Jimmi Simpson, Westworld’s Man in Black/William, Is Taking on Awful Men


The first thing Jimmi Simpson does is apologize. He’d had to reschedule our conversation last minute to finish up work on a new project. “Me and my best friend are writing this movie right now for Blumhouse”—the production company famous for its low-budget hit horror films, including Get Out, Paranormal Activity, and Insidious—”and Hulu that we start shooting on Monday, and we had to get the draft before the crack of dawn,” he tells me, sounding slightly tired, but with an electric undercurrent of excitement. “It’s this kind of wonderful dissection of the awfulness of men,” Simpson explains, then hesitates. “We’re kind of trying to shine a spotlight on the damage they do without even understanding it. We’re making a horror movie out of that.”

“Many men have that potential to jump out of their skin when they’re told ‘No.'”

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Simpson’s best friend is Psych‘s James Roday, so I have to ask—about a film written by two men, that tackles this topic in the #metoo era, being produced to coincide with International Women’s Month next year—Are you working with any women on the project? The answer, thankfully, is yes. Simpson and Roday are not only the only men on the project, but they are shirking their “star” salaries to distribute the funds evenly in the hopes of setting some kind of industry precedent: “It’s not just ‘We want to make a horror movie.’ We don’t want to just say something, but actually do something.”

In short, Jimmi Simpson really doesn’t seem to be an awful man—he just plays them on TV. You may recognize him as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Ian McPoyle, who sweats incessantly, drinks copious amounts of milk, and likes to watch his siblings have sex. Or you may know him as Breakout King’s Dr. Lloyd Lowery, a disgraced psychologist who sells prescriptions to college students to fund his gambling addiction. But those roles are almost harmless when compared to the character that propelled Simpson to critical stardom in 2016. Simpson’s principled William was a light in the dark underbelly of HBO’s Westworld until season 1’s shocking reveal that he’d eventually be twisted into the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a cruel madman obsessed with the violence and mystery of the live-action amusement park. The straw that broke William’s back? Romantic rejection from Westworld host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). For the record, Simpson’s not at all on board with the evil that took over his character: “A woman broke your heart, you don’t need to kill the world,” he says.

Jimmi Simpson as William in Westworld season two. 

Jimmi Simpson as William in Westworld

HBO

“It’s not like ‘perfect man turned monster,'” Simpson explains. “He is an archetypical man, in that he was trained in one element of expectation and when that doesn’t happen…’Fuck it, I’m gonna blow shit up.’ I think the commentary is that many men have that potential to jump out of their skin when they’re told ‘No.'”

It’s this introspection that makes Simpson’s portrayal of Delos head William so haunting in season 2. Surrounded by robots becoming more and more human, it’s easy to see Ed Harris’ William as some sort of endgame rogue: the big bad in a black suit and hat. But in the show’s past timelines, Simpson’s William—manipulating his family and attempting to clone his father-in-law, only to callously destroy each failed simulacrum—is a much more human monster.

“A woman broke your heart, you don’t need to kill the world.”

“Season 1 was about, ‘OMG, they’re the same man.’ But season 2 is, ‘Oh, God, they really are the same man,'” he says. To Simpson, the biggest revelation was how fast William’s descent into evil was. The first time we see young William in season 2, the timeline has moved forward by only a few years, and he’s already so different to the white-hatted version we first met: “As opposed to a very slow descent from William to the Man in Black, we made that decision of, Broken heart created the Man In Black.”

Westworld's Jimmi Simpson breaks down Season 2 William.

Derek Wood

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“I really had not speculated how dark William was,” Simpson says. “I was kind of stunned by the reveal of how complicated and truly broken William is this season.” That’s putting it mildly; in the latest episode of Westworld, we finally see a hint that the Man in Black is reckoning with the consequences of his obsession with the park and its possibilities, but it comes only after he murders his daughter, convinced she was a host trying to distract him from finding The Door in Ford’s game.

But the first season’s William had light in him; he was the hero of at least part of the story. Is there any potential for William to break his cycle? “I do think everybody has the potential to be better than they’ve showed. I’m not a fan of Donald Trump in any way, but if he would stop being a dick and change the way he’s behaving…”

Unfortunately, we don’t know what would happen if Trump could change, because at this moment Simpson asks me to give him a second. A bird has flown into his home, and he wants to make sure it gets out safely. Very gently, he coaxes the bird to the door with mutterings of “Hey, buddy,” and then he’s back to the phone as though nothing had happened. A less Man in Black moment is almost inconceivable. “So, of course there’s potential,” he continues. “The problem is when the weight of all of your actions cumulatively make it impossible for anyone to ever accept you again. Goddammit, he’s very, very flawed.”

Jimmi Simpson on Westworld, Me Too, and Awful Men

Derek Wood

Pondering the dark side of masculinity and humanity is not something Simpson does lightly. He acknowledges his privilege immediately when discussing his forthcoming film project, written before the recent Hollywood #MeToo revelations began. “What [#MeToo] did was give our producers a reason to talk about it,” Simpson says. “As artists, we’re trying to say something or represent an idea and producers are not exactly thinking about that—they have business to do. James had this idea two years ago, and then #MeToo happened; that makes it more appealing for producers to say, ‘Well, yeah, we can get behind that.'”

While Simpson may have made his name playing quirky, eclectic weirdos, he’s using the platform he’s acquired thanks to Westworld and, even more recently, as Detective Russell Poole in Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., to say something. “When you’re an actor, and you’re not some heartthrob-looking matinee idol, pretty much the roles will choose you for the majority of your career, and you’ll ask, ‘How can I add value?'” he says, laughing. “That’s all I’ve ever done, was say, ‘How do I not fuck this up?'”

Now there’s so much more for him to explore. “I tell my agent and manager, ‘Hey, people seem to care about me and what I’m doing right now. Let’s take this opportunity and only do stuff that matters a little bit, that says something, that’s not just mindless entertainment.'” Simpson laughs, a little self-deprecatingly. “I just want to be a healing part of the world. I know that chaos is a given and everything is falling apart, so I don’t want to add to it.” Other men of Hollywood? Take note.

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