Service Bots

In the new HBO series “Westworld,” Thandie Newton plays an android whose role is to serve the guests in a futuristic theme park, playing her part in an interactive story that contains a lot of fucking & fighting, including shootouts.

She was asked by Vulture about the challenges of playing a robot whore, the madam in a frontier saloon who services guests with a quick kind of intimacy.

How do you convey a sense of robotic-ness without being clichéd?

What they wanted more than anything was for us to be human, but to be minimal with what we do so that everything that we do is deliberate. It was like playing a really chilled-out, focused, well-adjusted person. It would be like me after an amazing meditation session. They don't have ten thoughts going on at once. There's none of the static in their heads that we have. They wouldn't know what insomnia was, unless they've been programmed to be an insomniac. It was actually a kind of ideal head space. As humans, it’s what we only dream of reaching, which is clarity of mind. 

That's how I played her, and it gives an amazing charisma and power to the character. There's just that single storyline going on in their heads. 

When the nightmares start, that's when the robot become more human, because that's more reflective of what we're like. Memories, bad dreams, things that we've forgotten, programs that were given to us as children, which we can't remember. That's exactly what happens. As an adult, you come to question stuff that went on. Just because the voice in your head sounds like you doesn't mean that it's actually information in your head that you agree with.

Being created to only be of service to the story, to satisfy the needs of guests, she is programmed without the distractions that create internal noise in humans.   With only canned memories, her own feelings cannot get in the way, though the arc of the series is about the bots starting to remember the feelings they have when they were abused by guests for pleasure.

I was fascinated by Ms. Newton’s description of playing a “really chilled out, focused well-adjusted person” because I understand that mindset completely.

It is the basis of my own concierge role, the one where I put the needs and concerns of other people before mine, the role where I am of service to other people’s story.

Learning to suppress the “static in my head” was a key part of achieving that role.   When I care for or fight with people in that role, I am following an internal script that is based on very close listening which results in very conscious, considered and calculated responses from me.

Sure, the responses are laced with humanity, well written and full of amusing twists — it is the details which draw the punters in, as Westworld’s Dr Ford reminds us — but they are all of service to bigger goals, goals of encouragement, entertainment and enlightenment.

Like any good wounded healer (2006), I use my wounds to inform my choices but my focus is always healing, mirroring people, fighting with them so they can see their own challenges in a new and empowering way.

I am not just the performer in this scenario, though, I am also the producer & director, always working on many levels.   Unlike the automatons of Westworld, the static still exists in my head,  just beneath the performance of concierge.  I have spent decades, though, processing that static so it doesn’t trigger and overwhelm me, un-wiring my own emotional responses so I can remain safe and on script.

Ms. Newton notes that she finds a kind of powerful charisma in coming from this space of service.   The focus, the clarity, the singular intentions are engaging and comforting to her clients who can relax in her simple expressions of duty, being the best whore she can be.

When people come to a healer operating on that level they do find charisma.  They are attracted by the lack of static and so want us to help clear the static in their head, giving them focus and peace.   They get that for a moment in healing space and they like it.

What they like much less, though, is the reminder that we each have to heal ourselves, that to have that centring in our own life, we have to do the personal work of digging in and processing our own shit.   Only cult members can live inside the mind of another forever, and when that happens, bad things usually ensue.

Doing the internal work, the therapy, is hard, and it does not eliminate our own conflicting inner story lines and voices, instead only giving us the power not to be unconsciously controlled by them.   We can quiet them for a moment to be of service to others, but they are very much always with us.

Having those conflicting emotions suppressed, though, can sometimes make us seem robotic.    Becoming so present, so of service to the story can seem to suppress our humanity, make our responses look rote and trite rather than compassionate and intense.  How can a human be so cerebral, so considered, so in the meta and still be human?

A concierge has to have charm, yes, some flavour of individuality, but in the the end, she is there to serve, not to have her own noise get in the way.   We are still humans, though, no matter how much our history & feelings are modulated and packaged to serve the story.

As the child of Aspergers parents, as a transperson, as a smart & sensitive human, as a femme, I learned early the importance of not letting my own feelings get in the way of the service I render.   It is easy for parts of me to be seen as too much, too big, triggering the unhealed responses of others.

It is my job to be “fine,” thank you,  not expecting others will be able to be present for me.   I walk into their world, they don’t walk into mine.  When people try to enter my inner world while still making their responses all about them and their emotions, it usually creates a kind of destruction that is very painful and very costly to me.

Westworld’s bots can get patched up overnight, but for humans, the price of a lifetime of servicing those who act out continues to add up. (Well, actually, from the arc of the story it seems the costs are staring to add up for them, too.)  I am neither sick nor invulnerable (2006), just battered.

There is more in the interview about how the characters are created as product, honed to seductive perfection by the producers, which is fascinating to read.

In Westworld and in my world we were taught early that its all about other people and not about us.   We exist to serve, human doings and not human beings.

Having what Ms. Newton calls an “ideal head space,” a clarity most humans only dream of reaching does have rewards and delights.

Having lived the dream, though, learning to be the concierge who holds a wounded healer inside, well, not having the heart space to feel agency, feel mirroring and feel affirmed in our own emotions, well, that has a cost.