I made this decision early on, one of the biggest decisions of my life as a man, to never live in the what-ifs. It's the best piece of advice I could've ever given myself.
HBO’s Westworld, adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, premiered to a lot of fandom last year. Developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and co-produced by J.J. Abrams, the prestige sci-fi epic is set in a near-future theme park where the very wealthy indulge in their fantasies, role-playing the days of Wild Bill Hickok. Guests look for lost treasure, hunt bandits, and patronize the bordello—or massacre a saloon full of cowpokes and rape frontier “hosts” without consequence.
Here’s a quick recap—a DNA strand-guided tour, if you will—of the show’s puzzle-box plotting: The so-called “hosts” inhabiting the Western theme park are, in fact, ultra-lifelike cyborg pioneers, which Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has programmed with personalized verbal and physical tics. Each “host” is slave to their elaborate narrative that plays out in an endless loop cycle. Inside the antiseptic, underground compound built into a cliffside, the puppet masters pull their strings, while the naked “hosts” stand about, waiting to be summoned and sent topside. Once guests leave, the “hosts” are reset: memories wiped clean, blood hosed off, and hardware stitched back together.
The well-trodden themes explored in Crichton’s works like Prey and Jurassic Park—particularly, of humanity’s unchecked ego resulting in disaster that’s well past our control—come quickly to the fore. Once “hosts” such as Maeve (Thandie Newton), the sassy madame of a dusty brothel, begin to experience “memories” of past lives for which they have no other recollection—maybe leaning towards sentience—they question the nature of their world. Within the compound, Maeve meets Felix (Leonardo Nam), Westworld’s lab tech/human accomplice, as she infiltrates the other side.
Anthem reached out to Nam, an Argentine-Australian actor of Korean descent, to inspect his life itinerary, his experience working on Westworld, and a certain deli sandwich he won’t soon forget.
Westworld is expected to return for its second season on HBO sometime in 2018.
What are you doing right now, Leonardo?
I’m in K-Town right now. I’m having lunch with my good Korean-Australian friends here in L.A.
I saw you walking the red carpet at the SAG awards. What was the highlight for you?
One of the greatest things about being on an ensemble is that you get to see everyone again at these things. It had been such a long time since we were all on set together. Win or lose, we felt like winners because we were all there together and know how lucky we are to be a part of such a great piece of work. Another best part would be that I saw Sidse [Babett Knudsen] on the red carpet! It’s always a rare and beautiful moment when you get to see somebody else who’s in the trenches, you know? We had a good hug and a little chat before the ceremony and all the madness began.
I’m going to come clean with you: I had not seen a single episode of Westworld until last week. However, I binged and watched the entire season in one go.
I’m sure, after that, you questioned the nature of your own reality.
Do you binge-watch shows?
The last show that I binge-watched was The Crown, which we were up against for Best Ensemble. What they’re doing is really wonderful. I also binge-watched Atlanta and that’s a really good show.
You were saying this all began quite a while ago. When did you start filming episodes?
We shot the pilot two years ago. We started filming again maybe six months after that for a couple months before the production took a bit of a hiatus. Then about two months later, we finished it off with another two months of shooting. So it really has been a lengthy process.
The Maeve/Felix storyline was so beautifully conceived. That was a clear standout for me.
The creators, “Jona” [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy], are absolute geniuses. The production team was very vigilant at keeping the storylines under wraps and the secrecy surrounding this project was quite high. I wasn’t really aware of the other storylines. We didn’t necessarily have conversations about the storylines, but we did have little nuggets of talk. As the scripts were coming out in production, you had to just go for it like you’re running a marathon. I didn’t get a lot of heads up about where my character was going. Only in the process of production were stuff like that revealed. The really enjoyable part for me was that I was able to watch the show and engage as a fan. It was all new to me, too. There were moments where my jaw dropped to the floor. They even got me! [Laughs] So there was a lot of secrecy, but it all paid off. There was strategy behind all of it.
How did you find your experience working with Thandie Newton and Ptolemy Slocum?
First of all, that is the best team to be a part of. Our friendship bloomed quite a bit throughout this process. Thandie has deserved every accolade and nominations this awards season. She really championed me and Ptolemy, and really took us under her wing. That was a beautiful thing because, especially on a high profile big budget like this, it’s wonderful to have someone you’re sharing scenes with who’s really in your corner. She was a wonderful castmate. She’s brilliant. Everything that she brought to the character was so rich. Working with her and Ptolemy in the room, it was like playing jazz together. I’m so glad that people really responded to that storyline.
How did you get involved with Westworld? Did you go through a normal auditioning process?
Yup, a regular audition. I was just out there auditioning as a working actor. You know how you receive an audition and you see who’s attached to the project? I got super nervous. It’s Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J.J. Abrams—the trio—so there was a lot on the table. When I showed up to the audition—again, I was super nervous—there were such wonderful people in the room who really worked with the character that I had carved out and created for them. So that’s kind of how it happened. I had no idea that this role would come my way. When you go in, you see the level of talent that’s already involved and it’s like, “Woah… Me? You want to see me? Okay!”
[Laughs] I can still use those techniques. It’s part of the craft of acting, which is to create a reality in front of you in the auditioning space. But that sandwich was, eventually, my golden ticket!
What kind of sandwich was this?
It was a turkey and swiss sandwich. In Australia, we didn’t have much turkey—we actually didn’t have any turkey. When I got to the U.S., where it’s super turkey-crazy, I saw that every deli you go into has it on their menu. So that’s why I ordered that. I know exactly what I ordered.
So are you coming back to Westworld? Where do you think this show is headed?
I’m just as interested as you in finding that out. They’re so hush-hush about it and keeping things under wraps like in the previous season. They’re just in that same kind of place.
You were born in Buenos Aires to Korean parents. You grew up in Sydney. You moved to New York to pursue acting head-on. What has been the constant, driving force in your life?
I made this decision early on, one of the biggest decisions of my life as a man, to never live in the what-ifs. I knew there was this calling of passion inside of me to get involved in storytelling, to be an actor, to really undertake that responsibility, and create art that way. I remember very clearly thinking, “If I go over there to New York and eventually to Hollywood and I fail, it’s because of me. If I succeed, it’s because of me.” I think it’s the best piece of advice I could’ve ever given myself. Acting was something that I really wanted to do. I really needed to give it everything I had—this is it! I think that’s what really made me decide to start this journey. Coupled with that is my strong belief that, which comes from my parents, education is key. When I was embarking on this journey, one of my mentors in Australia made me understand that there is a craft to be learned. That was my reasoning for going to New York: to have craft, to have that background.
So you were already pursuing acting in Australia when you were in school for architecture?
I was pursuing it in the sense that I was always involved and always nurturing of that side of me: of drama, of acting. When I was studying architecture, I was also in acting classes, experimenting, and trying to get as much experience as I could on stage and with material. The more and more I did that, the more I realized it was something that really saved me.
How did you get interested in architecture?
I was always interested in design—houses, buildings… I realized quite early that I was interested in studying architecture in the human experience. That’s what I went into architecture looking for. I didn’t realize it then, but I was looking for a “human interactive design” kind of career. I also realized quite quickly that I was in over my head with physics. [Laughs] The first three years of studying architecture is a lot of physics. The only class I ever failed in was physics in high school. That’s also part of the reason why I thought, “Right, let’s look into something else.”
Physics is impossible. So much of Westworld is about design. I really fixated on your costume at one point, actually. It has a certain Eiko Ishioka flare to it. Was it comfortable to wear?
That material fits on your skin quite nicely, but when you’re filming under the hot lights, those costumes don’t really “breathe.” It just gets super hot underneath those outfits. Luckily, it’s all held together with magnets so you can just rip it off at a moment’s notice. That was quite nice.
I’m curious about the things you took away from past shoots. This is a random selection from your body of work, but what do you remember most about working on Vantage Point?
With Vantage Point, there are two things that I remember quite well. I remember Sigourney Weaver because I was in her theater company in New York. Sigourney and her husband have the best theater company called The Flea. So getting to work with someone who I looked up to for so long, and having a moment to share on screen, was a dream come true. I remember that quite fondly. The second thing is Mexico. My sister and I traveled through Mexico before filming there.
What are you most looking forward to these days?
I’m always excited about the next project. That’s the gift of this industry. Every single role is different and every project is different. I’m just excited to keep working.
When did your involvement with The Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment begin?
I got involved with CAPE pretty early on in my career when, I believe, The Perfect Score came out. They’ve been wonderful and super supportive. It’s always a great place to have as a homebase, so to speak, and to know that there are people in your corner rooting for you. I think we can, together as a community, continue to grow and peel away layers and allow more of our stories to be told. That’s what I hope CAPE continues doing and my involvement will be like that, too.