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Among the many mysteries answered in the season finale of Westworld, few were speculated on in advance more than the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and William (Jimmi Simpson) twist. But as much as actors on the show and fans at home twisted themselves up in knots trying to puzzle out the theories, the man on the present end of this particular mystery wasn’t ever all that interested in looking back.
“I wasn’t looking back,” Ed Harris tells The Hollywood Reporter about his approach to the series. “I was looking forward.”
Unlike Jeffrey Wright, who knew all about his big twists as both Bernard and Arnold well in advance, Harris — who has been earning rave reviews in London for his play Buried Child — knew very little about his character’s secret backstory as William. Even when he did know about it, he focused instead on the Man’s mission at hand, the physical practicalities involved in playing the character and accomplishing his goals, without concern for the twists and turns. As he describes the experience, “I took in the show moment by moment, show by show, shot by shot.”
As of this interview, Harris had yet to see the final three episodes of Westworld, his hands more than full with his starring role as the couch-bound Dodge in Buried Child, a Sam Shepard play currently in production in London’s West End. But he has an eye on the Man in Black’s future all the same, as season two starts slowly inching toward reality. Read on for the actor’s straight-shooting thoughts about the Man in Black, the William reveal, the physicality involved in both his Westworld character and his current theater role, and more.
How much did you know about the Man in Black before the season started?
All I knew at the outset was that he was a very wealthy man, and a bit of a philanthropist on the outside, that he had been coming to the park for 30 years, and he was not planning on leaving this time, because he was on a mission of some sort. That’s about all I knew.
Did you want to know more about his backstory?
I created stuff for myself that turned out to be not entirely accurate, but at least in the same ballpark in terms of how he made his money, what he was involved with, and where he was from.
What did you think when you learned that William and the Man in Black are the same person?
I was looking at [Jimmi Simpson] and thinking, “I don’t have that mole on my cheek. I don’t particularly look like him, but at least we’re somewhat similar!” I was thinking, “Good luck, buddy.” I like Jimmi. I like him a lot. I think he did a great job. But I was more concerned with what I was doing show-to-show and what was happening in the present time. I was certainly aware of the former relationship with Dolores and all of that. But I wasn’t looking back. I was looking forward.
Would that backstory have impacted your performance, if you knew about it? Did not knowing enable you to play the role a bit more freely?
I’m sure it would have influenced something internally. I’m not sure how it would have manifested itself. But looking back, when I did find out things that were revelatory to me, and thinking about what I had done prior, I don’t think it would have really been that different. I didn’t feel like I had been misled in any direction.
There’s a great scene early in the show when a guest approaches the Man in Black and thanks him for saving his sister. The Man in Black proceeds to tell him to back off, in less polite terms. How do you reconcile that the Man in Black is a do-gooder in the outside world, but in here, he’s clearly a villain?
That’s why he comes here. There’s a side of him that he discovered here in the park. He’s this very violent and unforgiving individual. It’s a true part of him that he feels he needs to explore. He basically comes to the park for about a month per year to exorcize those demons. It’s not like he’s hurting anybody. He’s destroying artificial intelligence beings, but he’s not harming human beings as far as he’s concerned.
One of the finale’s big twists is that Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) is supporting the hosts’ revolution, rather than suppressing it. The Man in Black wants the hosts to fight back as well, but from how you just described it, is it less of an altruistic desire, and more of him wanting to play this game on extreme mode?
I think it’s more him wanting to play this game on extreme mode. He wants to find out what he’s about. He wants to find out if, in fact, these people are lethal, how’s he going to deal with that? How’s he going to face that? And we’ll see. I don’t know exactly what’s going to be going on in the second season, but I’m sure it’s going to be wild.
To that point, your character is left in a precarious position, surrounded by hosts. He’s shot in the arm, and it’s after Dolores breaks his arm earlier in the episode …
Well, I don’t really break my arm. She kind of dislocates my shoulder.
In any case, the last thing he needs is a handicap right now.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the second season, so I think I’ll be all right. (Laughs.)
The expression on the Man in Black’s face when he’s shot is this incredible smile. Is this the happiest we’ve ever seen this guy?
It’s probably the most excited he’s been. I mean, he’s pretty happy when he’s in that little Mexican village and he tells Lawrence, “This is what I come here for.” And he has a big smile on his face. Then he blows about 10 people away. He was pretty happy at that point, too. (Laughs.) But this is a little bit more. This is deeper. The game’s starting now. Let’s see what happens.
The Man in Black is at the center of so much violence through the show, as this expert gamer in the driver’s seat of some elaborate action scenes. Was that a pleasurable aspect of the job for you, playing such a physically active character?
Yeah, I enjoyed doing that. Especially in comparison to this character I’m playing now [in Buried Child]. It’s nice in Westworld to play someone with some violence about him. He’s still kicking and he’s still very physical. I enjoyed that part of playing him.
Michelle MacLaren spoke with us about how you performed the stunt when the Man in Black is yanked to the top of a tree by a horse and rope. How was that?
It was fun. You have a rig on you, so you’re not going to get strangled or anything. It’s kind of fun. You don’t quite know what to expect. (Laughs.) You get yanked out of your boots … I just like that stuff. I’m not a big fan of heights, but in terms of the physical stuff, I like to do as much as I can.
What do you recall about shooting the Man in Black’s fight with Dolores?
I remember her really enjoying it. (Laughs.) She was having a hell of a fun day that day. I think she carried it off just fine. We choreographed it pretty carefully.
The finale reveals there might be other parks in play. Can you visualize the Man in Black in Samurai World?
No. (Laughs.) Not at the moment! But I’m up for anything. I really trust [creators Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy]. I’m really very proud of them. They’ve been working on this thing for a long time. The fact that it’s so successful and their dream has come true on some level, it makes me feel really good for them. I trust them. I trust their vision. I trust that whatever they come up with will work aesthetically as well as entertainment-wise. So I’m pretty much game for whatever. I talked to Jonah last week, and he said he and Lisa want to talk to me and fill me in on what’s happening in the second year, but we haven’t had that conversation yet.
Would you ever want to direct an episode of Westworld?
I have a film I want to direct in the spring of 2018. But in terms of directing an episode of Westworld? I don’t know. Conceivably. But I don’t know that it’s in the offing. I haven’t mentioned it, and nobody’s mentioned it to me. I don’t know the nature of that. It’s got its own style and different [director of photography] every week. I don’t know if it’s something I would want to do. I love working with the actors, but the technical aspect, I’m not quite sure. There’s a certain way that it’s shot and a certain style to it. But it could be fun.
You’re a fan of the Western genre, having directed and starred in Appaloosa as a heroic character. Here, you’re playing the literal black hat. Has it been fun for you to explore that iconic type?
Yeah, definitely. When I got together with the wardrobe folks, I was very concerned about finding the right hat. It felt crucial. When I got the outfit together, it was great. I just put that thing on, and suddenly I’m the Man in Black. There you go. (Laughs.) It’s very empowering, in a good way.
You mentioned before that you’re currently starring in a play in London, called Buried Child …
It’s a Sam Shepard play that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. We performed it in New York City in February and March of this year. We opened last Thursday. … I think it’s a really good production. It’s a tough play to do. It’s a family farm in Southern Illinois. A very dysfunctional, strange and eccentric family with a deep, dark secret.
And you’re couch-bound for the entire play?
The only time he gets up, he falls down, and then he’s on the floor for the rest of the show. But it’s still very physical. The better shape I’m in, the more decrepit I can be. It’s very much about relaxation to get into the experience and make this thing work.
Keep checking THR.com/Westworld for more interviews and news stemming from the season finale.
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