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In ‘Westworld’ and in life, Thandie Newton seeks out humanity

Thandie Newton in a scene from "Westworld."
Thandie Newton, here in a scene from “Westworld,” has spent much of her time sheltering at home working to aid medical personnel. “Literally every day now is basically spent connecting dots, trying to raise money, create a charity and just get these vital protective measures in place,” she says.
(John P. Johnson / HBO)

Thandie Newton was just two weeks away from finishing production in Montana on the thriller “God’s Country” when the shoot was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. A British citizen, Newton had just 24 hours to get back to the U.K. before travel restrictions began, but she says the seriousness of the events hadn’t really hit home then.

“My husband was back in England, going, ‘You’ve got to get back here. This is really serious.’ And I just thought it was hysteria actually to begin with, which is my bad,” Newton says. “And partly because I had been in the States, so I was being influenced by that rhetoric, which turned out to, unfortunately, be very misleading.”

Like most of us, Newton has spent the past few months since then at home with family. Outside of recording some scratch tracks in her bathroom for her hormone-monster character Mona on Netflix’s animated “Big Mouth,” most of her days have been spent on the phone helping raise money to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) for British medical personnel, an effort partially spurred by a friend on the front lines.

“Someone who I know, a surgeon at a local hospital, rang me desperate because he’d suffered with COVID-19 and was back at work a week later,” Newton says in a phone interview early last month. “He had a really bad bout of it and was just horrified that his staff were going to continue to work without PPE.

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“Literally every day now is basically spent connecting dots, trying to raise money, create a charity and just get these vital protective measures in place. “

Thandie Newton, as Maeve Milay and Rodrigo Santoro, as Hector Escaton in earlier incarnations on "Westworld." Credit: HBO
Thandie Newton, as Maeve Milay and Rodrigo Santoro, as Hector Escaton in “Westworld.” Credit: HBO
(HBO / HBO)

The pandemic has increased audience interest in films centered on viral pandemics such as 2011’s “Contagion” and 1995’s “Outbreak,” but one of Newton’s first big roles was in 2000’s “Mission: Impossible 2,” a film where a dangerous virus was at the center of the conflict. Newton recalls, “I was just thinking the other night, ‘That was 20 years ago. That movie.’ And a pandemic, a virus [so dangerous] it seemed like something that was being plucked from our imagination with a hint of realism. A hint. And now here we are.”

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Newton has also used her celebrity online participating in Zoë Bell’s #BossBitchFightChallenge, which found her virtually duking it out with other stars such as Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Margot Robbie and some of the industry’s top stuntwomen. And, of course, the latest season of “Westworld” has also been a welcome escape for those staying at home during this time.

Considering its somewhat self-contained origins, the third installment of the Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan series was something of a departure. Set primarily in the future “real world,” it finds Newton’s character Maeve forced to work with a tech billionaire (Vincent Cassel) to stop her fellow Westworld host Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) from disrupting a carefully constructed global order.

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Trailer for HBO’s “Westworld” Season 3.

The eight-episode season found Newton involved in the most intricate fight scenes of her career and ended by giving Maeve a newfound purpose heading into a fourth season.

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Newton has become good friends with Joy and Nolan over the years (she’ll appear in Joy’s upcoming feature directorial debut, “Reminiscence”), but reveals she’s not one to inquire too much about Maeve’s arc before filming a season begins.

“I like mystery. I like discovery. I like surprises. I think they’re delightful,” Newton says. “My husband and my daughter, they hate any kind of surprises. They’re the kind of people that read the last page of a novel before they start the novel. I don’t have that.”

Over three seasons, Maeve has transformed from a smartest-in-the-room brothel owner in the Old West to a rebel leader and a complex entity who comprehends the “real” world far more than her fellow non-human hosts. She also has unique abilities that allow her to update her system to control other hosts almost as though it’s a super-power. Newton says one of the things she loved about Maeve this past season was “the sophistication of her sentience, that when she’s emotionally moved, she updates super-quick.”

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And while some hosts duplicate themselves and many die and are reborn time and time again, Joy and Nolan are continuing to make viewers question the limits of sentient consciousness.

“One of the things that we don’t understand about the host or about any technology is whether it has a soul or something akin to a soul,” Newton says. “And I think what we’re getting close to with the characters in ‘Westworld’ is at some point, there is so much energy, the electricity that is being created, there’s another energy that comes off that, which is its own thing. You could call it consciousness. I like that.”


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