In the first episode of Westworld, Dolores’s father, Peter Abernathy, finds a photograph on his ranch. It’s a picture of the outside world, a world that—to a host like Abernathy, who’s spent his entire existence confined to an amusement park approximating the Wild West—looks and feels impossible. His sense of reality shaken, Abernathy remains glued to his rocking chair, staring at the photo through the night. When Dolores finds him in the morning, he’s in the midst of a complete system failure. He’s glitching.
The host’s issues are only exacerbated when he’s taken out of rotation to be examined by the park’s creator, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and his right-hand man, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). He’s a gibbering mess; when he’s not cycling through past characters Westworld’s creative team have coded him to play over the years, he’s utterly unable to form words. His body’s spasming, his face convulsing and contorting. There’s fear and confusion in his darting eyes, which briefly turn into menace as he tells Ford, “I shall have such revenges on you.”
As far as brochure selling points go, one of Westworld’s biggest is that their hosts so seamlessly resemble humans. There’s no discernible difference. What that means for those who cast Westworld, the show, is that their job doesn’t change: They’re still just looking for humans. The actor’s job, on the other hand, is much more complicated. How do you play something that seems so human, but in actuality is a computer program riddled with bugs? What does the human embodiment of a frozen laptop screen look like? These are questions Louis Herthum, who plays Abernathy, had to consider when he was auditioning for the role. The solutions he came up with—with the help of Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and casting director John Papsidera—called for a demanding combination of strenuous rehearsal and physical exertion.
Since Westworld’s series premiere, Abernathy’s mainframe has only been further degraded. On top of his buggy coding, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) uploaded a massive amount of intellectual property and surreptitiously gathered guest data, turning Abernathy into a walking, nearly sentient flash drive. “He’s wildly unstable,” Bernard tells Dolores in the second season’s third episode, while Abernathy yammers on a nearby cot. On Sunday night, he spent the entire episode self-destructing while being literally nailed to a chair.
Abernathy is the most corrupted—and, because of the data he’s harboring, most important—host in Westworld, and in turn, Herthum has one of the most difficult, taxing jobs of any performer on television. The veteran character actor jumped on the phone with me ahead of “Phase Space” to talk about playing Abernathy and becoming a computer glitch.
I’m wondering if you could first tell me about your audition. Did you have to go in there and break down?
Well, I’ll tell you the whole story. I got a call from my manager saying, “I’ve got this great audition for you for a show called Westworld. Now, you’re gonna have to play like three different characters ’cause you’re a robot.” I’m like, “Wow. That’s heaven.”
And your audition had you cycling through those characters?
I was a reading a version of the Peter Abernathy–Dr. Ford scene you see in the pilot. When I went in, the casting director, John Papsidera, and his associate Deanna Brigidi were the only ones there in the first audition. I said, “Do you want to know this is a robot or do you …” and she said, “No, you cannot tell the difference between these robots and humans.” So I did the audition and she goes, “OK, great. I want you to come back for the producers, but I want you to think about really showing us some physicality between these characters.”
So how do you go about coming up with what that actually looks like?
[Deanna] gave me, I think, the best note in the history of casting. She said, “You know when your computer gets that little spinning ball? That’s what’s happening to you.” I went home and I had about five days to prepare. I was just messing around in my house and trying to work out some physicality. Then it dawned on me that he’s not only trying to move physically, but he’s also trying to speak. When I added the breathy sounds you hear when Peter starts to access the characters, it all just came together.
Aside from the pinwheel, were there any other reference points you looked to?
Honestly, no. I had somebody ask me the strangest question: if I had ever been to Chuck E. Cheese’s. I guess some of my movements reminded them of those animatronic animals. But no, I guess I just thought about a machine that was having trouble operating, and thinking that it would stutter and start. I’ll be honest with you, coming up with that audible sound sort of drove everything else. When I discovered that, everything just ... because the movement went with the sound.
How tiring is it to play a glitching robot?
When I finally got the part, they asked me to come rehearse with Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, and Jonah Nolan. I was like, “Oh, okay. No big.” They wanted to rehearse that scene and another scene between Jeffrey and Tony, which he likes to be called. First words out of Sir Anthony Hopkins’ mouth to me was, “Call me Tony.”
But we did the scene twice. I did it full boar. And I remember Lisa had a grimace on her face when I finished the second time. She goes, “That looks exhausting.”
It does! You’re making your entire body full-on spasm.
In order to get those kind of jerky movements, you really have to tense every muscle in your body. Literally—legs, torso, everything.
What does your face feel like after a day of glitching?
Well, I’ll be honest with you, the face doesn’t feel it as much as the body. The scene with Sir Anthony, that was literally all day, and that scene was originally quite a bit longer. When I left that day of work, I was so full of adrenaline that I didn’t feel anything. I don’t know, I stay in pretty good shape. I work out quite a bit. I felt that a little bit. But it’s actually like, you feel as if you did eight to 10 hours of isometrics. That’s basically what it is. You just feel pumped, actually, it just feels like you did a good workout.
On a show like this, where everything could possibly have deeper meaning, how scripted are those scenes where you’re glitching and rapidly changing characters?
There is absolutely nothing in the script that describes my physicality, other than maybe saying, “He’s struggling or glitching,” or something like that. Obviously when I say things like, “I’ll have such revenges on you both,” that’s on the page. But there’s never been a “How to Glitch” guide.
OK, what I’m really wondering is: How cold are the metal tables you have to sit on?
[Laughs] I don’t remember it being cold at all. The cold storage room—which is really some abandoned mall in Hawthorne, California—now that was chilly. But the temperature in the room with Sir Anthony was just fine, and right when they say “cut,” you get a bathrobe. Which is good; I don’t like being naked in cold places.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.