[This story contains spoilers for the sixth episode of Westworld, “Fidelity.”]
Daniel Wu is no stranger to playing in twisty dystopic futures birthed from the mind of Lisa Joy. He previously starred in her directorial debut Reminiscence, a neo-noir science fiction thriller about a man who uses a machine designed to see people’s memories to try and find a missing woman he loves.
In their second go together, Wu plays a human named Jay, who has been surviving in the desert alongside a group of other people that managed to defy Charlotte’s (Tessa Thompson’s) new world order. Living outside the bounds of her terrifying human park, the group goes on missions into New York to safely find and recover people known as “outliers” — or humans that have somehow managed to defy Charlotte’s mind control efforts.
He’s joined by C (Aurora Perrineau), who only two episodes earlier is revealed to be the grown-up daughter of Aaron Paul’s human-turned-host Caleb. Between episodes five and six, Wu’s character goes from the leader of a human resistance group to a victim of the thing he despises, before returning as a hollowed-out enemy ready to disrupt C and Bernard’s (Jeffrey Wright) plans for Mauve (Thandiwe Newton).
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Wu about his experience on the show and his character’s arc, including whether he played to his character’s twist, if there was ever another infiltrator and what his character’s story reveals about the role humans played in their dark, new reality.
While not the entirety of your library of work, Westworld is the latest addition to a list of projects for you — like Into the Badlands and Reminiscence — where people are living in dystopic futures and fighting for their lives. What do you like about that subject matter as an actor?
I am a huge fan of sci-fi, and for the 20 years that I was working in Hong Kong, we never did any sci-fi. I’m not sure why we don’t do that in China and Hong Kong. It’s very strange because Hong Kong to me is a very futuristic city. So when I came back here, I was searching for that kind of material because I didn’t get to do that in Asia. So yeah, both of them are sci-fi in two very different ways, Into the Badlands and Westworld. But I love those topics because sci-fi is always a reflection of humanity. Westworld especially, they go hard. It’s hard sci-fi. It’s the whole question of what humanity is. What does it mean to be human through this whole AI and host versus human thing. You can be artificial intelligence, but if you have consciousness, if you have feelings, if you have memories — does that not make you human? What is it that makes us human. I like how they keep posing that question throughout the four seasons of this show. That’s really why I like science fiction. It forces you to think about our reality and how the thing you’re seeing on TV is a reflection of us.
You’re now among a special group of Westworld actors who belong to the club of humans that were killed and replaced by host versions of themselves. Did you want those portrayals of Jay to be similar performance-wise or did you want people to pick up that something might have changed between five and six?
I didn’t find out until we started shooting five that I was going to be turned. This is the glory of television. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen to your character until you’re about to do it. In the moment, I said I wish I knew from when I started the show that I was going to be a host, but at the same time, I was like, actually, it’s fine that I didn’t know because there’s nothing I needed to do. If I knew I was playing a human, I shouldn’t be peppering any easter eggs in there to reveal I’m gonna be a host later because he doesn’t even know, right? It happens to him very quickly, when he’s going to get the outlier when they’re in New York. They go up to the building, and all of a sudden, he comes across that version of himself and he gets taken out there. It just happens in an instant. So there’s no preparation for him. Once he becomes a host, actually, a lot of that was in the writing. You could see the dialogue start to change in the way he spoke to C. Clearly from their backstory, they’re like a family and he’s like an older brother to her even though he doesn’t want to admit that and for the dialogue to suddenly change, for him to become quite mean towards her — and not in an older brother kind of way — it’s clear it’s not the same person anymore.
Your character started in the desert but ends his human journey in New York. Which did you prefer to work in?
I preferred New York. It was crazy because it was just trying to control the crowds and all that. You can’t really close off a street in New York, so there were people walking through set. That was chaotic, but it was much more comfortable than shooting in the Santa Clarita desert in the summer. That first scene where I come down the hill on that the snowmobile thing in the sand with the helmet on — that was my first day at work and it was like 110 that day. It was really hot. (Laughs) I was like, ‘What am I getting myself into? How many more scenes are we going to have in this desert?’ I tend to not like the heat so much. The first season of Into the Badlands was shot in New Orleans during the summer as well and that was rough. So I have PTSD from shooting in hot environments. But I like shooting in New York. I also love going to New York. Just having the opportunity to be able to go and spend a couple of weeks there filming was fun.
During episode five and six, viewers learn the origins of some of the humans that have survived on the outskirts of Charlotte’s new society. They’re “outliers,” or people who aren’t fully controlled by her technology. Is that who all the humans are or were there people who maybe fled and weren’t ever controlled there, too?
Jay is an outlier. Also, this whole rebel group is a bunch of outliers. These are people that are resistant to that mind control — the sound control over everybody. There’s a line of dialogue that they can’t control everybody. So there’s this group of people that are not being controlled. The homeless guy, Peter, that you saw — he’s going through that. He’s discovering that he’s resistant. He’s not sure. Is he going crazy? And each person goes through that. In his flashback, Jay goes through that. Why am I different than everybody else? His brother gets controlled and taken and he doesn’t. So that’s really the catalyst for why he becomes the person he is. He has a vengeance and hate for the hosts and what they’ve done to humans. That’s why he becomes the de-facto leader of the group after C’s mom disappears or dies. It’s deep-seated in him that he hates the hosts. He is aware that he is an outlier and is aware that there are more outliers out there. So when they wake up, they have to go get them, they have to save them, or they’re going to be killed by the drone hosts.
In the last couple of episodes, the storylines have delved into topics and concepts that felt similar to other popular sci-fi properties in a really satisfying way. When you were stepping into this role, were you thinking about any other films or shows in terms of shaping your character or even just your understanding of this world?
Not really. It was more about going, ‘Oh, this is almost a reboot of the earlier seasons.’ Because it’s kind of flipped on its head. The first season is about the robots discovering they’re being controlled and then dealing with that reality and then realizing, ‘Oh, humans are fucked up. They mess with us.’ This is almost flipped completely all the way around, where now the hosts are totally in control and the humans don’t realize they’re under control. So I actually was referring to season one. I’m putting myself in Dolores’ mind or the other characters’ minds when they discover, though my character didn’t have to go through that exact moment. He just gets killed and replaced, so there’s no discovery for him. But there is [discovery] as an actor to understand what was happening. At first, when I started reading the script I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening here? It is totally different than the first few seasons.’ Then I understood the overarching theme is that we’re doing like a role reversal. The bad guys and good guys are switching around in this and that kind of was my “Aha!” moment when I was reading the script.
Your character dies this episode, but as we’ve seen with Caleb and others, if you become a host, there’s a possibility that that character could still come back. Can we expect to see you again?
So interesting that you asked that question. I got invited to be on the show because I worked with Lisa Joy on Reminiscence and so we really established a cool relationship, her being Asian American, me being Asian American, and also we just really bonded. So when season four came around, she just called me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be in Westworld?’ I’m like, hell yeah, I want to be. So that’s what happened. I didn’t know as we were filming the show what my character arc was going to be until I would say episode four, about to shoot episode five. And I was like, ‘Oh, I get killed. That sucks.’ But she’s like, ‘You’re a host now. So anything can happen with a host. I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s great.’ (Laughs.) She goes, ‘Just be ready for season five.’ What a convenient function in Westworld to have the main characters being hosts because they can just be brought back in.
During episode six, when Bernard is trying to reason with C, he tells her that there’s a host infiltrator, but he can’t tell her exactly who because it changes depending on the timeline they’re in. Jay was the host in this case, but do you know if there was ever a different person in the script or on set who had this twist or was it always Jay?
No, I think that was built in from the beginning that I’m the guy. But that’s more a reflection on Bernard’s superpower this season. This is a new superpower that he has, that he can predict the future by doing these permutations of what the possibilities could be. So it’s more about him being able to explain why you don’t know right now who the bad guy is, who the turn person is because there are so many options. It could have been me, it could have been Morningstar — all those different people.
At the start of our conversation, you spoke about how you like that the show explores humanity. What do you feel like Jay — as part of this rebel-survivor human group — says about or represents in terms of the conversation around what it means to be human happening in season four?
I think it’s ironic that he gets turned into the host right because he knows the difference between the humans and the hosts. He’s been a human, he’s suffered from the revenge the hosts enacted on the humans from season three, basically, with his brother being collateral damage from that. So he’s more just this human angry our society has been turned upside down by these hosts. It’s almost a different way of thinking than the hosts. The hosts were created by humans. They were put here to be kind of like slaves or be mistreated by humans. You can’t do that to your own people, so you do that to us. That’s a deeper conversation because that goes into Race Theory and all that kind of stuff, too, right? But going back to Jay’s character, I don’t think he’s empathetic to that at all. That they’ve gone through a struggle and that what’s happened to the humans is a result of humans mistreating the hosts; the vicious cycle of who was bad first.
It was actually the humans for creating these fake humans that they could kill, fuck, mess with and then throw to the wayside, reset and bring back thinking that they will have no consciousness or memory. But Jay isn’t one of those humans. He’s not part of that equation. He’s just seeing the result of what that hand in season one did to humanity altogether. He’s more collateral damage or a victim of bad human decisions. William created this whole idea to try and control society and what he did, it’s adversely affected everybody, not just the hosts. So now humans are under control because we fucked up in season one by mistreating these hosts. Again, sci-fi is a reflection of our society. Like America is in shit right now because a couple of people, higher-ups, made some shitty decisions that don’t reflect on us and now we’re in this seriously divided country because these people out there are messing around and keeping us more and more divided. And that’s what good sci-fi does. It reflects on what we’re doing right now. So, in some ways, I almost feel like this story reflects on what’s happening in the world right now.
Westworld airs Sundays on HBO and streams on HBO Max.