In HBO's "Westworld," Ed Harris' Man in black is a study in unapologetic villainy

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BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. >> The anything-goes getaway called Westworld doesn't really exist, and, if it did, you couldn't hope to afford this top-notch pleasure park.

Fortunately, HBO has brought it to your favorite screen in the mind-blowing "Westworld," which will treat you to its all-inclusive delights — as well as their sinister underpinnings — for the simple cost of your HBO subscription. (The 10-episode season premieres 9 p.m. Sunday)

Think of Westworld as a dude ranch gone wild. Its guests ("newcomers") interact with lifelike androids ("hosts") with no restrictions or consequences — sexually, violently or any Old West way. It's a futuristic free pass for every patron's fantasy, depraved or benign.

That's the intoxicating promise, at least. But behind the scenes, its high-tech wizardry, advanced robotics and beyond-breathtaking artificial intelligence are suddenly besieged by worrisome glitches. Hosts, out of whack, are starting to push back.

Meanwhile, an oft-returning newcomer, identified only as the Man in Black, arrives for his latest visit with something more in mind than routine mega-self-indulgence. He aims to crack the overarching mystery that Westworld represents for him, which seems nothing less than the nature of consciousness, the limits of free will, and what it means to be human.

The hefty "Westworld" cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright, as well as Ed Harris, who, as the Man in Black, is a study in unapologetic villainy.

"I like playing this guy," says Harris with a grin. "He's not trying to escape from anything, he's on a mission of discovery. He's not trying to forget his life, he's trying to learn more about himself — and about what's going on in the park, where he's been coming for 30 years."

At 65, Harris, meeting a reporter in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, exhibits the sturdy build and plainspoken manner (not to mention jeans, weathered boots and work shirt) of a fellow who feels at home on the range. But across his broad sweep of film roles, he has tackled all manner of manliness. Who else could have played John Glenn and John McCain; Jackson Pollock and Beethoven?

He recalls how, in an early conversation with Jonathan Nolan, a co-creator of "Westworld" (which was inspired by the 1973 film), "We discussed what they were after on an intellectual, kind of metaphysical level — which is not where I live.

"But he made me understand how serious he was about his vision for this thing. And that, by itself, matters to me — working with people who have passion about what they're doing and want you to be a part of it."

Harris' "Westworld" character, and the underlying premise, may remind some viewers of "The Truman Show." In that 1998 film, he played the beret-sporting Christof, executive producer of a round-the-clock telecast whose hapless star, played by Jim Carrey, was as oblivious to his ginned-up circumstances as the Westworld hosts are here. Numbering some 2,000, they have no idea (at least, not at first) that they aren't "real" and that they exist solely to serve Westworld's paying customers.

"There's a deeper level to this game," declares the Man in Black. He's right. But any clues to that were shared with Harris by the producers strictly on a need-to-know basis.

"Beforehand, they told me enough to understand what kind of life my character had in the outside world and why he was coming to this park," Harris says. "But then you get the script for Episode 7, say, and" — with voiced a trace of sarcasm — "you're going, 'Oh! Thanks for telling me, man! I didn't realize THAT about myself!'"

Maybe it's a bridled way to function for an actor who treats his profession as "a way of life, a way of being in the world. Everything you see, every person you come in contact with, it all feeds into what you do creatively," he says.

That could help account for why he often opts for challenging, ambitious roles in films he knows will be a long shot at the box office.

He cites his 2006 biopic "Copying Beethoven," in which he depicted the immortal composer, as "not the greatest film in the world, but there's some pretty cool stuff there." Yet seemingly a moment after opening in theaters, "Boom! It was gone."

Harris isn't bellyaching, just laying it out.

"That's one of the reasons I said I would do 'Westworld,'" he explains. "I knew it was very important to HBO and would be done in a certain classy way, and I knew they would promote the (crap) out of it. I thought it might be kind of fun to be in something people actually see."

Seeing it, they are sure to share his enchantment with the Man in Black's mission.

"This," Harris says, "could easily become the thing I'm most known for."


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