Less is more for Jimmi Simpson. After nearly two decades of playing background and supporting characters, with dozens of credits to his name, Westworld catapulted the actor to leading-man status, most recently starring in the 2018 USA series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. But it’s his performance in just three episodes of the HBO sci-fi drama’s second season that scored him his first Emmy nomination.
“I'm not used to being invited to the parties, and I mean, figuratively speaking. I still don't go to actual parties,” Simpson tells ET with a laugh. “It was quite surprising that 18 years in, all of a sudden, people were paying a little more attention. But I tell you, and I don't say this lightly, it's almost entirely due to Westworld.”
The 42-year-old is up for his first-ever Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as William on the acclaimed HBO series, which is nominated for 21 awards in its second season. Simpson’s no stranger to success, however, having been nominated for the SAG Awards in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with the casts of House of Cards and Westworld. But this time, it feels different.
“If I were to get it, first of all, I'd be shocked and utterly grateful. But it would mean -- oh, my goodness -- I have been called out as one of the best things on Westworld, and Westworld is goddamn studded with brilliant actors that I've looked up to my entire career, doing the best work of their career. That would just be beyond reality,” he says, unintentionally making reference to the show’s central theme.
Simpson, like much of the Westworld cast, can’t sing the show’s praises enough. Unlike fellow nominees Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris, however, he didn’t join the series with an established following. “To have such an other-level story idea and execution plan, and then to stick a guy that not most people knew into one of the essential roles is hard to come by these days,” he notes with the sincerity and wisdom you’d expect from someone with nearly 20 years in the business. But that very fact is why he’s still got a genuine enthusiasm for his craft. “[Creators] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] took a chance on a guy they could see empathy and vengeance in all in one, and I'm so lucky that they did.”
Simpson says he still periodically sends “thank-you” emails to the Westworld showrunners, with whom he shares an open dialogue with about some of the show’s trickier storylines -- including William’s confrontation with Dolores (Wood) in “Reunion,” the episode for which he’s nominated. Sharp Westworld fans guessed midway through season one that Simpson’s optimistic, host-loving William would become the hard-edged, host-hating Man in Black (Harris), but after 10 months portraying “the best parts of humanity,” it was hard for Simpson to shift gears in order to portray William’s evolution into that darker man.
“That monologue was simultaneously the most beautiful piece I've worked on and the most painful. It was the undoing of all of the absolute truth that Evan and I had set for season one. And we'd done it together,” Simpson says of his character’s unforgettable, heartbreaking turn in the episode. “We were both inconsolable at the choices we had to be making. She had to not know William, and William had to acutely know Dolores and do everything he can to destroy her for his own heart.”
The actor recalls not being able to face his co-star, or even Nolan and Joy, while filming the scene, instead going off to a “little dark corner” on set in between takes where he could “ruminate on what it’s like to be a man so broken that he becomes so cruel.” By the end of filming, he was left speechless. “This was the greatest test I’d been faced with, that monologue,” he confesses, calling it “off-putting” to play “such an extreme opposite to my nature.”
“It's this turn based in reality and truth that we've all seen, and actually we deal with in our world right now, so much -- pissed-off men being surprised at not getting what they want, and therefore reacting so overzealously and so coldly.”
Simpson really couldn’t be more different from the dark, calculating man his beloved William is turning into. The redacted scripts and secretive nature of Westworld make it hard for him for him to truly give fans -- or inquisitive reporters -- answers about what’s next for the series, but for Simpson, that’s part of the fun. “It’s amazing to see the effect it’s had on such a wide audience,” he notes.
“Lisa and Jonah have deliberately kept us out of the loop, because then all we can play is what's happening, and we commit 1000 percent to it, saving nothing for what's coming next. And that's why I think all of this scene work between all these just brilliant actors lands on a whole other level,” Simpson continues, describing the “less is more” attitude Nolan and Joy manifested across the entire series that has now seeped into his own career. “They’ve kept us out for a reason, and I love it. But unfortunately, it makes it so I don't have any answers for you about season three.”
However, that doesn’t mean Simpson doesn’t have his own theories or hopes about what’s to come. Westworld’s season two finale left Dolores in the real world and the Man in Black in the future, as a probable human-host. “I wasn't expecting it to go that way, and to know that there's an entrance and an arrival in the real world by our folks has my interest the most piqued. I can't wait to see what happens,” Simpson expresses.
The actor -- who credits Westworld for leading to recent roles like Detective Russell Poole on Unsolved -- definitely isn’t done with the HBO series. He hopes to explore even more of William’s evolution into the Man in Black in season three, however hard it may be for him. “The work that I choose to do, ever since I've had any little say in my roles, which is relatively recently, is just, Does it test me? Does it test my creative potential, does it test my limits? And Westworld has done that on so many levels,” Simpson says.
“With season two, [I played] the same man, [but a] completely different character… It's everything I dream of.”
The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, co-hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che, will air live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on NBC. Check out the full list of nominees and ET’s ongoing Emmy coverage here.