Westworld fans who were sad to see Jimmi Simpson’s William go from lovesick leading man to Man in Black should know that in real life, the actor’s as charming as ever. This might surprise those who only know Simpson as the unibrowed warm milk-drinking Liam McPoyle on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or David Letterman’s foe Lyle the Intern on The Late Show, or one of the many other creepy, murderous, goofy characters he’s become known for. See, Simpson often plays creeps on TV to the detriment of his folks, who wish he’d play some more good guys for a change, since he’s such a nice boy in real life.
A few weeks before HBO airs Westworld’s season 2 premiere on Sunday, April 22, Simpson spent time with Playboy to talk about his newfound sexiness following his divorce, his surprising exchange with Ed Harris and why he doesn’t want you to ever watch his Black Mirror episode too closely.
Westworld fans are always looking for clues, and one of the recent posters, which says, “Chaos takes control,” with a shot of a vulture standing on the Man in Black’s hat, seems like a big one. What kind of chaos should we expect in Westworld this season, and how much does William have to do with it?
I’m not at liberty to answer those specific questions. [Laughs.] I’m sorry, you poor guys hear that non-stop. The good thing is, when I say this about [creators] Jon [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] being secretive, I think it’s one of the most beautiful kind of attributes of how they’re executing this show. The first season allowed a bunch of wickedly talented actors to give their best performances in a while because they were laying out the information to us episode-by-episode. So, you know, as an actor, you’re normally asked, “Don’t play the ending until you get there,” but how can you not completely? So we were all kind of gifted to play the moment, and that worked. Our secrecy has nothing to do with fear—it’s more like, “Well, this is how it works best, so this is how we do it.”
On the orgy day, the casting announcer goes, “Alright, who’s loose and open and willing to do this crazy scene today? Your bits will be seen, probably.”
Well, the good thing is, my clearance rating has gone way down because I’m not in every episode, and I think it’s fair to say that I’m speculating quite as much as you guys are because I don’t have all the information. The glimpses that I have seen totally go in line with, “Chaos takes control.” I was wondering, "How can things get hairier than the end of season 1?" and they nail it. They already knew what this was leading to, kind of like the Iliad, so it’s all completely orchestrated. I can’t even imagine season 3 because I’m already wondering, “How are they going to top the little bits that I’ve heard from season 2?”
A lot of fans are wondering how William becomes the Man in Black. We see how it could happen, but we don’t get the full story. What were some of the questions you wanted to see answered about William’s journey going into this season?
Well, I had huge, huge questions because I had fallen so in love with this idea of who William was, and where he comes from, and this first love that he felt for Dolores, and the tragedy of his misunderstanding, and her inability to communicate and live on the level that he imagined she’s on. It was just so heartbreaking. That reveal in episode 10, where you’ve gotta show the break, and it’s him seeing her pick up a can, kind of mindlessly, for the next guy, and it kind of landing on his shoulders, “Oh, my God, I was nothing to her.” And so, they give you that reveal, and hearts can break that way, but to actually deteriorate into the state that the Man in Black’s heart is, it takes time, and I was very, very curious as to how long that took.
I was interested in the process in which William went about trying to discover if there’s any way to get her back. That’s where I was most drawn, imagining a 20-year attempt, and that when you see Ed [Harris], that’s only a couple of years in the making of that darkness, and there’s nothing but attempts at love for 20 years. That’s what I was imagining. When I got back, they had trumped my ideas of wondering, and got even more specific and more clear than I thought they would be. I was surprised at how clarifying they got as to that shift. So, yeah, they handled it, they covered the shift.
You’ve said that after realizing you were playing the same character as Ed Harris, you started paying attention to his walk and his vocal delivery. Did you find yourself watching Ed Harris movies in the off-season in hopes of mastering his mannerisms?
First of all, I’m a huge Ed Harris fan, so I’m always watching an Ed Harris movie. I think the last one I saw was with Sally Field, Places in the Heart. God, he’s great. Anyway, for season 1, Ed’s such a chameleon in his roles, so it was about sitting on that specific Westworld set and watching how he got on and off horses, watching his cadence. When you think of a caricaturist who draws you in Times Square, it’s kind of like, “Oh, he has a big forehead, and he has kind of a large chin.” For me, it’s not about making a caricature—I’m not trying to do an Ed impression—but it’s just focusing on things that could be caricatures, and then trying to adopt a couple of little high points. His gait, the way he speaks.
Then in the off-season, I couldn’t watch him do anything, but of course, Jon and Lisa were prepped for season 2 and had examples of him speaking and things. So they cover that end as well. A lot of television shows I’ve worked on, it’s, “OK, here’s this hard part, and here’s your 30 seconds in front of the camera. Go, be brilliant!” And that’s fine because that’s what my job is, but Westworld is like, “What if we helped you be brilliant all the time?” and it’s really nice.
Any time something on Westworld lands with heart and introspection to a level that’s like, “That’s so articulate and true and said in a way that I could never say so eloquently,” it’s generally Lisa Joy. She was ahead of the #MeToo movement solely for the fact that she’s a little more evolved than most people. I don’t know how that happens—I know a lot of it’s probably DNA. But a lot of it's probably that she’s highly intellectual, and she met [her husband] Jonathan at like calculus camp or something. [Ed. note: Joy actually met Nolan at the premiere of his brother Christopher’s movie Memento, based on Jonathan's short story.] She’s just naturally a good feminist who’s just trying to make things fair, you know? That’s what #MeToo is about, it’s about being fucking fair for once because we’ve never been fair. I mean, Lisa’s the sheepiest, shyest girl you’ll ever see in public, but she’s so capable and powerful, and she just wants every other woman to know that’s their lot as well, if they choose. So, I credit that solely to Lisa, and I would not be surprised if her pre-evolutionized brain is also commenting on it more in season 2. We’re all catching up to Lisa Joy.
There has been some discussion about whether the sex scenes on Westworld go too far or are too violent toward women. When filming those scenes, are you conscious of your female co-stars and whether they feel comfortable in those situations?
Yeah, I mean, my kind of go-to in those situations and perhaps, it’s wrong—perhaps, it’s a bit outdated—but I’m gifted with more trust and more respect [from others] than women in general, so in situations like that, it’s my job to make sure that everyone is really safe and comfortable. I mean, Evan [Rachel Wood] basically had [me as] a housemistress following her around anytime I was there. I was always tending to her feeling of safety.
You and Evan Rachel Wood were part of one of the most talked-about sex scenes on the show, the orgy scene. How is a scene like that handled on set?
[Evan and I] had a lot of discussions about that scene. [Laughs.] It’s funny because, you know, stuff with Evan and Ed, or some really, tragic, intimate abuse scenes, are dealt with on set as, “Listen, what we’re dealing with here is something that’s painful, and it’s something that’s real, and we’re not making fun of it, and we’re not making light of it, so everybody get the hell out and take care of the scene and get this job done.” When it comes to the orgy day, it’s so funny—again, Lisa is the shyest nerd you’ll ever meet. So, she’s walking around averting her eyes that whole day. So what it was, as far as I know, the casting announcer goes, “Alright, who’s loose and open and willing to do this crazy scene today? Your bits will be seen, probably.”
So, the crowd that that attracted are those that hear that and say, “I’d like to do that.” It’s like a dating show that reveals their naked body bit-by-bit. It’s like, “Well, it’s hard to feel embarrassed for them because they asked to go on it.” That was this. It was a hundred naked people, all of them given robes and cover bits. I saw, mostly the men, choosing not to wear cover bits. These were all people who were like, “We’re having fun, and we’re making a movie, and we’re comfortable in our bodies.” So when it’s like a group scene like that, it’s making sure everyone’s OK and having fun, and making sure Lisa isn’t hyperventilating in the corner.
I went through a divorce [with actress Melanie Lynskey], and it was the nicest divorce. But then I just started exercising, and letting my hair not be a shaggy mess all the time. I became a more confident man because I wasn’t always dependent on the woman in my life.
Well, we get this message saying, “Oh, so Westworld had this big orgy scene, and how dare they?” or something. I talked to Lisa that day, and she’s like, “I don’t even like sex. I don’t even understand.” She was so surprised that her show was being called overly sexed because it couldn’t be further from the truth of that day. Could not have been further. [Laughs.]
Recently on Late Night With Seth Meyers, you talked about how your parents are tired of you playing creepy characters. How did you get this reputation for playing creeps and weirdos?
It’s all very, very organic, I got to tell you. It’s like, I just didn’t give a shit about whether or not I was doable or sexy. I’ve always been in long-term relationships with women. I had no need to be playable in any way, so until I was 35, that was me. It was like serial monogamist, kind of buffoon, so the articulation of that on film was, “OK, this guy doesn’t really comb his hair. He’s overly scrawny.” So what that looks like on film is goofball. I happen to be tall, I happen to be able to play drama well, so that can be then creepy, off-putting, murderer. All these things that a guy that’s not perfectly visually appealing and calming to you will do for you in a narrative. It’s never bugged me in any way because no, I’m not creepy in real life. I think it’s hilarious that I play the creepiest motherfuckers I’ve ever met. It’s fun, and I research it. One thing happened once where I was researching this serial killer I was playing, and I ordered the books and videos on Amazon and accidentally sent them to my dad, and he was like, “What the hell are you reading?” I’m like, “I’m sorry, but I’m paying my own rent.”
On Westworld, you get to play the leading man for the first time. Has it got people thinking of you differently? Has it changed the way you see yourself as an actor?
I went through a divorce [with actress Melanie Lynskey], and long story short, it was the nicest divorce. I’m great friends with her—better friends. But, then I’m on my own, and I’m now 36, and my skinny build is now turning into Mr. Burns from lack of activity. Then I just started exercising, and I started letting my hair not be a shaggy mess all the time. Then I started becoming a more confident man because I wasn’t always dependent on the woman in my life. I’d gone through horrible things—terrible car wrecks—all kinds of things by myself, and that’s able to translate on film, that sure-footedness.
I started getting less creepy roles a few years ago with small parts, and then Westworld was the first time I was put on the stage as “Jimmi Simpson not being creepy.” I’d have plays where people would come—before that—and say, “Oh, my God, you can play 'sexy guy'!” Yeah, sure, if you want me to. Then Westworld just showed everybody I don’t need to be off-putting, and the result is absolutely a difference in interest. Funny enough, it’s not roles I’ve jumped on to accepting. “Oh, he can not be creepy—let’s have him play this milquetoast lead role on this show.” I’m not doing any of that. I just want to stick with projects that matter, and hope people keep giving the shots they’re giving me.
On Black Mirror, I had a really, really, really important scene, and I’d worked my freakin’ ass off, and I saw the cut. I was devastated—I could see every flaw, every half-truth I was telling.
The guy who is the god of doing that is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He took the idea of character actor expansion to a whole ’nother level. So when he first started showing up in Twister, “Who the fuck is that guy?” Then he did Boogie Nights, and it was done. But right now I love Jamie McShane. I don’t know if you’ve seen Bloodline, one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen. Whenever I see Jamie McShane in something, it’s like, they can cast him to be creepy as hell, and then I just worked with him on Unsolved, and he’s the sweetest, funniest curmudgeon you’ll ever see. I think this will open up doors for him, which God, I love. I love when good guys get a little something.
As a fan of Westworld, was there an actor on the show who you wish you could work with more?
Well, I’m the millionth person to single this guy out, but Jeffrey Wright. I probably had the least to do with him, and I probably spoke to him the least, too, because he was present all the time, unlike Anthony [Hopkins]. And yet, he was the one who most intimidated me just because Basquiat. “Hello, Mr. Wright.” “Hey, man.” He was always cool—it was always me that was nervous. Then towards the end, he started hearing I was doing OK, and I felt more comfortable to chat with him. Then we really clicked on the Westworld season 1 press tour, and I can remember so very clearly, we had this cast dinner after New York Comic Con, and he hadn’t said anything to me about my performance. We were walking out, and he was tending to his kids, and he looked up and said, “Hey, really great, really great in the show.” It just made my fucking month, man, because he didn’t need to say that, and it wasn’t blowing smoke. He wasn’t overly excited, he just wanted to tell me a thing, and that meant the world to me.
That’s definitely a compliment worth bragging about.
Truly, truly. And not to brag, but then Ed Harris. I had a question about the business, and we had exchanged a few emails, and I thought, I’m going to ask Ed Harris because I think he’d know. He wrote me back this lovely answer—it was about me doubting myself on a certain performance I was just doing. Then he said, “Thanks for setting me up so nice with William.”
It’s an email, so you can print it out and frame it.
Yes, I can. I’ve gotta print it out.
I don’t know if you feel comfortable saying, but what was the performance that you were doubting and wanted a little advice on?
Oh, well. [Laughs.] It was a scene I did in this Black Mirror episode ["USS Callister"]. Basically, I think if you’re a good actor, you have some days where you think, “Yeah, I feel pretty great about that.” But most days, you’ve got to be thinking, “Goddamn it, that wasn’t good enough,” so that next shot you can maybe be better. I had a really, really, really important scene, and I’d worked my freakin’ ass off, and I so wanted to nurture this story, and I saw the cut. I was devastated—I could see every flaw, every half-truth I was telling, and I wasn’t [aware] at the time, but it just read like half-truths to me. So I asked Ed, “What do you do if you’re seeing something, and you’re a few months out from release, and you just wish they would recut?” And he goes, “Well, you know, you call them.” But, I said, “Well, I’m not Ed Harris.” He goes, “If you reach out to someone, let them know—you never know.”
So, I reached out to the director, Toby [Haynes], who is the sweetest peach you’ll ever meet from England, and he was beside himself, in a sweet way, that I dared to question that scene. He thought it was perfect and brilliant, and he wouldn’t change a thing, and he won’t change a thing. And so, upon rewatching, no one has strung me up for it. No one has even mentioned it’s not good. So I’ve let it go. But to have Ed Harris reach back out was amazing. It’s rare enough when you meet a peer who’s on your same level, and they actually hit you back when you have a question, but Ed Harris says, “Hey, this is what I do when that happens to me.” He said, “when that happens to me.” That’s a rare find.
You’ve appeared on It’s Always Sunny, House Of Cards, This Is Us, The Newsroom, Hap and Leonard, just to name a few. But is there a role that you get recognized for most?
It’s funny, I was telling my friend I wouldn’t change my credits for anybody else’s I know because it’s been split so beautifully. I didn’t choose this—I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways that I’ve said no to certain things, and I think those calls are good. It’s across-the-board even. It’s Black Mirror, Westworld, House Of Cards, It’s Always Sunny, Hap and Leonard, Breakout Kings. They’re all evenly dispersed, it’s lovely. Most press want to talk about Westworld, guaranteed. Every press person wants to talk about Westworld. But everybody else that’s a fan seems to divide what they like, which is cool.
Is there a role of yours that when fans tell you how much they loved it, you get excited?
I’m most excited when someone says, “I saw you in Aaron Sorkin’s Farnsworth Invention on Broadway,” which was a play I did 10 years ago. Aaron Sorkin took a shot on me being the lead, title character, and I got to be on Broadway. So, obviously, when someone was in that room and saw me perform, it’s a rare thing. That’s my favorite. I’m like, “Oh, you were there.”