HBO’s Westworld comes to the end of its mind-bending first season tonight with a 90 minute finale episode that promises action, intrigue, robots, cowboys, and (hopefully) answers to its maddening questions. I caught up with Westworld star Jimmi Simpson, who plays William — the ostensible white hat human hero of the series. We talked about the show’s deeper ideas of identity, his love of Westerns, and what he’d do if he were in a real life version of Westworld’s theme park.
Here are eight things we learned in conversation with Jimmi Simpson:
The rules have changed for William, but he’s still the hero
In episode nine of Westworld, we see Billy undergo a serious transformation as he is forced to come to terms with the literal gutting of his cybernetic Wild West love Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). The result is violent, awakening in Billy a brutality we hadn’t seen before.
“He’s played by the rules the whole time, and then he lost the first thing he cared about in this situation,” says Simpson. “And I think that woke him up to that fact that, well, ‘If I want what I want I gotta take it.’ And I think just in that situation, to get what he wanted, he had to do what he did. And it’s clearly on his face, it’s not about like, ‘Oh well, eff this, I’m going to just kill people.’ He had a job to do and now he’s playing the game by these rules. And he’s gonna see what happens.”
Simpson emphasizes that just because William is insisting on his un-abbreviated name and picking apart androids, it doesn’t mean he’s gone to the dark side.
“I think that when we are pushed beyond our means, we do sometimes make choices that we regret we had to make. But I do think his intentions are completely honourable at this point.”
Empathy is at the heart of the maze
While I have voiced concerns about Westworld’s ability to provide us with the well-rounded characters needed for emotional catharsis, Simpson assures me that in any given moment he is always fully aware of who William is. He credits much of his confidence to the series’ showrunners, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan.
Simpson says that prior to filming Joy and Nolan gave the cast articulate backstories and if ever the clarity wasn’t enough, the showrunners were perpetually on hand for clarification. He says, “If there was an element of like, ‘Huh, I feel like a little bit more information will help me play this more honestly,’ they would have it for you.”
That sort of commitment to honest character performances is crucial in Westworld. The show’s primary theme is identity, and Simpson thinks that’s part of what resonates so much with audiences.
“Hopefully I’m coming from the same school as Jonah and Lisa in that I believe what we’re kind of lacking is empathy for others,” he says. “I feel like we’re all really spending a lot of time right now on our own identity. And so I feel like the biggest commentary that they offer is: it’s not always just about you. You know? And we’re convinced. I mean, that’s how the world makes its money is by all of us thinking that ‘it’s about me’ and ‘this will make me better and happier and nicer.’ But it just so rarely is the case.”
This biggest twist of all: WE’RE THE HOSTS!
Westworld is meta. If it turns out that Simpson’s William is in fact a robotic host, he will have to contend with the performative plight of his fellow cast members who play animatronic people stuck on scripted narrative loops. He will be a human actor, with free will, made to follow a script in order to perform as a robot that looks human and expresses itself by following a script. I’m sorry, I know it hurts to read that sentence (but imagine acting it!).
Simpson’s thinking on this topic is lucid when I bring it up. He tells me, “[that’s] freaking life!”
“We all have these rules and tropes,” he says. “And your own improvisation is often the thing that saves you and clarifies things for you. We don’t even see them, but we’ve got these paths that we’re all rolling down, and it’s when you wake up a bit and do you own thing for a minute that you’re like, ‘Oh, life is good.’”
Evan Rachel Wood is the ultimate Westworld fan
The mind-fucky philosophical implications of identity that Westworld brings up is only half the fun. With its multiple timelines, nameless characters, and invisible maze games, a huge segment of the show’s fandom has connected over on solving the series’ puzzles before they are revealed.
Simpson tells me that same fandom energy was on set, too. He says after wrapping on any given day of shooting, the cast gathered together and just talked about what might happening next. “So then we’d turn into little fanboys.”
“Evan is probably the biggest one. She would just break it down. She would be like, ‘Okay, this is what’s happening: ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba.’” (He vocalizes Wood’s bullet pointing the show’s plot points), “and she’d talk for like 40 minutes.”
“Our lead actress was probably more excited than any of the websites that I’ve seen.”
Westworld is not his first rodeo, cowboy
“I didn’t have that many weird stunts to do,” Simpson tells me when I ask him about what it was like filming the show’s action scenes. But when you see William on horseback, that’s the real deal.
“We did endless hours of horse training. I’d never trained so much for a job. And so, you know, most of the horse riding is me,” he says.
“I’d done a couple of Westerns before,” he says. “Real small parts. But generally when you’re on a horse, it’s about like trotting up to a mark, and then hoping the horse doesn’t move around while you have a scene. Whereas this had plenty of that, but there was also a lot of maneuvering the horse, steering the horse, backing the horse up, going to a full gallop. And all of that stuff was brand new for me on film. So, you know, William is green, so that made sense. And my inabilities really worked great for William.”
If you have a problem with Young Guns, you have a problem with Jimmi Simpson
“My father is from Arizona, so there’s like a Southwestern situation going on in the Simpson family. And you know, I like to wear old flannel cowboy shirts,” This is what Simpson tells me when I ask if he’s a fan of Westerns in general. “I’ve never been so full on cowboy in my life. And it feels really nice. But it’s also it’s an uncomfortable way to live. It’s badass as hell, but it’s really uncomfortable. So, I’m glad I got a taste, but I’m glad I got to hang up the hat.”
Simpson’s favourite Westerns are Shane and Unforgiven. “Those two are huge. I mean, Shane’s like from my childhood, and it’s just such a sweet story,” he says, before praising the revisionist brilliance of Unforgiven. “And I was raised on Young Guns. If you have a problem with Young Guns, you have a problem with me.”
If Westworld were real, he would try to assimilate into the park
If there was a real Westworld theme park, Simpson says he’d be a less naive guest than William, but still on the good side of an alignment chart.
“I’d be very interested in assimilating,” he tells me. He says would see if he could duck into it, try fooling some robots into thinking he belonged, maybe even fool some of the other humans into thinking that he was in fact a robot. “I would be interested in that kind of weirdness. That would be very interesting to me. But as far as just like, getting off and shooting and banging things – that’s not me. I can’t imagine that interesting me, really.”
It’s the same idea as the childhood fantasy of getting locked in Disney World overnight. “That’s exactly what would be interesting to me. And then see where the paint’s peeling and have fun that way.”
There is no glass of milk on Jimmi Simpson’s Dork Shelf
“My Dork Shelf contains a few things,” says Simpson.” It contains a little hand buzzer, that says ‘bullshit’ on it, that the 17-year-old dog love of my life used to tap when she wanted a treat. And I also have my glasses from Hap and Leonard, a series I did. I have my bowtie from Party Down, a series I did. And I have my watch from Breakout Kings, another series I did. So it’s basically some roles that have resonated with me for whatever reason and then my dog’s favourite toy.”
I ask if there’s a glass of milk commemorating his role on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he plays the calcium-guzzling, always uncanny Liam McPoyle.
“No,” he says. “I didn’t take that from set. It seems like it would spoil if I had left it there. I mean, an actual McPoyle would absolutely put a regular glass of milk on his Dork Shelf, and then just watch what happens.”