A Chat with Westworld’s Leonardo Nam at the Season 2 Premiere
At the Atlanta premiere of Westworld Season 2 in late April, the tenor inside the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, with its towering dinosaur exhibits and inborn affinity for all things primitive, feels about as far removed from the HBO drama’s A.I.- spawned dystopia as one can imagine.
In the reflection of a glass-encased exhibit featuring two bald eagles, a pulsating flock of sci-fi lovers can be seen cramming toward the check-in table. Anticipation rings at fever pitch. It has been nearly 18 months since the closing credits of Westworld’s inaugural season, and where fans left off, a newly sentient Dolores Abernathy was inciting a mob of fellow android “hosts” to murder every human within range of a Remington. The crowd attending the night’s premiere, in turn, readies for blood above the clink of cocktail glasses and murmured predictions.
Meanwhile, in an upper-floor conference room catered for kings yet populated only by two local journalists and HBO publicity manager, Mellony Torres, Australia-born actor Leonardo Nam blows through the door with more passion and pizzazz than Steven Irwin hogtying a croc after three grande espressos. On Westworld, Nam plays Felix Lutz, a technician in the livestock management division of the Westworld park. For the night’s premiere, however, he is playing the role of cast ambassador and consummate showman.
He sports a perfectly tailored, olive-green tuxedo with no tie: a superb conversation starter.
OZ: That’s quite the olive tux.
LN: Thank you, I really appreciate that. I was going to wear it to the (L.A.) premiere, but I decided to go with a Singaporean-British designer. I love it that I get to rub shoulders with these artists. And especially on Westworld, it feels like stepping into an art studio. Because you get to see and work with everyone at the top of their game, from the writers to the directors, to the set designers, to the costumers, to everyone.
OZ: As an actor, that’s such an accent mark. Because when you walk onto a set with that high of a budget, it’s really easy to assume that world, right?
LN: It really is a gift, because you read the scripts and—how do I say this—it’s not TV, it’s HBO. (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? They go for an elevated, artful, creative kind of grouping of shows, and it elevates our community as a whole to be able to have entertainment like that. That also gets trickled down to not only Jonah (Jonathan Nolan) and Lisa (Joy), the creators of the show, but also down to every department, every camera operator, every PA.
It really is a wonderful opportunity when you rub shoulders with these people, and it’s all for the common core. So, no matter how hard of a day you’ve had— there were some crazy days on Westworld, crazy days—at the end of the day, you think, “Ah, but we made this.”
OZ: What qualifies as a crazy day on the set of Westworld?
LN: As an actor, or as anyone who creates and produces content as ambitious as this, you do overnights. That’s just a basic, common—you’re going to do overnights. Those can be harder days. But then you add to it the pressure that everyone puts on themselves, because they want it to be such an elevated product. So, you see masters at work. And when God shows up, in ways such as when there were fires in California; then, there were winds; you’ve got these huge sets that were being built; and then you see these masterful artists under pressure… It’s a stressful environment to be in at that time, but at the end of the day, you go, “But we made this.”
OZ: You guys are really at the vanguard of discussing the scarier implications of A.I. via a cable-TV format.
LN: How can you not be interested in how A.I. is affecting you when you’re living in this world, when you’re a conscious person in this world? The creators of this show are phenomenal at what they do and being able to see what is being reflected out in this world, and they’re amplifying that. Westworld is really showing us the possibilities of A.I… saying, “Hey, hold up world: A.I. is coming.
”It’s going to have to be on our terms how we want it to be. It doesn’t have to be now, but it’s definitely coming. And it’s actually quite—I mean, they are tapping into something that is real … You’ve got these warnings with these big heavies like Elon Musk that really made people kind of stand up and listen.
After the Boston Marathon [bombing], there was a fake tweet that went out about the White House, saying there was an explosion and that Obama had been killed. Then, the stock market plummeted $139 billion; then, it corrected itself. But my point is that the reason why it plummeted is because—one of the reasons—is that there is A.I. out there already, right now, that’s systemic. It is working the stock markets. They sift through and pull out different words— or what have you—to associate with a certain brand or company and stuff like that, and because of that, it kicked off this whole wave.
It happened, and we saw it happen. And it also self-corrected. But I wonder what would happen…if we give A.I. too much unsupervised power.
OZ: The confluence of globalism and A.I. is scary, for sure.
LN: What happens if this were the Department of Defense and they had an algorithm like that? Like, what?!
I think this is a great opportunity [that Westworld is] giving us, a moment of great entertainment, so let’s watch the show. But let’s leave it as entertainment, because we’re going to see how dark things can get. It’s scary, but it’s real, and I’m really glad that I’m part of a show that is offering something for conversation, for thought, for thoughtfulness to the world.
"Hey hold up world, A.I. is coming.”
OZ: Speaking of sweeping change, if one had to boil down the premise of Westworld, he or she might say that it’s about an adult theme park where wealthy people can act on their most primal, debased desires without recourse. What parallels do you see between that and pre-#MeToo America? It’s pretty striking, the similarities.
LN: Westworld reflects the world that we are in, and you’re going to see that in Season 2, too. There are parallels that happen, and this is something that comes from the creators—what they write, the subjects they write about, the themes. It’s so interesting to see how the world has started to open up those doors that were originally closed for so many years … There is the reality of a cultural shift that is happening and that we are privy to, and I think it’s great to be part of a show that is mindful, and conscious, and at the forefront of explaining things such as representation onscreen.
Also, the show is about the inception, or the beginnings, of a new species, which is A.I. The first season was about consciousness—one of the many themes— but if we are realizing that we are not the only conscious being here, then what does that say about humanity as a whole?
I think that also resonates with the social change that is happening in this world. Westworld resonates with people because of its humanity.
OZ: Were you a big sci-fi guy before landing the role of Lutz? Did you watch the original Westworld movie from 1973 prior to filming Season 1?
LN: I was a big fan of sci-fi before. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my absolute dream, dream, dream movie.
In regard to actually preparing for this role, of course, I had watched the original, which is scary as [expletive], man. Especially when I was young, I was like, “What is going on?!”
OZ: And that was even prior to the VFX technology needed to really execute it, too.
LN: Yeah, and it was still amazing. But for me, for my character, in preparing for this, one of the big keys was that I listened to opera. Again, because of technology and algorithms—Spotify and Pandora— (Laughs) I now have access to it. I didn’t know much about opera at all…but, in researching for this role, that was a key element that played into me creating this character.
OZ: It’s like a masterclass, this Westworld gig.
LN: It is, man, it is … I get shivers thinking about coming on set certain days.