“Acting Machine” Jeffrey Wright Talks Playing Bernard and Arnold on Westworld
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
At IFC Center’s second annual Split Screens Festival, festival director and moderator Matt Zoller Seitz introduced “acting machine” Jeffrey Wright as an, “OK, then,” actor. As in, you’re on the fence about checking out a new movie or series, “but then you see Jeffrey is in it and you’re like, ‘OK then, I guess I have to watch.’”
Wright sat down with Seitz to reflect on past roles such as the titular artist in Basquiat (“David Bowie was so generous to me”); Peoples Hernandez in Shaft (“That role was all about the breath”); the “ruthless” Valentin Narcisse in Boardwalk Empire; Belize in Angels in America (“I learned a lot about myself”) and finally, Bernard Lowe/Arnold Weber in Westworld.
That role, in which Wright plays an android host modeled after a man who helped create the A.I. park, has earned him critical acclaim as well as an Emmy nomination. Wright discussed the parts of himself he channels to embody both characters and how Westworld asks us “to challenge each other” as audiences and citizens.
He isn’t always privy to what’s in store.
Wright gushed about working with “brilliant” Westworld showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy. Noting Joy’s eloquence when discussing characters’ motives with actors on the show, he knew something was up when, in Season 1, she had trouble getting the words out about Bernard’s arc. “She’s super articulate, so I was surprised when she stumbled to tell me Bernard is, in fact, a host,” he recalled with a laugh. “It got complicated, but it was exciting because it added a whole new dimension to what I was able to do.”
Art and science serve as inspiration.
When asked how he shifts between the consciousness of host and human, the actor explained the challenges of deciphering how his characters think and feel, particularly when scenes are being filmed out of chronological order. “It gets really mathematical because you’re trying to discern timelines and memories,” he explained. “The ways in which narratives are woven into technology are very specific so there’s a lot to consider.”
Little details make the difference.
An audience member asked how Wright makes the physicality of Bernard distinct from Arnold. The actor noted Evan Rachel Wood (“Dolores Abernathy”) and Louis Herthum (“Peter Abernathy”) “set parameters for language and gesture” in taking on host characteristics. With this framework, Wright decided Bernard should make more precise eye contact than his human inspiration and “be as efficient as possible,” especially when it comes to violence. Before shooting a violent scene, he asks himself, “What’s the most amount of force I can exert with the least amount of physical energy?”
The storylines scare him too.
“Phones freak me out more than they did prior to Westworld,” Wright confessed. “Going into the second season, I was attuned to the social implications of technology.” The latest episodes of Westworld question consequences of A.I., particularly the accumulation of data. “I think the conversations we’re having now about government and corporate surveillance tie into Westworld,” he said. “It's about a lot of things, but it’s very much a show about today.”
See new episodes of Westworld Sundays at 9 pm and catch up on HBO’s streaming platforms.
Chaos takes control in a new narrative of the series that explores the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin. Check out the first episode without an HBO subscription.