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Credit: HBO

Emmy Contenders: Westworld's Jeffrey Wright on Bernard's head and his Batman reading list

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Aug 27, 2020, 6:18 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2020. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to some of the actors and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we chat with Jeffrey Wright, who previously won an Emmy for Angels in America and is nominated for the third time for HBO’s Westworld.

Bernard Lowe, the contemplative android played by Jeffrey Wright on Westworld, ended the season in self-imposed isolation, in order to achieve clarity in the virtual world known as the Sublime. Wright himself also had a quarantine experience, but a very different one. When the pandemic hit, the actor was in London shooting The Batman (in which he plays one of Gotham’s finest, Jim Gordon). The production’s shutdown sent Wright home to New York, but there, instead of cutting himself off from the world, he helped create something to sustain his community: Brooklyn for Life, a charity that delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to healthcare workers and first responders.

For the moment, he’s in Hawaii, where, after the mandatory 14-day quarantine, he was ready to chat with SYFY WIRE about emotional androids, the perils of technology, and Gotham reading lists.

You developed quite the reading list during quarantine. You were reading The Long Halloween? Any others?

I read a bunch of them! I’m still reading The Long Halloween. I’m reading Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. I’ve loved going back and reading the Golden Age stuff from 1939 on, and the stuff they consider the Bronze Age. I like looking at all the iterations of storytelling that have gone into Batman.

Batman is unique because it essentially takes place in something close to New York City, you know? It enjoys a different type of groundedness than some of the other superhero settings, and from the start, since it’s detective work, we get to explore different aspects of the city in a granular way. As storytellers, that gives us an interesting responsibility and allows some possibilities to reconsider it as a place like New York in a contemporary setting that changes and evolves over time, too. We’re obviously not going to tell a story that lends itself to the Gotham of 1939. We’re telling a story within Gotham of the 21st century. So what is that? Who inhabits that? That’s been really exciting.

How contemporary? Everything that’s happened this year changed the nature of metropolitan cities.

No question about it. It’s only heightened some of the themes we’ve begun to wander through. 

Credit: HBO

Something that people may not have realized about Westworld, we’re looking at a post-pandemic world, according to the production designer, and that’s affected how technology was developed and how it was manipulated. So I was wondering if the way you view technology has changed with the pandemic?

Well, I think my perspective on our technology — and the ways in which we use it and merge with it and the ways in which it is manipulated — has intensified during the pandemic. Unlike the flu outbreak of 1918, we were able to be significantly more productive. Folks were able to work from home remotely. We were able to maintain contact with others. We were able to keep a part of the economy engaged.

But at the same time that technology has become our primary means of disseminating information, which is critical to understanding how we are to respond to an outbreak such as this. Those means have been manipulated. Even prior to the pandemic, those means were manipulated to spread disinformation, misinformation, and chaos. And during the pandemic, that intensified, largely in the United States because the leadership at the top of the federal government was so befuddled, derelict of responsibility, intellectually lazy, anti-science, self-deceiving, and also deceiving of the public, and all of the other ingredients that make up the cesspool of incompetency and failure that has characterized our national response to this thing.

That information was streaming throughout every corner of the country, owing to the speed and the power of the technology that most of us hold in our hands now. And we see the tragic outcome of that in the death toll that’s now close to 180,000 Americans who have died unnecessarily, many of them from this outbreak. So on the one hand, the technology has served a good, but I’m not sure if the good is outweighed by the negative effects that it has promoted, simply because it’s been abused by negligent actors, the primary one being the so-called President of the United States. The technology is only as productive as the hand that wields it or owns it. 

At the same time, there’s something built into this technology that I find a bit frightening, and that’s the speed at which data is transmitted, collected, and disseminated, and I think it outruns the pace of our human brains to really process and understand in a way that serves our best interests, and in this case, serve our health and well-being. I think what’s happened is that we’re beginning to view this pandemic tainted by the narratives that the White House has been trying to spin, but at the end of the day, this has been a disaster.

And it’s a tragedy. You only have to compare the number of infections, the case fatality rate, and the number of deaths here in the U.S. to, for example, South Korea. If you look at the data, you realize what is taking place here, and it’s horrific. Clearly one of the primary tools to render us more vulnerable and to exploit the insecurity of a huge section of our population was this technology because it was used to feed a narrative and to feed a selfish political end. It’s just incredibly bleak. [Laughs.] I don’t know any other way to look at it.

It feels like we’re living in an alternate reality.

Yeah. Many of us are attempting to live in an alternate reality, and the virus has its own reality. The virus is not connected to technology. The virus is not on social media. The virus is not Googling anything. It’s not swayed by the ridiculous spin. It’s not buying it. It’s buying into one reality, and that’s science-based. 

Credit: HBO

In Westworld Season 3, we see it’s not just the hosts who are manipulated into following scripted paths, but humans, too. By disseminating information, Dolores can stage riots, possibly even cause the collapse of civilization. It’s a little strange watching those riots now, given the protests in real life.

Yeah. [Laughs.] As [showrunner] Jonah [Nolan] said to me recently, “Reality out-dystopia-ed us, once again!” The show takes place in the future, but that futuristic world is one that behaves very much like the world we inhabit now. While we’re immersed in this wonderful sci-fi world, we’re talking about the here and now. We get to dig down into some pretty critical issues that we’re all confronting, but we do it in a somewhat poetical way that despite the bleakness, makes it fun at the same time. [Laughs.] 

Bernard has Arnold’s memories as part of his programming, but then he has this transformative scene with Arnold’s wife. What was it like playing Bernard in that moment?

I found it so emotionally rich. My senses were overwhelmed when I stepped onto that set because it was the manifestation of all this data that had been programmed into Bernard, all these things that seemed real becoming less abstract for him. He stepped into this reality that he had been haunted by, but also longed for. It was a huge relief for him, to find her, to find this place. And it was a powerful gift from Dolores, allowing him to reconcile these things within himself.

I think in some ways, it helped exorcise the ghost from his machine that he could touch, understand, and communicate with what had been tormenting him. So I could empathize with the satisfaction of that longing, that he could experience that, and that he took away from the interaction a deeper understanding of what being human was, as he tried to come to grips with his own sentience. It allows him to leave that place and move forward in the world a little more whole, and perhaps a little closer to finding the other thing that he longs for so deeply, which is freedom.

How long did Bernard sit there, connected to the Sublime? How long did you have to sit there?

I sat in that room from the first day of filming until the last day, and that’s how we did it. [Laughs.] Just let the dust collect on me. [Laughs.]

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