Emmys: ‘Westworld’ Star Thandie Newton on Embodying the ‘Daring and Vicious’ Maeve

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay in HBO’s Westworld. (Photo Credit: John P. Johnson/HBO)

As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs June 12 to June 26 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.

Against a frontier backdrop crowded with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and James Marsden, one woman stood tall on the plains of Westworld: Maeve Millay, the brothel madam who repeatedly proved herself more cunning and courageous than any cowboy. Played with steely resolve by Thandie Newton, Maeve emerged early on in Westworld‘s first season as one of the HBO drama’s most fascinating personalities — all the more so because she was constructing her personality as the series went along.

As one of the robotic hosts who populate this futuristic theme park, Maeve’s identity is theoretically pre-determined by other people. But as the season progresses, she seizes control of her own narrative and orchestrates a bold escape plan that few of her fellow hosts would dare to dream of… if they could dream in the first place. “I found that the character went from this really tragic vulnerability to enormous strength and power,” the actress says of Maeve’s emotional arc.

We spoke with Newton about Maeve’s independence, her “strange” alliance with Felix, and her favorite scene from Season 1.

One of the interesting things about Maeve’s journey over the course of the first season is that even though she doesn’t often cross-over into the larger arc involving Delores, Robert Ford, and the Man in Black, she’s on a similar quest toward awakening her identity. She just travels there via a different route.
Absolutely. And even though I wasn’t crossing-over with Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood, I had incredible supporting actors with the guys who played the lab techs Felix and Sylvester [Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum, respectively]. So I felt that I had my own drama, and I interacted with those characters in the same way that Evan was interacting with Anthony. They weren’t the protagonists, necessarily, but they were still incredibly important to the show.

One of Maeve’s most memorable moments comes in Episode 2 when she “wakes up” in the Westworld lab and witnesses the way the hosts are treated there. It may be the most haunting sequence in the entire season.
That was originally going to be in the pilot, but they decided that it was such a powerful set-piece that they could let it breathe and allow it to really take center stage in the second episode. I was thrilled about that. It was the first time that I was playing the nudity, which is a very powerful and important part of the season, to see these characters stripped naked. Because it was my first time doing that, all that fear and vulnerability I was feeling as Thandie the actress was really feeding beautifully into the fear experienced by the character. I became a lot more comfortable with being naked as the series progressed, but in the pilot it was very challenging.

I imagine that an additional challenge in that moment is trying to portray how Maeve is processing what she’s seeing. She doesn’t have a frame of reference for what’s happening in the lab. What were you thinking, as a performer, while walking through that environment?
It’s a nightmare-scape, because nothing makes sense. She’s seeing horrific images of bodies and carcasses of meat just being dumped on the ground. And she’s naked. She’s in a completely opposite scenario to Maeve in the saloon, where she takes command and is very self-assured. Suddenly, she’s inside this nightmare, and it’s the worst thing imaginable, to wake up in this alien world where you’re being treated with appalling depravity. I didn’t have to think about much other than what I was seeing and doing.

Maeve protects her daughter in a former life (Credit: HBO)

Did the producers prepare you for what you would see in advance, or were they interested in capturing natural reactions by having you walk through and see fresh horrors?
I’d already seen the horror shop in the special effects laboratories, and I had seen the wounds that were on my stomach, because I’d had a number of fittings. So it demystified a lot of the horror. But I’m an actress, and trying to imagine what a person would feel like seeing it for the first time is my place of business. The production design was wonderful, and it definitely provided everything I needed to react the way that I did.

Did you think of Maeve and the “blank slate” host version of her as being separate people?
No, it was always Maeve, whether dialed up or dialed down. She was always the canvas on which everything was playing out. She was never an empty shell like Clementine, when she was de-animated. That’s not something that ever happens to Maeve. She’s like a computer that’s being filled, and gets progressively more so as the story continues, to the point where she’s dialed her intelligence right up. She’s acquired a mass of information, which gives her the ability to literally break out of Westworld — which has never been done before, you would imagine! So I never played her as anything other than the host who was growing all the time.

You mentioned Felix earlier, and his relationship with Maeve is one of the most interesting parts of the show, and for some, controversial. Some fans wondered why Felix would just go along with what Maeve was telling him to do. What’s you reading of that relationship?
You know, it’s a strange one, and I’d love to hear what Leonardo thinks about it — why Felix remains loyal to this murderous robot. Maybe there’s something in his life that prompts him to ally himself with the oppressed. During shooting, I remember talking about how extraordinary these robots are. They’re incredibly expensive and highly complex devices, which Felix is completely in awe of. He’s in awe of the technology, and in a way, he just wants to see where the technology will go. It’s a kind of perverse desire, but he’s kind of grooving on the machinery. So I think that’s the main reason why he supports what she’s doing. He’s also a nice guy. He’s a tender, sensitive person, especially when set against Sylvester, who is such a dick. [Laughs]

The scenes between Maeve, Felix, and Sylvester often have a nice touch of comedy to them, which is something you don’t often get in the rest of the show.
Yeah, to go from that scene in Episode 2 where she’s waking up in this horrific world to the levity of meeting Sylvester and Felix and taking control of that situation is such a relief. It lends itself to laughing at how horrible Sylvester is, and how clever Maeve is. That’s really appealing.

Jumping ahead to the finale, Maeve makes the decision to head back into the park, rather than get on the last train out of Westworld, driven by a fragmented memory of her daughter. What’s the significance of that choice to you, and how does it point to what lies ahead for her in Season 2?
It showed me that this character is even more powerful and extraordinary than we thought. Escape was the sole thing on her mind, and she puts that into reverse to go back into a nightmarish world that she wanted to leave more than anything. She finds the strength in herself to adjust that perspective and go back in. It seems like a sacrifice, her denying herself that desire to escape. And for what reason? That’s the cliffhanger: I don’t know the reason, you don’t know the reason. We are going to discover why, and that’s obviously going to be part of the narrative for Season 2. I just know that whatever her future is, it’s going to be really, really daring and vicious.

While she does make some alliances during the first season — with Felix and Sylvester, as well as Hector — she’s largely an independent agent in her own survival. Could she ever work with someone else on a long-term basis?
I feel like she’s always going to be on her own. Or, if she does ally herself with someone, it’s always for her own motives. She doesn’t sacrifice her desire in order to satisfy someone else’s desire. Hers comes first, and if it happens to chime with another character, then she’ll go along with them. But I feel like Maeve is in it for herself. She has a relationship with Clementine, and you see loyalty there, but she doesn’t sacrifice herself in order to try and save Clementine. What she does is take the anger and the upset of what happens to Clementine and uses it to power herself forward. She’s definitely got the selfish gene.

Playing those scenes with Angela Sarafyan as Clementine, did you want to provide a sense that Maeve has a maternal relationship with her?
I felt that there was a maternal element to Maeve’s relationship with Clementine, definitely. You needed to have that trust and love in order to make Clementine’s demise as tragic as it was. But their relationship and their closeness isn’t just to give Maeve maternal leanings, it’s also to satisfy a twist that comes later with Clementine’s death.

One of the themes that runs throughout Maeve’s storyline, and Westworld in general, is the way that physical and emotional trauma affects individuals, even robots whose memories can be manipulated. You’ve been open in the past about describing abuses you’ve experienced. Was there something cathartic about playing this character?
Oh, god, yeah. It was amazing. It was like a phoenix rising from the flames. It was so satisfying being able to single-handedly turn against oppression and fight it and win. My story arc is sensational — talk about a Western, you know? Maeve’s journey is irrepressible, and the love I’ve had back from audiences, the excitement and the fact that people identify with her, men particularly. I’m always surprised by how touched they are by Maeve’s journey, and how supportive they are of me as an actress having played the role. I love that it crosses gender lines. Men don’t feel ostracized from Maeve. They identify with her.

Is there a message you hope audiences take away from the series?
It leaves a person questioning the value of human life. Are we just pieces of meat? Are we just pieces on a chessboard? How much are we valued? How much do we value ourselves? How much do we value others? Really, it’s a real call to arms in terms of human rights activism. The oppressed are rebelling in the show. It’s a revolution, and I think that people identify with that. It’s very reassuring to watch a show that’s dealing with that because, obviously, it’s in a context of entertainment, and you can switch it on or you can switch it off. It’s contained in this TV show, neatly tied up and looking beautiful. But the realities are there.

The Old West was a very racist environment, but within Westworld, the violence and abuse is rarely racially motivated. Does that reflect the attitudes of the larger world outside the park, or is it more an example of how the park’s operators have chosen to run the place?
It’s funny, I was thinking this morning about some of the people in the show whom we don’t follow in terms of the storyline — the Native American population of the park. When I first read the pilot, I remember really being put off by the word “savages” to describe the Native Americans. Maeve is actually attacked by one such character [in the flashback to her life before the saloon], but that scene isn’t picked up on in the show. I do think there’s a future there, because Lisa and Jonah don’t place anything there thoughtlessly. So I think that something’s going to happen there, and that there’s a larger world within Westworld, which is inhabited by both characters we know and that we may not have met yet. We could spend hours and hours trying to list the different ways, the myriad of ways that Westworld storylines can go.

Is there a specific scene or moment that you’re proudest of from the first season?
One clip that gets shown a lot is where Clementine has just been deactivated, and Maeve is reflecting on how she thought that the humans were gods at first, and she’s come to realize that they’re just men. That speech is absolutely iconic. And I say that not just because I had an extraordinary time playing that scene and saying those words. Even if I hadn’t been involved in the project and was seeing it as an audience member, I would think that scene and those words are everything, as a woman, I’ve ever wanted to say. So if there’s a moment that I would want to crown, it’s that piece of dialogue. I am eternally grateful for that opportunity; I looked forward to it as soon as I read it. So yeah, I can’t wait to play her again. It’s coming up soon!

The first season of Westworld is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

Read more from Yahoo TV: