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Five things we learned at HBO’s big SXSW ‘Westworld’ activation

Omar L. Gallaga

When it was announced last month that HBO was bringing its robots-and-Old West series “Westworld” to Austin as a recreation of its fictional-within-a-fictional town of Sweetwater, it was easy to start poking holes in the ambitious South by Southwest activation. Where would it be? Would you get to see any stars from the show? Isn’t a cowboy town on the outskirts of Austin a little redundant? 

PHOTOS: HBO's 'Westworld' welcomes SXSW visitors March 8

Luckily for SXSW attendees and for HBO’s second season of the show (which begins April 22), the experience is more interesting, more fun and a little weirder than you might expect. We’ve seen it and were blown away by the attention to detail put into making it come to life. Here’s some of what we found out from seeing it as part of a press preview night Thursday evening.

1. It’s got scale. If HBO had brought just the TV show’s Mariposa Saloon or the train-ride experience and populated it with a few actors distributing some locally famous brisket, that would have been impressive enough for some people. But not only do you get the ride in on a shuttle bus from EastSide Tavern, but also the experience of being selected as a White or Black Hat, about a dozen storefronts in Sweetwater, including a post office, music area, shaving emporium and photo studio, and seeing little dramas playing out around you. According to HBO, the 60 actors and six stunt people there are working from a 444-page original script. Actually being in it feels both more intimate that you’d think and much bigger than you probably have time to fully explore in the 90 minutes HBO says it’ll typically take someone to visit SXSW’s version of Sweetwater.

2. The details feel right. Maybe it’s the hits-via-player-piano music from the show’s excellent soundtrack or the well-chosen wallpapers, furniture and costumes throughout, but nothing about SXSWestworld feels cheap or like it wasn’t well thought out. For instance, each attendee has a personalized letter waiting for them at the Post Office. Our group got a love letter that glitches out (sorry, it was from a robot), a creepy drawing referencing events from the show and a warning letter from the town Sheriff. 

3. The whole experience takes about three hours. HBO has asked press not to reveal the exact location of the town (presumably to avoid gate crashers), but we can tell you that it takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on traffic, to get out there from EastSide Tavern, and as mentioned before, 90 minutes is the suggested amount of time you’ll want to spend out there before the storylines of the town appear to reset for new groups of visitors. We’re hearing that some stars from the series may make an appearance on the same day as their SXSW cast/creators panel

4. The booze is real even if the characters are not. Among some of the things you can experience in SXSWeetwater are brisket, sausage, beans and excellent beef jerky served at the Coronado Hotel, and real whiskey and tequila served at the bar. Other amenities include a shave from Birds Barbershop and entertainment such as a dramatic gunfight and blackjack tables. 

5. These actors aren’t breaking character. We had multiple conversations with townspeople and got nary a wink about the show or HBO, only a few questions about our strange and powerful smart phones. Instead, the actors fully committed to their roles, including a suffragette who urged us to support her cause, and a schoolteacher who seemed protecting of the town’s children, but suspicious of the intentions of some of the parents. It was just enough to create the spell that you were in a metafiction, not being shuffled through a pointless marketing exercise.

We’ll have a video of the experience soon, but for now you can check out our Facebook Live post from the media night and Friday’s “I Love You So Much” podcast dispatch for a discussion of what we got to see