Leonardo Nam reflects on his role in HBO’s “Westworld”

Leonardo Nam in Westworld.
Leonardo Nam in Westworld.

Born in Argentina to Korean parents and raised in Australia, Leonardo Nam didn’t always see Hollywood in his future. While pursuing an architecture degree in Australia, Nam made what he calls, “one of the most important decisions of my life” and moved, at age 19, to New York City to pursue acting. His big break came when he landed a role in The Perfect Score, starring opposite Scarlett Johansson, Erika Christensen and Chris Evans. He continued to work his way up the Hollywood scene with roles in films such as Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, Fast and the Furious, and He’s Just Not That Into You.

His big debut came this year when he broke onto the scene with his role in HBO’s sci-fi Western hit, Westworld, an adaptation of the 1970 cult film of the same name. Westworld throws us into a dark and layered world where wealthy “guests” can live out their darkest fantasies in a western-themed park, equipped with lifelike androids (“hosts”) who are available to engage their every whim.

Nam plays Felix Lutz on the Golden Globe-nominated show, an employee and, he assures us, human, in the Livestock Management division of the park, who unwittingly becomes a guide to Maeve, a host played by Thandie Newton.  

Nam was one of the special guests at CAAMFest 2016 this March, appearing to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo DriftI chatted with Nam over the phone about his role on Westworld, his upcoming projects, and some of the craziest fan theories he’s heard about the show.  

—Ashlyn Perri

It was great having you at CAAMFest this past year! How did you first hear about CAAM and what have your experiences at CAAMFest and SFIAAFF been like?

I first heard about CAAM several years ago. I can’t remember exactly when, but CAAM in my career has always been a great touchstone for me, as I’ve been trying to navigate my way through this industry. Every time I go up to San Francisco, CAAM is always in my heart. It’s been a long history with CAAM.

I know that you were originally born in Argentina to Korean parents and then moved to Australia. Can you give us a little bit of your background and how you got to where you are now?

I was born in Argentina and grew up in Australia and then moved to New York when I was 19 to study drama.

When you think about your life and two or three most important decisions you’ve ever made for yourself, one of the big ones was to believe in myself and not to ever live in the “what if.” I was in Australia, I was studying architecture, and enjoying what I was doing but I wasn’t finding the nourishing passion for architecture. What I discovered is I had a real bonding with more of the human aspect of architecture; how a person is involved inside the space, inside the room, and the emotional components. And I’ve always been involved with drama.

When I was trying to figure out what to do next for architecture, I made the decision that what I really wanted to do was pursue this notion of being an actor and a storyteller. I see acting as more of a conduit for the community and the stories we need to tell. So I made the decision to study drama, to know that there is a craft behind it, so that, no matter what, I would always know that I have these building blocks.

So part of that decision led me to go to New York and I studied at HB Studio. So through knowing that I was finding my building blocks for the craft that I really wanted to pursue in my life, I grew up into myself because it was one of the most important decisions of my life.

After I finished studying, my first movie was The Perfect Score, and that’s what kept me working. That really put me on the map about twelve years ago. It was about a bunch of kids that steal SAT scores and it was with Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Erika Christensen, Bryan Greenberg and myself, and that movie really offered an opportunity for me to start working in the industry. I still needed to learn a lot more, as I have learned, but it was a great way to start as a jumping off point.

Leonard Nam hosting the Industry Brunch Awards at CAAMFest 2016. Photo by Layla Yu

Leonard Nam hosting the CAAMFest 2016 Filmmaker Awards Brunch. Photo by Layla Yu

Were your parents supportive of what you’re doing? Was there any kind of pushback from them at all?

They weren’t the ones to be like, “Yeah, go be an actor, Leo!” They were like, “What? What are you talking about? What about architecture school?”

They weren’t disrespectful of what I wanted to do. They were very respectful when I really made the decision to go to New York, as opposed to just dabbling in acting in Australia and to put my money where my mouth is. That kind of opened their eyes a bit. As I got more and more work, then they started to kind of understand it.

Even at the beginning, when I got The Perfect Score and my family flew over for the premiere, I remember there was a billboard of The Perfect Score with the five of us walking, and my face was there. It was the first time my family was in L.A. together, and I’m showing them the poster of the movie. My mum said to me, kind of mortified, “Leo, did you pay to have your face there?” I was like, “Are you kidding me, Mum?”

When I told her that it’s a Paramount Studio film and I’m a lead, she was like, “Paramount what? What does that even mean?” So it took a couple of go’s at it even after Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and others. With Fast and Furious, she started to understand more of what was going on. By then she was like “Oh yeah, we’re coming to the premiere,” “so, where are we going to stay?,” “we’re going to eat at this restaurant.”

But it’s wonderful to have parents who just know me for me, and not for the work that I’ve done.

Are they fans of Westworld now? Are they watching it every week, or are they out of the loop on that?

I haven’t spoken to my mum about it. My brother and sister in London, I don’t know if they’re watching it. I know that tons of their friends are watching it because they’re always like, “Oh yeah, such-and-such is watching you on Westworld.” I have other family members who are watching it. But I don’t think my mum or my brother and sister have watched it.

Your character on Westworld, Felix, is Maeve’s guide to the inner workings of the park. We see their relationship slowly deepen over the course of the series, with him in the finale ultimately helping her escape. What, in your mind, do you think is Felix’s motivation to help Maeve?

Well, I think it’s a couple things. To be honest, we don’t know the inner workings of what’s really going to happen, because the creators are so good at keeping everything tight-lipped. This is just based on what I had to work with and what I built and a lot of my inspiration came from understanding the bird scene in episode 5 when the bird lands on Maeve’s finger.

When you are working with a robot and one of them wakes up, you’re going to be scared. When Maeve woke up on that table and ran out, that was just mind blowing for anyone. I think part of it is he definitely just wants to survive because he’s seen exactly what they’re capable of and seeing that they’ve gone beyond their capabilities. As a technician, he’s only known them to be programmed to fake, and now, suddenly, they’re going beyond that boundary.

But the other part is, I think, there’s a fascination with anything that starts to wake up and to become alive in front of them. The bird scene in Episode 5, when Felix programs the bird to awaken and it lands on Maeve’s finger, something awakens inside of Felix too. Sure, there are people that are going to be like, “Oh my God, it’s an android!” and be scared and what have you, but there are other emotions that wake up as well, and so I think Felix is having his own awakening at the same time.

Do you think, on some level, he wants Maeve to succeed?

He’s also aware of what the park is, and is learning his own place within it too. There’s a mixture of feelings. I think all of us are going to be surprised as Felix’s character grows, what’s going to happen. I think he does want Maeve to succeed in her journey, I would think. But again, I don’t know much. The creators are the mastermind behind it all.

You mention that there’s something that awakens in Felix. What do you mean by that? Can you elaborate?

There’s something that keeps coming up for me with Felix and that’s freedom. It’s freedom to be you, as you are, what you are, how you are. I think there is something that as Maeve wakes up, you can’t help but also have something be awakened within Felix, because it’s now going beyond what he knows. These robots have been programmed to only go to a certain boundary and now, suddenly, those boundaries have gone beyond. So, I think there’s something that awakens in him, in possibility; in finding who he is, now, as this person with this situation in front of him. I think he’s finding his place.

Leonardo Nam. Photo credit: Paul Smith Photography

Leonardo Nam. Photo credit: Paul Smith Photography

The cast is pretty diverse in this show, just from having people of color and then having strong female leads. Was this intentional? For your role for example, were they specifically looking for an Asian actor to play Felix?

I can’t really speak for who they were looking for specifically, because when I went in, they were mixing a bunch of different roles, so you didn’t quite know who was going in for what role.

One thing that I will say is that the creators, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, they are very specific about what they want and how they think it is going to work. So my feeling is that they were open, but I don’t know if it was specifically, “Hey, we’re looking for an Asian dude for Lutz,” “Hey we’re looking for a white dude for Sylvester.” I don’t know if it was like that, but I wouldn’t put it past them. They are real pioneers not only in the industry but also, definitely, in the show in that they are the ones that they have the kernel and the seed from the beginning.

As the show progresses, I only knew about my storyline. Now, watching it as a fan, I’ve started to recognize that they knew from the beginning what was going on and piecing it together. So, whether it was specific that they were looking for an Asian dude, no. I would hope that they were looking for a good actor and someone interesting.

So how was your character development? Did you work with them intimately to develop the character Felix, or was this more on your own in developing him? Did you work with the other cast members to develop together? How was that process?

What they did is that the writers would give us our scripts beforehand, and then we had a little bit of a conversation, just in passing, and then one other brief conversation at the beginning of episode two with one of the other directors and we just briefly talked about it.

As to, week by week, where it went, we didn’t get that kind of conversation. It was just more about kernels and seeds that we talked about.

I created my character from the gift of the script that they gave me. There was just so much to mine there and it was so deep, that I just was having the time of my life working on it.

There were so many theories going on about the show, did you follow any of that and what was the craziest one you heard about your character or the show in general?

So there are some major, major theories going on out there, and I was so close to the project that I didn’t really understand what they were saying, to be very honest. I just knew my part, and then understood the big brush strokes as to the nature of the show. Towards the end of the series, I heard one that Westworld is a park for robots.

So everyone is a robot?

Everyone! It was like in another planet and it’s all overrun by robots and evolution has gotten to a point where there is no humanity. The robots remember that there was humanity and now they want to experience it and so they built this park.   

People are definitely thinking about this show and have some crazy and brilliant theories; they’re definitely smarter than I am. That was probably the craziest one I heard.

Did you have any initial theories about the show that, as the series progressed, turned out to be right or wrong?

You know, I was just a fan of the movie. As the show progressed, I didn’t really have that many theories. I knew about the timeline theory that people were talking about, that William was the man in black. That stuff I heard about. When people picked that up really early, I was amazed.

One big moment people were talking about was there were different logos for Westworld. I didn’t have any theories like that. I was still coming out the show as an actor and being close to it. Only later on, when I watched the show and understood more what was going on, then I started to get into the series theories.

 Leonardo Nam. Photographed by Paul Smith Photography.

Leonardo Nam. Photographed by Paul Smith Photography.

Congrats on getting the show for another season. Can you tell us if you will be there? Will we be seeing you for Season 2?

I hope! One thing that they have done is they know how to keep a secret. I’m hopeful. We all saw the finale, so let’s hope, let’s hope!

Do you have any upcoming projects that you have going on right now or in the future that you can share with us if you can?

At the moment, I’m kind of on the Westworld ride right now, and so we’ll see. There are some interesting opportunities that are coming up and we’ll see how it all works out, timing-wise. What I will say is that I’m really interested in virtual reality, so I am working on and directing a three-part series capsule in virtual reality.

How is working in VR?

It’s really exciting! It’s such an exciting space to be in because it really is the future and it kind of is, almost, like the wild west. People are really trying to figure out how to tell stories in virtual reality and I want to be part of it, as that storytelling evolves.

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The entire first season of Westworld is available to stream on HBOGo or on Comcast on Demand.

This interview has been edited for clarity. This post is made possible by Comcast.