Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade
Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade

I’m not even going to play it cool or be glib about it: I’m a huge James Marsden fan, and have been for a while now. So you can imagine how excited (and nervous!) I was when HBO gave us the opportunity to take part in a roundtable with Marsden on Wednesday (November 30) while he was in town.

I first saw Marsden in the original trilogy of X-Men movies and *loved* his singing in Hairspray and Enchanted. But it wasn’t until I saw him as the android — or “host”, in Westworld parlance — Teddy Flood in Westworld that I felt he finally had a role that really showed off his acting skills.

With artfully tousled hair and ridiculously blue eyes, Marsden is every bit the movie star. In fact, he is so good looking that whenever he smiled or laughed, I was terrified that my brain would just shut down from the sheer handsomeness of it all.

Thankfully, he is also blessed with an air of quiet, effortless charm that puts people at ease immediately. And when talking to journalists, Marsden turns thoughtful and introspective.

An intricately plotted show

© HBO
©HBO

Westworld is about a theme park where guests are invited to do whatever the hell they want (see our review of episode 1).  It’s an immersive deep dive into AI and all the big, philosophical conundrums associated with what it means to be human. It’s rife with literary and cultural references, and every episode keeps the audience guessing about what will happen next.

As it turns out, even the actors were mostly in the dark while shooting the show. Executive producers and writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy didn’t let many details slip even when the cast had questions about the characters.

“Not that they were trying to keep information from us.  They only just wanted us to focus on what was necessary at the time. And so, to that end, we would sometimes get the script three days before we started shooting. And each time you got that script it was like Christmas.”

The cast did try to work out the mysteries of the plot themselves, with co-star Evan Rachel Wood the first one to piece the clues together. But Marsden was fine with only knowing what was needed for the scenes he was shooting: “The most rewarding and most satisfying way to watch the show is to not try to figure out all the mysteries, and let the show give them to you in its own organic time.”

He also credited Nolan and Joy as two of the most supportive people he’s ever worked for:

“They’re terrific and they want this to be as smart and intelligent and multilayered and [deep] as it can be…Audiences are savvy now. They’re smart and they know how films are made. [Nolan] wanted to give them something really unique and I just love to be in his field of gravity.”

The joys of Westworld

Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade
Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade

You did get the sense throughout the interview that Nolan gave very specific direction to the cast, especially when it came to scenes where actors had to snap in and out of host mode.

Marsden said that Nolan’s main direction to him was to “play this as you would a human”, and if there were specific moments where he had to show that Teddy was a host, Nolan would let him know. When I asked him about what it took to go in and out of host mode, Marsden was quite matter-of-fact:

“It’s almost like you pretend like the director says ‘action’ for your new character and for your new storyline. You have to make that shift seamlessly but believably as well…So no real trick other than being able to shift gears quickly.”

And one cast member who seemed to have an uncanny knack of knowing what was needed for each scene was Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays Dr Robert Ford, the creator of Westworld. When another journalist asked Marsden who on the cast he would suspect of being a robot, his answer was Hopkins — because “he is so gifted at what he does, and so perfect and such a fine tuned instrument”.

Hopkins and Harris

Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade
Photo credit: JM Wong for Geek Crusade

Marsden also got to work with another acting heavyweight: Ed Harris, who plays the mysterious Man In Black. “Neither one of them were ever phoning anything in,” Marsden said. “They would constantly leave every scene thinking ‘What could I have done better?'”

That question of how he could’ve done a scene better — “It’s a classic actor neurosis.” — is something that Marsden is concerned with, even though he worked on his gun handling and horsemanship skills while preparing for the role.

As for what he would do if he were a guest in Westworld, Marsden gave an intriguing answer:

“I wanna go with all the people that I think I know in my real life, my friends and my family, and see how they behave…It can be upsetting to me sometimes how realistic video games can be nowadays, and how violent they can be. And this is essentially a video game.

Westworld is a fully immersive virtual reality. It’s reality! You’re there with the other characters in the video game, and you can actually pull the trigger and you can actually go into a brothel and misbehave. Maybe that’s okay cause it’s a robot…You’re acting on all these impulses that you can’t do in the normal world where there’s consequences and I think what that does is that it reveals who you really are.”

There’s always a slight concern when interviewing movie stars that they might turn out to be complete douchebags, but I am happy to say that this was definitely not the case. Marsden was a complete gentleman and obliged me by signing my X-Men 2 DVD (YESSSSSSSS!). I was so over the moon that it took me a quite while after the interview to finally stop shaking.

Westworld is simply TV drama at its best, and I’m eager to find out what happens in the finale. Viewers of the show will know that Teddy isn’t exactly in a good place right now, but I do hope that we see more of his narrative next season, if only to see Marsden flex his acting muscles again.

The final episode of Westworld premieres at the same time as the U.S. on Monday, December 5, 10am, with a same day primetime encore at 9pm, exclusively on HBO (StarHub TV Ch 601).