After one and a half excruciating years, the hit sci-fi/Western Westworld is returning to HBO this Sunday for a highly anticipated Season 2. The trailers, unsurprisingly, haven’t told us much: Will Maeve ever find her daughter? Will more hosts become conscious? How will Dolores' revolution unfold—and who will suffer the reckoning?
But amidst all the confusion, we do know one thing: Clifton Collins Jr. is back. We saw him in both of Season 1’s timelines—first as Lawrence, and later (but technically, earlier) as El Lazo. By the end of Season 1, Lawrence is dead, El Lazo is on the run, and the host that played both roles was doing card tricks at that fateful Delos benefit night. But if we know anything about Westworld, it’s that trying to predict what happens next is futile. We’re just going to have to watch and find out.
Westworld wasn’t Collins Jr.’s first Western—in fact, the genre basically runs in his family's blood. His grandfather and mentor, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, rose to fame by acting in John Wayne Westerns like The High And The Mighty and Hellfighters—his gun belt, which Collins Jr. wears on the Westworld set, is from Rio Bravo. Collins Jr. has pursued a more diverse set of roles, appearing in everything from Samuel L. Jackson’s One Eight Seven to the cult classic The Twilight Zone. BUST spoke with Collins Jr. about heirloom gun belts, conscious awakening, and what it’s like to climb a mountain with Ed Harris. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you first get involved with Westworld?
I actually auditioned for one of Jimmy Simpson (William)’s or Ben Barnes (Logan)’s roles. I had been a fan of the original—the 1973 Crichton film—having grown up around Westerns, and then I went off to go shoot this independent border control movie called Transpecos. But as I was driving back from New Mexico, I got a phone call saying that Lisa Joy and one of the other showrunners wanted to sit down and speak to me about a new character that was going to be riding with Ed Harris. An opportunity with a great like Ed Harris is one that any half-smart thespian would not even dare to turn down.
What did you think when you first read the script?
Actually, they showed me the pilot. Right then and there I knew it was quite cerebral, and very complicated. It takes an army to make something as good as Westworld, so the fact that they were so passionate, that they were so informed about my career when I sat down…I knew that they were going to be paying attention to details—and that they were coming after me for a reason.
I'm very grateful for that, because it's truly been a dream gig. It's the kind of job where when you wrap the season, whether you've got another film to shoot afterwards or not, you just want to go back and film more Westworld.
Your character has always been a bit of a mystery. We first meet him as Lawrence, and watch as he’s killed to save Teddy—but then we go back in time to when he’s El Lazo, and he has a totally different storyline. And then he returns once more in the final scene of Season 1, moments before Dolores becomes conscious at the Delos benefit. I have to ask—can you give us any hints as to what we’ll see next?
In this season, I think it's more or less the evolution of consciousness and creationism that you're going to experience with a lot of the characters. Sort of an awakening. A lot of it has been hinted at through the trailers now, and I think it's reflecting the empowerment of women, which is so beautiful.
You mean Dolores and Maeve?
Yeah. They're badasses. I don't know if you saw the most recent trailer with Evan [Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores]—but it gives you chills. Every time I watch it I get chills. I'm just a huge fan of these beautiful and talented women I get to work with.
Lawrence and El Lazo are very different. How do you navigate playing both roles at the same time?
I don't know if you're aware of this, but we all get our scripts to read, and we don't know everything that's going on. We all play by the same rules—I don’t think anybody wants to break the rules and ask a show runner. I was a bit confused myself as well, with El Lazo and Lawrence, but what I'm coming to conclude is this sense of duality of right and wrong. We all have a bright light and a dark light, and that was an opportunity to play with both. What does one do with absolute power? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Are you going to go full darkness? Its an interesting question, especially with all this unchecked power going on in our country.
It's also an interesting foil to the Man In Black/William (Ed Harris). When Harris plays the innocent, naïve William, El Lazo is a darker guy. But when they meet up later, Lawrence is the innocent one—and William is far more evil.
You're absolutely right. The Man In Black is a badass. He's such a bad motherfucker.
What's it like working with Ed Harris?
It's exactly that. Motherfucking Ed Harris. I had this moment, after I won his respect, and I started to feel more like a peer—which is both creepy and wonderful. We were shooting Season 1, and [the producers] were like, "Alright gentlemen, you can get off your horses now, we'll get about a 45-minute break. And he's like, "Hey partner, I think I'm gonna go up this mountain if you wanna come," and I said, "I sure do, partner."
I followed Ed up this giant hill, and within minutes, we were at the top of this mountain and I was looking way down below. The crew was so far down. I couldn't even hear what they were saying. It was so peaceful, and so serene. I'm like, "I'm on a horse—that's probably how it was in the 1800's, and I'm wearing my chaps, and I've got my grandfather's real gun belt, and I've got my peacemaker, and to my right, I got the Man In Black, who looks strikingly like Ed fucking Harris. This is so trippy right now! Well, that's because it is Ed Harris.” Holy fuck.
Outside of Westworld, you're very active in social justice movements. You’ve worked quite a bit with Homeboy Industries, a non-profit that helps rehabilitate ex-gang members.
Homeboy Industries is an organization that is very, very, dear to me. The powers that be try to stigmatize all these people that can rise to become somebody—and you've just gotta have this one person that believes in you. And for me that was my grandpa. I had an absent father—my father committed suicide when I was doing One Eight Seven with Samuel [L. Jackson]. That was part of the reason for me going my grandfather’s way, because he was the one who was there for me, come hell or high water.
So when I see Father Greg [the founder of Homeboy Industries] stepping in to give these people hope, it's a beautiful thing. To see Crips and Bloods and South siders and North siders—I remember walking in there, and it was like a trigger. I was like 16 years old again in the snap of a finger: I knew where all the exits were, I was getting ready to bounce as quickly as I could. And when I saw everybody helping each other and shaking hands, I realized that it's not the world that I once knew. These are people that have evolved. They too, have come into consciousness, just like the characters in Westworld. I wanted to cry right then, because I realized that everyone was putting their rags and their colors away to help each other as humans. But I didn’t cry, because that's a sign of weakness. When I drove away, I cried like a little girl.
You wear your grandfather’s original gun belt while filming Westworld. What does that mean to you?
I'm wearing it right now as we speak. It's funny, I mentioned it first to [executive producer] J.J. Abrams, and he was like, "Woah, you got your grandfather's real belt?" and I said, "Yeah, I sure do buddy." They were like, “Is it a possibility that you might wanna wear it?”
The significance is the history, and Jonah [Nolan] sat down with me and said, "Clifton, it's been really great exploring your family legacy”—which is flattering in and of itself—and then he said, "Would you mind if we went a little bit deeper with that? I'm thinking about maybe using a piece of your grandfathers name," which you saw in season 1 when they say, “Lawrence Pedro Maria Gonzales.” That was a shoutout by Jonah Nolan.
I've got pictures of my grandfather with John Wayne, and that's the exact same gun belt. I've got the exact same dummy rounds that are in the belt. I take the gun belt home every day, and I bought a peacemaker. You never know what [the producers] are gonna ask you to do, so if you stay ready, you don't have to get ready. I've been practicing all these gun moves, with hopes of those being exploited in the awesomest of ways.
Learn more about Homeboy Industries here, and check out the official Westworld trailer for Season 2:
Photo credit: HBO.
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.