The Wild West gets wilder in HBO’s sci-fi fantasy Westworld, set in an interactive adult amusement park where humans act out gunslinger fantasies with artificial-intelligence androids as high-tech puppeteers pull the strings behind the scenes. Premiering Sunday (9/8c) on HBO, it stars an ensemble of A-listers including Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, who’s in the thick of the violent action as the mysterious Man in Black.

For Harris, known for such movies as The Right Stuff, A Beautiful Mind, Places in the Heart, The Hours, Apollo 13 and Pollock—which he directed in addition to playing the title role—the series marks his first TV project since playing John McCain in HBO’s Game Change.

Even though it’s inspired by the 1973 movie of the same name, Westworld is its own, often-shocking beast. Here, in this exclusive interview, Harris compares the two and takes us inside the psyche of the very twisted character he plays.

“This character figured out he can do anything he wants. He can kill people or make love to strange robotic prostitutes. There’s a part of him that is very dark, very violent.”

Were you familiar with the 1973 Westworld movie?
Yeah. I remember seeing it and enjoying it, and I watched it again before we started filming. The series is a lot less campy than the original, but it definitely takes off on the idea.

What was the appeal of this series and the role?
The chance to track a character over 10 episodes. There’s so many stories running through this, so many different narratives taking place. It’s like Game of Thrones. I’m one of the major characters but not the main focus of the piece, so I only work two or three days a week—it’s not something you’re living or breathing constantly. I get to have a great hat and ride a horse. It’s fun.

Is he supposed to be the equivalent of Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in the movie?
The only similarity is he’s also wearing black. He’s supposed to be somewhat threatening like the Yul Brynner character, but he’s a human being, not a robot, and you’ll find out more about him as the episodes go on. You learn who he is in the outside world, and something about his past and why he is here. He has been coming here for 30 years. When he first came, he was not the Man in Black.

This is a character that he has assumed and developed over many years that he has been coming to this place. He figured out he can do anything he wants. He can kill people or make love to strange robotic prostitutes. There’s a part of him that is very dark, very violent. He realized, “This is a part of myself that I really should check out, and see where this takes me.”

So he embraces that part of him when he comes to the park, and does a lot of damage to the A.I. folks. But there’s also much deeper purpose for him being there by this point. He thinks there’s some deeper level to what’s happening in this park, and he’s probing. He thinks the more chaos he causes, the more destruction he can create. But it’s not random. He is not just going around killing everybody he sees. There is always some narrative going along that he’s following. When somebody gets in his way, he has to blow them away.

You’ve had so many great roles. Where does this one rank among your favorite characters?
In terms of the enjoyment of playing him, I would have to say he ranks up there. But I’ve done a lot of work over the years and it’s a little early to put it in perspective.

What’s next for you?
I’ve got a movie called The Plowman, which is based on a novel that was published last year. I adapted the screenplay for that and I’m going to direct it. Stacy Keach is going to star in it with my wife Amy [Madigan]. I’m looking forward to shooting it in the fall of ’17.

Top photo: John P. Johnson/HBO
Bottom photo: Getty