Jeffrey Wright earned an Emmy nomination this year for Best Drama Lead Actor for playing Bernard in “Westworld.” This is a jump up from last year when he earned a nomination in Best Drama Supporting Actor. The veteran star previously won an Emmy for his various roles on “Angels in America” in 2004.
Wright recently chatted with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about going from supporting to lead at the Emmys, what it is that makes Bernard tick, and the collaborative nature of “Westworld.” Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jeffrey Wright, congratulations are in order. You moved up from Supporting Actor to Lead Actor at the Emmys this year and you got nominated! How cool is that?
Jeffrey Wright: It’s pretty cool. Genuinely though, I’m pleased that the show was recognized in the numbers that it was recognized in. In my category, I’m in the strange predicament of being paired with Ed Harris, my colleague at “Westworld,” so that feels good and at the same time it’s a bit odd that we’re having to face off, as it were, against one another. But I genuinely, as well, feel that just by being recognized that we’ve, for lack of a better word, won. The show means so much to us. We put a lot of work into it and we do it with a great deal of devotion to the ideas behind it, to the concept and to one another. I feel good that we’re being recognized to this point.
GD: What went behind that decision to move up to Lead Actor this year and also, you chose to submit the season final, Episode 10, for the Emmy judges in that category. What was behind that decision as well?
JW: Well, as far as the determination to place me in the lead category, I think it really was a function of the role, of Bernard’s place in the overall story arc this year, in that he in some ways was kind of the narrator through which the audience took in the various storylines, although he was somewhat unreliable as a narrator. He kind of shouldered a lot of the burden this year and so for that reason, the decision was made to put me in the lead category. As far as my deciding to show the finale, I think the finale obviously is the culmination of a lot of things that happened this year. The hope was that because it was a distillation of all of that, that it would resonate more than some of the other stuff.
GD: A lot came together in that season final. There were a lot of big twists, especially with your character at the center of them. Last season towards the end of the season there was a big twist about who your character was. How many of these twists are you told about ahead of time?
JW: First season I knew about Bernard not being quite the man that he thought was very early on. I didn’t know during the pilot. I kind of went into the pilot relatively blind, but when we came back for the second episode and to really kickstart the full production of the season, Lisa Joy, who is the better half of our married mad duo co-showrunners, led me into her office and kind of pried open my synthetic brain and dropped in the programming that I was in fact a host. For me, it was something of a shock because I had some suspicions when I read the pilot that we might play in this area, but I sent Jonah Nolan, who’s the other better half of our co-showrunner duo, I sent him a note when I agreed to do the show that I’m happy to go on this journey with you in which we discover that Robert Ford is in fact the creation of Dr. Bernard Lowe. And he sent me a note back saying, “Close but no cigar, captain.” So I knew they were up to something but yeah, they kind of caught me off guard when they dropped that bit of information on me, but at the same time, I was really excited because it gave a new multidimensionality to the character and where it might go, and I think we’ve discovered that they’ve used that very well, particularly in the second season, the ideas of his cognitive challenges and the ways in which he processes time and the ways in which his experiences are piled on top of one another and become conjoined as one grand experience that he’s unable to completely process in the way that a human might. So there’s just been a lot that we have been able to explore with that construct that I quite enjoy.
GD: And what makes Bernard tick?
JW: I think there’s probably some kind of photosynthetic kind of power cell thing in the host skin (laughs). I think that’s the energy source, if that’s what you mean, “tick.” What makes him tick? I think that’s what we’re discovering, and I think as we enter Season 3, we’ll begin to answer that in a more robust way, because I think to this point what’s made him tick has been Ford. He’s been programmed and he’s been on a curious loop, and so, over the last two seasons, what has emerged for him is a new sense of self, a sense of freedom. So I think that’s the question that he asks himself, what does make him tick? And ultimately the journey for him is one of agency, one toward agency and toward self-determination. And I think for that reason, Bernard’s story and the stories of the other hosts are really metaphors for the existences that we all enjoy, or don’t enjoy right now, or at any time. Trying to make determinations about who’s in control of our actions, or decisions and ultimately our destinies. That’s a really fun metaphor to play with. The construct allows us a lot of deep exploration into the human experience and so, what makes any of us tick? That’s my question for you, Matt.
GD: Well that’s a big one, Jeffrey (laughs).
JW: (Laughs.) You’re welcome.
GD: We’ll move onto another question for you and I’ll mull over that one. What is the question that you are left with the most? It’s such a big show of questions and metaphors for life. What thing has the show delved into that fascinates you the most and leaves you with the biggest question?
JW: I think it’s really that question that you ask, about what makes us tick. The ways in which our choices are programmed and the ways in which we’re able to break beyond the systemic programming that we all, whether we realize it or not, are vulnerable to. That’s not to say that all that systemic programming is necessarily detrimental to our experiencing of life and reality and all those things, but sometimes that systemic program works against our deeper experience. So I love that idea of exploring the ways in which we can be genuinely free thinking and free being individuals. Those questions are deep questions that relate to obviously social constructs and political constructs and all those things that I’m curious about, so that’s what’s most intriguing for me. It goes beyond the technology of AI and all that stuff, but it really speaks more to the metaphor that we’re playing with, with the idea that we, humans, are in our own ways hosts ourselves.
GD: As an actor, what’s been the most challenging thing for you on “Westworld”?
JW: Season 2 was one of the most challenging exercises that I’ve undertaken in my career, really. We put a lot of film in the can and we do shoot on film. We’re one of the few shows remaining that does. I think we probably shot the equivalent easily of seven full-length movies over the course of a pretty quick six-month schedule. It’s kind of like having a baby. They say long days, short years. In our case it’s like long days, just a few months, but the days, we pack a lot into those six months, and so for example, with Bernard this year, I’d say the first five or six weeks I shot scenes from maybe seven or eight episodes including the finale, because we were trying to shoot Anthony Hopkins out, ‘cause he was running off to do Lear, so we had about two and a half months to shoot with Tony. We always shoot at least two units at a time, meaning we’re working on a certain scene on one unit and then there’s another scene or series of scenes that are being shot with another unit maybe in a different location, different studio. So trying to piece together in a relatively nonlinear narrative arc for Bernard, trying to piece together all of these various scenes from various episodes and trying to manage that math and then manage the math of his dysfunction and his awakening was pretty tough.
And then what would happen would be I’d be shooting with Tony in the morning, shooting some stuff from an episode that I hadn’t fully read that was pretty opaque, then I’d finish that and then I’d stay in my costume and I’d hop in my truck and I’d drive up the highway up to the next unit and I’m passing people along the 5 and waving and going off and doing the next thing. There was a lot of logistics to balance. Obviously the show is a huge logistical challenge for our locations people and for our design folks, but there were logistical challenges for us too as actors, just trying to make our way through all of the various pieces and digest all the breadcrumbs that we were given along this longer journey. We were doing it in a completely nonlinear way. It was a challenge but really a deeply fulfilling challenge. I love this stuff. We all love it. It’s mad. I call it benevolent chaos, and I’m never really one that loves to work in a chaotic setting, and I wouldn’t say that ours is, because there’s a definite method to the madness, but it’s certainly a pretty mad way of going about things.
GD: We got a question in from someone who wanted to know about the shifts between when you play Arnold and when you play Bernard, and the little gear changes you have to make when playing the different characters, and whether that’s something that you put a lot of thought into and very careful about or whether it’s something that just naturally happens.
JW: One of my mantras in working on anything is to take what I’m given within the writing. There are pretty distinct differences between Bernard and Arnold and they relate particularly to Arnold’s relationship with Dolores. Bernard doesn’t really have that type of relationship in his existence. That relationship with Dolores, particularly in the first season for Arnold, is a very paternal one. It’s a very, by nature, nurturing one. There’s a warmth there. There’s an idealized warmth there that he expresses toward her that Bernard doesn’t have. There’s no one within his circle, no entity within his circle that he expresses that toward. That brings out a different element for Arnold. He’s a bit more human in that regard, so that’s all on the page. That’s all in the relationships that he’s given as a character. That shapes the way that I portray him. Bernard is a facsimile of Arnold, so he’s not quite as fully fleshed out, in a literal sense. That comes into play in the way I portray him. He’s a little more reserved and a little more mysterious in some ways, and just slightly less blood-filled. Again, it’s a function of what’s written on the page.
GD: It’s interesting you talk about the scenes with Dolores. We actually got the question from your dual meditation scene partner, Evan Rachel Wood.
JW: Oh, Evan Rachel Wood!
GD: We spoke with her last week and I said, “Do you have anything for Jeffrey Wright if we chat with him?” And that’s what she said.
JW: Evan is really funny. I remember when we did one of the first scenes Season 2 she was like, “Oh wow, this is the first scene I’ve ever had with Bernard.” It had all been Arnold up to that point and she was like, “Oh my god, it’s a totally different thing here.” But Evan brings so much out of me. She’s just a dream to work with, a dream partner. We were able to find this common space together and this common intent, just the two of us staring into each other’s eyes and I’ve said it before, but the intimacy that we’re able to find and the nuance that we’re able to find and the push and pull and her generosity as an actor is so supportive, so beneficial, and I just try to give the same to her. A lot of people think when two actors work together, and it can be sometimes, when you’re with assholes, it can be a bit of a bout. It can be a bit of a boxing match and sometimes it can be really annoying, but the best boxing matches are when you’re two actors working together and you’re fighting like hell to tell the story together and it’s not about playing ego against ego, ego that exists outside the character. It’s about how do we craft this scene together and this story that we’re telling in the most unique and fully developed way that we possibly can, and that’s what Evan and I do together. Like so much of what we do on this show, it’s just a wonderful gift. If you’re in this profession, it’s the kind of work that you wanna do. So thank you, Evan!
GD: As you say there, shows or performances are best when they’re a result of collaboration, not competition.
GD: And that it’s not serving your personal ego but the performance as a whole, and how can you support Evan, how can she support you. How can you draw the best out of each other?
JW: 100%. I find that pretty much the common theme on our show is about mutual support and about digging down as deep as we possibly can and really trying to realize Jonah and Lisa’s vision to the fullest extent that we can. I think we each in our own individual ways respond to this material, but we appreciate its relevance. We appreciate the scale, the vision, and we’re fans. We’re fans like everyone else who’s taken to this show, and we wanna see it done well, and a lot of that is in our hands.
GD: Jeffrey, behind you there’s an artwork or a painting or something.
JW: Speaking of the mutual respect, and we talk about this stuff, you hear actors talk about it all the time, “We’re such a good…” and sometimes it’s all nonsense. Sometimes you’re like, “Oh my god, if I could only tell you how dreadful that experience was, you wouldn’t believe it.” But on this show, it really is, we have a good time and we know it. We appreciate it. That was a present from one of my colleagues on “Westworld” as he left the show, or finished up for the season. Was it last season? Yes, this past season. That was from Anthony Hopkins. That’s one of his pieces that he gifted me.
GD: Are you able to bring it over so we can have a better look at it?
JW: You know, no. I’ll leave a little bit of mystery there. That’s Charlie Chaplin over there. He’s guarding that piece. I’m ensconced here in my little chair sitting in this bay window here. It’d be a total mess.
GD: Jeffrey, it’s been a pleasure talking about “Westworld” with you. When are you shooting Season 3? Is that planned yet or not?
JW: We do have a tentative schedule to go back into production in the coming months.
GD: Okay, so not too far away.
JW: No, no. It’s, as folks know, pretty complex stuff, so what’s required is time for our writers to circle together, hang heads and come up with more of these worlds, because there’s no source material. We’ve long ago exhausted the source material for “Westworld,” which was really just that one Michael Crichton film. There was no book. I think some folks think that it was. There was no book. There was just the film from ’74. So everything that you’ve seen has been built on that concept but there’s no source material beyond that. We need a little time to allow our writers’ imaginations to conjure up more of Season 3. We’ll be patient, give them time, and then we’ll go back and start hammering at it again.
GD: Well thank you so much, Jeffrey. It’s been a pleasure chatting, and all the best for the Emmys!
JW: Hey, thank you, man. Get down in that water, Matt! You’re down there, you’re surrounded by it!
GD: I know, you’ll have to come down sometime and show me how to surf.
JW: (Laughs.) I’ll come down with Luke Hemsworth.
GD: Sounds like a plan, thanks Jeffrey.