Westworld HBO

Westworld's Zahn McClarnon on Ghost Nation and Akecheta's awakening

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Jun 11, 2018, 12:43 PM EDT (Updated)

HBO's Westworld has slowly but surely widened its world this season, giving us glimpses of the real world outside of the park, Raj World, Shogun World, and now Ghost Nation. With one of the few episodes thus far to be primarily from one character's point of view, we learn how Akecheta became aware of the truth of his reality, and how that affected other hosts.

Zahn McClarnon, who plays Akecheta, had to do more than most actors on the show to make this all work — he had to learn his lines in another language, he had to wear a mixture of glue and paint on his face and body, and he had to act most of his scenes without a script. All that, and he was recovering from a head injury at the time as well. Here McClarnon tells SYFY WIRE what the process was like, and explains what helped wake up Akecheta.

What was it like when you got the script for this episode and realized that most of it was from your character's point of view?

Zahn McClarnon: Well, I wish I would have gotten a script! [Laughs] It didn't work like that. [Showrunners] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] and how they do the show, it's quite unique, and I do enjoy every minute of it, but it's a different process. It's more "Here are a few lines, and this is what Akecheta is going through at the moment. Hit your mark, and be honest." That's the best way to put it.

So you didn't have a sense of what the whole episode was going to be shaped like?

Well, they give you ideas. They tell you exactly enough to do your job. I found that to be challenging, and unusual, but very rewarding in the end. It's just a completely different way from how most people work. They give you an overall viewpoint of where the character is going. It's vague, so they give it to you moment by moment. I worked with a fantastic director, Uta Briesewitz, who helped me through the love story part. It's almost comparable to improvisation. Each individual scene was broken down for me, step by step.

When I find Arnold dead, when I find the maze, what I do with the knowledge of finding the maze, when I find Logan tied up naked against the tree. How talking about the door cracks something in Akecheta's mind. When he starts questioning his reality and starts remembering his past lives. When he returns to the village and realizes Kohana doesn't recognize him, and he takes that information and tries to process it and put it together. When he continues on that aggressive loop. When he finds the door and realizes there's something different about the world, and that this is the wrong world. When he brings Kohana to the door and it's no longer there. When she's kidnapped, that's a loss of love, them taking something very important from Akecheta.

Obviously, Akecheta is a part of me, so some of it is how would I react? And you add the layer of Akecheta on top of that.


Credit: HBO

When Akecheta finds Logan tied up naked against the tree, do you think any part of him remembers the persona or programming he had as the salesperson in the real world who tried to get Logan's company to invest, back in Episode 2? Some little bit of recognition, even if he doesn't fully understand it?

Yeah! Sure. That's exactly what it is. He doesn't fully understand it, but it starts the process and cracks something open in his brain. Something's going on, and he's awakening. I think that moment is when he specifically does start to realize that. That, and the finding of the maze. It's something he thinks is worth following and trying to understand.

What do you think about how Native Americans are treated in the Wild West fantasies offered by the Delos Corporation? What does that say about how the company or their customer base sees the world, that they had to pump up Akecheta's aggression?

Well, Ghost Nation is a fictitious tribe coming from the mind of Dr. Ford. It's how Europeans or Caucasian people would actually see Native tribes, and then they put this idea into Westworld, but it's all fictitious, so you kind of have room to do what you want in there.

What did you think about how Akecheta interprets everything he learns in a kind of mystical or religious framework?

It's bold. It's poetic. It's thoughtful. You're explaining these philosophical ideas about identity, consciousness, and free will, and it's just unique. You don't see that going on a lot in your typical cliché television shows, and this stands apart quite a bit. They decided to do it in Lakota, which is a beautiful language, and it's a beautiful way to do that storyline. I'm glad that they did it in a different language, because it just adds a different dimension to it. And they made sure that it was accurate, and that's a necessary thing with Native storylines. That was really important, and that made me want to be a part of it even more. They hired cultural advisors, like Cordelia White Elk, who is fluent, to make sure everything was translated into Lakota, and to make sure I got those sounds right.

Akecheta, Westworld

Credit: HBO

You grew up around Lakota, but you're not fluent?

I grew up around it, in ceremonies, on the reservation and off the reservation. And I can understand words… I can get the gist of a conversation, but I'm far from being fluent in the language. My mom is a lot more fluent than I am! But the language is still alive, and there are thousands of people who still speak Lakota on the reservations. I just found this episode to be a great opportunity to showcase the language, and I'm glad it worked out well. I struggled with it quite a bit, because you get the translations, but you don't get a lot of time to learn it.

Even if it's one or two lines in English, it could end up being four or five lines in Lakota. So it's a matter of focus and taking it seriously, and if that means spending 10 hours in your hotel room learning lines, that's what you have to do. Especially because my mom speaks Lakota, and I want to impress my mother! [Laughs] They're my people! I'm a Standing Rock Sioux, and I want to do it right, and that just takes a lot of determination. Thandie Newton, she learned Japanese and Lakota, and she's just a wonderful human being, a wonderful actress. She takes her job seriously. I've seen people who don't, who don't want to learn those lines, who don't want to put that much effort into it.

Katja Herbers also speaks Lakota on the show, which is a lovely way to show how her character respects the hosts.

And she did a really, really good job with it. When she showed up on the set and started speaking it, I was like, "Holy cow! You sound fluent!" She did a wonderful job.

You had an accident off-set during shooting, where you hit your head and production was delayed for a bit. Did that affect this particular episode?

Yeah, it was just before we started shooting the main parts of Episode 8. But we were able to go back and put it all together and get it done, and that was probably my main concern. [Laughs] Making sure we got this episode down. That's all I could think about when I was out for a few days. We got it done, and that's what matters. It took a little extra time, but we got it done.