Westworld’s third season marks a subtle reboot for the futuristic HBO drama. The hosts have escaped the park, and they’re wreaking havoc in the “real world,” which feels both foreign and eerily familiar. It’s that well-struck balance that gives the show’s latest run a strange sense of foreboding. Self-driving cars may soon be a thing, but so, too, may a machine that predicts (and inevitably limits) your future based on an omniscient algorithm that collects and interprets data from everything you’ve ever done online.
It’s in this “better” world that we meet Aaron Paul’s new character, Caleb Nichols, a war vet and construction worker struggling to dig his way out of a life that’s been chosen for him — sound familiar? He eventually crosses paths with Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, who is still chasing her own version of freedom, manipulating humans into helping to liberate her kind. It’s unsettling, how easily she manages to game the system, which might be why our talk with Paul ends up coming back to technology: how cool, and innovative, and alarmingly vital it’s become. Paul’s from the Pacific Northwest. He hasn’t owned a laptop in a decade. He leaves his phone behind on the weekends to take hikes in the wilderness. He’s as unplugged as an actor can be, which might also be why working on Westworld was such an exciting challenge for him.
We chatted with Paul before the show’s March 15 season premiere about playing lovable bad boys, his character’s role in the revolution, and stepping outside his comfort zone.
This season definitely feels like a reboot. How did Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan convince you to come on board?
I just feel so blessed that they like me. We’ve been trying to work together for some time now. When they approached me this time around, I was moments away from closing a deal on another project, and of course, I had to take the meeting and hear what they had to say. The moment I sat down with them and they pitched me how they saw Caleb, how he fit within this futuristic world outside of Westworld, me being such a fan of the show, it was just incredibly exciting to hear what the hell is down the road for this [series].
Even though the show is very futuristic, Caleb and his story feel grounded in a way we haven’t seen from a character on this show before. How did you identify with him?
He’s dealing with some PTSD, and he has a lot of internal struggles. He’s constantly pounding the pavement, trying to break through his own sort of glass ceiling and for some reason, he’s just not having any luck. I think a lot of us can relate to that. We keep trying to better ourselves, and for some reason, we’re just kind of stuck in the same cycle and really, for a lot of us, there’s nothing much that we can do to change that. This sort of tackles that story in a way.
You’re a bit of an expert at playing these kinds of lovable bad guys. Do you ever feel pressure to make sure your characters are likable?
Even if I’m playing the bad guy, I always try to give some sort of honest motivation to why that person is doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be likable but with Caleb, it was important to me that people could relate to him and root for him. I think that’s really the purpose of this guy. He stumbles upon someone in need, a stranger, and he puts his own life on the line to help protect this completely unknown person. I think that also makes Dolores question her point of view on humanity. I think she is used to being surrounded by humans as these predators that just take advantage of their power and abuse. So that’s a little shocking to her.
This show likes to ask the big questions and this season, it really kind of investigates what it means to be free and how technology plays into that. How do you view the relationship between freedom and technology?
I think technology is great, but also, I think it’s terrible. [Laughs] I haven’t owned a computer in over 10 years. I’m terrible when it comes to responding to emails. I just don’t look at them. I don’t know, I think it’s a blessing and a curse. I think people need to dedicate the weekends to just leaving their phones at home and kind of enjoying the world. The number of times I’m with my friends and I look around the room and every single one of them is looking at their screen. It makes me want to rip my hair out. But I’m also to blame. If I have my phone in my pocket, it’s like this phantom buzz. You pull out your phone and you just start scrolling through nonsense and you forget what you see a moment later.
The idea of free will and how algorithms play a part in that aren’t things we normally spend a lot of time thinking about but has that changed for you after working on the show? It’s a bit of a mindf*ck, no?
[Laughs] Mindf*ck is a perfect definition. Westworld is very much a science fiction show, but I think it’s grounded in what quite possibly could be our future reality. They’re already collecting so much data on us, and whether that’s to fix elections, or who knows what the hell else they’ll use it for. But they’re collecting this information. The most valuable thing out there is data. So, yeah it’s a scary, scary thing.
Without getting yourself in trouble, what can you tell us about Caleb and Dolores’ partnership this season?
I think Caleb definitely makes Dolores question humanity as a whole. And I think Dolores makes Caleb question everything as a whole. There’s a deeper look at all of that as the season progresses. I don’t want to really say much more.
We’re so close to having much of the same technology that feels so frightening on this show. Are we reaching a point where technology is almost too influential in our lives?
Personally, I would love most of the technology to just go back to the way it was. But that’s my own take. I love not being around my phone and I love being in the wilderness and taking hikes and just listening to music. I think social media, it’s a really cool thing, but also, it’s a really dangerous thing because it’s kind of made society a bit lonely in a way. I think there’s this connection to likes and dislikes and comments and you’re just one on one with the screen. I think it’s a slippery slope that we’re on.
Westworld is a different kind of show for you. Is there a project you haven’t done yet because it terrifies you?
Oh, man. Probably. What that role is, I’m not sure. There are many things I’m scared to do, but those things are also the most exciting things. I’m all about stepping outside of your comfort zone.
HBO’s ‘Westworld’ airs on Sundays at 9:00pm EST.