From series creator Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) and based on the iconic graphic novel created by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the HBO drama series Watchmen is set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws and the police conceal their identities behind masks to protect themselves from a terrorist organization, known as the Seventh Kavalry. It’s a story that is equal parts challenging and thought-provoking, as it looks at so many of the modern issues that plague us today, and questions who the true heroes and villains really are.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jean Smart, who plays FBI Agent Laurie Blake, talked about going from one challenging comic book TV series to another, following up her role on FX’s Legion with Watchmen, her Cagney & Lacey-esque team-up with co-star Regina King on the show, what she appreciates about Laurie Blake, the Watchmen themes she responds to most, and much more.
Some spoilers ahead for future Watchmen episodes.
Collider: I have to say that I had no idea that I needed this buddy team-up with you and Regina King, until this TV series happened, and I think it’s fantastic. I’m enjoying every second of it.
JEAN SMART: Oh, thank you! We’re Cagney & Lacey.
Did you have any idea that would be evolving, out of these characters?
SMART: No, not really. I just was really pleased about how much I enjoyed working with Regina. She’s so fabulous, she’s so generous and she’s so smart, and I just loved our scenes together. The scene with the car and then the scene in the mausoleum were just really fun, even though we were freezing to death.
I also absolutely love the fact that you’ve been a part of two of the most interesting, different, thought-provoking and challenging recent comic book projects, with Legion and Watchmen.
SMART: I know! How did that happen?
Are you surprised to find yourself here, as an actor? Is this at all the type of material you ever imagined doing?
SMART: I’m very surprised. I was pleased because it wasn’t something that I had ever done before. It’s always fun to do a genre that is new. I thought maybe, at this stage of the game, I’d run out of genres, but apparently not.
Do you have a relationship, at all, with the comic book genre?
SMART: Honestly, no. I hadn’t ever, but now, I certainly can appreciate them, far more than I ever did, that’s for sure. Had you been told much, in advance, about what the arc of this show would be and what your character would be? Have you been learning about it, layer by layer, as you do it?
Had you been told much, in advance, about what the arc of this show would be and what your character would be? Have you been learning about it, layer by layer, as you do it?
SMART: My education really went week by week. Episode to episode, I was learning more about her. When I was offered the part, we went into production fairly soon after, so I didn’t have time to do a lot of research before we started shooting. So, I’ve been working my way through the book, and I still go back and have to look up things again, to remember who did what, and who said what, and when, and what year, and all of that kind of thing. It’s amazing. It really did give me an appreciation of graphic novels because I had no idea that one even existed like that, that was so multi-layered, so interesting, and so entertaining.
Since you are currently reading it, how do you feel that the show is translating the world from the comic?
SMART: I think the style of it, the feeling of it and, hopefully, the look of it, is really something that Alan Moore would be proud of, I hope. I think that (show creator) Damon [Lindelof] is so respectful of the book. He’s done an incredible job with the whole tone of it, and taking some of those ideas and translating them into a world, 30 years later.
What has most surprised you about making this show, the scripts that you’ve read, and how the stories and characters have developed? Are there aspects that have particularly surprised you, that you weren’t really expecting?
SMART: Because I wasn’t privy to them, at all, and most of them had already been shot when I came on board, but Jeremy Irons’ scenes are just crazy, wild scenes. That’s stuff that they shot in Wales, and I can’t wait to see the finished product because, on paper, they were just incredible. Working with him was so much fun.
Do you feel like you have a sense now, of who this woman is, or do you feel like there’s still a lot of mystery to her?
SMART: I’m still figuring her out. I know her better than I did, when we started, but there’s a lot there. She’s a very defensive person. I think she has a lot of her guard up, most of the time. I think she thinks of it as just being smart and practical and staying ahead of the game, but a lot of it is defense mechanisms, like her sense of humor.
What have you loved about Laurie Blake, from day one, and what have you grown to appreciate about her, as you’ve gotten to know her?
SMART: Day one, I definitely appreciated the wise ass part of her personality. What I’ve grown to admire is that she can actually admit when she’s wrong. She can actually say that she’s sorry, even though it’s hard for her. I’m hoping, though, that those moments when we see her by herself, in the Manhattan booth on the phone, and little moments like that, that I hope it gives the audience a chance to see beneath her veneer.
Obviously, you have scenes where you’re interacting with other people, but then you have those moments where you are by yourself in a booth, talking on a phone. How is that, as an actor, to get to play?
SMART: It’s wonderful, as an actor. I don’t prefer one over the other. Unlike in a regular phone conversation, where there’s a person on the other end of the line, talking to you, that’s a whole other technical skill that you need to learn, as an actor. If you’ve gotta have a phone conversation that’s completely one sided, at least you can imagine the other side of the conversation. But with this, it was just like a long, long, long voice message on somebody’s answering machine, that’s incredibly detailed and that ended up being quite emotional. That was a new experience.
Do you feel like that’s something that she’s doing more for herself, just because it’s something she needs to do to work through those feelings?
SMART: Oh, yeah. It’s like a sore tooth that you keep pressing on or biting on. She can’t help, but be drawn to those booths to leave him a message. She mocks herself, wondering if he’s ever even really gonna hear it, and she hates herself for being drawn to it so much, but she just can’t help. She’s lonely and she misses him still, after all those years. It was the most exciting part of her life.
These characters all clearly have secrets and it seems that they really have to have secrets for their own survival. Is there anyone in her life who fully knows her and knows all of those secrets, at this point?
SMART: No, I don’t think so. Her owl.
Do you think that’s something that she wishes she had?
SMART: Oh, sure, I think so. She would never admit it. She doesn’t want to admit it, but yeah, I think she would like somebody in her life, or at least have that kind of a connection. As the show continues, she might get to that with Angela, on a platonic level, you know, but I think she would like love in her life.
What do you think she thinks of Angela, and the police department, in general?
SMART: She thinks that they’re ludicrous. At first, she thinks Angels is hiding something and has something to do with the murder, but I think she realizes, quite quickly, that she was wrong about that assumption. And then, she is humbled and amazed, when Angela saves everybody’s lives at the funeral, after I was screwed up and told the guy. She has to really admire her for that, and I know she does, just with her sheer heroism. And then, there’s that scene in the mausoleum, where I think I’m totally intimidating her, and she comes back and just cuts me down. I think she looks at her in a whole new way, after that.
What’s it like for you as, as an actor, to be shooting these scenes, surrounded by all of these people in all these wacky costumes and masks. Is that one of those moments that just seems so surreal and bizarre?
SMART: Kind of, yeah, but it also makes it fun because it constantly reminds you that you are in a slightly altered universe. It’s not slice of life. And they have to play it deadly serious, or it just wouldn’t work.
Laurie talks about having Silk Spectre and The Comedian for parents, and obviously that has to affect you. How do you feel her parents, and being the daughter of who she is the daughter of, has made her into who she is now? Will we see more of the effect of what that means?
SMART: Yeah, you will, somewhat. She has such disdain for her parents and what they did, and what she ultimately ended up doing, for years. But at the same time, it hurts her because no one wants to feel that way about their childhood and their parents. You don’t wanna have to be constantly blaming your parents for something that you think didn’t do you any good, are that harmed you in any way, whatsoever. She obviously has a lot of baggage, from her parents.
Is it something that she’s has tried to embrace, in some way, or has she just tried to shut it off?
SMART: I think she’s tried to shut it off, but I don’t think she’s doing a real good job of it. It’s constantly here because she now arrests masked vigilantes. It’s a constant sore spot, but she feels that she’s doing the right thing. She really does think that they are a joke, and that they are harmful and can be dangerous, as all vigilantes can be. She’s right in believing that, but I think she also uses that as a justification to reject her family.
There are so many layers and complexities to this story. What are the themes and elements in the story that speak most deeply to you and that you have found the most fascinating?
SMART: The theme about racism is so incredibly powerful, in this story. Damon has done a brilliant job of telling this story, that basically was started 30 plus years ago, but he’s brought all of the elements from it that just completely resonate, right now, with the whole culture of fear that we seem to be living in and has been engendered by some of our leaders.
Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO.