Spoilers for Westworld Season 2 Episode 4, “Riddle of the Sphinx,” below.
The latest episode of Westworld just ended. The closing credits crawl hasn’t even gotten to the gaffers yet, and you’re already on Reddit, lurking through the /r/westworld forums. Or maybe you’re frantically searching “who is emily on westworld?” Or maybe you just arrived at this article via your “Shannon Woodward” Google Alert, which you set up after spending the better part of the second season asking yourself, as one fan recently tweeted, “Where tf is Elsie in Westworld breh lmao”? If this is you, you can breathe easy, you massive nerd, because Woodward—who plays Westworld’s long-lost-but-now-found robotic behavior programmer, Elsie Hughes—can assure you that you’re in good company.
“The actors are kind of the show’s first audience, because we read the scripts and then we start theorizing with each other. I remember that during the first season, we’d be theorizing while shooting and then excessively sitting around speculating, and I thought to myself, I hope the people watching feel this way too or else we’re all just horrible narcissists. So the fact that the audience got so into it was a relief on many levels.”
The elaborate HBO production shoots multiple scenes from across Westworld (and Shōgunworld, and the Raj, and parks unknown) all at once, meaning that actors whose paths don’t often cross on screen still see each other at base camp. And while they don’t find themselves scene partners much anymore, Woodward and Evan Rachel Wood—who plays Delores, once the park’s automated Pollyanna, now a gunslinger in the middle of a violent awakening—can still be found in each other’s trailers, trying to decipher the “puzzle” that Woodward calls the show.
“Evan and I are usually the ones that are the most into [deciphering the plot]. And we do pretty well! Though it’s hard to remember when we’re wrong,” says Woodward, slumped comfortably on a couch in the photo studio after her shoot, back in her glasses, white tee, and dark denim overalls, hair still tousled from the makeup chair. She pulls on the straps of her overalls. “We usually just look back and think, Yeeeah, I pretty much nailed it.”
The on-set speculation has prepared Woodward and the cast for an occupational hazard of being on one of television’s most talked-about shows: fielding fan theories out in the wild. “Last year I had a lot of people telling me their theories, and trying to convince me that they were right,” says Woodward. “I tried to be kind to them about it because I was so glad that they were enjoying the show, but at some point it got to sound a lot like mansplaining. I was like, ‘You know I’ve read the scripts, right? I do know what happens and that’s not what happens.'”
Did that convince them?
“No, then I felt like they just thought my reading comprehension must be poor, and I really don’t like when that’s questioned.” She grabs her clear-rimmed glasses and jostles them in mock-exasperation. “I’m a very strong reader!”
Elsie is in many ways an avatar for the show’s eagle-eyed fanbase. She’s deeply curious, headstrong, and the type to consider herself the smartest person in a room. And most of the time, she’s right. “From the get-go, she was the one pushing Bernard to rebuild Delores from the ground up,” says Woodward. “And maybe if he listened to her, the show would have been a rom-com.”
Woodward relates to Elsie too. She first auditioned for the role with Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy. It was a standard how-to-you-do, stand-here, read-these-lines kind of audition—until Joy told Woodward she knocked it out of the park, and Woodward ask Joy, “Are you drunk?”
“I just didn’t think my read was as good as it could be!” says Woodward. But it was that the actress was so tailor-made for the role that she might have been mocked-up and designed by Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Ford himself. Woodward is a self-described nerd who does the crossword puzzle every day. She’s whip-smart and playfully sardonic. She loves science fiction. Her father is a software designer, and Woodward herself is currently consulting on an app. When she was recently in San Francisco, she was invited to the Westworld mobile gaming offices just to peruse. She’s an avid gamer who loves BioShock, Mario Odyssey, just started God of War, and is currently shooting motion capture animation for her first video game role in PlayStation 4’s The Last of Us. “I bet Marie Claire just loves this,” she says when I take her on a five-minute tangent into gaming. So she sums it up: “I think they cast me because they thought, This one just makes sense.”
That they see so much of themselves in her might be why fans developed such an early and lasting affinity for her character, who had gone MIA midway through the first season, when Elsie is attacked and presumably killed by a shadowy figure who ends up being her erstwhile boss and sleeper bot, Bernard, played by Jeffrey Wright. During her long absence, Woodward was reassured by Joy and co-creator Jonathan Nolan that she would be returning, but she had to play aloof whenever fans would “walk up to me on the street and ask, ‘Are you dead?’ All the time, over and over again. It’s a weird thing to keep being asked. Eventually I was like, “Am I dead?”
Woodward’s existential crisis ended with her return this episode, when Bernard is led to the mouth of a cave in which he discovers a shackled Elsie, whom he had stashed away before his memory of the incident was was seemly wiped. The two re-enter into a tenuous partnership to venture deeper into the park’s infrastructure to find a hidden lab. Their storyline acts as a window for us, the viewer, into a series of revelations worthy of a cyberpunk soap opera: that Delos, the company behind Westworld, has been experimenting with implanting the consciousness of its founder, James Delos, into a series of host bodies, each resulting a glitched-out clone that then needs to be incinerated. The show hints at the theory that the park has been harvesting guests’ DNA and memories for similar purposes. By the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the show’s newest park guest, Grace, is really Emily, the Man in Black’s daughter and James’ granddaughter, meaning that in some small way James does live on in the park.
While Westworld‘s plot is intricate and its shooting schedule deliberately disorienting—the cast has said they shoot scenes out of order and are unaware of their place in the show’s narrative—Woodward is as comfortable with the show’s structure as Elsie would be with line after line of seemingly indecipherable code. “Bernard is in all of these different places. I think that must get confusing—but, I mean, [Jeffrey Wright] does just fine. For my character, I just have to force my brain to be on lock and look forward. Mostly because that’s what Elsie would do,” says Woodward. “It’s actually helpful that I don’t know anything beyond what the character knows. Elsie always thinks she’s right, and if I knew she was wrong, I would probably shy away from playing her as headstrong as she needs to be.”
Woodward says that of all the show’s twists, the season one revelation that Bernard was secretly one of the park’s robot hosts came as the biggest surprise, particularly after logging so many on-camera hours with Wright. “I should’ve seen it coming,” she says, “but I was so close to it that I didn’t even consider that I was actually being lied to by literally everyone, including my co-star.”
Woodward has been acting since she was six years old, and most recently starred in the Fox comedy Raising Hope for four seasons as a grocery store employee who falls in love with her co-worker, a young single father with a sitcom-kooky family. Even with all the sidewalk interrogations over Westworld, Woodward still gets recognized a lot for Raising Hope. Recently, Woodward and Wood were flying to New Mexico to visit an art exhibit run by the Santa Fe-based collected Meow Wolf and, says Woodward, “We were in the airport and I warned her, ‘Just FYI, I get recognized a lot at airports, but it’s for this sitcom called Raising Hope. And she was like ‘Sure, okay.’ Now, I don’t want to out Evan too badly, but she was wearing a Westworld backpack and Westworld gear. And people came right up to us and they were like: ‘I love Raising Hope!’ She just died laughing. I said, ‘I told you, I’m big in airports.'”
Now that Westworld has expanded Woodward’s fanbase beyond the Delta Sky Club lounge and into every corner of the Internet, how does she feel? “I certainly don’t feel any cooler than I did in the sixth grade, which was not very cool,” she says, adjusting the strap of her overalls again, “But it’s exciting to be a part of something that makes people interested in even little, nerdy me.”
Photography by Derek Wood; Styling by Jamie Mizrahi; Hair by David Gardner; Makeup by Kayleen McAdams.