'Westworld' Star Breaks Down Her Action-Packed Comeback: "The Stakes Are High"

Shannon Woodward speaks with THR about the long-awaited return of Elsie Hughes, and what's next now that fans know more about the Delos board's plans for the park.
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode four of HBO's Westworld, "The Riddle of the Sphinx."]

She's back, and not a moment too soon: Elsie Hughes, the behaviorist played by Shannon Woodward, absent from Westworld since the sixth episode of the first season.

Elsie's comeback occurred early on in "Riddle of the Sphinx," the fourth hour of the HBO drama's second season, as she reunited with Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) — her friend, mentor and captor. Viewers quickly learn that Bernard did indeed kidnap Elsie as he feared, stranding her in a cave with nothing more than meager food rations and a bucket to spare.

The reunion is a tense one, as Elsie not only learns about Bernard's true nature as a host, but also gets caught up to speed on the chaotic state of the park. With so much information to process, and so much understandable exhaustion given the circumstances of her imprisonment, one could forgive Elsie for needing to take a moment to at least catch her breath. Instead, she wastes no time jumping head first into the thick of the violent narrative, plunging into the depths of a secret outpost alongside Bernard, where they both confront the twisted human-host hybrid in the form of James Delos (Peter Mullan). 

There's no time to rest, not when the Delos board is hard at work in the pursuit of a form of immortality, and certainly not with so many human lives on the immediate line. As Woodward puts it: "The stakes are high." Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, here's what the long-lost Westworld star reveals about what she knew regarding Elsie's whereabouts, what to expect now that the heroic scientist is back in the mix and her view of the latest game-changing twist in the show's sprawling narrative.

How long have you known the truth about what happened to Elsie?

I've known the whole time. It was never a secret that was kept from me. It was always the plan that Elsie would come back. I didn't see the script until we were ready to shoot, obviously, but they didn't keep it a secret from me — which meant I had to keep a secret from the world, which was truly a test of my personal character!

Was there ever a moment your personal character was tested beyond its limits?

There was. I think it was last Christmas. A valet was putting my family into my car, and said, "Too bad they killed you on Westworld." And I had to kind of just take it. My dad was like, "Wait, what did that guy say to you?" And I said, "I think he's being mean about my character." I just wanted to shout back: "I'm not dead!" But I didn't. I regret tipping him. (Laughs.) I want the tip back!

Did you have a favorite theory about what happened to Elsie, whether it's one that was close to the truth or one that was utterly insane?

A lot of people started thinking the host Ford was printing was Elsie. I had to go back and check the body; because maybe [showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] were lying to me. Maybe [that body] is me! (Laughs.) But it's not. That one was fun.

Now we know the truth: Bernard brought Elsie to the cave and left her there. Is it clear yet why he brought Elsie there?

I think Ford made him do it. Ford needed to lock me up and keep me out of his way. What I love about this character, and what Jonah and Lisa did, is there's one character on this show who could have stopped everything [Ford was doing] and turned this show into a rom-com — and that's Elsie. Elsie's the one who could have stopped everything. I think she got a little too close, so he decided to sideline me.

What's great about her comeback is that she's been in this cave for a long time; maybe a week, more or less?

I think it's more. It was a significant amount of time.

She's locked in this very small space with very little room to move...

With protein bars and a bucket! (Laughs.)

Grim circumstances! But once she's free, she hops right back in the game, immediately. What did that tell you about Elsie, her sense of readiness?

Elsie is kind of a classic hero, the way she's structured. There's a job to be done. The stakes are high. She feels a moral responsibility to try to right what's wrong. There are a lot of people at risk in the park, and she feels if she doesn't handle it, no one will. So she's right back on that horse.

Elsie is forced to process a lot of information at once: Bernard is a host, the hosts have broken free from their loops, etc. In the past, we've seen Elsie express empathy toward the hosts. Does the current status quo confirm any beliefs she held about their nature even before the park went haywire?

I think Elsie is the most humane of all the humans [on the show]. I think she's always seen the cruelty and the way the hosts were treated as deeply unnecessary. I don't think there's a part of her that treats Bernard any differently because he's a host. I think the only thing that's really holding her back is she doesn't know if she can trust him and what his motives are. There's no part of her that's particularly speciesist, but there's a lot at stake. Human lives are at stake. That's certainly a priority for her. But it's part of the journey this season. As the hosts are deciding who they want to be, it leaves the humans with that same question: "Who am I in the face of this species evolving? Are they as human as humans?" I certainly think Elsie is the most inclined to believe that, but it's part of the journey and reckoning of reflecting on everything.

We learn in this episode that there's an effort to map human consciousness on to host bodies — immortality, in essence. What was your reaction to that reveal?

I found it fascinating. It feels so deeply plausible as a possible future for us, especially when we're watching how Google and Facebook collect data. Obviously, they're talking about a functional mind [on the show], but even the way tech is now, any behaviorist could probably predict who we are based on the data they can collect from us online. It's scary, and plausible.

As a scientist, what's Elsie's reaction?

It's a violation. I think she sees it as such. It's stealing your soul. That's what's implied here: Delos is mapping everyone's brain who's been in the park. The possibilities of that are so endless. It's scary.

The episode builds toward a nightmarish sequence when Bernard and Elsie find James Delos. Did you have a sense of how intense it would read onscreen while filming it?

I really did. Peter Mullan is an extraordinary actor. Those red lights really were flashing the whole time — 16 or 17 hours. That sequence in the red room was an entire day. The more I was in there, the more real it felt. It's such a terrifying moment, this nightmarish possible future of immortality, with one of the most human characters on the show. It felt like a loss of innocence. I'm not sure if that translated; but staring him down, and not being able to shoot him, not knowing exactly what he was. I felt a fear over the loss of innocence for humanity in that moment. It was about not knowing if I could kill it, but not knowing if it deserved to live, either. 

Elsie and Bernard agree to work together to solve what's happening with these new creations, and Elsie makes Bernard swear to never lie or hurt her again. Just then, we see a flashback in which Bernard and his drone hosts kill a slew of scientists. How worried should we be about what lies ahead for Elsie?

What's interesting about that is it raises the possibility that he could hurt her — but as we're watching these human beings' behavior, anyone can hurt anyone. I think the question here becomes, does Bernard have free will? That's the question for the audience. Elsie certainly wants to trust Bernard, but she's aware of the damage he's suffered. She knows that he is a liability. But I think she trusts his heart. 

What are your expectations now that Elsie has returned to the narrative? Sound off in the comments and keep checking THR.com/Westworld for more coverage.