Jimmi Simpson on That Big 'Westworld' Episode and Why William Is So Freaking Bitter

jimmi simpson, william, westworld

Spoilers about here up through "The Riddle of the Sphinx," the fourth episode of Westworld's second season. When you're ready, head over to our Westworld World hub page for more coverage of the HBO sci-fi drama.  

Now that we finally know what Delos Incorporated is really up to with Westworld and its other sex-and-violence theme parks, it's fitting that one of the company's most important projects directly depends on James Delos himself. The no-nonsense Scotsman (played by Peter Mullan) has been trapped for decades in a repeatedly unsuccessful experiment designed to make immortality possible via human-host hybridization, with each unviable iteration of James being closely observed in a top-secret facility by his son-in-law, William, aka the Man in Black. To help us make sense of the momentous episode, Jimmi Simpson, the actor who plays young William, called in to give us his thoughts on immortality, whether he'd do full-frontal nudity, and why incels are the worst.

Thrillist: Both your Black Mirror episode and this season of Westworld explore the idea of digital consciousness, chasing immortality in a digital form.
Simpson: Absolutely. And I was right in the middle of the two of them -- Black Mirror happened right between the two seasons of Westworld. I was kind of delighted to hear from Charlie Brooker that he refuses to watch Westworld until he's done with Black Mirror, because there's a lot of stuff he doesn't want to accidentally borrow, and when I told Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy that, they said, "Same for us. We're not watching Black Mirror until we're done with Westworld." That's fine! [Laughs] I'm not offended. They're geniuses, and they need to keep creating some of the best television in the history of the medium.

What I like about Westworld, it's kind of painting a human opportunity -- you're heading down a path of your own choosing, regardless of the technology. And what I like about Black Mirror is that Charlie's utilizing our human fears against us, and added what we all see coming. Charlie's roads are already painted for us. He's like, "What if we pave the whole street with this idea? What would it be like?" Because we'd all be without choice, at the mercy of technology. Technology is the ultimate bad guy. With Westworld, it's human choices that have turned the technology bad. Bad human choices that result in the bad outcome. When I realized what Jonah and Lisa were leading towards this season, I hadn't seen it coming. The math of what they put before you, and how they get it to add up to something astronomically more beautiful and more complex than you can imagine, it's just stunning.

You've had a near death experience, a motorcycle accident that almost killed you. How does that affect how you perceive the prospect of immortality?
Simpson: That's funny. That's really just kind of profound, actually. What we were going for, in the beginning, was as if a friend said, "Hey, man, would you freeze my head for me? I just want to live forever. Freeze my head." And you're just like, "OK." But the longer you have to maintain that head, and take care of it, when it's just representing failure? My gut reaction to the choices that Delos is making was, "That's ridiculous! I don't want my head in the freezer. I don't want that, at all. I don't care how long I live." But all of my perspective on what life feels like, since my motorcycle accident... I had a year-and-a-half where I couldn't move my clavicle, really, and that kept me from moving much at all. At first, I thought, I'll be back on my bike as soon as I'm good. But after six months of being subpar of what I'm used to, I knew I would never put myself back in that position again. So yeah, that accident made me feel like it's either all-in, or you should probably bail. Life is hard enough and it's so much harder to be broken. Delos isn't really aware of that, to a degree. And William wouldn't be able to handle it for too long. The empathy required, it's too much. And so that's kind of what William is experiencing, a certain degree of separation. You start to withdraw from any kind of real human connection.

jimmi simpson, evan rachel wood, westworld
John P. Johnson/HBO

There was a moment during James Delos' retirement party in Episode 2 where Dolores seems to recognize William and he walks towards her. He still hoped.
Simpson: The saddest part about that man, once he's been broken, is all he really, truly wants is for Dolores to say, "I remember everything." Or, "It's all real." That's all that man who, with a lot of difficulty and coldness, has come so bitterly to this conclusion that he won't get it, but it's all he truly wants. There's just so much weakness in that, and that weakness allows him to forget for a moment. And that's why he throws up the guards -- "You're just a thing" -- where it's just like calling her everything he can to cut the deep love he feels for her. It's twisted him in such a way that he won't let it go, and he'll become the man that you see in Ed Harris.

There's a clear evolution -- or devolution, depending on how you want to describe it -- of the experience that William has had. It started with nothing but hard work and subservience, and that led him to a certain amount of success, and it even led him to this place where when he did enter the park, he was open to the possibility of a whole other level of joy, which is true love. William was shown this doorway to Shangri-La, and when that doorway shut, it just invalidated everything. It took his perspective, and it just flipped it: "OK, you got here by yourself, and you thought you could share, but you just need to take the power now. You just need to keep the reins in your hand. No one is ever going to help you."

William had witnessed Logan's standard of hierarchy and power, and that there was a gain to be had in that kind of being, without any real kind of moral barometer. And William just makes that shift, and that's what he's able to do. He's able to control his emotions by controlling an entire theme park, an entire corporation, ostensibly. The potential is limitless. And the genesis for all of that, and more, is, "I need to control this girl who destroyed me." How do you do that? Well, I control this park. Well, how do you control the park in a big way? Well, I control this corporation. It's stunning, that level of heartbreak. I've seen it ruin many men and women.

I understand that on one level, but it reminds me of something happening in the real world. Have you heard about the incels?
Simpson: No, I haven't.

OK, well, there are these men who call themselves "involuntary celibates" and they believe that women owe them sex or that there should be some redistribution of sex somehow. When the incels commit acts of violence and terrorism, the resulting reports are about their "heartbreak," how women did them wrong, or denied them sex, or whatever, as if the women were to blame.
Simpson: That's the thing. I'll talk to Lisa Joy about William, and I have these two urges. "But he had his heart broken!" as well as, "Get over it, dude. Get over it. Big f---ing deal." And hearing this incel bullshit just makes me step a little back further on that, because I am such a fan of the man that William has the potential to be, and once was, and so I do give him that heartbreak. But also, dude, get over it. Figure your shit out! Stop hurting people. Because it's just more of that white male, "Oh, I hurt! Someone has to pay!" And the time for that is over, hopefully. You're involuntary celibate, because women are so mean? How is that? That's a voluntary choice: "I can't handle it. I'm giving up. I'm going to punch instead." That's disgusting. Eff those guys.

Most women who are imprisoned for violent crimes -- which is just such a tiny number compared to men -- are in there because they reacted violently to men using them, or cheating on them, or breaking their heart in whatever way you want to describe it, repeatedly. And no one ever goes, "Well, their husband sucked." We're always like, "No, that's too much." So the idea that a man should get a pass because his heart was broken? That's ridiculous.

westworld, william, dolores
John P. Johnson/HBO

I believe Westworld-style sexbots were proposed as a solution. You probably had one of the most chaste robot sex scenes on Westworld...
Simpson: Well, honestly, it was not written that way! It was going to be, "Let's show human-robot love." Evan [Rachel Wood] and I were both relatively naked, and ready to do this scene that was exposing... and there was a creative choice at the last second not to do that. Maybe it was about showing Dolores' first love scene with someone else, or maybe it was about saving human-robot love for a more or less purposeful reason? I'm not exactly sure. But ultimately, our scene comes off that much more romantic. This isn't about exploitation. This isn't about a host body part that a human is just taking advantage of. It seems more like a fairy tale. I would have been up for it, but I do love the way that scene came out.

You would have been up for full-frontal?
Simpson: Yeah! I feel comfortable about any kind of full-frontal, whether it be my own, or any other artist's, based on the material. So if there was something inherent to that, perhaps a fascination on Dolores' part? Of course. I'm definitely not a "everything's for free" kind of guy. I'm not walking around hoping to show off everything. But I would do that for a well-written scene, because it's such a human thing. I think America, in particular, has gotten really skittish about the human body, and it's such a beautiful, and weird, and imperfect, and differently-shaped thing. So yeah, I don't really have a problem with it.

Even though William might have had his heart broken by Dolores, he still has Juliet. Presumably at one point, he loved her -- when they were dating, when they got engaged, when they got married?
Simpson: I think probably most of us have been in that relationship that shouldn't have gone as far as it did. That's what relationships are. It's a contract that sometimes just gets locked in for good, and then you have two people who are barely willing participants. That doesn't take away much, in my opinion, from the loss of true love, of potential love. Juliet became like a fallback plan. Also, it's a horrific thing for a man to do, to have a child [with someone he doesn't love].

Did you talk to Claire Unabia about how she came to play Juliet, and all the fun theories about the stock photo and the photographer who took it?
Simpson: We didn't spend that much time together. She just wanted to be the character. I don't exactly know the story, either. There was this picture, and then the picture worked, and then, "Can the person in the picture do the part? Yeah, they can? Fantastic." That's all I know. [Laughs]

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Jennifer Vineyard, a regular Thrillist contributor, has also written for Elle magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.