James Marsden explores his dark side in HBO’s cautionary sci-fi series
Singapore—After 21 years with the Inquirer, we’ve had our share of fascinating celebrity encounters, both good and, well, not-so-pleasant. In one instance, it was “challenging” to coax relevant information from a brilliant actor about the show he was making. In another, an award-winning actress was as ice-cold as the character she was portraying on the big screen. But these stories are for another article.
Last week, our interview with James Marsden, one of the lead stars of HBO’s cautionary 10-episode sci-fi series, “Westworld,” went beyond the conventional, because it didn’t have the know-it-all mugging and self-entitled air that characterized some of our “stellar” tête-à-têtes the past year.
As gracious as he was dashing, James knew how to turn on the charm without being patronizing. When somebody requested for a selfie with him, he gamely acquiesced, saying, “Of course! After all, you came all the way to Singapore to see me…” But, let’s not get carried away—let’s start from the very beginning…
Rebooted from Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult classic starring Yul Brynner, “Westworld” imagines an amusement park where adults pay a huge price ($40,000/day) to turn their wildest fantasies into reality. It’s being managed by its founder Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and head programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright).
In Westworld, guests interact with chirpy rancherette Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), aging pimp Maeve (Thandie Newton), gunslinger Teddy (Marsden) and other lifelike automatons, called “hosts,” each with a programmed “narrative” he/she can’t deviate from.
Guests, like the hedonistic Logan (Ben Barnes) and the sinister sociopath Man in Black (Ed Harris), can co-opt their stories and do as they please without guilt or fear of retribution.
The hosts’ memories are wiped out at the end of every operating day, and they start “fresh” the following morning. But Ford introduces slight changes in the program that enables the hosts to develop “reveries” that soon encroach into their heretofore “preconditioned” consciousness!
James, whose famous turns in “X-Men” (as Cyclops) and the screen musicals, “Enchanted” and “Hairspray,” liked the element of surprise that came with creating the series.
“As we were shooting, the cast members never got full information about where the series was going—we just went from script to script,” the 43-year-old model-turned-actor said. “None of us knew what was going to happen, so that was part of the thrill. It was great to be given a chance to portray a superhero in ‘X-Men,’ but ‘Westworld’ is just as exciting, because it fulfills your childhood fantasy of playing a cowboy—riding around on a horse and shooting bandits.
“‘Westworld’ gives me more than that, though. There’s more going on to the characters than what viewers perceive on the surface. I like the unpredictability that results in circumstances that are driven by motives. In Teddy’s case, he sees himself having a peaceful life with Dolores someday, but there’s a past that he has to come to terms with.
“The show is about the human condition and what it means to be human. What do we turn into when we can have everything we want without consequence? What happens when we’re allowed to break the rules? And what happens when we extract grief from our consciousness? It’s very satisfying to be a part of.”
Excerpts from our Q&A with James:
In the first few episodes, your character gets killed repeatedly. How did you react to that? I didn’t know it was going to continue to be a theme (laughs). But I did like the bait and switch at the very beginning of the first episode, which made viewers believe that I was a guest coming to town. Then, you see the Man in Black (Harris), and there was a role reversal. Which one is human, and which one’s the robot?
My character Teddy pulls the trigger, and it doesn’t work! Then, I keep getting killed, which I refer to as building up goodwill (laughs). These are reminders that hosts are park attractions who can’t pull a trigger on guests. Teddy has a moral code he’s programmed to follow. But he’s certainly not going to be target practice forever.
What happens next season? Did you have theories when you got the script for Season 1? I can’t tell you even if I knew. I know it can be frustrating because you want to mitigate the effect it has on you. But you’re going to enjoy the show so much more if you’ll let the details come to you.
I didn’t break my brain trying to figure it all out, because I knew that [series creators] Jonathan (Nolan) and Lisa (Joy) are subversive. As soon as you think you know, you quickly realize you don’t.
On the other hand, Evan was hell-bent on figuring it out (laughs)—and I said, “Stop!” Then, when we got to the end of the season [which just ended early this week], I realized she was right! She goes, “Ha!”
Hypothetically, how would you like your character to appear next season? Die less (laughs). It’s been interesting to watch Maeve and Dolores slowly reaching their level of sentience and becoming aware of what’s going on. The guys are a little slower to reach that “awakening,” and maybe that’s a great parallel to real life (laughs).
I have kids at home, and the girls are always a step ahead of the boys. I have enjoyed watching Evan and Thandie’s performances, and how their characters seize the opportunity to “wake up,” and remember parts of their past.
What was it like acting naked in front of Anthony Hopkins in the third episode? I actually enjoyed that scene, and not because I’m an exhibitionist (laughs). As an actor, I always find myself going through bizarre or unique experiences—and that was one of them. I laughed at the whole thing. He’s seen everything, and I was naked before.
I was more excited to act opposite Sir Anthony, so I was like … trying to hold his gaze (laughs)! “Look me in the eye…” (laughs). But it was definitely liberating. He is a wonderful man and a very generous actor—he loves being on set working with other actors…
Was he intimidating? I was ready to be intimidated, but he was quite the opposite. He’s like Santa Claus—he’s jovial and sweet. We’d cut, and he would get a robe and put it over me. Then, he would go into his Marlon Brando impersonation, then tell me about the music he composed. It’s a special thing just being within his field of gravity—although I’d rather be clothed (laughs).
Perhaps you can sing his compositions for him, because you’re no slouch at singing, as you well demonstrated in “Hairspray” and “Enchanted.” Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say. We did make a joke about that, because everyone in the main cast can sing—Evan (who probably has the most beautiful voice of the group), Thandie, Jeffrey, Anthony and Ed Harris.
Once, we tried to come up with a four-part harmony of a Radiohead song for Jonah (Nolan). We teased him that we were going to turn Season 2 into a musical—and he goes, “Whoa. Not happening. Get that out of your mind!”