From series creator Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost) and based on the iconic graphic novel co-created 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, actor Tim Blake Nelson, who plays Detective Looking Glass, talked about why he wanted to be a part of Watchmen, how his role evolved, what’s most surprised him about this character, the behind-the-scenes secrets to making the Looking Glass mask what we see in the show, and the secrets that all of the characters are hiding. He also talked about his roles in the upcoming films Just Mercy and The Report, and why he feels incredibly powered by such projects.
Collider: This TV series is just so fascinating, thought-provoking and challenging that it’s exciting to watch and talk about. When something like this comes your way, is that part of the appeal?
TIM BLAKE NELSON: Well, it’s antecedent was already pretty exciting. That had its irrefutable appeal. And then, you combine that with Damon Lindelof, and I was pretty excited to be a part of this. Initially, when they brought me the offer and I said that I was interested, they suddenly balked and said, “Well, we’re now not sure the role is gonna be big enough for you.” I said, “Well, all right,” and I was a little disappointed. But then, Damon came back, a few days later, and said, “I’ve given this a think, and I have some ideas about enlarging this character into something that might actually be pretty exciting for you to play. Will you just trust me?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And he certainly fulfilled his promise, and more. I’m really excited to have gotten to play this guy.
What has really most surprised you about making this show and playing this character?
NELSON: Some of that’s to come, and I really can’t speak to it. I’ve never been in a situation in which I learned so much about the character while I was playing him. Normally, in the most generous circumstance, one has a movie script, and you know the beginning, middle and end, and you know that you’re in the hands of a director with a very strong point of view, and that what’s gonna end up in the film is pretty much what was on the page. This was almost the, the opposite of that. There was very little about the character in the pilot, other than the fact that he had a horseshoe mustache, wore a mirrored mask, and was the detective who interrogates people inside of this very peculiar pod. And so, almost like the way we live life, I was learning about myself, as I experienced the challenges, predicaments, and disappointments of the character, with each episode. That was really exciting, as a way of exploring a character. I’ve never really done it quite like that before. I know that’s endemic to doing television, but it’s particularly true with Damon, who tends to learn about characters through the writing, and then through the actors’ playing of them. He then nuances, as a result of that, and finds his way in the narrative, in collaboration with you, as an actor. Sometimes it’s your unwitting collaboration. So, this has been a really great adventure for me, as an actor. Hopefully, all of us have become better because of it.
Do you feel like you have a sense now for who this guy is, or do you feel like there’s still a lot of mystery to him?
NELSON: I’m excited to say that I still feel there’s a great deal of mystery to him. Should there be a second season, I’m quite eager to know how on earth he would be a part of it.
The mask that you wear not only looks like a mirror, but it almost looks like liquid metal. What was it like to wear that? Does it affect your vision? Does it disorient you, at all, to have that on?
NELSON: I was able, to get them to allow for me to be able to see my scene partners, which was very important to me. Even though my face is covered, when I’m wearing the mask, I’ve got my voice and my body, and I’m still responding to stuff that I can not only hear, but see. One of the various masks that I wore, initially, didn’t allow for that, and that was the only time it was difficult. Otherwise, to achieve the effect of the reflection, and of people encountering Looking Glass in the mask, I actually wore a camera on my head that then they painted out, digitally. It was interesting to act with this camera, filming images that were going to end up then being in the show. As cumbersome as that was, at times, to balance on my head, it was weirdly empowering, in ways that I was able to internalize, as an actor, and allow it to become part of the character.
It just seems like it would be challenging to wear that mask on your face, and not have the wrong things reflected in your face.
NELSON: Well, yeah, that’s true, except that often, I was wearing either wearing a green mask, or a mask with two shades of gray, that’s called a fractal mask. Only occasionally, was I wearing an actual mirror mask. They accomplished a lot of that digitally. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that, but what the hell.
I love that it’s even incorporated into a joke that Agent Blake makes about your mask being like a mirror, so she’s just going to use your face as a mirror.
NELSON: Well, yeah, and Jean Smart is great. She’s a wonderful scene partner.
How was the experience of working with this very diverse and interesting cast of actors?
NELSON: Well, you’re only as good as your seeing partners, so all I can say is that they made me a lot better.
These characters all have their own secrets, really for their own survival. Is there anyone, in this guy’s life, who fully knows him and knows all of those secrets, or does he keep things hidden from everybody?
NELSON: Looking Glass, like most of the characters in this show, spends a lot of energy concealing who and what he is. And I think that the fact that Damon gave him the most opaque mask of all, accurately suggests that he’s a guy with an enormous amount to hide.
Angela calls Looking Glass a “cold motherfucker.” Do you feel that’s a fitting description of him? Is he someone who has to hide his feelings, as well?
NELSON: I don’t think he considers himself cold, but I think he feels he has to project that into the world, to protect himself. I’ve learned that there’s actually a tremendous amount of warmth to the character, but that was a process.
You also have roles coming up in Just Mercy and The Report, which have both gotten great reviews. What was it about those stories and characters that made you want to have a hand in being a part of those projects?
NELSON: First and foremost, at this point, I wanna be a part of projects that I cannot resist. All three of these [projects] are that. Probably, what they happen to share, at this particular moment, is that they’re concerned with where we are, culturally. Each film focuses on that, in its own way. I just feel incredibly empowered, by the visions of Lindelof, Scott Z. Burns, and Destin Cretton, along with Bryan Stevenson (whose memoir the film is inspired by), in getting to be a part of examining these different nuances and fracture points, in our culture right now.
Watchmen airs on Sunday nights on HBO.