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Westworld’s' Shannon Woodward Is Back—And Ready To Figure Out What The Hell Is Going On: BUST Interview

Elsie Header 4d53c

Every episode of Westworld’s second season has been replete with twists and shocking reveals—but last night's went above and (creepily) beyond. (Warning: Spoilers below!)

The Man In Black’s daughter is in the park. Logan is dead. Delos is trying to upload human consciousness into hosts, and God (or Ford?!) only knows what will happen next.

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But for Westworld’s most devoted fans, the most important of last night’s surprises was the return of Elsie, our favorite fearless programmer who disappeared late last season. After a long, unpleasant stint in a Sector 22 cave, Elsie is hungry, confused, and very angry at Bernard—but in less than an hour, she makes some pretty incriminating discoveries. And with Bernard at her side (for now, at least), she’s poised to play a major role in Season 2.

Shannon Woodward, who appeared in Raising Hope and The Riches before her role as Elsie, has been a self-described tech nerd for as long as she can remember—and she’s thrilled that her character is back in action. BUST spoke with Woodward about Episode 4, clandestne data mining, and discovering the correct composition of those eerie-looking white robots.

Tell me what it’s like to work on the Westworld set, with (co-executive producers) Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan.

It's intellectually humbling, in the best way possible. And it's fascinating. If I weren't on the show, I'd be just a massive fan of the show. Being there every day, for a nerd like me…it’s like better Disneyland. I can say that, because on set no one actually dies.

Were you interested in these themes—AI, tech-becoming-human, etc.—before filming Westworld?

Certainly. My dad was a software designer—he was the lead programmer on OS/2—and he created one of the early voice recognition programs for IBM. I grew up on the IBM campus as a kid, trying to test voice recognition because I had the highest voice they could find. And it never worked. I was like, "It never works, Dad!" and he was like, "That's why you're testing it!"

Because it was all men there, testing the voice recognition. So it didn't work with women, let alone young children. So I kind of grew up with this idea in my head that tech didn't really work for women. And so doing this and pretending to play this character, who may be the only one who could stop the robot revolution…for child me, it feels like some larger fantasy come true.

You’ve said before that you have a lot in common with Elsie.

First of all, I kind of play [executive producer] Lisa Joy, I think, on the show. It's like a version of her and [co-executive producer] Jonah. But the larger part is that there are very few characters for women where they get to play the smartest person in the room. And though I'm certainly not the smartest person in the room, I often want to believe that I am—and there's something kind of fantastical about that happening, and that [Elsie‘s] often right.

Screen Shot 2018 05 14 at 12.39.40 PM dcd5eElsie (Shannon Woodward) examining a host in the series premiere. 

Right. People have been praising this season for its depiction of female characters like Dolores and Maeve. But Elsie’s been pretty feminist since Season 1.

Yeah, I mean the character inherently could be genderless, and I really like that. It doesn't really matter that she's a woman. She's not dismissed because she's a woman, she's dismissed because what she's saying seems implausible. But if everyone had listened to Elsie from the get-go, she would have re-built Dolores, and this could be a rom-com.

Elsie Analysis 90cfd...If only we had listened to her then.

What do you think about the praise Westworld has received for being a feminist show?

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The larger implication of that, to me, is not so much about why we should be praising Westworld for having these elements—frankly, I think it's an indictment on the rest of pop culture. These characters, the hosts, they are inherently genderless—they're not animals, they're computers. They have female skins—you can really get so meta about gender with this show—but I try to shy away from praising Westworld for having so many strong female characters, because I don't think anyone would say to any man on a show: "How does it feel to be on a show with such strong male characters?" I would like to live in a world where we don't have to say either of those things.

Elsie Bernard f66d9Elsie (Shannon Woodward) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), minutes before their big discovery.

We learned last night (because of Elsie) that Delos has another purpose for the park—uploading a real human’s consciousness into a host. But I haven't been able to stop thinking about the other motive William mentioned in Episode 2: that Delos is mining data from the park’s visitors. This scene must have been filmed before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke—but it just seemed incredibly prescient.

Well, Google has been doing this forever, and Facebook. Cambridge Analytica is just one application of data mining. They've been targeting ads, and we've known this. But if you think about the data build up, when they know what you're doing on the internet all day, it builds a pretty boring, easy-to-read profile. This is the caveman version of what happens in 10 years.

I think that's what they're talking about. That is the underbelly of the engine of tech—how do you market to people? Well, it's knowing what they want. And how do you know what they want? You have to map their mind. This just becomes more literal.

Right. The scary thing about Westworld is that it starts out as just a show—and then, you realize all of the terrifying implications that are so similar to what’s happening in the real world.

Lisa and Jonah are brilliant people—and they are very well-versed in tech and AI. There's not an enormous amount of liberty that's taken in terms of, "Well, it just serves the story."

Truly, someone from MIT came up to me at a screening a few weeks ago, a professor, and he was like, "I have some thoughts about the goo. It's not entirely technically correct." And I was like, "Oh my god, it's that close," that a professor at MIT who builds things like this is like, "It's not right and I need to talk to them about it." And that in and of itself is totally mind blowing. 

Elsie Instagram 2d91dvia Instagram, @shannonmwoodward

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Catch Westworld at 9pm Eastern, Sundays. 

all photos via Westworld/HBO except where noted

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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.

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