Whether one would want to be a guest of the fictional theme park Westworld is a bit of a toss-up. On the one hand, it features sleek technology and immersive features that any thrill-seeker would pay through the nose to witness. On the other hand, though, in its fictional universe, the park soon sees a violent uprising by its denizens. Luckily, we now have the opportunity until July 1 to experience a form of Westworld where we don’t have to struggle with the threat of robot-induced injury or the moral quandaries of whether an artificially intelligent engine is truly alive.
On April 22, as the second season of “Westworld” premiered, a “Westworld”-themed pop-up shop and exhibit also premiered at the AT&T flagship store in San Francisco. It was clear right away that the space was very much geared toward fans of the show, with a huge replica of the show’s iconic Vitruvian Man decorating the entrance. Throughout the store’s two stories were Easter eggs and photo-ops, such as authentic props (including the Man in Black’s entire arsenal of weapons) and costumes (including imposing ronin armor from Shogun World, which we saw for the first time this season).
What made the experience unique from any other pop culture-based exhibit, though, was the clear effort made to create an experience almost as immersive as the park itself. In-universe, Westworld is already one degree removed from reality — as such, replicating the feeling of guests attending such a park was conducive to the exhibit. Small details from the show were incorporated in such a way as to create a universe that guests of the pop-up shop would feel engaged in. Those who staffed the event were dressed either in the old Western gear that the hosts might dress in or in the futuristic get-ups of employees of the park itself. Even the show’s emblematic self-playing piano was nestled in a corner and quietly playing its tunes — as much a part of the background of the event as it is in the park.
Immersion is an equally important part of “Westworld” for guests in the fictional universe as it is for fans visiting the pop-up shop, and for those involved in the making of the show itself. In order to convincingly evoke the sensations of cogs in a confusing and intricate machine, a delicate process of informational exchange between the writers, directors and actors was established. The Daily Californian had the opportunity to speak more about this at the pop-up with actor Leonardo Nam, who plays Felix Lutz — the mild-mannered technician instrumental in Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) awakening in season one.
For a narrative rooted in obfuscation, secrecy both for the audience and for the cast is instrumental. “The creators and writers only tell you what you need to know,” Nam explained. But it isn’t always easy for an actor to work this way — “As a performer, you want to know everything, but the story of ‘Westworld’ is very large, so we don’t necessarily get to understand or see every storyline.”
Despite the lack of concrete details, cast members are given major thematic elements that allow them to engage with their storylines organically. Beyond that, actors are free to explore and interpret their characters in any variety of ways. “They’ve given us an opportunity as performers and actors to really use all of our tools to bring these characters to life,” Nam enthused. For him, that meant research to get into the mind of an engineer working with scarily sophisticated technology. “I did a lot of reading on where future technology and humanity meets,” he revealed. He went on to share one of his tricks for tapping into the emotional turmoil Felix experiences during a time of such upheaval: “I always listen to opera as an entry point to get into the world that Felix is going to enter. Someone that I listen to a lot for this is Pavarotti — I really love his phrasing and the emotion he’s able to imbue into each and every song.”
With its themes of humanity, good, evil, free will, love, life and death, “Westworld” really does feel operatic, and in watching the show weekly, we can also engage with such heavy topics and emotions from the safety of our own living rooms. For those of us who yearn to explore the immersive world-building and aesthetic aspects of “Westworld” without having to grapple with these themes simultaneously, though, the pop-up shop presents a uniquely exciting opportunity.
Sahana Rangarajan covers TV. Contact her at [email protected].