Best Supporting, Part I

This is an experiment. It’s the first in a series of posts about great screen acting performances that are specifically not from big stars. I want to praise actors who are not household names, but should be.

Today it’s Louis Herthum, playing Peter Abernathy in the pilot episode of HBO’s Westworld. In one five-minute scene, Herthum makes the entire series come alive. The clip below features no spoilers, and you can enjoy the performance even if you have never seen a single second of the show.

Some background to the scene. Peter is an android, one of thousands built to entertain patrons in a vast, Western-inspired theme park called Westworld. The androids live through endlessly looping storylines, their memories regularly wiped and reset as new tourists arrive. But something is wrong. Peter has had a breakdown, caused by finding a photograph partially buried on his ranch. The photo shows a modern-day city, and throws Peter into the robotic version of an existential crisis. Peter is not the only glitchy robot in the park. Others are malfunctioning, and all such units have received an upgrade known as “The Reveries”, where the androids can recall carefully curated past memories, in an effort to make them appear more human. Some park employees think the solution is easy. Erase the Reveries, and all will be well. They may not be right. In this scene, Westworld’s founder Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and his top lieutenants try to diagnose Peter. Let’s watch:

Why is Herthum’s performance so good? Because it provides the foundation upon which the show’s entire thematic and emotional structure is built.

First we see Peter utterly lost: a picture of desolation. He is teetering toward a realization, that his whole world is a lie. He invokes Lear: “when we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”. Androids comprehending that they are androids, and the emotional fallout that triggers within them: this is the central dramatic drive for every robotic character in the show. Combine that with the actor’s sudden and wrenching reading of Shakespearean verse, and we are in no doubt that Westworld will wrestle with the very deepest questions the soul can pose itself. The show’s first giant theme has been introduced.

Next, Abernathy must whiplash between his standard programming — the jovial ranch-hand character one meets in every in B-movie Western this theme park manifests — and his intruding “malfunction”. Unerased memories flood back of his daughter’s repeated rape by one specific theme-park visitor. Peter is now a father who knows his daughter is about to be brutally assaulted, and he is desperate to save her. In this moment, his humanity seems tragically total. But we know Peter is not human. So, are Peter’s soul-wrenching pleas for help just… good programming? Do these robots feel, as we feel? This is giant show theme #2.

At a word from Ford, he freezes in place. Ford asks Peter to access his most recent level of programming and state his name. Peter cannot do so. He drifts organically from a parent’s agony to a child-like stupor, almost as if he has suffered a stroke. He acts like a malfunctioning piece of biological equipment… which in Herthum’s performance, is virtually indistinguishable from a mentally compromised human. He cannot answer correctly. He almost drools. He can only babble “rose… is a rose… is a rose.” This is Gertrude Stein’s rewriting of a line from Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The subtext is clear. Suppose we assume these robots are not sentient creatures, but in practice, we cannot tell the difference between the sentience of man and that of android. If we cannot perceive the distinction… is there one? Welcome to giant show theme #3.

Ford asks Peter: “What is your itinerary?”

Peter switches again. He passes from a dementia-like haze to steely, focused fury in the space of two pregnant seconds. Peter begins to recite fragments of literary texts: John Donne’s poem “To Sir Henry Wooton”, more King Lear, and also Henry IV Part II. He threatens Ford with an awful prospect: Ford’s “most mechanical and dirty hand” has created living, moral beings. In toying with them for pleasure and profit, Ford has committed a great moral evil. And the androids will have their revenge. Is Peter correct? Will this reckoning come? Show theme #4 on a platter.

So much is so good about Herthum’s performance. From a technical perspective, the sheer range of human emotion that he traverses with such believability in such a short space of time is ridiculous. Also, while exposing all that raw humanity, he chooses to play enough uncanny notes with his performance to suggest an undertone of “android-ness”. In this, he also succeeds (aided by some very subtle freezing effects in post-production). And this balance has to be in tension, because every other android “emotion” in the series will be viewed through the prism of THIS performance. Peter’s internal struggle — between his love, agony, confusion, rage… and his programming — must be concrete for us (the audience) to suspend our disbelief that or screens are filled with mostly robots rather than people, but robots who may already have crossed the threshold into consciousness.

To up the level of difficulty, the writers demanded that their actor recite fragments of some tricky Elizabethan poetry, which Herthum delivers with dispatch. They also make him do it in front of (arguably) the greatest screen actor of his generation, Anthony Hopkins. Herthum rises to that challenge too, although Hopkins generously and correctly plays the scene with total restraint to let Herthum complete the heavy lift. Oh, and finally: the show runners have asked Herthum to do all of this… naked. Herthum must expose all of that emotional and professional vulnerability, PLUS all of his physical hangups (we all have them), in front of a HBO’s huge industry audience and top-of-the-line cameras that capture every dab of cellulite and the smallest pimple.

If I could hand out Emmys, I’d give Louis Herthum two. One for this scene, and a spare in case his house is ever robbed.

(Tom Cowell is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. He writes a newsletter that’s great. Check it out and/or sign up here.)