Westworld Season 2 premieres on April 22 — perfect time for C&I to check in with the Longmire and Murder, She Wrote alum about playing Peter Abernathy on HBO’s hit robot western.
It’s been 50 years since Louis Herthum first saw Bullitt as a 12-year-old in his native Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and decided then and there that he was going to be a stuntman in the movies.
In 1982, he picked up and moved to the West Coast.
Acting turned out to be his true calling. He became familiar to America as Deputy Andy Broom during a five-year stint on Murder, She Wrote, opposite Angela Lansbury. His recurring TV roles have included Omar in Longmire and werewolf pack leader JD in HBO’s True Blood, and he’s guest starred in everything from Narcos and True Detective to Chicago Med and Breaking Bad.
After more than three decades in the business, Herthum landed a role in the HBO sci-fi western thriller Westworld. As the character Peter Abernathy, he plays one of the robotic hosts at a futuristic theme park and is programmed as the father of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). He’s one of the first robots to present with programming glitches.
In the hit show’s second season, which kicks off April 22, Herthum has become a series regular.
C&I caught up with Herthum for a couple of conversations on busy days at his home in Santa Monica, California, as he jockeyed appointments for voiceovers, work on an episode of Lucifer, and a meeting with Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River, Yellowstone).
The talk ran from Westworld and Longmire to playing a ranching robot father and being a dad in real life, to that big scene in the buff and the time he mistakenly smooched up a horse.
Cowboys & Indians: Congrats on being bumped up to a series regular for Season 2 of Westworld. How does it feel?
Louis Herthum: Gratifying. And nice to get the pay raise. To be quite honest, it was 35/36 years by the time I got the regular gig. It’s a recognition of the work and an affirmation of what you’ve struggled your butt off for. It’s nice when someone believes in you enough to do this for you because of what you’ve done for them. I moved to Los Angeles as a 25-year-old with stars in my eyes. Very quickly you realize you just want to work. Fame is not something that I covet at all. However, recognition for my work — all actors want that. It’s the realization of a dream really and quite a thing to be named a series regular on one of the most amazing shows in the history of television.
C&I: And one of the most difficult to describe. Westworld is compellingly complex: a sci-fi thriller set in a theme park where guests choose a white or black hat, enter a 19th-century Western set, and play out a narrative with programmed robot hosts. How would you describe the show in a couple of sentences to C&I readers who love classic westerns and might wonder where or how this innovative and unconventional show fits — or doesn’t.
Herthum: I would tell them that this is not your typical TV show. It’s like nothing you’ve ever watched. It’s a puzzle, a riddle — it will test you. If you’re into shallow TV watching, you will last maybe 10 minutes, maybe not even 5. You’re challenged immediately, because of the way the pilot starts with the question to Dolores, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
For people who are diehard western addicts, fans of the classics and epics — John Ford, spaghetti westerns, How the West Was Won, True Grit — I don’t know where Westworld fits in the “canon,” because there’s a sci-fi thriller premise and so many modern things. Aspects of it certainly fit a broad definition of a western, but it’s a very modern take. For readers of C&I, it’s certainly worth a try.
C&I: It’s yet another impressive entry on your acting résumé, which includes recently playing Omar on Longmire. Westworld and Longmire could hardly be more different. It suggests how resilient the western is.
Herthum: Every red-blooded American boy once played cowboys and Indians. And all male American actors, and many who are not American, I would imagine, want to be in a western. I loved the idea of a modern-day western. I hadn’t read Craig Johnson’s Longmire books when I was asked to audition, but the idea of a contemporary western excited me. Modern westerns like Longmire are a great way to get the feel of the West — the morality and sensibility of the people. Putting those elements in a modern setting is brilliant.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the western is America. The whole genre from back in the John Ford days; the renaissance of the western with Lonesome Dove, Dances with Wolves, Open Range; and some of my favorites like Once Upon a Time in the West, all the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and the Coen brothers’ True Grit, which to me is one of the finest westerns to come along in years — these films in a strong way shaped Hollywood and, to some extent, the country.
I think Longmire has a place in that long tradition. It’s such a fantastic show — a completely different kind of western, and a different kind of show altogether. The lead character has high morals; he’s flawed, but I feel he has all the right ideas. It was very sad that the series came to an end. Though there is some talk of Longmire movies.
As for Westworld, I’m over the moon and just thrilled to be in an actual 19th-century setting playing a cowboy, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
C&I: Your characters on Longmire and Westworld are obviously so different. How did you find a “way in” to the character of Omar on Longmire?
Herthum: As I say, having not read any of the Longmire books before auditioning, all I had to go on to bring this character to life was the pilot script and the description of Omar in the audition notice. Omar’s this wealthy guy who owns hunting lodges, is a firearms expert, and someone who Walt goes to at times as a resource. I related to the fact he was knowledgeable about guns. My dad was a gunsmith. I grew up in Louisiana with guns and learned a healthy respect for them even before I was in school. We weren’t really hunters — we were target shooters. My dad was a marksman and had many medals for marksmanship. So I just used my knowledge and comfort around guns and what info the script provided me. While shooting the pilot I was told by executive producer Greer Shephard that I was the first Omar they read and that they could never really see anyone else in the part after that. So I guess not reading the books at that point wasn't to my detriment.
C&I: On Westworld, you play a cowboy robot. How did you figure out a way to “inhabit” Peter Abernathy and invest him with humanity?
Herthum: The interesting thing about Westworld is that the hosts in the theme park are probably much more human — in terms of what we wish humans were — than the guests. It’s like when you see Peter and Dolores first thing in the morning and there are no other guests around. They literally go through their daily programmed loop no matter what. If no guests come around, they just go about their lives. They are programmed to be extremely human. Most of the guests who choose to put on the black hat — they want to wreak havoc. It’s a real study in man’s inhumanity to man.
C&I: Your character is the father of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), and you yourself have a teenage daughter. How does having a daughter of your own inform your playing Peter Abernathy?
Herthum: It informs me a great deal. I can very much relate to Peter. We have a lot in common. I can relate to his main objective: I must protect Dolores. That’s why when he’s being put in cold storage he’s sad: He can’t protect Dolores. And it’s why he decries to Ford that he will exact revenge. Peter’s objectives are: care for my wife, take care of my herd, and protect my daughter, Dolores. My goals are to make a living, be a good person, and take care of my daughter, Olivia. I can relate to him so much in that way. I’m glad I have a daughter — I love having a daughter. She’s an incredible human being. There’s something special about the love between a father and daughter.
C&I: Westworld is a very adult show, with some really mature content. Of course, there’s the famous “Meet Your Maker” scene in which you’re sitting buck naked in front of the theme park’s founder, Dr. Robert Ford, played by the great Anthony Hopkins. Does your daughter watch the show?
Herthum: She does not. Yeah, it’s adult content. She says she hasn’t watched the scene with Anthony Hopkins, even though it’s all over the Internet. But she’s always known her dad’s an actor and though she grew up in a different city, we’ve always visited regularly, and she’s grown up with it. It’s like with any kid: Once you know what your parents do, it’s not really a big deal. Your parent is just your parent.
I have some notoriety, but I don’t feel famous. Sometimes, though, my daughter has a brush with it. She was at some friends; house when I was on True Blood and Longmire at same time. A friend asked about her dad being on TV and one of the parents asked who her dad was. He was a fan of both shows and knew who I was, and he was like “Nah!!” It kind of blew her mind — Oh, wow, my dad is kind of famous. She’s proud of me and everything, but otherwise the whole thing is treated very nonchalantly.
C&I: The scene where you’re in the altogether with Dr. Robert Ford is Shakespearean — you literally quote Shakespeare. It really demonstrates your acting chops — the way you turn off and on and how it shows in your eyes. It also shows what great shape you’re in. What do you do for physical conditioning?
Herthum: I’m 61 and I think I’m in better shape than most 40-year-olds.
First I thank my mom and dad for great genes. My dad died at 82, and I promise you he did 50 pushups and 50 sit-ups the morning of the day he died. I watch what I eat. I walk a lot. I power walk 15 to 20 miles a week on the beach. I do some light dumbbells. My main workout is boxing, which I’ve been doing for 30-plus years. As long I’m on Westworld, I’ve got to stay in what I like to call “naked shape” because you never know.
C&I: What’s it like to act in a series that’s such a big puzzle and has so many unanswered questions?
Herthum: Challenging. Exhilarating. For me, it’s exciting because I only know what happens in the scripts I get for the shows I’m in. It leaves you with tons of questions. Imagine coming into a show like Westworld in the middle of a season and missing a couple of episodes. That’s what it’s like. As an actor, I don’t mind that. I know what [my character] Peter knows and what Peter needs to know. I kind of know what Peter’s past has been. The script is a blueprint and I just try to deliver what’s in the script. I go as in-depth as I need to for the script.
C&I: Are you the type of actor who can tackle a role with blind faith that your contribution will make sense in the grand scheme, or do producers/directors fill you in enough that you know how best to approach their roles?
Herthum: The former. Certainly with Westworld. I feel that if producers and directors do a good job of casting, then most of their work is done. [Showrunners] Jonathan [Nolan] and Lisa [Joy] are pretty much experts at it. They let you go. If you trust your actors to that degree, I don’t think there’s any excuse ever for a TV show or movie to have bad actors. There are just too many good ones. I would say the same about directors and writers. From the first time I read for the show till I got the part was five weeks. The casting process was in-depth. I love collaboration, and they are amazing collaborators. You bring what you bring — if they tweak, great. You don’t get a whole big thing of notes before you get on set and start working.
C&I: You got to be horseback in Utah during the first season. What’s your history with riding?
Herthum: I grew up in Louisiana, and even though there are lots of horsemen and women there, I didn’t grow up around them. One of the things kids liked to do is to go to one of those places where you can trail ride. Of course that’s not like real riding. Growing up, that was the extent of “riding” for me — bouncing around looking like an idiot and the next day being butt-sore.
I produced a film in Phoenix in 2003 and one of the stunt guys, Bobby Mack, who is a horseman has a ranch in Palmdale. He said, “Come up and ride horses.” I’ve always wanted to be a better horseman and look like I know what I’m doing. I can tell when I see an actor on a horse who doesn’t know how to ride. I want to be able to look like I ride.
So I went to Bobby’s house. He’s got a corral and the whole big thing. He’s got a device that softens the dirt. He puts me on a horse — a barrel racer. He says, “Whatever you do, don’t smooch her up.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “You know how people make that kissing sound? Don’t do that ’cause she’ll go.” So I’m riding, trying not to bounce in the saddle. She stops, like she’s thinking, Who’s this idiot on my back? I smooched her up. I was at one end of the corral and she took off running, straight to the other end, stopped dead, and I went right over the top and landed in the soft dirt he had plowed up. I wasn’t hurt, but my jacket and body form were perfectly imprinted in the dirt.
Today I can get on a horse and I know how to ride and the right things to do. I did the movie Circle of Pain, and I had to do a lot of riding and galloping — I was smooth as silk. But I look at this one little scene in Westworld where I come riding up to the stable before finding a photo in the dirt and I see myself bouncing. I thought I was doing so good.
C&I: If it’s not getting in more hours riding, how do you spend your free time?
Herthum: I’ve gotten into classic cars. I have a 1971 Corvette Stingray T-Top, and my dream car since I was 12 years old: a ’68 Mustang Fastback — same as the Bullitt car — that I’m just about done refurbishing. Even though that movie was the thing that made me go into film, I chose not to paint my car Highland Green like the Bullitt car; the color I chose is actually called Black Forest Green. It’s almost black in shade, then pops forest green in sunlight. I decided not to make an exact duplicate or “clone,” but the interior is identical. I love the wood grain interior, the Shelby steering wheel, which by the way is an original vintage Shelby Steering wheel, and Shelby stick shift. So I’m really enjoying that.
I live in Santa Monica, close to the ocean. I do lots of walking on the beach. If you’re having a bad day, you just go down there and things get better fast. I do lots of camping and love to spend time in the mountains. I’ll go to Frazier Park or maybe fishing in Ojai at Lake Casitas or go up Angeles Crest Highway to the national forest just above L.A.
I like art and antiques and spend a good bit of time at swap meets and antique stores and the occasional garage sale — though I am maybe a little too recognizable these days for them, ha! When I first started doing it in the early ’90s, before eBay and Antiques Roadshow, I found amazing things for nothing and really developed an eye. Not sure where it came from, but I’ve always been interested in old things. It’s like treasure hunting.
In 1994 I went to a high school reunion back in my hometown and found seven, oil on canvas art illustrations. They were priced very reasonably, $250 a piece and signed LSH.I didn’t know the signature, but I had a feeling. I bought them and shipped them back to California. LSH turned out to be Lawrence Stewart Harris, who started the Group of Seven painters in Canada. I got extraordinarily excited. As it turned out, because they were early in his career, they were less valuable. Through Uno Langmann, an art and antique dealer in Vancouver, I repatriated the paintings to Canada, who paid me $75,000 for them to be permanently in the collection of The Vancouver Art Gallery. Today they are worth about a half-million dollars, but, you know — hindsight.
C&I: Any projects we might not know about?
Herthum: In 2004, I produced and starred in Red Ridge, about human trafficking on the Texas-Mexico border. It’s dark and gritty based and kind of ugly, It’s not a modern-day western and but it has the feel of a spaghetti western — it had that kind of music in it. It’s a disturbing but good film.
A gentleman by the name of Steve Carver, who directed a lot of films in the ’80s and ’90s, has done a book called Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen: Western Portraits of Great Character Actors. You can read about it on Facebook. He takes all the photos with the same technique of the day, where you have to stand still for 8 seconds and not move a muscle. He invited me to be a part of it, and I was really honored to be among this group. The book should be coming out soon.
C&I: In addition to being an actor, you’re a filmmaker and have your own production company, with films like Red Ridge and some documentaries to your credit. How has the experience of Westworld influenced your own filmmaking and sense of the possibilities of storytelling?
Herthum: First, it humbled me to a great deal. The scope of what Jonathan and Lisa have created is mind-boggling. I haven’t made a film since being on the show, but I’m trying to get a couple of projects going. It’s kind of like shooting for the stars and hitting the moon. It’s inspirational beyond my ability to express. Westworld is being done by people who are so genuinely nice and extraordinarily talented. They are lovely human beings. There’s not one person on among the cast, crew, producers that I wouldn’t love to hang out with.
C&I: Another person who you can’t say enough nice things about is Angela Lansbury, whom you worked closely with for years on Murder, She Wrote and someone whom you’ve said you deeply respect. You’re a seasoned veteran yourself now, qualified to dispense your own advice based on a consistently great film and TV bio. What do you tell people who are getting into the business?
Herthum: Well, thank you. But there are a few stinkers on that bio, trust me. The harder you work, the luckier you get. Luck is a combo of opportunity and preparedness — there’s a saying something to that effect. But I do think it’s true I’ve been lucky to do some really great shows. I only had a small guest star role on Breaking Bad, but the fact that I got to be on one of the great shows is incredible. Part of it is the result of amazing representation.
I often, when asked, give actors this one piece of advice: Don’t ever underestimate your abilities when you feel your agent or manager is doing that. If I had a regret, it’s that I got comfortable with agents who might not have been working for me hard enough. When you feel in your gut that they’re not working for you as hard as they could be, 9 times out of 10 you’re right. Find another agent. If you ain’t working, it ain’t working.
C&I: Clearly, you’re going to keep working. As we launch into Season 2 of Westworld, what do you hope for Peter’s future?
Herthum: The original plan was to see Peter get out of the park and I would imagine it still is for some of the characters in the show. I would love that to happen, but we shall see what we shall see … as my grandmother used to say.
C&I: How do you celebrate when an episode wraps?
Herthum: No particular method. I tend to celebrate the end of every day with a long, hot shower. And then a good meal with a glass or two of wine. And then I think about the next job. It’s what we do.