"I worried that it would hinder people's appreciation of the story as it unfolds," the major finale player said about dodging fan theories over the course of the season.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season one finale of HBO's Westworld.]
At long last, Westworld confirmed one of the most popular theories developed over the course of the show's first season: William (Jimmi Simpson), the mild-mannered cynic who rapidly became enamored with the park, is the same person as the Man in Black (Ed Harris).
The season finale, called "The Bicameral Mind," connects the two characters during an intense face-off in Escalante, the "city buried in sand." The Man in Black reveals that he's William, and spent a good long while searching Westworld far and wide for Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) after she disappeared into the night. During his search, William shot, sliced and stabbed through various hosts, falling deeper and deeper in love with the park. In the end, when William finally reunites with Dolores, she doesn't remember him at all — an affront that affirms William's decision to double down on becoming a "Black Hat."
"William couldn't find you," he tells Dolores. "But out there, among the dead, he found something else: himself."
With the secret now out of the bag, THR caught up with Simpson for his take on keeping the Man in Black twist under his proverbial hat, how he first learned about it, his reaction to the theories that emerged over the course of the season, whether he's returning for season two, and more.
When did you first find out that William and the Man in Black were the same person? Was it part of your initial conversations with showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy?
No, it wasn't. It wasn't even close to part of our initial conversations. I walked in there truly thinking I was going to be just some dude rolling through a couple of scenes. Then I got the first clue that there might be more shit than I've ever done when I picked up the lead actress' can. But still, they weren't telling me anything. Then, around episode three or four, our brilliant makeup designer brought me into the makeup trailer and was looking at my face in a way that no one has ever done. (Laughs.) He starts talking about my eyebrows, and if I would mind if he shaped my eyebrows. I know women change their eyebrow shape, but literally no one has ever asked me if I would change my eyebrow shape. So it caught my attention! And he wouldn't tell me why. He was giving me vague reasons that were bullshit to me. So what was he up to? I started thinking about why someone would change my eyebrows, and the only thing I could come up with is that they wanted me to look like someone else. Then, I figured out that based on dialect and face color that the only person it could be is Ed Harris. I was walking with Lisa a couple of hours later and I asked her if that's the case. And she stopped walking and said, "Don't say that. I can't say anything!" Instantly, I knew. And then she kind of let out that there's a really large arc to the character I'm playing, and that I shouldn't tell anybody about it. She basically confirmed it, and also kind of articulated to me that we don't need to talk about it. I took that for granted. I trusted her, and everything she had said thus far had been true. She and Jonah are two of the smartest writers I've ever met, so I proceeded along, kind of knowing that, and sharing it with no one.
Did the news fundamentally change how you were playing William?
It didn't, because I'm older. I'm a middle-aged man and I've lived my life, and I know that change happens very, very slowly. It's inevitable, but when it's there, you don't see it. So I understood that, and then I started watching Ed, but I didn't change William until he started getting closer to [becoming the Man in Black]. When he started feeling the weight that had crushed the Man in Black over all those years, like in episodes nine and ten, that's when I started changing. I slowed my walk down, I slowed my speech just a shade, and started taking the time the Man in Black seems to take with each moment that he does, because he's really not rushed by anything. That seemed to be the revelation William had: "Wait a minute … all you mother-f—kers don't mean shit. I got this."
Right, he has that moment in episode nine where he realizes: "I know how to play this game." Something snaps. The violence there happens off-camera, but did you have a vision for how William's first real Man in Black moment played out?
I imagined that it was basically a slow execution of these men. I also imagined that there were pockets of them waking up, and he unleashed just total annihilation. I imagined that first moment of him realizing: "Wait … I can do this." And it wouldn't have been a stressful thing for him. I think the absolute scale of the carnage is indication enough of how easily William was able to dispatch of these hosts.
Did you and Ed Harris ever connect to talk through the character?
Not specifically. He's a man of few words and much coolness, and not coolness in the sense of hard to be around. He's just so cool, that guy. He has this unconscious energy around him. My natural inclination with other actors is to let them call the shots, as far as chatting. We didn't work that much together, though, and he didn't have any idea. He had no idea that I was playing him until the very end. Once he did know, we walked by each other, and he goes, "I hear you're doing a good job." He gave me a wink, and truly, that's all I needed. We got to share a meal once toward the end of shooting, and gosh, what a really gracious and talented human.
You had to keep William's secret throughout filming. Was anyone close to the truth?
Yeah, it became clear to all of us as a topic of discussion around episode nine. That's when Thandie Newton ran up to me: "Oh, you!" So cheeky, and giving me shit for not telling anybody. (Laughs.) Evan was easily the sharpest of all of us. She has an amazing mind. She not only has a photographic memory, where she can read a script and go, "No, it says this, this and this!" She and Shannon [Woodward] and I would have discussions: "Does this check out? Nope." Evan was the most right. She did bring up that William may be the Man in Black I think as early as episode three or four, right around the time that I knew. We were so fallen for William and Dolores at that moment that she said, "Well, that couldn't be the case, because of us." And it evaporated from her consciousness. We played the entire thing as if it wasn't the cast. She was bummed out after the reveal, as we all were, on some level.
What was your reaction when you saw fans were piecing the William and Man in Black connection together?
I was shocked. Shocked that people called it out at episode two. I worried that it would hinder people's appreciation of the story as it unfolds. But it didn't seem to at all. Everybody really went with the narrative and the emotional truths of those moments, despite possibly knowing the device. The thing that did worry me a little bit was that HBO's social [team] asked us to be active on media, which I was happy to do, because it's fun to talk about. But I was kind of ignoring Man in Black tweets. So I reached out to Jonah and Lisa and said, "Maybe I'm overthinking this, but what if someone has an algorithm that tabulates the fact that I'm not responding to Man in Black tweets?"
It's a valid concern!
I know, man. Everything's A.I. (Laughs.) And they said, "We know! We're thinking the same way as you. We're preparing a cheat sheet for you guys so you can respond to everything without being a liar."
Was that helpful?
It's the same thing you would come up with: "Hey, I love the ideas! Keep them coming!" My favorite thing was Evan's stock response, because I called her and asked: "What are you saying [when asked about the Man in Black]?" And she said, "Dude, they didn't tell us, I'm certainly not telling you!" (Laughs.) Solid.
What's your take on how viewers were puzzling out the show's mysteries and trying to get to the answers before they're revealed on screen? Are you surprised at all that this is how people engaged Westworld?
You know, I don't know…
Honestly, it sounds like that's how you and your colleagues were engaging the material on set.
It's exactly how we responded. I really get off on thoughtful television, man. I love when writers have something to say about our culture and about us. I was so struck by the script. I kept calling my agents and managers, and they know me so well; I've been with them for 15 years, both of them. They know I don't get excited about much because not too much excites me, frankly. I was like, "Guys, this is weird. I think this show's special." People's strong, positive reactions really make sense to me. It's also interesting, because I have writer friends who want to figure the show out in an angry way. They're trying to beat the system some how and that they can win if they prove the show wrong on any level. I think that's probably a fun game for them, too. I think there's a lot for people to play with on this show.
In the finale, William drags a naked Logan (Ben Barnes) out to the fringes of the park. That must have been a day.
Oh, it was a day. It was a sad day. It was a tough day to go that far in that direction with my dear, sweet friend Ben. (Laughs.) I'm pretty sure the final [scene we shot together] was that scene, the horse knock. It was so strange. I spent the first 15 years of my career very often playing off-putting men. I'm also kind of a shy guy. So I would come onto a set, and I would know my part, and I would step in and play it and often [the character] was doing something very creepy and, a couple of times, downright awful to people. So I'm used to being the actor that no one's really talking to, and that the part involves someone doing something shitty, and he doesn't really talk with his co-stars, because you have to stay in a certain place to be there. So I had to be that way that day with Ben, and to be honest, it was really f—ing uncomfortable, personally. I hadn't been that actor with him. It was a strange way to say goodbye.
In that regard, did you feel different on the days you were embracing William's darker sides?
Very, very, very much. I would say my biggest flaw as a performer in my opinion is that things tend to need to be emotionally connected for me to understand how to play them. I have a hard time with technical performance sometimes. If I can't make sense of it emotionally, I get a little bit lost. So at the start, this wide-eyed open was a really beautiful note to play. It's a way I feel in my life a lot, so I was able to go there. The later stuff, the really sad stuff with Evan, we were on the line the entire day. We would spend sixteen hours of the day just miserable that the love of our lives was being torn from ourselves, so we could be available for those scenes. So, very much. But it's by design. It's the way it has to be. I think it's part of what made this experience so immersive for Evan and I. We both go there 100% and we both leaned on each other so much. We really connected.
Do you know yet if you will be back for season two, or has William's story been told?
Well, you know. Nothing's permanent. I'm not contracted to go back, but I'm sure there's a possibility.
Do you feel there's more to do with the character? Certainly, William kept going back to the park during all those years …
There are certainly stories they could tell. Based on these writers' skills, if it was their intention for young William to return, I know that he would be there for solid and interesting reasons. But I think this story is told, the story of William and Dolores' love affair. I think that story, tragically, has been told.
William was a very different character from the types you typically play. What has it meant to you personally, getting to go on this ride with this character and with Westworld at large?
Honestly, it changed my life. I'm not one who holds stock in Hollywood's temporary bursts of people talking about you, but creatively, I had never seen myself quite as an actor that's actually part of the story, because it had never been my experience. I can't believe I was allowed to play this role. Literally, it could end tomorrow, and I would be so satisfied that I got to do this part once. Truly, I'm beside myself. Didn't expect it. I feel like the luckiest character actor in the world.