Jimmi Simpson plays the curious and introspective William on the HBO series Westworld. Before that, he played “some fucked up assholes and weird pieces of shit.” Before that, he sold his motorcycle to pay for the right to build sets and take free classes at the Williamsburg Theatre Festival. Before that, he was a just high school kid trying out his acting chops at the local community theater.
Simpson tells Rogue his origin story. “When I was maybe 15, my mother encouraged me to participate in Jesus Christ Superstar—a musical with this killer rock opera soundtrack. So I did it. Acting started as kind of a pastime for me. At most, I thought it would be something I’d attempt in my off time while I worked a regular nine-to-five job for the rest of my life. Then I went to Bloomsbury University in Pennsylvania, where Karen Anselm (a professor) pulled me aside and let me know she wanted me to ace this theater course, which I actually just took so I could fuck off during that part of the day. So I really worked hard and tried to master this scene, and she asked me to be a major. I was halfway through college (like 21), and I had never been asked by anyone to be a part of this thing before. So I decided to try it, and I just kinda told myself I’d quit if it sucked too bad. And it just hasn’t ever done that.”
Being an up-and-coming actor may not have sucked enough to make him quit, but it did require him to make some major sacrifices before he got his first big break.
“After school, when I was about 22,” Simpson says, “I went and got an apprenticeship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival where I had to pay them. I had a motorcycle, and I sold it for two grand and gave the money to Williamstown. In return, they let me build their set along with like 50 other young actors who had no experience and just wanted to be close to the business. While I was there, I took a stand-up class taught by Lewis Black that they offered free to the apprentices. As we were performing our ridiculous bits in front of our friends, [Black] came in with his agent, who was there to see him do a play. It was this lucky situation where [the agent] happened to see me, liked what I was doing, and said, ‘I’d like to send you out for work.’ A month later, I was in New York auditioning for Law & Order, quite beside myself that I had infiltrated the fortress of this business.”
For a big chunk of his career, Simpson mostly played comic relief characters, such as the dude Marshall Eriksen plays Edward Fortyhands with in How I Met Your Mother. He says these roles require lots of timing and technical skill, but his artistic prowess didn’t fully flourish until he landed Hap and Leonard, a Sundance show set in Baton Rouge with “no budget and a lotta great material.” Simpson played a drug dealer named Soldier. “He was so out there,” Simpson says. “He was like an atomic bomb, but he was so grounded in his love for his girl. It was a bizarre, but delightful, treat to be able to play a true-hearted gentleman who was also crazy as fuck.”
That gig was so rewarding for Simpson that when it was over, he was hungry for a similar experience. That’s what inspired him to audition for Westworld.
“I had just come off Hap and Leonard, and it was really down and dirty,” he says. “So I was in a very accelerated work mode where I was very eager to find ways to express myself. When [the Westworld] audition showed up, I really had no idea what the scope of the program was. I just threw my back into the audition, and they were pleased. Next thing I knew, I had the part. From that point on, I was constantly stunned by each new turn of events. Walking onto this set of my job on and seeing the level of professionalism and love from the higher-ups—it was an actor’s wonderland: the best material I could imagine, combined with creators who were very invested in everybody executing it beautifully and being on the same page.”
Thanks to that level of craftsmanship, fans are already dying to know what will happen in Season 2. We asked Simpson what he could share with us, and he left us with more questions than answers, saying, “There’s been a lot of speculation on what it is, but it’s beyond that. I think it’s gonna be a total reinvention for the second season of his series. That’s about all I can say.”
Simpson also stars in the film Under the Silver Lake and an upcoming Errol Morris Netflix mini-series, as well as a secret project he isn’t allowed to tell us about just yet. With these challenging roles, he is keeping up the acceleration and taking it all in.
Photography by Ben Cope
Grooming by Barbara
Styling by Gorge Villalpando
Style Assisting by Marquis Clay
Written by Cody Fitzpatrick