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‘Westworld’: Thandie Newton on Shogun World and Mastering Japanese Dialogue


[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode five of HBO’s Westworld, “Akane No Mai.”]

Shortly after their capture, Westworld narrative director Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) offers a tip to Maeve, the self-confident and suddenly conscious host played by Thandie Newton. Normally, she’s able to manipulate other hosts with nothing more than a voice command. The tactic didn’t work against the small army of ronin she and her allies just encountered upon arriving in Shogun World, the highly anticipated park first teased in the Westworld season one finale. To his credit, the frequently useless Sizemore knows exactly what went wrong: Maeve wasn’t speaking the right language. The good news: Maeve, and all of the hosts, can speak fluent Japanese, as it’s buried in their code.

It’s an exciting prospect for both Maeve and the viewers, as it becomes clear what’s going to happen next: the incredibly powerful host, whose various attributes have all been boosted to their maximum levels, is well positioned to take Shogun World by storm, once she starts speaking the right language. For Newton, however? Slightly different story.

“The only thing I could think about was my terror over learning all of that Japanese,” she recalls, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s all I thought about. Nothing else crossed my mind. I didn’t think about costume, I didn’t think about performance. All I thought about was, ‘How am I not going to fuck this up?'”

Newton notes that it wasn’t even the mere fact that she was tasked with speaking Japanese that presented her with such an incredible challenge: “I needed to speak it with an authenticity that would be appropriate for this madame of the saloon.”

“It’s right there in that line from Simon Quarterman’s dialogue, that I would be fluent in this language,” she says. “I read that in the script and went, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ This isn’t me stumbling through it. This is me delivering lines with complete confidence and aplomb.”

Watching the episode, it’s clear that Newton rose to the challenge presented in the script. (Indeed, she’s quick to add: “I loved it. I love challenges like this, I really do.”) How did she pull it off? Not easily, certainly. First and foremost, Newton gives credit to Junko Goda, who served as a dialogue coach for the episode.

“The first thing she did was talk to me about the etiquette and the literal aspects,” says Newton. “How a woman carries herself physically, posture, the tilt of the head, not making eye contact, modesty, not putting the tongue in front of the teeth… all of these rules that are just completely second nature to a person in Japan before the 1960s.”

Indeed, Newton explains that the Japanese she was speaking “is not a modern Japanese. A number of the actors who came in to work on Shogun World who spoke Japanese were in awe of the fact that I was speaking traditional Japanese, which even they found difficult to say.”

“It was actually really helpful to think about the history and the culture of how women were perceived and what was expected of them, what their day-to-day life would be,” says Newton. “It really helped in figuring out how the voice and the muscles in the mouth would evolve to actually create the sounds you hear and take for granted. I loved all of that.”

Over weeks of learning her dialogue, Newton says she “came to grips with the structure of the language. As I learned it and as I was performing it, I actually started to hear some similarities, which allowed me to be much more confident.”

In addition to her own understanding of the language, Newton credits the confidence with which she spoke her lines to another key member of the “Akane No Mai” shoot: Hiroyuki Sanada, the actor responsible for bringing the ronin Musashi to life.

“He was so generous,” she says about Sanada. “He would come in on his days off if I was doing a scene, just to be there to help me. He was very good not just on the language, but also how to make it sound cool. It’s one thing to know the Japanese and do it very well, but there’s an element of ‘cool’ to Maeve, and he was very good at showing me how to throw out a word. It’s not always about the word that’s used; it’s about the delivery. He gave me some tips on the delivery, which at certain points would give me an authority.”

Beyond Goda and Sanada, Newton credits her performance to the full crew and cast, specifically the season one veterans appearing in her storyline — Rodrigo Santoro (Hector), Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Armistice), Ptolemy Slocum (Sylvester) and Leonardo Nam (Felix): “It was a real group effort. I’m so fortunate that the line shines on me, because I’m the one doing it, but it was so many people pulling together.”

“It was a bit like cramming for an exam, because we only had a limited amount of time,” she adds, noting that weather changes and a quick bout with sickness ended up impacting the shooting schedule for the Shogun World scenes. “So sometimes, I would have to get into a scene I wasn’t prepared for — and that was terrifying. But with the help of ADR, and I had a little earpiece on set sometimes… really, it was basically like guerrilla filmmaking. Whatever it took to succeed.”

What’s your take on Newton’s work in “Akane No Mai”? Sound off in the comments section below and keep checking THR.com/Westworld for more coverage.

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