Westworld star Jeffrey Wright on Bernard’s suffering as a ‘crucible toward freedom’
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In a career filled with moments, Jeffrey Wright is having a big one right now. On March 15, he returned as Bernard Lowe, the not-so-secret host in season 3 of Westworld on HBO. He’s also in the middle of filming the new Batman film, as Commissioner Gordon opposite Robert Pattinson as the Dark Knight. And he reprises his role of CIA agent Felix Leiter in the upcoming James Bond movie No Time To Die.
Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe on Westworld.
Wright explained what young comic book fan Jeffrey Wright would think about him being in Batman and Bond films.
“I think there’s some part of young Jeffrey Wright that is making these decisions to do these movies,” Wright said over the phone, with a warm laugh. “Obviously we are just starting work on Batman now, but having finished No Time to Die and the experience of working on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace has been really reaffirming of my appreciation for the films and the franchise.”
Wright and I chatted about Westworld, his love of Adam West as Batman and one of the most pivotal roles in his career: Tony the shy pooper on Rick and Morty. I can’t think of a more Westworld moment than listening to Wright astutely observe in his smooth baritone voice how technology is tearing our society apart.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: There’s a ton of stuff you can’t tell us about Westworld, but what can you say about season 3?
Wright: Season 3 in some ways is about exploring a new park. And that’s the world outside of Westworld. So in some ways those characters, the hosts, become guests. It’s viewing the show, the characters, the narrative through another of the reflective facets of the storyteller.
After three seasons of Westworld, what’s your relationship with technology day-to-day? Are you putting tape on your laptop camera? Or do you have a smart assistant in your home?
Suffice it to say I am somewhat enslaved, like many of us, by certain of this technology and also highly suspicious in some ways. As the technology is evolving and the processing power accelerating and we are increasingly giving over more functionality to the machines that used to exist inside our own brain, we individually, and certainly collectively, are devolving in a way. Maybe this is a lag period and we’ll rebound to catch up to the technology.
We’re very obviously devolving into something weak or something more paranoid, something less grounded in collective agreement.
But I’m not sure. From a sociopolitical standpoint, if you look at the intense division within American society, certainly if you look at the empowerment of disinformation … and this leaning toward authoritarianism that’s been allowed as a result, we’re shrinking away from freedom of expression, shrinking away from a trust in democratic institutions, which was clearly already fractured in the first place. We’re very obviously devolving into something weak or something more paranoid, something less grounded in collective agreement.
Clearly there are improvements in efficiency and in accessibility and all of these things. But if we just step back and look at the social dialogue right now and the social dynamics between disparate groups in our country, we’re kind of fucked. And technology is burning the fumes that are fucking us.
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That doesn’t happen within a vacuum obviously. It’s not simply the tools, but the hand that wields the tools. And in this case the hands that manufacture them and market them and deliver them. I’m talking about the tech companies that are designing these things based on profit imperatives. There are no warnings on these things like there are on cigarettes. There’s no public health agenda here. There’s no security agenda here. It’s the profit motive that’s driving this business and right now is completely unchecked, completely outrunning the legislative acumen and capacity of government. So… check out Westworld season 3!
In season 2, there was a lot of melancholy about Bernard. What happiness is for him?
Bernard is grounded in loss and tragedy. As a construct, suffering is used as a kind of crucible toward freedom. And that is built into his programming. That’s a question he wrestles with himself. And I’m not sure if we get to the answer, but I think the answer lives for Bernard where freedom lives. Where agency lives. Where independence from the marionette string lives. He’s on a journey toward discovering these things including happiness. I don’t know if any of the hosts are terribly happy. I think it comes with the job description.
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On Westworld, what was it like to perform naked in front of Anthony Hopkins?
And Evan Rachel Wood! It kind of clarifies things for you in an odd way. You might think there’s a sense of vulnerability. I suppose there could be on a set that is not as respectful and focused as our sets are. But from an acting standpoint and a character standpoint it really grounds you in the here and now to the extent that Bernard can do that. It strips away everything else. I found it very focusing.
Is it more awkward to be the naked one in the scene or the clothed one opposite a naked actor?
Probably being clothed with someone who is naked. Not that it’s awkward, but there’s a greater responsibility to be supportive, to be respectful, to still do what the gig requires and to be cool about it all. And that’s a responsibility. And again in our business, it’s a responsibility that all should necessarily take on.
On the spectrum of outstanding characters you’ve played, there are so many like Bernard obviously: Belize, Basquiat. Where does Tony the shy pooper from Rick and Morty fit in?
He sits on a psychedelic throne in the midst of it all observing everything until he’s not.
You’re playing Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Batman movie. Are you a fan of Batman comics?
I was a bit of a fan of Batman comics, and comics generally, growing up. But I was a lunatic Adam West Batman fan. And Matt Reeves, who is directing the movie, was as well. And we were talking about it and he said, “In my mind, that wasn’t camp.” Now, this is not to say that we’re doing an Adam West Batman in any respect. But that for me was my early dive into the Batman cosmos. Matt and I agree it wasn’t camp for us, it was deadly serious for an 8-year-old kid. Deadly serious with the most tricked-out heroic technology and bells and whistles this side of James Bond.
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If you look back at it within context, man, it was as Batman as anything. The pastel tones harken back to the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger stuff. That was my early and much appreciated introduction into Gotham.
You have worked with some masterful writers and directors, like Tony Kushner, Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, John Singleton, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen. Is there a certain quality they all have, or their work has, that appeals to you?
They are individual artists and I was drawn to them for different reasons. I can say that having worked with Tony Kushner and George Wolfe on Angels [In America] very early in my career set a pretty rarefied, high standard for what could be possible with this stuff.
Following that kind of formative experience really opened my eyes to high expectations among my collaborations. I haven’t always met those standards … and some collaborations are downright purgatorial. But the best collaborations are ones with directors, rat writers who are obviously clear in their vision and clear in their leadership. Because that’s what the work is about. Leading the audience through a new perspective on truth and reality. Leading them toward the suspension of disbelief and all that stuff.
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I’ve been really fortunate lately to find just really stellar leaders. Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] are that first and foremost. They’re challenging, and their vision surpasses the vision of everyone else around them, obviously because they are creating these stories, but they’re also compassionate and nurturing and generous and open. And it’s just the combination that creates great work and also creates an environment in which to do that work that is satisfying. And that is, I can tell you, I assure you, that is not nearly the norm in our business.