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SYFY WIRE Westworld

Westworld's John Gallagher Jr. on that big episode and recommending pandemic horror movies

By Jennifer Vineyard
Westworld Season 3

Spoilers ahead for the previous episode of Westworld, "Genre."

Never date a robot, OK?

Poor Liam Dempsey Jr. — former head of the data-mining company Incite — learned this lesson the hard way when his break-up with Dolores turned deadly in this week's episode of Westworld.

Although Liam (played by John Gallagher Jr.) thought his company, using its strategy engine Rehoboam, could control people by engineering predetermined life-paths for them, the system’s sophisticated algorithms failed to anticipate what could happen to Liam himself. Dolores might have been fine with setting Liam free once she no longer had need of him, but her criminal cohorts were decidedly not — Ash shot Liam to prove that she could choose her own path.

Gallagher chatted with SYFY WIRE about his beachy death scene, the party drug that cycled Caleb (and us) through a number of genres in the well-named “Genre” episode, and his own affinity for one particular genre: horror.

Westworld Season 3

People in Westworld — and to some extent, our world — are stuck in ruts, or loops, or paths that are designed or dictated for them. Do you agree with Liam, that people shouldn’t know their own fates?

My instinct is that nobody should really be privy to the endgame. We’re all stumbling through life together, rather blindly doing the best that we can. And the notion that’s upsetting about Liam and Rehoboam is that a privileged few can see your future and, as a result, play puppetmasters. So I fall into the camp of: "Knowing too much about where things are going can actually be a detrimental thing in and of itself."

But people who get that information, it’s like a free will update …

And some people fall apart, because they’re like, “Well, if that’s where it’s going, then my life has no meaning, so why bother? Why get back on the treadmill?”

I believe in shifting gears, that through some kind of self-improvement we can take a different direction in life. I think it’s possible. But if you know your fate, that’s being eradicated for people, and it can be a catastrophic thing. Everybody wants to believe that they can shift gears and put their lives towards another course.

Westworld Season 3

Of course, the “free information/free will” question results in your character being shot, so I understand why you might not totally be on board with that. What was it like shooting your death scene? It must have been difficult doing that in the surf.

I remember that it was on June 17, my birthday. It’s kind of funny and strangely meta to die on your birthday. I was waterlogged and blood-soaked, just covered in fake blood, because they had a rig on me to pump all of the blood so it would show up in the water.

The production had a couple of hotel rooms along the beach boardwalk, and I felt bad because I had to take a shower, and it looked like the shower scene from Psycho by the time I got out of there. The shower was covered in sand and blood. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, I hope that they don’t think we killed somebody in here!”

Among Westworld’s medical innovations with metacognition and psychopharmacology, Genre seems like a pretty cool drug. If you chose to take it, of course.

If you weren’t teaming up with a robot to go crash the system and run away from people with guns and high-speed car chases, it might be a fun night to go lock the doors and say, “Man, I’m going to drop a little Genre tonight.”

For Caleb, having to wield a machine gun and grenade launchers and fight for his life in the midst of an epic drug trip? Not so much. I almost feel like your environment and circumstances determine what genre you move into. It seems like a symbiotic thing where it’s working with your psyche somehow: “Okay, he’s feeling this, so let’s give him the horror movie genre.” To really amplify what’s going on.

Westworld Season 3

What genres would you want to experience on Genre?

I always thought that it would be pretty cool to dip into a safe, fantastical version of a Western, which is funny because that’s how Westworld evolved. I think everybody has that desire to go and walk around in some Western town.

I’d also love to get into a ‘70s gritty crime thriller. It would be cool to get into the Paul Schrader genre for a minute, so long as you knew you could safely get out of it! That’s the playground mentality of an actor. You get to explore what it would be like to live in a bunch of different circumstances, but then at the end of the day, you get to hang up your hat and go home.

What was that like in regards to putting on Liam’s hat?

Mostly what I did was watch interviews with folks like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey — young, hotshot entrepreneurs who have rewritten the script in the tech world and find themselves with a thousand eyes looking to them for answers, when the reality is the thing they created is bigger than any person.

It takes on a certain life of its own. That’s scary. My brain shuts down when I read anything too advanced technologically, so I tried to find a more personal way into the character, rather than filling myself up with the technical data. 

So I was thinking about trying to navigate that lifestyle, the idea of having a public persona and a private one.

Did you change how you operate online?

I’m not a cord-cutter by any stretch, but I try to limit it. I know between my laptop and my phone, there are so many ears probably already listening to everything, so I try to make sure I don’t bring too many ears into my home. But it’s hard to put up a wall unless you go and live in the woods, which, you know, seems pretty appealing at this point!

One benefit of these companies collecting your data is that it’s archived and you might be able to retrieve the things you’ve lost — in your case, the sequel to Halloween that you wrote when you were 14.

Yes! I tried logging into my old defunct AOL account where I had the script, but I can’t, because it doesn’t exist anymore. They deleted it because of inactivity. I swear it was really good! 

I wish I could have sent it to Blumhouse, maybe made a bid to get David Gordon Green to take a look. I wrote it as a direct sequel to H20: 20 Years Later. I remember thinking, “How do you bring back Michael Myers?” And of course my great idea — and I wasn’t the only one to have this idea — is to learn that it wasn’t Michael Myers that Laurie Strode killed, but Adam Arkin’s character, Will Brennan. I remember trying to get really inventive with the kills, because, you know, I was 14. There was a chase that went through a high school gym, and it ended in the workout room. Some character met his demise by being crushed in a weightlifting machine — 14-year-old me thought that was pretty darn clever. [Laughs.]

I’ve written a couple of other screenplays, but they’re not genre-heavy, just small personal dramas, because I’m looking for something that would be really easy to make. I almost feel daunted by horror, because there is such tremendous work being done in the field, and I don’t have the same hubris that I had when I was 14. I’d have to do some real thinking on that one, do a real brainstorm and figure out an actually good idea for horror, as an original film. But there’s no better time to take a pass at something like that than now! There’s not much else to do. [Laughs.]

To date, you’ve recommended 217 horror films during your annual Halloween month-of-horror movies tweet-a-thons. Did you consider doing a quarantine version?

When the orders came in to hunker down, I thought, “I should do a quarantine film series, where I do apocalyptic- and pandemic-themed films.” I was this close to pulling the trigger, but I chickened out, because I thought, “This could come across as tasteless.”

But, I wish I had gone ahead because I’ve seen Fangoria and a couple of other publications find a tasteful way to recommend scary films as a kind of catharsis during a very scary time. They recommended two films that I was in — 10 Cloverfield Lane and Hush. They’re both claustrophobic films about characters who are stuck or shut-in.

Like much of the world, when this started to come into focus as a genuine, deadly pandemic, one of the first things I did was rent Contagion. There was something strangely and morbidly comforting about it. It was cathartic to watch how a pandemic was handled in such a graceful and serious way on film. And then I turned right around and watched 28 Days Later. I’ve seen it a thousand times, and it’s still so potent and vital. Weirdly, I found it equally comforting.

Maybe there’s still time to recommend scary movies while there’s nothing else really to do but watch a thousand movies, which is what I’ve been filling my nights with. The Lighthouse is a great quarantine film because it features two characters in isolation, losing their minds. Oh, and one of my favorite films of all time, Withnail and I. “We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here and we want them now!” I went to a Videology drink-along screening to Withnail and I years ago, and they did courses of red wine, cider, gin, sherry, whiskey, and ale at the appropriate moments. To be safe, I was conservative in my imbibing, because I didn’t want to pass out on the sidewalk.