EXCLUSIVE: How 'Boardwalk Empire' Led Jeffrey Wright to Say Yes to 'Westworld'

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Jeffrey Wright, who has been acting for over 25 years in
such films as Basquiat, The Manchurian Candidate, Casino Royale and, most recently, the Hunger Games franchise, is staking his
claim on television with HBO’s popular sci-fi series Westworld, which was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for Best
TV Series -- Drama. While he’s appeared in a handful of TV episodes over the
years and won an Emmy for his performance on the 2003 HBO miniseries Angels in America, it wasn’t until he
had a major recurring role on Boardwalk
Empire
during its final two seasons that TV became a real possibility for
him. 

“The Boardwalk
experience really opened my eyes to the possibility of these longform dramas,”
Wright tells ET. Assuming he would be bored by playing the same character
season after season, Wright admits he would have balked at the idea of doing TV
years ago. But his time on the HBO drama opened his eyes to a new dynamic he had
been unfamiliar with. “There are these sympathetic exchanges between writer and
actor as you go forward. You begin to inform one another, which is really an
unusual dynamic and I found it deeply satisfying.” 

So by the time Jonathan Nolan reached out to Wright about a
new series he had created with wife Lisa Joy, adapted from Michael Crichton’s
1973 film, the actor was intrigued. “I was curious by the opportunity of taking
the risk of starting at the ground floor, as opposed to Boardwalk, where everybody else built the building and then I moved
into the penthouse,” he explains. “I wanted to help shape the unknown.” 

A fan of the script (“It had a wonderful poetry to it”), it
didn’t take long for Wright to respond to Nolan. “Yes, I will attend your
party,” Wright recalls pressing send on the email to him. 

MORE: James Marsden Says 'Westworld' Season 2 Talk Is 'Pure Speculation'

Soon, Wright was playing Bernard Lowe, the head of
programming at an amusement park called Westworld, where the attraction is interacting
with lifelike androids (or “hosts”) living in the old West. However, it’s revealed
late in the first season that Bernard isn’t the human he believed himself to
be. He is also a host, created by the park’s co-founder Robert Ford (Anthony
Hopkins
) based on the likeness of his dead partner, Arnold. 

The reveal was one of the show’s many twists and turns that
shocked fans, but it was a secret Wright knew soon after filming the pilot in
August of 2014. Without that knowledge, Wright says, “my work wouldn’t have
made any sense. It’s really complex stuff that we’re working with.”

While Wright knew of the revelation, not many others in the
cast did. There were no indications in the script as to who Wright was
portraying in a particular scene: Arnold in a flashback or Bernard in the
present. “I became confident about where the arcs were going, so it was very
clear to me,” Wright reveals. 

HBO

But he wasn’t the only one holding on to a secret. Many of
the other actors had their own revelations -- information they kept close to
the vest. “It wasn’t for the sake of deceit,” Wright says. “It was because they
didn’t need to know. Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa were pretty cautious with the
material and, having seen it now, you can appreciate that. I think it keeps us
more in the moment of where we were in these long arcs.” 

That’s not to say it didn’t stop the cast from trying to
figure out the truth. Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the show’s central character,
a host named Dolores Abernathy, was the only one aware of all the truths. “I
can say unequivocally that Evan knew more than everybody else at all times,”
Jimmi Simpson, who played William in the flashbacks, told ET following the
finale
.

When it came to season one’s last episode, Wright was
eventually forced turned to Wood for clarity. “When I got the first script,
that scene was redacted,” he says, revealing that he texted his co-star for
about five minutes before picking up the phone to call. “She told me, because
her script hadn’t been redacted.” 

MORE: Jimmi Simpson Talks 'Beautiful, Devastating' 'Westworld' Finale

The redacted scene was the final moments of the episode, when
Dolores confronts her maker, Robert, with a loaded pistol. “My head started
spinning like Linda Blair,” Wright says. “That was a big one.” 

While the storytelling was full of big reveals, Wright was
focused on the nuances of the performance. Many of his scenes were opposite
Wood, as the two sat across from each other, deep in conversation or a “dual
mediation,” as Wright puts it. “Those scenes were very subtle. We were attuned
to one another and worked together to treat it gently,” he says, applauding
Wood as a phenomenal actor. And when he wasn’t with her, many of Wright’s other
scenes were one-on-one with Hopkins. “With Evan and Tony, I found out
immediately if it was going to work and I think they discovered that too.” 

Even though Wright was comfortable with both of his on-screen
partners, he was surprised to see the evolution while watching a clip from the
first episode. “It’s funny looking at it. It’s a different relationship that we
had as actors,” Wright says. “It was a scene we shot the first day, and there’s
an assumption of trust. But then the trust is proven over time.” 

“They’re just great partners,” Wright adds of them both.
“I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I’ve learned to appreciate a
good thing when I find it.”