Zahn McClarnon had never acted in a love story on screen. He’d also never worked with children — or Anthony Hopkins — but he got to do all those things in just one episode of Westworld.
The 51-year-old actor joined the HBO series this season as Akecheta, a Ghost Nation host whom viewers had previously only seen in a terrifying light, seemingly on his way to abduct Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) daughter in flashbacks, or trying to scalp other hosts and guests. It was on Sunday night’s episode, however, that we finally got some backstory, and realized Akecheta wasn’t at all what he seemed.
In fact, he was one of the first hosts to discover the maze and reach consciousness, and became fully aware of his change in storyline. Scalping was another way of prompting others find the maze, and he was trying to help Maeve’s daughter, not hurt her. All this, plus the reveal that Akecheta was the first host to see the door made Sunday’s episode a powerful one — especially for McClarnon.
The actor, who described straddling the White world and the Native world as he grew up 30 miles from the reservation where his grandparents lived, had more than typecasting or lack of roles to overcome when he scored his part on Westworld. McClarnon was also sidelined as filming began, halting production for an injury he suffered at home. He’s alright now — “I’m doing wonderful,” he assured ET over the phone on Thursday — and couldn’t be more thrilled for viewers to finally see what he’s been working on.
“You just don’t get those opportunities, especially being an actor of Native American descent. The storylines just aren’t out there,” he explained. “It was a beautiful experience, and I hope as an actor, I get to explore more of that.”
So what happens next for Akecheta, and does he ever reach the door? Read on to find out.
ET: This episode contained huge reveals for your character. What was your reaction when you read the script for the first time?
It wasn’t actually a script. [Showrunners] Jonah [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] work in a bit of a different way, a unique way. I didn’t see a whole script, it was more in pieces. And I was just excited to be a part of such a great show like Westworld and joining the family of HBO. I was a big fan before I got the job of the television show, and it’s just very unique and bold storytelling, and I was very happy to be a part of it.
Did they tell you your character would have this huge part in the storyline when you signed on?
Roughly. You know, they kind of give you a vague outline of what their ideas are and you just take that information and try to process it and ask a lot of questions and hit your mark and be honest with it, and I found it to be a very different way of working and a very unique and actually very positive way of working. It just kind of woke up different strengths and processes of my acting, and I’ll take that and hopefully use it in different productions. And I learned quite a bit from Jonah and Lisa and the whole team.
There was a lot packed into one episode, revealing so much of your character’s backstory.
Obviously these characters of Ghost Nation are prominent in and out of season one. They were mysterious. They didn’t talk much about them. When I found out that in season two, they were going to explore a bit more, first off, I was just excited and privileged to be cast as the character that’s going to be focused on in exploring the Ghost Nation and being around this creative team, was just a great opportunity and I had a lot of fun.
We got this heartbreaking reveal that all along, Akecheta was trying to protect Maeve’s daughter, not hurt her. What was it like to film that moment?
It’s so easy to work off of the young actress, [Jasmyn Rae]. But all I had to do was just look at her, and she looked at me, and it was so easy to react off of her emotions. She’s such a talented young actress, and I’ve never worked with a kid before, so I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities in the show to do stuff I’ve never done, including the love story. I’m just usually cast as different types of characters, so I was very excited to pursue those different sides of Zahn and layer in the character Akecheta.
You touched on something really important right now: representation. The Native American characters in this show are hosts, so it’s not necessarily a true depiction. How did you get into character?
Just bringing my experiences of growing up in the culture, as a Native American who was in and out of the reservation area, whose grandparents live on the reservation, uncles and aunts, and would go to the reservation, and living 30 miles away from the reservation. So experiencing both worlds, the White world and the Native world, and how I was treated in both cultures, not really fitting in. I brought a lot of that to the character. And because Ghost Nation are kind of outside characters as well, within the storyline, you don’t see a lot of them, they’re kind of different from a lot of the hosts, I was able to tap into that experience of growing up. And it’s a tribe made up from Ford’s [Anthony Hopkins] mind, so especially the Ghost Nation characters, don’t have to be culturally accurate. They can be those characters made up from the mind of a European man who thinks this is what a tribe would be.
I want to talk about your scene with Anthony Hopkins, who nobody knew was returning to Westworld until just a couple episodes ago. Was it hard to keep that secret?
Yes, definitely hard to keep that secret (laughs), because I’m working with one of the greatest actors in the history of acting and one of my personal heroes. It was hard not to tell people I had just done a scene with Anthony Hopkins, because they would know he was back in the show, et cetera.
It was a wonderful experience. It was again, a unique experience, because I had to do something that most of the other hosts didn’t have to do, and that was kind of freeze, but freeze in a different way where I could react, without going into that analysis mode, fight against what was happening. “We want you to hold this 10 pound knife in your hand and freeze and say your dialogue and struggle with it.” So it was a learning experience, for sure. And what an amazing experience to sit across from Anthony Hopkins — brilliant, brilliant, and such a beautiful human being. In between takes, I got to know him a little bit, and he’s just a wonderful human being.
Was that knife really 10 pounds?
It was at least six pounds. It was a huge knife. Yes, my arm got really tired holding that thing up for eight hours (laughs). It was a real knife, it was a very large knife, so yes, it had some weight to it, definitely.
And what about makeup, did that take a long time to get into?
Makeup was difficult. You know, probably the hardest part of the job was the makeup and going through that process everyday, putting on that — it’s like a glue paint — and Jonah and Lisa wanted a specific look for it, where it cracked, more like a mud. It takes a long time to put it on. It’s very cold to put on, and I endured a lot of hours of freezing my butt off and getting that paint put on, and it took 45 minutes to an hour to take it off. The whole process, we got it down to an hour and a half, I think, to put on. In the beginning, it was a few hours.
Bringing it back to the storyline this season, your character knows maybe more than any other host about the door — what can you tell us about it?
Well, I think he sees the forge being built, the door, and I think Akecheta realizes at that point when he does see it, that it’s the wrong world for him. And if he devotes pretty much the rest of his time finding that door. It’s hard to go any further with that without ruining the next few episodes.
Will we reach the door this season?
I don’t know (laughs). I can’t tell you that. It would ruin it. I can say Akecheta devotes himself to finding that door — and that’s about as far as I can go.
Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.