heavily in the episode or not, I'm always surprised and thrilled. I feel like the show continues to take us into so many interesting territories. Interestingly, we shot some parts of the real action-heavy sequences out of order, because some took place in Spain and some took place back in Los Angeles. So, we were shooting that out for a while and in bits and pieces. I think what is now that sequence is really impressive and feels Terminator-esque and real. It's pretty cool, but it didn't necessarily feel that way in the execution of it because it was so here and there. I don't think I quite realized, even in reading that episode, that that sequence would be really the set piece that it is.

Who do you view your character as this season? We know she's a copy of Dolores, but to you, is she Dolores? Do you think of her as a new Charlotte Hale? Is she someone new entirely? What's your interpretation?

I feel like the show's always asking really interesting questions about the nature of our reality. A big question this year is how much do we have free will. I think one question that thematically runs through Charlotte's arc this year, or "Chalores," as I like to call her, is this idea of you have your essential nature. For a host, it would be what's in your code, and how much is your essential nature changed by circumstances. I think Charlotte's journey this year posits that it's changed tremendously by them. When we first see Charlotte [at the start of season three's third episode], she's Dolores, but in infancy. She's a newborn, essentially. Then she's given an identity. She's seeing the skin that she's in. She's given an identity and a mission, and then, she's thrust into the world, into her circumstances, and she begins to divert based on them. 

So, I think, in answer to your question, there's no real simple answer because it's shifting as she becomes more integrated into her surroundings. I think she has the consciousness of Delores, certainly is on the mission that Dolores is on, and Dolores has this take about humanity which is entirely influenced by her experience with humanity. Then, she sends another version of herself into the world. This version of herself now has experienced the child that loves and needs her with a partner that loves and needs her, and that changes her perception of human beings. So, her idea about this mission, which is essentially the destruction of human beings, begins to falter. I think that's her central conflict this season. 

Now, at the end of episode six, seeing what humanity can do — and also seeing the cost of her own mission, which is the destruction of this little boy, the destruction of this loved one that she doesn't personally feel for but empathizes with — she now has a new mission. I think we'll continue to see her shift and grow, which is the thing that's been such a joy about playing her this season.

The buildup to that ending involves Serac outing Charlotte as a host, and leads to a huge action scene — one that's very much Terminator-esque, as you say.

I loved doing that. I loved this idea, which I got to do a little bit last season, of being able to shoot without even having to look at a target. I remember the first time that I did that everyone was like, "I don't know. Is it weird?" I was like, "Yeah, it's weird, but it's cool." I love this idea that once Charlotte goes into "get it done" mode, that these beams, basically the reveries, which is the thing that Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) programmed into them, these little micros just to make them feel really, really human, those are performative for humans, to make humans feel comfortable, but this idea that when they're not worried about the observation of humans, they just go into full processor mode. That's what happens in some of these action sequences, where it's fully Terminator, because suddenly she's just a machine trying to get stuff done. I love that. What happens in the culmination of this, when she burns to a crisp, is you've seen her through this whole machine mode, and then you see that the machine can cry. You see that there's actual, inside of this machine that can be burnt to a crisp, there's an emotional center, which is their sentience. I love the poetry of that.

How was the "charred Charlotte" look achieved, in terms of practical versus special effects?

The makeup took forever. It's so fun. That's the thing that's so cool about Westworld. It's such a feast for the eyes in terms of the scope of it. Of course, we're having to do some stuff CG, but everything begins practically. That's just really gifted makeup artistry. By and large, it's a lot of hours in makeup and a lot of skill and craft. I love that about the show just because it's really a chance for all of these incredible artists, including visual effects artists, for them to really shine and get to do some really exciting things. Months before we started production, I was sent in to get a full body cast made, which is this crazy process; they put all these goos on you, and you have to breathe through straws. But, in the world of Westworld, that's like graduating. (Laughs.) It's the first time that you get to say or have someone say to you, "Come back online." That's when you know you've made it in Westworld. It took me three seasons to get there. It was exciting, but I had no idea what the cast was for. Then, when I got the script for six, I understood that it was so they could practice on me to make these prosthetics. Their work is really beautiful in it.

Was the discomfort associated with the makeup helpful at all in channeling Charlotte at that point in time, someone who is both physically and emotionally destroyed?

I suppose, although they did a really incredible job with making it not too uncomfortable. They were very smart timing-wise. We did it at the end of the day, so I didn't have to sit in it for a lot of hours. I had just spent a couple of weeks with [Jaxon Thomas Williams], who plays my son, so it was sad to see him go and thinking about a little child. I remember he said a really brilliant thing one day. In the scene where I'm walking in with a gun, he said to me, "I thought the future would be fun," which I thought was such a great line. (Laughs.) I was like, "That's a new T-shirt. That should be a T-shirt."

It would make a lot of money right now!

I know, I know. (Laughs.) It really is such a good quote. From the mouths of babes, it was good. I was truly sad to see him go. Then also, the makeup was so impressive that I remember when I came to set, one of our key makeup artists, who doesn't do the effects makeup, so she hadn't seen me [for the charred Charlotte look], I remember stepping onto set and her looking at me and her eyes immediately starting to tear up. It's because just the crew seeing me like that, they were all really shook by it because it was so impressive. It just felt emotional from the second I came onto set in a way, just looking at everyone's face looking at me, which was helpful.

I mean, [the scene is] so rich. It's so layered because it feels like this new version of Charlotte is now having to contend with all of Charlotte's mistakes, she has to internalize her own regret for not getting to be there as much as she wanted to as a mother. She feels really deeply about that. This is a deeply sentient being, a being that's more capable arguably than humans of empathy. I think that moment of realizing that she wasn't able to save Nathan and save her ex is really, really heartbreaking, really and truly, and sets her on a whole new course.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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