Any time a movie or television show features a robot gaining sentience, there’s an opportunity for an actor to really show audiences their chops. There are, of course, the physical demands, as their movements transition from mechanical to organic, but the greatest challenges are emotional. Often, they’re tasked with communicating their existential crisis with nothing more than a look (especially when they’re trying to camouflage themselves within the rest of the non-sentient bots). It's a high-wire act: One false move and the entire performance can become campy and ridiculous.
We’ve seen some phenomenal robot performances over the years (Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina immediately comes to mind) and some not-so-great robot performances (apologies internet, but I’m just not a fan of Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner) but maybe none has been more complex or riveting than Thandie Newton’s Maeve in HBO’s Westworld. Not only does Newton deserve an Emmy nomination, when they are announced this Thursday, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, but her arrival into consciousness in the show's first season should win.
In case you were living off the grid while season one of Westworld aired on HBO, the series centers around a futuristic theme park populated with robots (or "hosts") where guests can fulfill their worst hedonistic desires for a high price. When we first meet Newton’s Maeve, she’s the snarky madame at the park’s Mariposa Saloon. “This is the new world, and in this world, you can be whoever the f--- you want,” she tells the human guests as they arrive.
While this version of Maeve gets plenty of memorable zingers (“Never open your mouth that wide unless someone’s paying you for it,” she tells a yawning escort), things really get interesting when she starts to recall previous storylines that were supposed to be wiped from her memory by the robot programmers. Our first glimpse of Newton’s brilliance as a performer comes in a flashback, in which Maeve and her daughter are brutally murdered by a pack of gunmen. Even without any context, the scene is heartbreaking; this could be the emotional highpoint for an entirely different show in which Newton delivers yet another awards-worthy performance. Here, she’s just getting started.
When Maeve “wakes up” during a routine tune-up at Westworld headquarters, Newton really starts to come alive. Thinking is one of the hardest things for an actor to convey, and with every fresh realization about the nature of her world, we can see the gears turning in Maeve's A.I.; the weight her own existence dawning on her in an instant is a monumental task for a performer, and Newton handles it masterfully. The first time Maeve is handed a diagnostics screen that can accurately anticipate her verbal responses, we see the deep sadness and horror in her eyes as her computer brain literally fries. Oh, and did we mention that she’s doing all of this while completely naked?
But if there’s a single compelling argument for Newton taking home the Emmy, it’s the scene in which Felix, a Westworld technician, guides Maeve through the park’s “development floor,” where hosts are built and tested. In what was one of the most memorable TV sequences of last year, Maeve, who must pretend to be an obedient, non-sentient robot, is hit with the crushing realization that she and her robot friends are built for one purpose: to be repeatedly raped and murdered for sport and recreation by humans. Set to a haunting orchestral version of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Newton’s performance, which comes entirely through her eyes in unforgiving close-ups, is chilling down to the 3-D printed bone.
Thandie Newton won't let anything hold her back:
Watch video interviews with Nicole Kidman, Millie Bobby Brown and more of this year's nominees here: