EXCLUSIVE: How 'Westworld' Liberated Thandie Newton

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Photo: Getty Images

When the first season of HBO’s buzzy sci-fi showcase Westworldwrapped, Thandie Newton had been put through an emotional roller coaster -- and loved every second of her wild ride.

“It was so profound, the feeling of freedom I had afterward,” Newton tells ET. “I just felt liberated from my own doubt about self and power and my creative force. That was removed. I gave everything to Westworld and I was so thrilled with the result. I felt like I was so privileged just saying the words that were written.”

When the first episode premiered in October, however, it almost felt as if Newton was a high-profile afterthought, given the fact that her character, the madam Maeve Millay, hardly appeared onscreen. But she knew that Maeve would play a much larger role in the dense and sprawling narrative laid out by creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. “I really grooved on the existential questions,” Newton says.

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Playing one of the human androids, referred to as “hosts,” that populate the Western theme park on the show meant Newton had to act like a robot for most of the series, but that didn’t limit her emotional range. “[The showrunners] were very clear that they wanted the robots to be as human as possible, so that was very freeing,” she says. “Instead, you saw the storylines being repeated. That was robotic and stilted, so when you see the hosts break the loops, it’s as dramatic as possible. The storyline was on a loop over and over, and as actors we did the same things over and over. It was the same for me at that bar with the glass of sherry. So, whenever there was a switch, a break with the loop, it f**ked with her head. It’s responsible for her suffering, but it becomes her strength. I loved it.”

For Newton, who won acclaim for her film roles in Crash and Beloved, her Westworld part was revealing in other ways, as she spent a large portion of several episodes completely naked. And while that might have made some actresses fearful of accepting the part, Newton discovered an element of power from her exposure.

“It was funny, actually, all the actors who were playing hosts were all in the same boat. There was a camaraderie, really, and knowing that I was working with actors willing to go to those lengths, I felt there was comfort in numbers. I did find strength in it,” she says. “There was nothing to hide behind -- I had no props. But it was ultimately very empowering. It adds a depth. And it was a relief as well. I’ve got nothing to hold on to. There’s a weird thing -- you as a person think, I’m naked standing around a bunch of crew. But everyone was so respectful.”

Photo: HBO

That said, Westworld was the subject of controversy leading up to its premiere and throughout the first season, with its portrayal of women, including Newton’s character and Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, in the crosshairs. The way they were often seen brutalized, raped and initially lacking any autonomy caused some to wonder if the show was doing nothing more than perpetuating existing misogynistic views of women. But Newton, a fierce advocate for women’s rights, saw the show as a chance to show its female characters in a positive light.

“I knew, even as the articles were coming out, that there was consternation. I don’t shy away from controversy or difficulty, but I was hopeful that it didn’t stop people from experiencing the show,” Newton says, adding that the show was quickly able to subvert all the violence and depravity “and give the female characters fuel to fight and win.”

“It’s extremely important to see what they are fighting against. I was inspired by real-life heroines like women in Congo who have been witness to horrible things, but rise up like a phoenix from the flame,” the actress says, referring to her work with One Billion Rising, which took her to Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she helped women turn their pain into power.

As the series progresses, Maeve eventually becomes aware of the fact that she is a robot and that her previous “lives” remain with her, embedded in her code. She manipulates some of the staff to give her heightened cognitive ability and eventually helps lead a robot uprising against their human creators. But, when presented with an opportunity to leave the park, Maeve decides at the last minute to go back in and find her “daughter,” a decision that raises more questions about whether she truly is free.

“On the surface, her decision is for the daughter, but I’m not sure of that,” Newton says. “It’s just a break with what she’s doing. She just wants to challenge her own desires. Remember, she was told her escape was programmed. But I’m just a fan like any other wondering what on earth could be happening.” 

The sci-fi series was a show that required viewers’ attention, and Newton appreciates that there was no level of dumbing down the characters by Nolan and Joy. “What I love about Westworld is that it’s not confusing for confusing’s sake. It hurts to bend your mind around stuff, but it deepens the relationship. I also love the fact of the commitment they have given. They are laying down shit that’s going to be going on for years! We’re going to be receiving gems that won’t come good till three or four years from now.”

To that end, Newton doesn’t have any “idea what’s going to happen” in season two of Westworld, which is scheduled to return to HBO sometime in 2018. But she’s ready to go wherever the story takes her character.

“The end of the first season was an incredibly cathartic experience made even more so by the fact that, hell, we get to do that again! And not only do it again, but do it completely different,” Newton says. “I am ready to give everything to season two because I love this show. I feel a deep connection with it. I’m really excited. Every script we got was like a gift -- we’d all rush off to read them. I feel so fortunate to be a part of this.”