'Westworld' Star Jeffrey Wright on His Character's Wild Journey: "I'm Never Flying Blind"

Unaware of the "full trajectory" ahead for his character, Bernard, Wright says it's the "mathematical quality" that makes the show worthwhile for the cast and audience: "There's a narrative arc, but how we get there is a reflection of our prior work."
John P. Johnson/HBO

"Bring yourself back online.” It’s an oft-repeated command in the realm of Westworld, almost always followed by immediate and simple compliance from the artificially intelligent creatures known as “hosts.” But there’s nothing simple about the process for the actors tasked with bringing the hosts online. 

Indeed, few members of the HBO drama’s ensemble are steeped in as much complexity as Jeffrey Wright, who plays the dual roles of robot Bernard Lowe and robot maker Arnold Weber. Even as he predominantly plays Bernard on the show, from creators Jonathan Nolan (who goes by “Jonah”) and Lisa Joy, Wright often embodies multiple versions of Bernard, spread out across different moments in time. Pulling the act together requires what Wright describes as a “mathematical” effort, in which he must navigate flexible timelines and “email logistics” at an unyielding rate.

As season two continues through June 24, Wright, 52, spoke to THR about the ways he tracks the various incarnations of Bernard, Arnold and the other odds and ends involved in bringing Westworld to life.

In the first season, you learned about several twists ahead of your fellow castmembers. For season two, you were intentionally left in the dark on many plot points. How did the two experiences differ for you?

Even though I didn’t know the full trajectory for Bernard [this time], I was able to piece it together, because I spent the first four or five weeks of the season largely filming with Anthony Hopkins, shooting scenes from later in the 10-episode arc. I could piece together some plot points that shined a light for me going forward. At the same time, Jonah and Lisa’s idea was in some ways to align the work I was asked to do with the circumstances Bernard finds himself in. It’s less about not having information as it is about being focused on the granular details of the moment within any given scene. I was really focused on being in the moment — and the moment within the moment within the moment. 

As complicated as season one was, season two was that much more complicated. Even the email logistics. (Laughs.) I would get scenes that were encrypted with passwords from six or seven different episodes in the course of one week, and then I would get the rewrites, and then had to figure out how they all worked together. That was the first order of business before going into any scene: collating the various scripts and understanding how they all meshed together. 

Was the biggest challenge in playing Bernard a logistical one, then?

There’s definitely a mathematical quality to the work. It meant playing one scene, and then imagining a scene that’s being referenced, and also understanding the editing process that will take place later, so you can seamlessly play between these multiple spaces and times. That took some consideration. We rehearse the more complex scenes days before we film them, and Jonah and Lisa always make themselves available prior to every scene we shoot. I use those opportunities to drill them with as many questions as the audience has for us. I’ll exhaust every bit of information that I need in order to understand the specific needs of the scene. I’m never flying blind.

What was a particularly difficult scene for you?

The trickiest scene of all was a relatively simple scene, and it’s a construct we revisit: the diagnostic scenes between Bernard and Dolores. It’s different than other similar analysis and diagnostic scenes between them. It required a fairly nonlinear sleight of hand, playing one character who is a facsimile of another character, and that first character is trying to emulate that character, but is failing and falling back to a previous reset. That took a little bit of thinking in order to weave it together. It’s part of the reason we love the show: the challenge of realizing the vision, being challenged by it, ideally challenging our audience, who then in turn challenge us.

Have Jonah and Lisa ever changed, cut or adjusted any scenes based on your feedback?

Most definitely. This work is all about the collaboration. Collaboration is a multilane highway, going in all directions. If there isn’t reciprocity, it fails and it’s unsatisfying. The great thing about working on these longform dramas is you find this sympathetic relationship between writer and actor that has a fluidity over time. There’s a narrative arc, but how we get there is a reflection of our prior work. This season, we had some really productive conversations about the nature of Bernard’s pursuit of freedom, and the nature of his relationship to his own emergent agency. Some of what we discovered was born out of those conversations. It speaks to the quality of the partnership. If we have good ideas that drive the storytelling, they’re open to receiving them. Of course, they have the vast majority of the ideas that drive this thing, but it’s a completely satisfying dialogue that we have together. 

How do you grapple with the secretive nature of the show?

It’s hard, but at the same time, it would make the job harder if you let these things out. It’s not simply to be mysterious. These reveals are woven into the journey of discovery and the possibilities the technology creates. If it’s known at the top that Anthony Hopkins is coming back this season, then the question becomes, “Well, how does that happen?” Then we have to say, “Oh, well, there’s a simulation that exists where you can upload yourself.” There’s so much narrative discovery that’s given away. It’s not simply to be cute; it’s really to protect the audience’s experience and protect the journey, and to protect all of the work that goes into creating the thing. The harder thing is talking about the show and not talking about the show at the same time. (Laughs.) That’s a bit of a trick.

What aspects of Westworld are you most impressed by, whether it’s a technical detail or the craftwork involved in bringing the show to life?

One of the most moving things that I saw on set this past season [involved] a guy who works in the greens department. We call him “Rick Greens.” I was walking on set and looking at this tree that’s literally being built in front of one of the soundstages. Gradually over time, it’s blossoming more and more. Rick is on a ladder, literally weaving cherry blossoms onto it, and building this thing bloom by bloom. You just can’t process it. It’s the most delicate, tedious and beautiful bit of stagecraft. When you see that tree featured in the Shogun World episode, the quality of atmosphere it lends is so obvious. It’s a featured player in that episode. And then you step back and realize a couple of guys literally built that thing from scratch.

As an actor on a show of this scale, with the level of expectations that come along with the show now, I love sitting at the center of a frame in the midst of that and having the responsibility of driving my part of the bargain onto the screen. It’s really gratifying, being a part of elevating the collective intent for all of us as storytellers. No amount of acknowledgment from anyone makes me feel better than when the key grip on the show, Mike Anderson, walks up to me in the morning, shakes my hand and gives me that look in the eye, because he knows we’re about to get after it. Nothing is more satisfying than that. 

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.