Westworld Roundup: Interviews with Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Jonathan Nolan, and Lisa Joy; Plus Carpool Karaoke Westworld Style!
Westworld’s convoluted timelines, plethora of secrets, and philosophical questions about the nature and personhood of robots have dominated the conversation around the series and quite often episodes of the series itself. But when a stellar performance from a member of the Ghost Nation takes over for one of its most focused episodes, the paradigm shift is staggering.
The Ghost Nation is made up of “older model hosts,” which have been around since beta or alpha testing. They’re the first ones in and the ones that almost get left behind. (Not a bad metaphor for the Native American experience in America.) But with “Kiksuya,“ they stop being a metaphor and start being characters.
Especially their chief, Akecheta, who’s appeared in the last few episodes and is played by Zahn McClarnon in a tour-de-force performance, navigating some seriously choppy waters when it comes to memory and identity. McClarnon spoke with Paste about playing a member of the Ghost Nation, Terrence Malick, and what it’s like working on Westworld.
Paste: I’m so glad we could talk, because your performance in “Kiksuya” blew me away.
Zahn McClarnon: Appreciate it, man. Thank those beautiful bold creative people. [Showrunners] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy], [writer] Carly Wray, the directors, the production… It takes the whole team. It really does take a village.
Paste: When you were going after this role, did you know what it was going to be?
McClarnon: To be honest with you, no. I went through the process all actors go through. I auditioned—and they don’t give you a lot of material to audition with—and you make a choice, put it on tape. Obviously, I was aware of Westworld and how innovative the show was. I probably would’ve worked for free to be on the show. I just think it’s bold television.
Paste: So getting Akecheta came down to sending in a tape?
McClarnon: Yeah, yeah. They give you a few lines of dialogue for you to kinda get the idea—a little bit vaguely—of who the character is, then you do your lines and hope for the best.
Paste: You had no idea that this character, who up until now was pretty one-note and mysterious, was going to get this whole episode of sci-fi romantic tragedy?
McClarnon: No, not at the time. It’s a very unique process they do. They give you just as much as you need to know. I found that to be very unique—you usually don’t work like that—but positive. I learned quite a bit. At the end of the process, you realize that Jonah, Lisa, Carly, and the directors give you exactly what you need. To hit your mark and be honest.
Paste: Akecheta goes through so much, so many extremes, finding that honesty sounds difficult. How do you do service to that range in such a brief timespan?
McClarnon: You gotta go scene by scene, get some direction, and take that direction. You try to make it your own and process that information. Do a couple takes, then do a couple more takes. [Laughs] Then, eventually, they figure out which take they want to use. It’s a very [Terrence] Malick-esque process. I’m a big fan of Malick. I kept thinking of The Thin Red Line, that kind of vibe. You hope those emotions are coming through to the audience and people are able to experience it and relate to it.
Paste: You certainly get that mix of the ethereal and the violent—not to mention the voiceover, which you do for so much of the episode. All in Lakota, as well.
McClarnon: Which was a great idea. I was so glad that they did all the voiceover in Lakota. It adds such a different dimension to the performance and the episode itself. And they got it right. We used a dialogue coach who walked me through the language. I was familiar with it because I grew up around it, but certainly not fluent. The credit goes, again, to the production team. How much time they take, how much they research, how many good people they bring on to help.
I think all productions should be that way, especially when pertaining to different tribes and different cultures. They spent that much time on the Shogun World culture and they spent that much time on the culture of the natives. They’re a fictitious tribe, which let me bring my own experiences growing up in the culture—on a reservation, around a reservation—to that.
Paste: What was it like playing an amalgam of what a bunch of white people thought Native culture was? That’s basically what the Ghost Nation is, a programmed generic tribe.
McClarnon: All from Ford’s mind, that’s exactly where it came from. I found that to actually be more freeing. You just hope the audience understands that, which they do. People are smart. They realize that these are made-up tribes that came from a white person’s mind. What he thought a Native American tribe would be. So it frees up a lot of the stereotyping of the culture because you can always say, “It’s coming from his mind, it’s not actually what native tribes would be like.”
I found that a lot easier because when you’re portraying specific tribes, you want to get it exactly right. Here I didn’t have to go on set and be a cultural advisor and an actor at the same time, though I did bring that knowledge and experience with me.
Paste: It sounds really liberating to finally just get to be an actor first and foremost.
McClarnon: Definitely. And they’re smart audiences, they understand what we’re doing.
Paste: Are audiences getting smarter about representation since it’s been a more widely discussed topic in the entertainment space?
McClarnon: Absolutely. I have people come up to me all the time because of different shows I’ve worked on and say they’ve been educated. “We didn’t know that” about this tribe, or “We didn’t know” that this language was still alive and people were still using it. Productions are being more aware of stereotyping. They’re coming to us and hiring cultural advisors to get it right. That’s a huge step in the last 40-50 years. They’re not using white people to play natives anymore.
Paste: I know you’ve been trying to work with more Native filmmakers, like Sterlin Harjo, who I know from my time in Oklahoma.
McClarnon: Sterlin’s one of my best buddies. He’s got some things in the works that I’ve helped get seen. We did a pilot about a year and a half back where he was brought on as a producer—the community of Native actors, writers, and directors is getting bigger and bigger. That’s important because we can start telling our own stories. And Sterlin, I think is just brilliant.
It’s a different day for Hollywood, and for our culture. From the time allegations of sexual misbehavior rained down on mogul Harvey Weinstein last October, this business and many others have been rocked by revelations and allegations, and by a sense that the time is long overdue to afford women equal respect and equal opportunities rather than treating them like commodities.
In this climate — with hashtags like #MeToo and organizations like Time’s Up working to affect real change — TheWrap convened seven television actresses to discuss what they’ve experienced in their careers, what they’ve seen in the last nine months and where they’d like things to go from here.
TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman and Beatrice Verhoeven asked the questions; Zazie Beetz from “Atlanta,” Alison Brie from “GLOW,” Rachel Brosnahan from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Claire Foy from “The Crown,” Gina Rodriguez from “Jane the Virgin,” Yara Shahidi from “black-ish” and “grown-ish” and Evan Rachel Wood from “Westworld” answered them.
What does it feel like for all of you at this particular moment in time, with everything that has happened over the last eight or nine months? Are you mindful of the politics going on around you in Hollywood and in the wider world?
ALISON BRIE Well, there’s no way to ignore what’s going on in our industry these days. That’s why I feel lucky and grateful to be working on a feminist show where we have female showrunners, so many women on the crew and six out of 10 of our directors are women.
That’s something about “GLOW” that I find really amazing and fascinating: We have a cast of 14 women in Season 1, 15 women in Season 2, of all shapes and sizes and ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. They’re interesting, in-depth characters. Their lives revolve around things other than men and being single.
I was talking yesterday with Gillian Jacobs from “Love” about how different it can be shooting a romantic scene when you’re working with a female director. You’re more involved with the way you’re being commodified on the show, which is helpful.
YARA SHAHIDI It’s extremely powerful and inspiring to turn on the TV and see Issa Rae on the show she created, to see Laverne Cox, to see all these women leading shows. Whether it’s cable or [broadcast] television, I feel like we are seeing a difference, and I think it’s partially because the audience is now expecting it. But we’re not nearly there yet.
We are seeing more shows — like Rachel’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — about female awakening.
RACHEL BROSNAHAN At its core, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a story about a woman finding a voice that she didn’t know she had. And that becomes more and more relevant every single day. We’re seeing so many different groups of people in the country finding their voices.
It’s not something that I was necessarily aware of as we were making it, but it’s a huge gift to play this fully realized, completely three-dimensional, complicated, flawed woman.
SHAHIDI We’re definitely seeing more complex roles. It’s less about saying that a character has to be this beautiful, perfect role model who handles it all. If anything, it’s been about making them realer, more complex or more unique. So rather than saying this woman has to be the universal woman, we can deal in specificity. When we add that layer of detail, you can only gain when you’re talking about human complexity.
BRIE What’s great about what’s happening right now is that these stories for women are being told, and I feel like there’s no going back. If I read a script about a woman who can’t get a man, or two women fighting over a guy, I’m just so bored.
EVAN RACHEL WOOD I think everybody’s a little bored by that.
ZAZIE BEETZ For so many years, people were like, “Everybody can identify with a white man lead.” There wasn’t even a thought of, “Oh, someone can identify with a woman as well and not be a woman?” That’s insane.
Many of your shows now feel increasingly timely and resonant precisely because of what’s happening in Hollywood and in society.
WOOD We started “Westworld” before this movement happened, but when people say, “Oh, it’s so timely now, it’s crazy how synced-up it is,” we always say, “No, it’s timeless.” This has always been an issue, but we’re just paying more attention and listening in a different way now. So it seems more relevant.
And it was strange doing Season 2, because it’s all about the uprising and the reckoning, and the women — even though they’re not technically women, they’re machines — coming into their power and realizing who they are.
CLAIRE FOY I think it’s really interesting, the conversations that people are having. A year ago, would TheWrap be having an all-female cover talking about women being empowered? It’s because of a very few brave people got together and put themselves on the line. And then all of a sudden everybody came out of the woodwork and said, “I just realized I can stand up for myself.”
I have learned so much from other women about what they’ve experienced.
GINA RODRIGUEZ I’d love to jump in on that, because I think Time’s Up was created from the response from the American farmworkers — 700 women got together and wrote a letter to the women in Hollywood. This is such a difficult conversation because there’s no way we can encompass everything: This is hours and months and years and history and hundreds of years of domesticated mentalities.
But I believe that the culture for women, if we’re going to specifically speak about that all over the world, is a social norm. We created it and we can change it. But it would take a collective effort to do that.
WOOD We get pitted against each other sometimes, and I think what we’ve realized, which is part of the theme of today, is that we’re stronger together. It’s a slogan, but it’s also very true.
BROSNAHAN One of the coolest things about doing things like this is that we get to spend time together and know each other as peers, and that makes it easier to lift each other up and be each other’s champions and be on the same team. Because previously, there was usually room for one woman in a group of men.
Now, there has been a shift. I’ve been walking into a lot of rooms recently with both men and women where they’re saying, “Do you want to do other things? Do you want to write? Direct? Produce?” I’d never been asked that question before and I hadn’t thought about it much, but now I’m thinking about it and going, “Yeah, I do want to do all those things!”
RODRIGUEZ I produce my own projects because I really got tired of being told, “They don’t think you are this enough.” And I was like, “Who is they?” I need to be they. So I just made sure that I was the they so that I can tell them, “No, I don’t think that’s correct.”
As a young girl, I knew how affected I was by the lack of color on screen. I knew how much I gravitated towards the little bit that we did have that represented our culture. I understand that the lack of history of Latino culture in schools adds to dropout rates. I love that Claire plays one of the most important women in history, but there are so many more that we haven’t seen yet because people don’t even share it in schools. I’m all about doing my own stuff, making my own projects.
Claire, you were the subject of a real furor recently when it was revealed that you made less money than your co-star Matt Smith in the first season of “The Crown,” even though you had a bigger role. It came as a shock…
FOY It’s that unspoken thing. Actors don’t talk with each other about how much they are paid. But we all knew. And now something good has got to come out of all the shame and the embarrassment and the talking about my worth in comparison to one of my best friends.
WOOD I have never been paid the same as my male counterparts. I’m just now to the point where I’m getting paid the same as my male co-stars [on “Westworld”].
BROSNAHAN Really? I’m mad for you but also happy for you now that you’re there.
WOOD I was married to an actor for years and he always got paid more than me, and I actually worked more. And I was like, “I’ll just take what I can get, I’m just happy to be here.”
BROSNAHAN That’s a huge part of the equal-pay conversation, because women are brought up with this idea that there are 100 more of us who could step in at any given moment. So it’s hard to speak up for yourself, because you feel like you could lose it. And honestly in the past, you could.
RODRIGUEZ They do that to us from the start of our careers. Take our power away. I feel like that’s happened to me from the jump. “That’s fine, we have a bunch of people who could step right in.” You diminish someone’s self worth and it’s up to them to believe it or not. I’ve had that from the beginning.
BEETZ It’s about, are you being valued in the same way? Are they seeing you as an asset in the same way that they are seeing your counterpart?
FOY Our industry works on a quote system. You get a quote for one job and it will be used in your next job. It’s across the board, and it’s relatively fair in that sense.
The way it doesn’t work is because if there aren’t leads of people of different races or different genders, then they’re not going to be given the opportunity to ever get their quote up, because they will never be given that lead. And if they do get that lead and they don’t have the same quote as their counterparts because they haven’t had the opportunity before, then I genuinely believe it’s the responsibility of the people who are in charge of making those decisions to pay that person not according to their quote but according to what their part is. That is the only way it will ever make it right.
One of my friends is an Indian actress, and she’s never going to get a high enough quote because when has there been a lead part for an Indian actress? It just has to happen by someone making the decision. It has to be a directive, it has to be something that people just do. Because you want to be paid equally for the work that you do, and for your investment in that which will make a lot of other people very wealthy.
So it’s time to be outspoken and stand up for yourself.
FOY It’s not even about being outspoken. It’s just about saying, “These are the facts!”
RODRIGUEZ That’s what it is. It’s like, a woman does it and she’s being craaaaazy. A man does it, it’s logic. We gotta stop talking about it that way. It’s not about being outspoken, it’s about laying the truth down.
WOOD I’ve been working for 25 years, and the people with money are still men. You’re pitching projects about women to a room full of older white men with money who aren’t necessarily creative types. Those rooms need to change. They need to be more diverse and have more women, more people of color, more everything.
BROSNAHAN It’s hard when there’s one group at the top making all the decisions and controlling all the money. People in positions of power need to look like what the world looks like, so that the art we’re making reflects the world we live in and the world we aspire to live in.