Spoilers for Westworld Season 2 Episode 4, “Riddle of the Sphinx,” below.
Katja Herbers’ eyes light up when I tell her I’ve just finished the fourth episode of Westworld’s new season. “Normally I can’t say anything,” she says of doing press for the show. “It’s just like, ‘So, who do you play?’ ‘Well, I play Grace.’ Now I can say I’m also Emily.”
Herbers is new to Westworld this season, though Grace is already one of the labyrinthian show’s most-dissected characters. Last week, viewers met her in The Raj, Delos’ sixth park, where she hooked up with a fellow guest—after shooting him to make sure he wasn’t a host, of course—and avoided several close calls as the real hosts began their uprising. She ultimately washed up on the shores of Westworld, right into the hands of the Ghost Nations hosts. Tonight, she uses her wiles to escape captivity, and in the episode’s final moments, reveals herself as a crucial piece of the park’s puzzling history. As a blazing sunset washes over Westworld, she approaches the Man in Black (Ed Harris) with a sneering, “Hi, Dad.” Though he seems bemused and perhaps a bit fearful, Grace can barely contain her disgust. “It wasn’t like, “Oh! So nice to see you,” Herbers says. “She’s not happy with something.”
Tonight’s episode, “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” cracked the Man in Black’s mysterious backstory wide open. We know from last season his wife committed suicide a year earlier and his daughter blames him for her death. “They never saw anything like the man I am in here. But she knew anyway,” he told Teddy of his daughter’s grief. “She said if I stacked up all my good deeds it was just an elegant wall I built to hide what was inside from everyone.” The Man in Black often gives into his basest instincts in the park, but tonight, we saw his younger iteration, William (Jimmi Simpson) engaging in another kind of morally-ambiguous behavior. With his father-in-law, Delos founder James Delos, succumbing to cancer, William and the company engineers chase immortality by printing James’ brain onto a host’s body. The controversial project endures decades of failures, until the death of the Man in Black’s wife brings him back to reality. He pulls the plug, telling his glitching father-in-law, “Took me a long time to learn this, but some men are better off dead.”
It’s unclear exactly where Grace fits into this controversial endeavor. A flashback scene earlier this season revealed her birth name, Emily, and showed her meeting a host for the first time—calling Dolores “pretty” in a noticeably gentle interaction—but her past and future outside of her fractured relationship with her father are shrouded in mystery. But with tonight’s reveal, she’s finally in control of her own narrative. “I have a very clear mission,” Herbers says. “I’m there to find my dad and what will come after this.” The 37-year-old Dutch actress, already a prestige TV veteran from the likes of The Americans and The Leftovers, sat down on the set of her BAZAAR.com shoot to break down tonight’s big bombshell and tease what’s next.
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Harper’s BAZAAR: How did your casting come about?
Katja Herbers: It was funny. I got sent dummy slides, as they’re called, because it’s all so secretive, obviously. I got sent a scene of somebody in the park. I did know it was for Westworld, but it had nothing to do with Ed Harris. I really liked the scene, I put it on tape, they liked it, and I flew to LA and met with them, and then I got the part. And for a couple of days I thought, “Might be a mistake.” [Laughs] It’s such a great show, it’s so big, but I didn’t know what the character entailed yet. Then on my first day of going to shoot, Lisa took me aside and said, “So, I need to tell you about your backstory.” And that just blew my mind. I had no idea. I knew I was on a mission, and I was hunting for someone, but I did not know that I was Delos’ granddaughter, the Man in Black’s daughter. That felt quite special because it also felt so connected to the core of the show. I’m very fortunate, it’s such a complicated story.
HB: What exactly did you know about the role before Lisa told you the back story?
KH: They had pitched me that it was gonna start in India with me on an elephant, and I was like, “That sounds really cool.” I knew I was in a different world, and I was going to go to Westworld, and then I was going to be on a mission.
HB: How did you get into character? I read you took a train ride across the U.S.?
KH: I thought it would be really great to take this cross-country train ride, because you get to Westworld with the train, and I also needed to set my mind straight. I’ve been on American shows before, but I never joined a show that was already such a success. For me, the big challenge of the job was to not let my mind screw me over. Once the cameras were rolling I was good for the most part, but around it, I needed to have my nerves in check and not overthink too much before or after. The train ride was good for that because no reception, just looking at America, which is also not my country, and just seeing the whole thing.
Then to prep, once I knew that I was gonna play Ed Harris’ daughter, I watched all of his stuff—on the show, not his other work, because I thought that’s just gonna make me nervous. He’s just such a great actor, it’s enough just to watch the Man in Black. Specifically, I had that little clip of him talking about his daughter on my phone, and there were a couple times that I would check in with him to see that my accent was all right, like [for data], saying “dah-ta” or “day-ta,” those kinds of things. And then I wanted to have a few mannerisms that were the same, like he handles his gun in a certain way. I thought it would be cool if I do that the same, so I had a lot of practice cocking it the same way.
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HB: Did you look at Jimmi Simpson’s performance as Young William at all?
KH: I didn’t look at Jimmi’s performance in terms of trying to find my own, because I did think once I came to be, he was already such a different person in my conscious years. I did think a lot about how it would be to grow up with that kind of wealth. Because they’re filthy rich. And then to lose your mom to suicide? That’s gonna fuck you up.
“She’s a very experienced guest. She’s not afraid to shoot this guy before sleeping with him. She’s slept with enough robots and it’s boring.”
HB: What questions did you have for Lisa and Jonathan on your first day on set?
KH: I had a lot of questions. I first just tried to map out, when is the last time I saw my dad? What actually happened to my mom? Because we know from the first season she committed suicide. Where was I? I knew from that clip the Man in Black said that I was very angry with him. So I tried to get a timeline of, “How long ago was this? How long ago have I not seen my dad? What do I know about my dad in the park?” Those kinds of things.
HB: What was the shooting process like? I know some of your cast mates found it confusing—they had no idea what episode they were shooting, for example. How soon did you get scripts? How were you parsing out your story arc? Did you know what you were doing at any given time?
KH: I did not know much. And sometimes I had scripts well in advance, and sometimes it was later, and sometimes we were cross-shooting episodes so we’d do a little bit of an episode very late in the season. Actually, the third episode, my first episode, is something I shot at the very, very end. That tiger shot was like the last shot of the show for me. It was all very much patchwork. And if you work in theater, you know: this is my beginning, middle, and end. But with a show as big as this, we shoot on multiple units, different episodes, different locations, all at the same time, so it’s a wild ride for the actor as well.
HB: So when you’re looking at the notebook in Episode 3, you knew what you were looking at? You had all the context for your character at that point?
KH: At that point, yes, but I shot that at the very end.
HB: That map you pull out. Is that a map of either The Raj or Westworld?
KH: I think so. [Laughs] I think so. I mean, it might be, I don’t know.
HB: Will we see that world again this season?
KH: That I also don’t know. Because I’m also going to watch the show and figure out what’s going on. Even now, watching the first four, I mean, I read the scripts, but I couldn’t have put it in images the way that they have. It’s so much more complicated.
HB: How much context did you have while shooting your other scenes? Did you know what was going on or were you in the dark?
KH: I did because Lisa sat me down and filled me in about how I have a very clear mission: I’m there to find my dad and what will come after this. So that was a very grounding thing for me, and looking at that map, I figured, I’m probably looking to get from this one world to the other world to try and find my dad. But maybe it’s all more complicated than I can even understand. [Laughs] She’s a very experienced guest. I think she’s been to this India-set world often, and she knows what she likes to do there. She’s not afraid to shoot this guy before sleeping with him. She’s making sure he’s not a robot because she’s slept with enough robots and it’s boring.
You also see her being very respectful of the robots, which I very much like. She speaks their language in Episode 4. Stubbs is like, “You spend enough time in the park to learn their language?” And she’s like, “Yeah, other people don’t, but I don’t really like other people very much.” I thought that was such a great line for a character. She sees how people are behaving in the park, and she does not like it. So where the Man in Black is very disrespectful, I think she’s quite respectful of the robots. The hosts, I should say.
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HB: Since she seems to know the hosts better than other humans, do you think their uprising surprised her, or did a part of her know it was coming?
KH: I think it did surprise her. She’s there to find her father. She didn’t anticipate having to fight for her life while doing so.
HB: Will we find out why she goes by Grace instead of Emily?
KH: I’m not sure. From my understanding my full name is Emily Grace, and I use the name Grace when I go to the park.
HB: What was your take on the show before you were cast?
KH: I only watched the first season when I knew I had an audition for it. It was on my list of things to watch. And when I started watching, it really blew my mind. I think that we’re probably closer to Westworld in our real world than we should be. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that robot Sophia that’s on YouTube? But you can sort of understand why somebody might fall in love with that robot. Now she has like, citizenship of Saudi Arabia. So to make something about artificial intelligence is extremely timely, and to show human behavior towards these hosts that mimic our behavior in other countries where we go to war, or whatever—I think it’s a very interesting thought exercise. “Who are we when nobody’s watching?” obviously, but, “What’s left of your identity when you do whatever you want?” And I love that now it turns out it wasn’t free. The humans thought no one was watching, but we [Delos] were watching, and more even than we could have imagined.
HB: It’s so interesting that Grace’s father was, in fact, the mastermind behind recording all of the guest experiences, and while he is disrespectful of the hosts, Grace is growing to like them more than humans. So she’s the white hat to his black hat, in a way.
KH: I’m going to take that into my next season, if it comes to be.
HB: Do you know anything about that yet?
KH: I have no idea, I have no contract. I’d love to.
“It’s a very interesting thought exercise—’What’s left of your identity when you do whatever you want?'”
HB: Tell me about working with Ed Harris.
KH: Well, I immediately liked him so much. And I think we had a very organic, immediate connection, and it was really, really easy to play his daughter. He felt very warm and familiar. Obviously, he’s very dark in the show, but he’s an extremely warm and great person. And we were very respectful of each other. We didn’t chit chat because we need to be focused—the stakes are really high.
But what was very special to me was that he was always 100 percent there for me in between scenes. That’s what I find the most fun about acting, is that you meet another actor in a scene and you really connect—you have a genuine connection in a fictional world that can feel very profound. It’s almost like—maybe it’s also a nice link to Westworld—it can almost feel more real than something in real life. You feel really present with each other. And Ed being the amazing actor that he is, he was always 100 percent present, 100 percent there for me, and as a father, in those scenes, I thought he was extremely loving—although he was a terrible father. As an actor, he was a very good father to have.
HB: Do you have conversations with the costume designer and set decorator to discuss the worlds you’re inhabiting?
KH: All those people are probably the best of the best who work on that show, so we did do fittings and talk about [it]. I got to pick what gun I like using, and got to practice with real guns. Do you say gunslinger? Is that a word?
HB: Yep, gunslinger is a word.
KH: I think he was a gunslinger, he would teach me how to [mimics cocking gun]. But also, things go quick, there’s quick adjustments, like the dress that I’m wearing in India, that was something we did on the morning we were shooting, like, OK, we’re gonna go with a different dress, somebody just tailored that on me. I was like, “How can you make a dress like that?”
HB: It looked amazing. That whole scene is so great.
KH: Yeah, that scene actually made me really nervous, because it’s often hard to play, “Oh, I’m so seductive.” How am I gonna pull that off? But it’s the character.
HB: But she seems very confident.
KH: Yeah, she’s a weird lady, isn’t she?
HB: Look at her father, though.
KH: Yeah, she has to be a little twisted.
HB: What can you tease of the Man in Black’s next interaction with Grace/Emily?
KH: Well, I think what you saw from our little interaction, it wasn’t like, “Oh! So nice to see you.” And that’s what he said as well, in the first season—she’s not happy with something. You know in the first episode, she says she’s there to hunt something, and he’s like, “Bengal tigers?” She’s like, “Among other things.” She’s there on a mission, and I don’t know how it’s gonna play out. I mean I know, but… [laughs] But I also think, it’s her dad. She has one father, and she loves her father, but her mom did kill herself. I think she’s smart. And she has her own darkness as well, I think.
HB: One of the pervading theories online claims Grace is somehow related to Theresa Cullen because their mannerisms are so similar. Also, they’re the only smokers on the show. Did any of her characteristics influence your representation of Grace?
KH: That’s such a funny theory. It did not! I read somewhere that it has to be true, since I’m from Amsterdam and Amsterdam is the capital of Denmark. Can we just set that straight here: It is not. I’m a huge Borgen fan though, and Sidse Babett Knudsen is one of my favorite actresses. I saw a photo of her and me, and I have to say I too see the resemblance. Also in the way we both hold our cigarette. I’d love to take credit for doing that on purpose to distract people from me actually being The Man in Black’s daughter, but I didn’t. Maybe it means we’ll star in a movie together sometime in which we do get to play the same person—or relatives. I’d love that.
HB: Tessa Thompson once described Season 2 as, “the future is female.” How would you describe the season, in a phrase?
KH: What does it mean to be human?
Photography by Tyler Joe; Styling by Christina Rutherford; Hair by Christopher Naselli; Makeup by Brigitte Reiss-Andersen; Digital Design by Perri Tomkiewicz.
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