On the hit CW series The Flash, actor Tom Cavanagh plays the mysterious Dr. Harrison Wells, a visionary physicist who runs S.T.A.R. Labs. He is the one who invented the cutting edge particle accelerator that exploded and created the lightning bolt that gave Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) his powers and turned him into the fastest man alive, and led to the creation of meta-humans. While he is deeply invested in Barry’s future, he is also clearly a man of many secrets that the series has only just begun to scratch the surface of.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Tom Cavanagh talked about how he got involved with The Flash, why the character is so appealing to audiences, how nice it is for an actor to have people interested in a show that they’re on, that the show is so successful because of everyone’s excitement for the story, why it’s good for a show to be willing to kill characters, who in his life is most excited about him being a part of the superhero universe, and that he’s aware of his character’s secrets and motivations. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
TOM CAVANAGH: I’ve known Greg Berlanti from way back. I’ve done two shows with him, and both times, he was like, “I’ve got something good for you,” and they did not disappoint. It was a gay, cocaine-addicted brother in Jack & Bobby, and Eli Stone’s father in Eli Stone. So, when those guys called, it was a no-brainer for me.
Why do you think The Flash, as a character, is so appealing to audiences?
CAVANAGH: It’s one of my favorite comic book characters. Not to get too pop psychologist on you, but I think it would be because that’s attainable. His super speed is very human. He’s fast, and other humans are fast, so it’s relatable. I also like the innocence to it. He’s an ordinary guy who just has an extraordinary thing happen to him.
Were you aware of how anticipated this show was, before it aired?
CAVANAGH: No, but for lack of a better word, people were on board. It’s nice to have people interested about a show that you’re involved in. It’s what actors want. There’s no way to handicap the horses in the race, but this horse had a really good pedigree. Suddenly, the market could have been saturated and they might not have come. There’s no way of knowing. Geoff Johns is the current keeper of The Flash, so in terms of all the pieces that needed to be in place, our pieces were in strong shape.
As an actor on this show, what’s it like to have a creative team that are just as passionate about the story they’re telling and the character, as the fans are?
CAVANAGH: I think that’s just a massive part of it. Anytime you start doing a comic book with mythology attached, people are like, “Are you going to get it right? It’s important to me.” For us, we don’t have those worries. We have the best people behind it, and one of the reasons they are the best is that they care intensely about it. It’s remarkable to see Greg Berlanti, who’s successful on so many huge levels, be so excited about breaking this story or that story for our little TV show. But, the reason he is so successful is because of his excitement about the story. For these guys, story is paramount. They’re so interested in telling the story, and telling it right. That’s the best thing we have going for it. There’s always a temptation, when a pilot works, to repeat the formula of that pilot, but these guys had no interest in that. It’s quite impressive to see. It’s some of the more fearless producing and writing that I’ve been privy to. They are just going for it, to the point where I was like, “Are we, at all, worried about story?” And Greg Berlanti said, “There’s always more story.” Not only do we serve the fan base, but we make things as exciting for everybody as we can. They have no interest in operating with kid gloves. They are swinging for the fences, and it’s so much fun to be a part of.
Are you ever worried about the fact that not only are they not afraid to kill off characters, but they’re also not afraid to kill off main characters?
CAVANAGH: No, I think that’s good. I did a show called The Following, where that might be the show that has that element that you’re referring to. That would be the show that would be Exhibit A for that kind of thing. A character can be beloved or a huge part of the star, but suddenly, with one knife swipe, they’re gone. Actors were opening the scripts with nerves and trepidation because, even though they’ve been there forever, they don’t know if that’s it. When I was there, one of the characters was killed off and it was extremely emotional. It was emotional for the people on set and it was emotional for the person. At the same time, behaving that way shows a tremendous amount of respect for the viewer. There’s not just some pat formula that they follow. It’s a world where dangerous things happen, and they show you those dangerous things. I remember watching To Live and Die in L.A. with William Petersen, and he’s the lead, but he gets killed half-way through from a shotgun to the face. I think there’s something really effective about that. If our show does that and has that kind of level of grit, then more power to us.
Is there someone in your life who’s most excited that you’re a part of the superhero universe now?
CAVANAGH: That’s a great question. That person’s name is Daniel Pancotto, who in addition to being my friend is also my manager. It’s funny because we have professional conversations that are littered with me going, “Calm down!” It’s good. That’s a good question. Even people you don’t know very well, their jaws drop when they find out. You don’t expect it, at all, and then suddenly, people are like, “What?!” It’s great.
Dr. Harrison Wells clearly has secrets.
CAVANAGH: Right. The Flash, out of all our characters, might be the easiest character to define. If someone didn’t know anything about the character at all, you still get that he’s an innocent, optimistic, ordinary guy, and something extraordinary happens to him when he’s struck by lightening and can go fast. Whereas the rest of the characters are operating on a whole bunch of different levels than he is. Their agendas are not as clear or as open as Barry Allen’s, and that makes for good storytelling.
Are you aware of what his agenda and motivations are?
CAVANAGH: Sure, yeah. It would be self-serving to talk about the tiny little things that probably don’t get noticed, but I know somebody will notice the smaller things that I’m doing to serve the various levels. I have to know what those levels are, to add the minutiae. If you watch carefully, you’d be like, “Oh, okay!” That is just a joy to play. The goals that he’s striving for are authentic. I can’t really explain it, but it’s all married together. There’s a certain purpose to it. Harrison is operating on this level where it’s not duplicity. He needs Barry, and Barry needs him. That is completely true. He values and cares for Barry for very authentic reasons that we see on screen.
Is it fun to be one of the characters that’s in on the secret identity, from the beginning?
CAVANAGH: Yes. I like the peeling off of the layers, as much as the next person. There are always surprises, even for Geoff [Johns], Greg [Berlanti] and Andrew [Kreisberg]. There are things that they hope to do, but they’re not sure that they can pull them off. For want of a better word, we know the broad strokes. But with every episode, there’s always an, “Oh, wow!” As there should be in a comic book world, there are a lot of surprises, and the surprises are very cool.
The Flash airs on Tuesday nights on The CW.