Westworld’s Tessa Thompson on playing two different personalities

Wild West odyssey Westworld is about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the birth of a new form of life on Earth. Pictures: Supplied
Wild West odyssey Westworld is about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the birth of a new form of life on Earth. Pictures: Supplied

In April, HBO announced that it had renewed Westworld for a fourth season – a no-brainer considering that the sci-fi drama topped IMDb’s Most Popular Show list earlier this year.

Westworld is a dark Wild West odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the birth of a new form of life on Earth.

It’s named after an exclusive theme park where those who can afford a ticket can live without limits; where lifelike robots – called “hosts” – indulge every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved. But, as season 3 starts, the hosts have escaped and have plans of their own…

Westworld has won seven Emmy Awards and been nominated for four Golden Globes, among other accolades. Season 3 has an 81% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the consensus is that: “Westworld succeeds in rebooting itself by broadening its scope beyond the titular amusement park while tightening its storytelling clarity.”

Season 3 sees People’s Choice nominee Tessa Thompson return as Charlotte Hale, alongside an all-star cast that includes Golden Globe nominees Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores) and Thandie Newton (Maeve), Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Wright (Bernard/Arnold), Screen Actors Guild nominees Luke Hemsworth (Ashley) and Rodrigo Santoro (Hector), as well as Oscar nominee Ed Harris as The Man in Black, alongside new faces including Golden Globe nominee Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Emmy winner Lena Waithe (Ready Player One), Cesar Award winner Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve) and Grammy winner Kid Cudi.

We caught up with Tessa to find out more.

Charlotte is now a mystery. Is it hard to act out two different personalities at the same time?

Yes, it’s tricky. It’s an old idea in acting that you can’t play two things at once, which I’ve always sort of disagreed with because I think we can. As humans we feel a lot of things. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Libra! But we can play multiple emotions at once and we can have a lot of things happening with us at once.

I think it is true of acting in terms of having an objective and playing a role – the clearer you are, with more specificity around the actual thing, I think the better you can communicate to an audience.

I will say this – it’s complicated, but the truth is, with this character, in terms of execution, there’s not just one thing I’m trying to communicate or have the audience understand. And one of the central questions that I think is asked is: We can have our essential programming, the core of us, but how much are we affected by circumstance? And I would posit quite a lot.

It feels more apparent as the series has progressed that the host bodies are in many ways genderless?

I really love that, particularly this season. Charlotte has varying levels of comfort in her own skin and I think we’re in a time where we’re understanding that that is some people’s experience and that gender as a construct doesn’t sit easily on everybody. I thought a lot about that this season, and I really love that.

The show feels like Westworld 2.0 in a way. Did you know at the end of season 2 that this is what you were going to be coming back to?

To a certain extent, because we know that we left the park. I think we’ve always known that we would understand the greater context that Westworld existed in, in the form of the real world. Whether or not we knew exactly what that world would look like, who knows, but I think we had some idea in terms of broad strokes.

Maybe free will isn’t so free after all.
Tessa Thompson

Obviously, on my part, this is the season I’ve known more than previous seasons. I didn’t know anything, ever. And sometimes I didn’t know things until the night before.

I was definitely one of the cast members who would get redacted scripts. I think they are pretty strategic about when they give people information, which I think is useful in a way because sometimes, particularly when you’re sitting on a secret, there is a danger in performance – sometimes you can telegraph things.

So sometimes it’s useful to have the actor and the character discover things as the audience is discovering them. There’s a sort of magic and alchemy, I think, when that happens. But this season it has been nice to feel like I just know a little more.

For me it’s exciting too because I think we’re asking such core central questions and, to feel like you really understand the world that the piece exists in, it’s been more enjoyable for me this season.

What would you say those central questions are this season?

Well, I think one is this idea of freedom. The hosts were so determined to get out of the park. This idea that humans got to make their own choices, they got to move through the world with agency, and then the hosts get into the world and discover that humans are on a loop all of their own because of algorithms and the ways in which they can determine our lives if we let them. Maybe free will isn’t so free after all.

I think another question is this idea that we have our own nature but circumstances change it. And I think there is this idea that we don’t invest in certain people, that we assume that they’re bound to fail, that their lot in life will be a certain way because of their particulars, and so we don’t invest in policies that support and empower them and then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s something that happens in this nation [US].

Is it that these barriers to progress are created by us?

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know tracking happens in education or to know that things like predictive policing exist.

We’re all influenced by our environment. I think one of the questions that we’re raising is: Who’s influencing the environment?

Which then becomes your destiny. How much of it was really a choice?

Watch Westworld season 3 on Showmax

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