Watching the first few episodes of Westworld, you’d be excused for wondering, “What in the world is Thandie Newton doing here?”
Her role as a bar madam in an Old West theme park staffed by robots, called “hosts,” seemed tertiary, to be kind. Certainly it appeared too sparse and perhaps even objectifying for the deeply talented British thesp, best known for roles in Crash and The Pursuit of Happyness, to take on.
But then Maeve, her character, woke up, so to speak. And so did we. That’s why she’s here, we realized. Maeve, it would become apparent, is the most badass, empowering, simply best character right now on TV.
How foolish we were to doubt her. “I knew everything, darling,” Newton tells The Daily Beast. “I knew the whole arc. And I knew it was incredible.”
The Westworld actress is calling from London, where she’s shooting a role in the new season of the popular BBC crime drama Line of Duty. That, combined with the frenzy over Westworld’s season finale, airing this Sunday, has her in a bit of a tizzy.
“I’m fucking twitchy is how I am,” she responds to our opening pleasantries. She’ll be shooting a 25-page scene for Line of Duty the next day, and she’s thrilled. “If I hadn’t been doing something else, I just think I’d have been too obsessed with Westworld.”
On the HBO series—the network’s biggest, and sorely needed, hit since Game of Thrones—her character is TV’s most transfixing revolutionary.
Over the course of the season, Maeve has learned that she’s not actually a bar madam, but a “host” programmed to act out that storyline to appease guests, who pay to indulge in their most depraved fantasies and vices at the theme park. Armed with her newfound sentience, Maeve is on a mission: she’s getting the hell out of Westworld.
Maeve is a force, spouting off lines like, “I want you to break into hell with me and rob the gods blind,” and, “Next time you go looking for the truth, get the whole thing. It’s like a good fuck: Half is worse than none at all,” all the while breaking cycles of objectification and misogyny on her crusade.
The last we see of her Maeve in Episode 9, she is having fiery sex, literally, with a host bandit played by Rodrigo Santoro, the goal of which is to bang to death in order to be rebirthed closer to her goal of freedom. The show, clearly, is bananas. But Newton’s performance is grounded in a quiet, intense calm—so much so that we were admittedly rather thrown by the actress’s giddy, bawdy gregariousness and passion during our interview.
She’s an unfiltered hoot. She has her own amusing spin, for example, on the actor’s cliché of praising her co-stars’ talents. “Fuck me!” she says, raving about one actor’s performance. “I mean, god above!”
And, like all impassioned artists, she’s susceptible to rants and digressions. In the midst of one diversion, involving radio advertisements she heard while picking up her kids from school, she interrupts herself.
“It was so funny, Oprah said to me recently…” she begins, somehow matter-of-factly. “I was having one of my blarneys like this and she says, ‘Thandie, you just sound old. That’s the problem.’ What she meant was: This is the line one has to walk. It’s not being a fucking bore. You know? And holier than thou. Because I’m certainly not.”
Still, she has careful and nuanced insight into what she considers a higher purpose of Westworld’s storytelling and her character, specifically, as a—stick with us here—continuance of her mission as a human rights activist and to promote female empowerment and liberation.
Before Westworld premiered, critics who had seen the series’ pilot took HBO to task for, once again, relying on sexual violence against women as a means to raise creative stakes and drive narratives. Newton has spoken about having similar initials concerns after reading the first script, which were more than erased after speaking with creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy about the direction of the series.
“In a way, we had to wait for that to pass,” Newton says. “We all knew that the show was never going to validate that kind of speculation, because the only reason for showing violence and depravity was to subvert it. Maybe it’s just me, but as a human rights activist Westworld is really, really light on violence and depravity, frankly. In terms of if you’re really looking at the worst that people can do.”
It’s a distinction she takes seriously. This past week Newton’s co-star, Evan Rachel Wood, posted a letter on Twitter about being raped twice. In a promotional interview for Westworld, Newton recalled an audition in which a director shot up her skirt, forced her to touch herself, and then circulated the video for years.
“I’ve been raped. I’ve been sexually abused,” Newton tells The Daily Beast, defending Westworld’s nudity and sexual violence. “Why would I want to offer up parts of me in a very graphic, painful way?”
For her, Maeve’s arc is all about empowerment, and that even extends to the amount of time the character spends completely nude. “I found myself more empowered naked than I did with the saloon outfit on,” she says. “And I’m not making that up.” We suggest that a lot of people will be surprised by that. “I was surprised, too,” she says. “I really was.”
For her saloon scenes, she’d wear a corset. Her boobs were pushed up to her chin. The lace on her skirt, she says, “invites eyes and hands between the legs.” The costume was pure objectification.
Between takes when she was in the corset, she’d put a dressing gown on over the costume. “I wanted to talk the crew, not have them looking down my tits,” she says. “It wasn’t because they were being gross. What else are you going to do when they’re shoved up to your face like that? I didn’t like it.”
But shooting her scenes in the laboratory completely naked, she found, was the polar opposite experience.
“People treated me with respect, like they were grateful for how committed I was to trying to tell the story right,” she says. “When you truly expose yourself. When you truly show that you have nothing to hide, people are tender towards you.” It’s something she never thought about before she saw it happening: “We associate nudity with sex. Not with vulnerability. Not with tenderness.”
She understands the fascination with the fact that she agreed, at age 43 and while she was still nursing her youngest child, to appear each day on set in front of 80 people completely naked, and then have those scenes broadcast to the world. In fact, she’s fought back against nudity in projects she’s filmed in the past because she found it gratuitous. At one point a director even told her it was in the script purely to titillate.
We’re conditioned to expect that mentality, which is why she thinks people have been so thrown for a loop by her response when questioned about the Westworld nude scenes.
“It’s a stereotypical question and they expect a stereotypical answer: ‘I know! I’m so embarrassed being naked in front of people!’” she says. “No. I stepped into that space. I felt challenged. I felt how much I was committing and how much I was sacrificing. And I was treated with tenderness.”
In more ways than you’d expect, Westworld was a unique experience for Newton. It wasn’t just because of the nudity, though that ends up dominating most interviews—including this one—as it’s such a crucial part of the storyline.
Newton stresses multiple times during our talk that she’s a human rights activist. She spends half the year acting and half the year “campaigning and protecting and being in flash mobs in front of the Houses of Parliament, or working in the Congo,” she says. The acting, generally, is to make enough money so she can do her humanitarian work for free.
“Every day I went on Westworld’s set, I did not have to leave my activist hat at home,” she says. “That was extraordinary to me. I felt that by playing this character I was advancing the cause of women. Of humans.”
Lofty praise? Sure.
Still, HitFix, for example, claimed that, “Despite the orgies, Westworld has shocking feminist themes.” And as GQ writes, “There is a truly subversive, feminist-as-hell story tangled in Westworld’s many threads, in which the cowboy fantasy is turned on its head and taken over by the women who were placed in servile roles, the docile facilitators of this fantasy.”
As the series gallops into Sunday night’s finale, it’s not just feminism it charges in with. It’s existential questions about the base-level carnality that continues to drive us as humans, as well as the potential and limits to which we can evolve.
Hesitant to spoil Sunday’s finale, Newton only previews, “We can expect that people know Maeve, and people trust Maeve and the journey she is on. The outcome will be in keeping with where she’s headed.”
Funny. The same could be said about Thandie Newton.