'Westworld' Star James Marsden Recalls Acting Naked Opposite Anthony Hopkins

WESTWORLD - Episode 3 - The Stray -James Marsden - Evan Rachel Wood -H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the third episode of HBO's Westworld.]

"A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once."

William Shakespeare's wise words echo through the third episode of HBO's Westworld, "The Stray," as brilliant but morally questionable scientist Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) analyzes one of his hosts, Teddy Flood (James Marsden), moments after one of the latter's many deaths. Ford bends the Bard's poetic outlook when it comes to Teddy, who has died at least a thousand deaths without losing any of his courage — and while viewers haven't seen Teddy die quite so many times, the character has indeed expired in every single episode of Westworld to date, up to four confirmed deaths by the end of episode three, with a fifth death at the hands of savages unconfirmed but likely.

While he has not died a thousand deaths, Marsden can relate to Teddy's courage. The X-Men and Enchanted actor, whose role as one of Westworld's robot hosts was kept under wraps before the series premiere, required a healthy amount of bravery in order to perform his nude scene opposite Hopkins.

"I never thought I would be spending my first scene with Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest and one of my favorite actors of all time, in my absolute nakedness," Marsden tells THR about the scene, laughing as he recalls the memory. "'Hello, sir!'"

For more on the scene and his work on the series, Marsden spoke with THR about the secrecy surrounding the HBO breakout series, how death informs Teddy's life, the romance between Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy, and more.

In the episode, Robert Ford tells Teddy that he's died at least a thousand times. You have died in every episode so far at least once, sometimes twice. Is it in your contract that Teddy must die in every episode of Westworld?

No, it isn't, actually. (Laughs.) This is the first time in a long time I've signed on for a series that could potentially go for six or seven years. When you climb on board, you do so because you have faith in the showrunner and the writer and the character itself, and where the stories could potentially go. This was too great of a cast and too high caliber of showrunners and producers, with [J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy], to pass. We discussed who Teddy was before I went in. I did read the pilot episode, so I knew [he was a host] from the beginning. But after that? You're sort of a fan. You get the scripts maybe a week before you start shooting. You don't really know where it's going.

The actors live in the dark on this show …

We do, yeah. You could even look at it as us as robots being puppeteered — with a lot more sensitivity and affection, I might add. (Laughs.) I had discussions with Lisa and Jonah, and they told me that we would see the hosts garnering great empathy from the audience, and some of that would be at the cost of maybe losing your life or programming for an episode or two. You're gathering goodwill. You're not always going to be target practice.

Death is such a regular part of life for the hosts in Westworld, and especially Teddy so far. How does death inform your outlook on Teddy's life?

Keep in mind, every time he dies — or Dolores dies, or any of the hosts dies — it's their first death to them. If the Man in Black (Ed Harris) has killed me 50 times, each time he does it, it's as if he's killing me for the first time, and I'm dying and I've lived my days up to that point. You look at death as a human would. The hosts are robots, but they are programmed to emulate human emotion and interaction, and the stakes and boundaries and parameters within which they live are very much like a human's. I think Teddy's view on life and death holds the same value as a human's would. He lives in a dangerous, lawless town. There are parts of his past that he has to come to terms with, that I think he looks back on with some regret, and maybe doesn't even fully understand it. But he wants to put all of that to bed. He wants to put that chapter to an end so he can move on with his life with Dolores.

You bring up Teddy's past. In the scene with Ford, he reveals that the nebulous guilt nagging at Teddy is quite literally nothing; they never programmed that part of his backstory. It's a devastating way of looking at it, that Teddy is haunted by actually nothing.

Yeah. And he's programmed to be haunted by it. And like you said, it was just vague enough for Teddy that it stirred some true emotion when he thought about it, but I don't think he could ever assign any specifics to it. I think that's what Ford does in this scene. He programs some specifics for Teddy — maybe not for the audience just yet, but certainly for Teddy.

That comes in the form of Wyatt, this menacing figure from Teddy's "past," and a key figure in Ford's new narrative. What does that do for Teddy, for this nebulous darkness to now have a name and face — specific memories that he now has of facing down Wyatt, both of them wearing Union garb?

It's a very calculated thing. These are conversations I had with Jonah and Lisa almost every day because I want to be specific and clear. What degree of detail does Teddy have and is aware of? And of that, how much are we giving the audience and showing them? Are these flashbacks? Fleeting flashbacks for the audience to see, or are they actually going through Teddy's mind? What stays with him? What gets wiped? It's a real acting challenge. I always wanted to know what Teddy really knows right now. It's such an interesting thing as an actor, diving into playing somebody with relative consciousness — programmed consciousness. My approach for all of that was you have to keep this as real as possible. To Teddy, the stakes are real and this history is real. You approach it in that way. There's no other way to do that. Even early on, we talked about how these people move. Is there anything that separates them from real humans? Jonah always said we play this real. They are like humans. They are this advanced. And if I need to slow you down or manipulate you in some way? I will let you know. I will dial you in. (Laughs.) He's basically like Ford. He'll bring you back online! But it's getting interesting with Teddy. You're starting to learn more about him. Right now, the audience is probably thinking about playing a drinking game: "Take a shot every time Teddy gets shot!"

A friend suggested that Teddy is the new Kenny from South Park, and will die in every episode.

That's something I've heard a few times now, too. (Laughs.) I think any intelligent viewer will probably start to assume that that might not stay the same. Based on the evolution that's happening with Dolores, and based on these little snowballing awakenings, he ain't going to stay target practice forever. I don't want to give too much away.

But to that point, it's a promise that's baked into the premise of the show, stemming from the original movie: the hosts of Westworld are driving toward an awakening.

That's exactly right. And there are contrasting scenes where you obviously see Teddy … we establish that he and Dolores are in love with each other. They're in pursuit of living in a peaceful world together and having kids together. You see Teddy at the bar in the second episode, kind of being dark with Maeve (Thandie Newton) in the second episode, before he gets blasted. He's casting judgment on her. There are so many facets to this. It's all a giant jigsaw puzzle, and hopefully it remains that way and remains fun for the audience to watch unfold. The mythology and philosophies that Jonah and Lisa wanted to establish, not just for the first season but potentially for down the line if the show goes on for some time … they want to make sure they know what those are, and they want to make sure the show knows what it's saying, in the event that it does go on for several seasons. 

Let's go back to Teddy's relationship with Dolores, which is very much at the heart of the show, and certainly this episode. How do you and Evan view the romance between these two hosts?

There's such a purity to their relationship. I think he sees her as a real innocent. Not naive, but he feels as if he's seen more life than she has. Not in a condescending kind of way, but I think his instinct is to protect her. He's seen and witnessed the horrors that lurk around every corner of this land. He sees the purity and goodness in her, and that's how he wants to see himself. She brings that out in him. 

That idea is greatly reflected in the scene where Teddy tries to show Dolores how to shoot a gun, and she can't do it. He tells her: "Some hands aren't meant to shoot guns."

Exactly. I was very careful about that. I asked Jonah: "Please tell me if this is coming off as condescending. I have to say this as sweetly as possible." The audience, obviously, is privy to a deeper meaning to that [line] than even Teddy is. When she starts showing doubt about "someday, which sounds like something somebody says when they actually mean 'never,'" and she gives a look that she doesn't really believe him. It's like he doesn't even register that. She's a little further down the path than he is. Evan is such a delight to work with. She's so f—king good. It's not easy. I didn't have to do all of the different modes that she has to go through and the degree of emotion. She just runs the gamut and does it brilliantly, and it's not easy. Lisa and Jonah told us: "You guys are the heartbeat of the show, the classic Western love affair, the good guy and the good girl in this world where there's a whole lot of darkness. We as an audience need to invest in that. We want to see them together." And already, two episodes in… no one has empathy for the guests. (Laughs.) The way it's portrayed in this show, it's such a cool examination of what it means to be human. We're holding a mirror up to ourselves, without being heavy-handed or over-preachy about the future of A.I. and the merging of full immersive video games and reality. But when something's thrilling, and you do it enough, to the point that it's not thrilling anymore, so you do more and you get more, because we live in a society that always gives you more — and it's not thrilling anymore because you've done it… and you keep going and going with that… at some point, it can't go any further. Jonah talks about how you play Grand Theft Auto and you mow somebody down with your car for the first time. It's awful, but sorta satisfying in some f—ked up way. Then you play GTA a hundred times and you don't even bother mowing anyone down anymore because you don't get the same sick satisfaction. You want a deeper sick. (Laughs.)

The deeper level of the game, perhaps.

Exactly. That might be a little intel on what the Man in Black's path is going for. It's really interesting. … It makes me think of my favorite line of Jeff Goldblum's in Jurassic Park: "Your scientists spent so much time wondering if they could…"

"…that they never stopped to think if they should."

It's such a great f—king science fiction quote. It says so much. That's kind of what we're dealing with in Westworld. It's an exciting ride. I never thought I would be spending my first scene with Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest and one of my favorite actors of all time, in my absolute nakedness. (Laughs.) "Hello, sir!"

What do you remember about that day? I'm sure it was memorable.

Yeah. But I'm weird enough to enjoy any sort of bizarre circumstance. The more bizarre and insane the circumstances are… I mean, look at my life! I'm naked in front of Anthony Hopkins, playing a robot. (Laughs.) I welcome the craziness. And of course he's a consummate pro. We would cut, and in between takes, when I wasn't allowed to get up and put a robe on, he would tell me stories, acting as if I was clothed. It's funny; when you're on set and you're naked, it's literally the first minute or two. Once those minutes are over, you become a little bit of an exhibitionist. (Laughs.) "You know, this is actually very comfortable and liberating!" But we sat there and Tony, as he likes to be called, launched into stories about Marlon Brando. He did impersonations of Brando. He had different theories about acting, and talked about Gregory Peck, and how everyone used to work. It was fascinating. And then you would see him basically bring himself back online when the camera's rolling, and he slips into his crazy genius acting. It was such a pleasure to watch, even though I was nude.

Sounds like you had a front-row seat for a world-class acting seminar. It's just a shame you didn't bring any clothes to school.

Right. (Laughs.) And I'm in analytical mode at that point in the scene. It's not like I can actually have a full, real scene with him. It's more about him programming me. But you do see a shift, pre-programming and post-programming, when he uploads the Wyatt story. But it was a real pleasure to be there on set with him. 

Before the series premiered, Teddy's true identity was a big secret. It was not known whether you were playing a guest or a host. What it was like to sit on that secret?

I think the show is big enough and grand enough in its themes of where it could be going — it's very complex, and everything is there for a reason and happening for a reason. You can't disclose why or everything that's going on, but there's enough to talk about. But it was tricky early on with some of the press, keeping it a secret. There are already people out there theorizing about what's happening, and what the Easter eggs are, and the endgame. It's difficult for people to sit back and allow the show to entertain them by letting those storylines unfold in their natural time. It can be a very gratifying experience to allow the show to tell you. I mean, look, there's nothing better than enthusiasm, which gets more people talking about the show and theorizing about it. But nothing's a secret anymore — or at least it's difficult to keep them in this day and age. But I wouldn't change a thing. It's a testament to the show that this early on, people are hooked. I was saying all along, in hopes I might be right, that really good work takes time. You do stumble and you do run into problems, and if your standard bar is very high for what you want your end-product to be like, then it's going to take time and reevaluation and a pause, which we did for a bit, to stop shooting once we caught up with the scripts. HBO and Jonah were smart enough to pump the brakes a bit to get it perfect. I think the audience will realize, as it starts to unfold, the reason why we did that. It's a great reward to see, [three] episodes in, to see people this rabid about it.

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