Thandie Newton’s Brave New Westworld
When Thandie Newton blows into the interview room, dressed in an electric blue Alice Temperley ensemble with matching eyeshadow, her irrepressible nature cannot be curbed. She’s thrilled to talk about Westworld and her increasingly sentient android character, Maeve, who will not be contained—much like the effervescent Newton herself.
The trailer for Season 2 of Westworld, HBO’s mind-bending and visually arresting sci-fi/western series, suggests that robot hosts Maeve and Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who are “becoming more expert at human behaviour than humans themselves,” will lead a robot uprising against their human and corporate overlords.
And just as the women of Game of Thrones deliciously deliver the show’s best and also most regrettable moments, Westworld’s compelling women, who are also subjected to horrible indignities, are rising above the fray.
And that excites Newton. The British actress has played fascinating female characters like Sally Hemings in Jefferson in Paris. She had a “blast” starring as Tom Cruise’s partner-in-espionage in Mission: Impossible 2, before earning a BAFTA award for 2004’s Crash, which itself won a Best Picture Oscar.
“Westworld is the first time since Crash that I’ve felt that a piece is being done in an intelligent way, forcing our gaze on humanity’s disconnect,” Newton says. “I’m a human rights activist, being involved in V-Day (a movement to end violence against women and girls) and One Billion Rising (a movement to end rape and sexual violence against women) for years, so I’m about empowering women. And, similarly, Westworld’s ambition is to look at human behaviour, warts and all, and shine a light where we were afraid to shine it.”
Emboldened by her portrayal of Maeve in Season 1, which earned her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, Newton kicks off our interview unassisted (and unedited), with balled-up energy and advocacy of social activism.
“I believe in the butterfly effect, that we’re all connected. So, be open to what exists in the world and the truth of our reality and our shared connection. As the series has developed, not only with our characters but also as humans, part of our responsibility to future generations is to look at our programming and decide whether we’re on the right track,” Newton says.
“Because there may be better programs to ensure we don’t destroy our environment, that we eliminate factory farming and horrific human rights abuses, and it’s all connected. So it’s the most incredible premise for a show, because by having the robots, we’re actually commenting on human behaviour. And it’s a wild ride, and I am so humbled.”
But because this is HBO, high drama, boundary-pushing violence, and even nudity play a part. As a mother of three, Newton had to consider the nudity required of her character.
“Because I’m playing a robot, I knew I was going to have to be naked … a real lot,” she jokes. “But then I have young daughters, and anyone can watch it. But very quickly, I realized that this nudity was about exposing the robots’ very vulnerable nature. They’re kind of like animals, right, to the ‘human’ programmers. But, the reality of your nakedness is actually vulnerable and also empowering, because there’s nothing you can have taken away from you.”
As for the violence that’s initially perpetrated against the female hosts/robots before they begin to strike back, the topic personally resonates with Newton, who says she was sexually “groomed” by a director when she was 16. She affirms that she has dealt with it and no longer sees herself as a victim, explaining: “It’s in every industry. And we all have a responsibility to expose things and, hopefully, not to hurt perpetrators but to help heal them. Because perpetrators of crime are also victims—if you look at it from a broader perspective, because it’s so self-destructive to hurt another human being.”
The unstoppable Newton rolls on: “And, hello, you don’t think these types of things are happening—exploitation, violence, abuse —every day all over the world? It’s worse in reality. Do you know Atlanta is the hub for sex trafficking in America? F*ck, these things are hap-pe-ning! So, on Westworld, we have to show a really powerful level of human self-destruction in order to then comment on it.”
Westworld’s Season 2 trailer also suggests that “this world deserves to die … and from the ashes, build a new world. Our world.”
Series co-creator Lisa Joy says we’re going to see “significantly more of the ‘World’”—which might involve venturing into medieval and Roman worlds, offering incredibly exciting potential.
Finally relaxing, Newton adds: “As a woman you’re always checking, am I being respected? But with Lisa and Jonah (Nolan, the show’s other creator), I have trust in where they’re taking this show. It’s the most extraordinary feeling to be able to surrender.”
This article first appeared in Movie Entertainment magazine.