LIMITS OF CONTROL
Jeffrey Wright on ‘Westworld’ Season 2: ‘Bernard Is the Captain Now’
The outspoken, incredibly gifted actor discusses his turn as Bernard on the HBO epic, that jaw-dropping finale, and how his own experience with police brutality informs his worldview.
The last living mastermind behind Westworld may be dead, but someone else is now poised to take his place.
The inscrutable Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) bade his robot creations and corporate enemies farewell in a fittingly violent end in Sunday night’s season finale, “The Bicameral Mind.” A rampaging Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), aka Wyatt, recreates the massacre she once committed in a remote Western town, complete with its bloody finishing touch: the murder of her own creator.
But before Ford shuffles off this mortal coil, grinning his way through a plan for robot liberation he seemingly devised, he offers one subtle clue that may prove important: a handshake, offering good luck to his android prodigy, Bernard.
Modeled after Ford’s late partner Arnold, Bernard (brought to pained, exquisite life by Jeffrey Wright) is the park’s most advanced android, capable of programming other androids and carrying out Ford’s bidding. But nothing Ford does is meaningless or simple—and his goodbye handshake may have been more than a lapse in sentimentality. “There’s this suggestion that Bernard is the captain now,” Wright says, laughing.
Whether Ford—who waxes poetic about artists living on through their creations in his final speech—has tasked Bernard with more morbid responsibilities in his new narrative, aptly called Journey Into Night, remains to be seen. (It’ll be a hell of a while before we find out—the show’s not slated to return until 2018.) Wright, meanwhile, has other tasks ahead, like taking the president-elect and his supporters to task on Twitter.
In the days before and since the election, Wright has unleashed a number of emotional, acerbic takedowns of bigoted hypocrisy and pro-Trump spin. To him, the greatest disappointment of this year’s election is that the struggle for social progress, already so precarious in a deeply divided nation, might be “muted” in Trump’s America. As someone with personal experiences with racial profiling, it’s a priority he’s not ready to push aside.
He does have hope, however, that the election will “bring forth the fiercest, smartest, toughest generation of ass-kicking women this country could possibly imagine.” A viral tweet expressing his wish, he says, was consolation for his 11-year-old daughter and “all the daughters” in the face of “someone more overtly vulgar and misogynist than we’ve ever seen on a national political stage.”
Wright talked to The Daily Beast about the mysteries of Westworld—from the center of the maze, to the differences in his performances as Arnold and Bernard—and where we all go from here.
Read our conversation below.
What can we read into Bernard’s face as Dolores begins massacring Ford and his guests? He’s in a fairly unique position as a self-aware host still beholden to Ford—it’s like he’s not fully one of them, not fully one of us.
Well I think he’s fully one of them, but he has an interesting mask that he wears now going forward, in that there are very few in the room who know of his duality, so that’s an interesting position for him. I think at the end there is a realization and an awareness of the finality of that moment exactly as Ford describes it: “a new beginning.” So Bernard is the middle of that and taking it in, as you described, almost from two perspectives: first, as an aware host, but also to some extent also as a faux-human. So yeah, he’s in an interesting place. (Laughs.)
What was it like for you piecing Bernard’s story together? Did you know, going in, that he was modeled after Arnold?
Oh, I knew that after the first episode. I didn’t know while we were shooting the pilot, so I learned going into the second episode of his full story. [Co-creator] Lisa Joy kindly pulled my coattail and laid it out for me because it informed, in relatively subtle ways, my performance. There were slight inflection and tonal differences between Bernard and Arnold, and it also allowed me to be aware of some of the clues that were being dropped along the way as to where we were, when we were, and who we were.
I assume that reveal then came as a shock.
Oh, yeah. My android jaw dropped on the floor. And then I said, “That’s pretty cool.” (Laughs.) Because that obviously allowed for a lot of possibilities and some pretty thrilling stuff to work through as an actor.
We also found out what the maze really is and what it means in last night’s episode—at least I think we did. What did you make of what Dolores (and Bernard) found at the center?
Well, the maze is really quite simply a metaphor—a trigger for self-exploration for the hosts. And so in that way, it’s a mirror reflection of self-exploration for all of us. The story of the hosts I think is interesting obviously from a technological perspective in terms of the ways in which programming and nascent artificial intelligence are merging with our lives. But what grabbed me more was the hosts and their journeys as metaphor for our journeys and our loops and our desires for understanding the makeup of our being and how much of it is self-mythologized, how much of it is grounded in reality, how much exists within us and how much exists without us. So those kind of metaphorical meditations on not-insignificant questions are what I found myself most focused on and intrigued by in working on the show.
We also see Bernard and Ford shake hands one last time before his death. What did that gesture mean to you? I saw it as a sort of handing-off of the guard from Ford to Bernard.
Yeah, I mean I think it’s at that point that Bernard begins to become aware of where this is all heading. So first there’s an awareness that Ford is going in a place that’s new and finite. That’s the beginning of the inkling for Bernard. But yes, also there’s this suggestion that Bernard is the captain now. (Laughs.) So there’s a lot to be explored next year.
Bernard-is-Arnold was one of the bigger twists of the season. Were there other developments that particularly shocked you?
Oh, for me one of the most impressive things about the show is the way in which these multiple threads of narrative and time are woven together into this complete tapestry. The precision of that and the carefulness that [co-creators] Jona[than Nolan] and Lisa and the writers exhibited is just mind-blowing. So that was the most satisfying and impressive thing for me. Also I think this show, from the beginning, kind of rises to that other level when narratives collide and fuse into something we didn’t expect. And when those moments happen throughout, whether it’s the world of the hosts and the guests colliding as they do in that moment when the guest destroys the storyline of the raid on the town, or moments like at the end when Dolores and Bernard are woven together toward this revelation about the history of the park and Arnold. Those moments for me are just so wonderfully satisfying and thrilling.
I assume you don't know much about Season 2 yet, so would you care to speculate about what might happen?
I’ve got a lot of speculation but none I’d like to share. (Laughs.) Because I’ve learned over the last couple of years after working with Jona and Lisa that you can presume all you want but they’re way on the other side of the curb from you.
You’ve had some really interesting feedback from Trump supporters critiquing the finer points of your performance as Bernard.
(Laughs.) Yeah, well you know, clearly what we’ve learned from this election is not everyone’s judgment is as keen as it might be.
Clearly! You’ve been vocal about Trump and his supporters on Twitter, and at protests in front of Trump tower.
I don’t think any of us have seen an election like this. What’s most concerning is the level of misinformation that informed the decision process and the strange intervention of clearly biased influencers. That that conversation is not more at the forefront post-election is bizarre to me, and I think frankly lends an odor of illegitimacy to the process that needs to be discussed and talked through. So that people are expressing that, that’s a real thing. And particularly because of the way that the last couple of months of the campaign season played out, their concerns are not grounded in far-out conspiracies but in reaction to real events that in strange ways helped redirect the results of our democratic process.
And you can’t expect political hostility not to be met with resistance. It was overtly discussed that Trump’s campaign was appealing to a certain anger within a certain segment of the populace that boiled up into hostility for those outside of that circle. And so no matter what your judgment is about our country and its politics, if you don’t have the judgment to realize that that type of emotion will be met with response from those who feel targeted by it, then you just don’t understand basic human behavior. I think it’s perfectly normal, perfectly healthy for our democracy. We’re talking about a president-elect who spent eight years attempting to delegitimize his predecessor in the most indecent ways. So it’s asking a lot of those who didn’t support a candidate like that to react gracefully to the ungraceful.
Your wish the morning after the election for the “fiercest, smartest, toughest generation of ass-kicking women” to come out of the age of Trump was what I might call graceful at such a dark moment.
That was in reaction to my daughter’s deep disappointment at the results of the election. My 11-year-old daughter. It was twofold: one, disappointment that that glass ceiling for women had not been fully destroyed but, as well, that America had elected someone more overtly vulgar and misogynist than we’ve ever seen on a national political stage. So that was for my daughter and all the daughters.
Do your personal experiences with abuses of power inform your way of resisting? Some time after you were arrested, pepper-sprayed and tased by police in Louisiana, you wrote about racial profiling and how “there’s no room for that in America in 2009.” It’s 2016 now, and still hard to feel like progress is being made.
Of course. And not just my own experiences—some known publicly, some not—but the experiences of folks around the country. You know, despite the events of the last couple of years, progress has been made to some extent when you contextualize these things relative to, for example, 25 years ago when many inner cities were war zones for young black men in terms of the murder rate. But there’s so much progress that needs to be driven now. One of the major disappointments of this election is that it seems that that progress will be muted to some extent.
I had the opportunity this past summer to shoot a film in Pendleton [Correctional Facility], a maximum-security prison in Indiana. It’s a project I’ve been working on for over a year, visiting the prison and building the trust with the inmates because the cast is largely made up of inmates. Correctional officers play correctional officers, administrators play administrators and there are about ten actors sprinkled into that mix. But my co-star, for example, is a young man, 35 years old, serving 65 years in there. There are guys in the cast who are in for life, 170 years.We filmed over the course of six weeks inside [the prison] for 13, 14 hours a day and it was the most powerful experience I’ve ever had on a film set and it really almost completely reshaped my understanding of incarceration and of the incarcerated. What was most profound for me was the realization of the extent of trauma that exists in those spaces. Yes, these are men who have inflicted trauma. But it was also clear that these were men who very often, as boys, had received unimaginable levels of trauma. And I think the dialogue as I hear it now, in the direction that we’re headed relative to issues like this, is not about examining the human components behind these things. But they're there. They’re evident to those who genuinely seek out the root causes. But I’m really disappointed for those guys, that we’ll shift away from that level of thinking around these issues. But perhaps that shift will only be temporary.