Thandie Newton is, perhaps, Westworld’s biggest fan.
The British actress, who has earned critical acclaim for roles in Beloved and Crash, plays Maeve, a host android who first appeared as a prostitute in a Western-themed park, has since gained self-awareness and is now on the hunt for her daughter, in Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s HBO sci-fi series, which is nearly halfway through its second season.
“Wasn’t Lisa Joy’s episode, episode four, just stunning? The stuff with Peter Mullan, I mean, what the f**k?” Newton gushes over the phone with ET. “It’s amazing. But anyway, we’re talking about episode five.” Yes, we were supposed to be talking about episode five — but more on that in a little bit.
Listening to the actress talk about the series — including episodes she’s not even in — feels like listening to Tony Robbins passionately plead for you to believe in your potential, except Newton is pleading for you to believe in Westworld, and isn’t afraid to use a few F-bombs to get her point across.
Newton, however, has no reason to plead. Her portrayal of Maeve has earned the actress the best reviews of her career, with nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards as well as a Critics’ Choice Television Award win for season one. Season two is proving to be no different. On the latest episode (titled “Akane No Mai”), she gives another award-worthy performance.
Maeve’s journey to find her daughter brings her and her small group of hosts — including Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) — to Shogun World, where they’re introduced to their Japanese counterparts. When a ninja attack separates the group, Maeve discovers she can control the hosts, but soon learns that not everyone wants to accept the truth, and sometimes the script is better than reality.
For the episode, Nolan and Joy channeled the films of Akira Kurosawa as they essentially built Edo-era Japan in Northern California, where the show was filmed, complete with blooming cherry trees. “It was such a privilege and I loved every moment of it,” Newton says, before taking a beat for a moment of true honesty: “Oh, my God, though, learning Japanese was pretty tough.” The actress spent three weeks preparing for the episode, which was filmed mostly in Japanese, meeting with a language coach and receiving extra guidance from the episode’s guest stars, Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi. “I swear to God, at first, I was horrified … but I wanted to embody it,” she recalls, undeterred.
“That’s something I think we’re going to be seeing in Westworld as it continues season after season, is how it just shines a gaze on a particular time in history, but also a particular filmmaker’s tradition of filmmaking,” Newton continues. “And it’s such a joyride for us as actors, and contributors, too, because more and more they’re opening up to allowing us to really collaborate with how we see our characters in these situations.”
The “punishing” episode stayed with Newton as much as it did her character, who becomes inspired by the bold acts of Kikuchi’s Akane (Maeve’s Shogun World counterpart) and her sacrifice after one of her geishas is murdered. “There’s Maeve desperately trying to escape, and Rinko’s decision not to believe that her story is fake. She’s so wedded to her story that it really informs Maeve in the subsequent episodes, which you’ll see,” Newton insists.
“It’s so much to do with nations and how we’re led and what we’re fed and the faith that we put in those who are in power, and it’s not just about leadership in terms of governments, leadership in terms of parents, leadership in terms of friendships, who we put our trust in, who we put our faith in,” Newton says of where Westworld continues from here. “It’s about self-awareness and self-determination. It’s really powerful.”
The episode also sees Maeve’s continuing journey with park engineer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), who was taken hostage by the escaped android in the season two premiere. While nudity plays a large part in the show, especially for the female characters, Newton has not had to strip down so far in season two. However, Maeve does demand Lee disrobe, an act of defiance and shift in the balance of power that was previously held by the park’s creators, engineers and even guests. For viewers, it can also be seen as a balance of nudity among both sexes. Yet, for Newton, “there was no one upmanship at all,” she says.
In fact, the actress felt “huge compassion and sympathy” for Quarterman, who has less experience with onscreen nudity. “All these guys that have had to be naked are much more self-conscious about their bodies. I think my empathy only informs a greater empathy towards myself or other women or other people who find themselves in situations where they feel exposed,” she continues. “I wasn’t empowered so much as in awe of another human being, like me, who had been nude, who was being courageous enough to fulfill this moment in the narrative, which does have a really powerful impact.”
Offscreen, however, Newton has been more empowered. She, alongside co-star Evan Rachel Wood, recently earned equal pay with the show’s male actors for season three. “It’s huge!” Newton says of the move by HBO, but is quick to note that the decision has a lot to do with the recent conversations about the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. “Let’s face it, it’s not a new movement. It’s been going on since suffragettes,” she continues. “[But] for me it was just a relief to actually get to a point where I wasn’t having to ask and I wasn’t having to fight for what should be a rightful gift from someone who values and appreciates you.”
Newton, who has been a women’s rights activist for the last 20 years and has served on the board of V-Day, an organization fighting violence against women, for the last eight, says her new salary creates greater loyalty to HBO. “But I always had a loyalty to Lisa and Jonah [Nolan].”
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.