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Why Thandie Newton finds personal empowerment in HBO's 'Westworld'

In the HBO drama "Westworld," Thandie Newton plays a robot prostitute in a dystopian theme park who's programmed to please the human "guests" in any way they want.

On the surface, it's not the most pro-woman role. But Newton tells "The Frame" that there's a whole lot more going on in this TV show and that despite the graphic violence, sex and nudity, there's a greater purpose at work. 

Everything that you see in "Westworld" — [creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan] have tried so hard to make this a reality. They have tried so hard to ensure that the violence, that the sex —these vices that we are addicted to — that we understand the cost.

The show has two main settings. One is in an Old West-style theme park, where human guests are allowed to act out violent and sexual fantasies with the hosts of the park: human-like robots. The other setting is in the tech world where the engineers who created the theme park tinker and reprogram the robots who sit there completely naked, seemingly devoid of consciousness.

Unlike the 1973 film on which "Westworld" is based, the HBO series takes the perspective of the robots. Therein lies the empowerment for Thandie Newton. Her character, Maeve Millay is the madam who runs a brothel in the theme park's saloon. The show explores what happens when robots like her character develop a consciousness in how they're being treated and how they've been programmed to serve.

When Thandie Newtwon joined John Horn on "The Frame," she passionately talked about how the sex and nudity on "Westworld" enables her to use her decades in the entertainment business to challenge how women are sexually objectified. She notes how she feels more empowered in the scenes where she's naked than in those when she's sexed-up in corset and fishnets as a hooker.  

To hear the conversation, click the play button at the top left of this post. Highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On how "Westworld" addresses the behind-the-scenes talk about sexual attractiveness

It's like what people really talk about. It's like looking in the restaurant at how they're really preparing the food. It's like listening to the Sony executive and what they're really saying about actors. We're showing that and then we're showing the "what if" the people they're talking about in this way could hear and could have a reaction.

We're looking at these questions from so many different angles — and those angles are the characters, the robots who are looking at human behavior and [wondering], Why are you programming me this way? Why are you programming me to be abused, to be raped, to be violated, to want to do that to other people? 

On how she feels about the nudity in "Westworld"

I felt objectified and more weakened and uncomfortable wearing the corset, the fishnets — the "objectification costume" I call it — boobs up to my chin. I found it really destabilizing and uncomfortable [in the theme park world]. I felt more empowered naked [in the tech world].

In the times when I'm naked, it's not an invitation to sex. But in those times I felt empowered because the complete nudity — without any bells and whistles to push things up or shove things here and there or wax things off, just me and my nakedness — was vulnerable and powerful at the same time.

It was the opposite of sexual objectification. And you'll feel it. You watch it and anybody who sees us naked and finds it titillating and wants to try and extrapolate something sexy out of it — it's going to be tough to do that. And I think that right there is a huge statement.

With exactly this strength of feeling, right now as I talk to you, was my strength of feeling as I said yes to the nudity in "Westworld." Because everything that you see in "Westworld"— [creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan] have tried so hard to make this a reality. They have tried so hard to ensure that the violence, that the sex, these vices that we are addicted to, that we understand the cost.

The takeaways of her TED talk and how she used to feel like she wasn't "good enough"

It was turning pain into power and that's defined my life.

I went through a lot growing up, and what it ended up doing, ironically, was destroying my ego, because I thought I was a piece of s---. It was partly due to how I was introduced to being part of a community — or as it turned out, not being part of a community. How I was never found attractive by boys.

I was brown in a small town, so I didn't have that powder room chat with girls where we're talking about the cool boy, or the nice boy, or whatever. I never had any of that. I would just [have] my nose in books reading crazy romantic novels that gave me all the wrong information, frankly. 

Then suddenly I was doing movies where I felt so empowered, because the characters I was playing were obviously cool people who were worth having a story told about. And I adopted them. I used to feel so ashamed that I felt more empowered playing a role than I did in my life, but it wasn't until the TED talk that I reflected back, that I realized that it was the best thing that could happen, because it meant that I had to junk my programming.

Because as an adult I realized that all the things that had made me feel so bad about myself were actually illusions, because it was all society. That voice in your head that has the sound of your voice, you assume that it's you. It's not. It's not you. It's all the influences around you.

It's the stuff you were told as a kid. It's the stuff you were told by school teachers or, you know, just stuff. We have the opportunity to look at our programming — look under the lid of our programming — our personal programming, and make choices about what is real and what isn't real for us.

On one of her early experiences of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry

I remember being 18 years old [and] being given clothes to dress up in a photo shoot. I was wearing basically, I'm sorry, but "porn clothes." Really high heels, those kinds where you can only stand still, and there's a reason for that. And a tight pencil skirt, a shirt that they wanted unbuttoned really low, a push-up bra so my 18-year-old boobs are spilling out, and leaning over a desk.

And then the photographer comes up and whispers in my ear, You're really f---ing turning me on. And I just thought Ew, gross! I just did, but I didn't even think that I could say how dare you talk to me like that! Because I was already t--- deep in a porn situation. So, no wonder he felt validated to come over and say that, because it was absolutely part of the context. 

Reflecting over past experiences and learning from them

I want to bring all of those mistakes and wisdom, all that gratitude that I have for the lessons I've learned. The gratitude I have for the people I've met. People like Eve Ensler, for example — I saw her performing "The Vagina Monologues" in a little pub in London.

I was was like what is this? Is this real? She wrote "The Vagina Monologues" when they weren't allowed to print the word "vagina" in the New York Times. They had to call it "The V Monologues." Just the very fact of her play meant that the word "vagina" was allowed to be printed in newspapers for the very first time. That's the '90s. 

What I'm saying is that I've had the amazing good fortune of looking at my programming and making decisions about it. I'm even at the point now where I feel deep compassion for the people who are sleepwalking into making me part of their sick fantasies. I feel deep compassion for them, because that compassion is stopping them from living their truth in their moment. 

How "Westworld" explores what it means to be a decent human being

"Westworld" wants to look at [humanity] and deconstruct what it means. Let's be honest with each other and honest with ourselves. Let's make sure that to be humane really means to be decent.

"Westworld" airs Sunday nights on HBO.