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

by Stacy Lambe 6:01 AM PST, December 26, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

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. 

Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright on Westworld. Photo: 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.” 

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