Entertainment

Tim Blake Nelson Breaks Down That Very Revealing 'Watchmen' Episode

looking glass, watchmen
Mark Hill/HBO
This article contains massive spoilers for "Little Fear of Lightning," the fifth episode of HBO's Watchmen. You can also catch up on all the Watchmen Easter eggs you may have missed in the series so far.

Even before being cast on HBO's Watchmen, self-defined "resolute nerd" Tim Blake Nelson would imitate the character Rorschach with his sons. Now, the actor is playing Wade Tillman, otherwise known as Looking Glass, the masked police officer with some Rorschachian qualities. (See, for instance, the way he eats beans.) In this week's installment, "Little Fear of Lightning," creator Damon Lindelof and episode co-writer Carly Wray offer the history behind Wade's mirrored headgear.

It turns out that Wade was in New Jersey in 1985 when the giant squid hit Manhattan at the end of the graphic novel. Teased by a punk girl and left alone in a carnival's hall of mirrors, he'd emerged to find utter chaos, and Wade's been dealing with the trauma of that terrifying event ever since. His mask is made of reflectatine, a substance he believes shields him from the potential effects of another psychic blast. At a survivor's group, Wade meets a woman who turns out to be a member of the 7th Kavalry, and she cons him into following her to their secret headquarters. That's where Wade learns many things, notably that James Wolk's Senator Joe Keene is the leader of the terrorist organization and even more notably that the purported alien squid attack all those years ago was in fact perpetuated by Adrian Veidt, and that President Robert Redford knows all about it.

The Tulsa-born Nelson -- a busy performer who can also be seen in The Report and Just Mercy -- spoke to Thrillist by phone about the new information his character learns and whether we'll ever see him again in the Watchmen universe.

Thrillist: Did you know about the Looking Glass–focused episode before you had the script in hand? What was your reaction to it?
Tim Blake Nelson:
This was not the origin story for Looking Glass that Damon initially had in mind. He changed it based, not on any direct input from me, but based on where the character was heading and what he seemed to be learning from the character in our collaboration as manifested by what he was writing and how I was playing the role. So he really did switch gears from what I was initially told would be Wade's background story, and I'd rather not go into what that was. If Damon ever wants to reveal it, that's up to him, but it was indeed one of the reasons I did the show. That original background story really interested me. That said, how he changed it and the results of that that you now see in Episode 5 interest me even more. So I was delighted by what Damon wrote and, really, my contribution only went so far as the way I was playing the character and what that inspired in Damon and his writers. So I really can't take much credit for it; it's mostly Damon.

Did your collaboration with Damon as actor and creator have to do with you being from Tulsa?
Nelson:
Well, the original story Damon had was much more Oklahoma-centric. All I do know is that, back in Los Angeles as they were watching the dailies, they seemed to be interested in what they inferred as a sadness in the character. That set them on a chase for a traumatic incident. Luckily for me, that became the climax of the original graphic novel, which felt like an extraordinary honor when I read it, even though it would be a younger actor playing the scene, my character was suddenly defined by that incident and that felt extraordinary and to me and profound in all the right ways. And it made me all the more eager to do right by Damon and his show.

Did reading this script alter the way you were playing and saw Wade?
Nelson:
No, not really, because what I was trying to do in evincing that sadness, which was never intentional on my part, was simply to play the dialogue Damon and his writers had furnished in the clearest and most honest way possible. It's then those same writers who came up with this notion of him having experienced the squid attack. There was a coherence in their approach which made coherence for me pretty easy even though so many of the details were furnished after the fact. But that's one of the conundra of doing television. If you're doing your work well, as an actor, you should be inspiring ideas among the writers.

looking glass
HBO

What is your take on the reveal within the reveal when Wade meets the 7th Kalvary and the senator tells him about the conspiracy involving him, Judd Crawford, Adrian Veidt and President Robert Redford? The show has resisted easy interpretation in terms of its politics.
Nelson:
I look at that all as part of the hokum that's just essential to stories like this. Without hokum, it's not going to cohere with the graphic novel genre. You have to have that sort of almost absurd conspiracy that asks you to suspend your disbelief to such a degree, and then actually succeeds to your complete delight as an audience member. So it's fantastically ridiculous to me. But, you know, in the same way that a lot of what goes on in political arenas is actually ridiculous and it's almost too absurd to be true, and yet it is in terms of the way that people in power go to such lengths to hang onto that power. If you think about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi or the notion that an apartment complex was blown up in Russia so that it could be a casus belli for a war in Chechnya, all that stuff is too true to be... if you were to put it on the stage it would be condemned as a fiction. Damon toys with that, just like Alan Moore did. Because by the end of the Alan Moore novel, you are so inured to the conceit of the thing, and the laws with which it's working that you buy this notion that a giant squid emanating a psychic blast could be dropped on Manhattan and kill millions. I've given you a kind of incoherent jumble there because I seem to be saying that it's absurd and then I'm adducing actual absurdities that are conceivably real events. I think that interplay is really interesting.

Wade's story ends up being so intertwined with the end of the graphic novel. What was your personal relationship to the novel?
Nelson:
My initial relationship to the novel is that my wife lives with four resolute nerds. She's married to one and she's the parent of three. They are all boys. And so my sons and I love this stuff. An enormous amount of our humor comes from popular culture. [Phone rings in the background] As a matter of fact that's one of my sons now. Watchmen is a part of that. We were walking around and imitating Rorschach all the time before the Watchmen pilot came my way. I've always admired the novel, which I had not read in its entirety until Damon offered me the pilot. I'd read several of the chapters and I'd certainly seen the movie. Of course, I did a did a deep dive into it when I was offered the pilot.

The episode ends on quite a cliffhanger. What was your interpretation of that? Can you say anything as to whether that is the last we'll see of Wade?
Nelson:
I'll just say that when I read the episode and then when I finished shooting the episode I certainly wondered the same thing. And, you know, I effectively remained unsure until I was told in due time.

looking glass
HBO

I know you wore multiple types of masks while playing Looking Glass. Did knowing the tragic reason Wade wears his mask alter your own conception of it?
Nelson:
In terms of wearing the mask, through the first five episodes the journey was a really interesting one both for me as an actor and also for Wade as a character in terms of his relationship with the mask. I did a lot of mask work in acting school and what I learned from that process was often in a compensatory way the movement and voice would become amplified or exaggerated once the face was removed as a tool in pursuit of what a character wants. With Wade and with this mask and with this character. it's been the opposite. I've found that the mask, and particularly its opacity and the mystery that that projects for the character, has made him more restrained, more quiet, more laconic, in need of doing less to have status and power in the scenes in which he needs that. So I've been really surprised at how subtle the performance can be in a very natural way because of the way it's written and because of this particular mask that Damon has given me. That's been a really rewarding intuitive process that I didn't expect. It's just fun to be able to go on a set and have to do so little for the character to get what he needs and pursue what he needs.

In terms of the physical aspects of just acting with the mask, that's involved an evolution. At first they gave me a mask that I needed to wear that was completely opaque from the inside, and that didn't work for me because I needed to see my scene partners. So I was able successfully to beg them not ever to have me wear it again, because I just wasn't able to give my scene partners what I wanted and I wasn't able to get from them what I needed just to do the work you need to do to play a character. You need to see people unless your character is blind and Wade isn't. [I was then] getting masks that were either diaphanous or translucent and eventually that had the eye holes cut out so I could really see through it. That evolution was really good, meaning that when I could finally just see every bit of a scene partner I just felt more equipped to do my work and the acting got better, I think. But then another phenomenon of it is that I wear this crown with a GoPro on it. I'm always filming scene partners or the room around me so that they can project that image that the GoPro captures onto the digital effect. Initially it was annoying to have to balance a GoPro on my head but then I said to myself, Why not internalize this in a way that's helpful instead of letting it inhibit you. So, I thought, Hang on, I'm filming other actors, that's really interesting. That's its own kind of weird power. I ingested that into Looking Glass and that was great, just in terms of an empowering aspect of the character to know that was literally filming other people.

It's also striking to learn the mask is a comfort blanket as well.
Nelson:
That's something I learned in the reading of episode five so I didn't understand it entirely until it was my character's reality in the moment. That sort of acting in reverse is so interesting and novel for me. I don't mind it. If that's the way you've got to do it, that's the way you've got to do it. I look at it as akin to living life. You don't know what's going to happen during the day in front of you. Damon's, in a sense, presenting you with that reality as an actor. You don't know where something's headed and maybe you don't even understand how your past has impacted you until something jars you into considering it, like therapy. So the process of acting in this show has been in its own way therapeutic for the characters we play. We learn about ourselves as we do, and go along and our experiences get contextualized by the process of the writers presenting us with our reality in a new way.

What has it been like working with Regina King? That's such an interesting relationship to see on screen, especially given his betrayal of her that he believes is necessary to save her life.
Nelson:
Regina is as classy a person as I've met doing what I do. With her as the leader of the show the rest of us simply couldn't be more lucky. She sets an example for all of us with her work ethic, her integrity, her generosity, her kindness, her intelligence, and her wit. Damon has written a character who has a tremendous amount of that as well. So while Regina is transforming herself into Angela Abar and that's not Regina, for everything good about Angela, Regina is finding that inside of an extraordinary soul that is Regina King. So when acting with her it's just easy. If you do what an actor is supposed to do, which is play off your scene partner and have a back and forth with them it doesn't get easier than when working with Regina King. Betraying her in the episode was satisfyingly difficult and in doing so hopefully saving her life, which is why Wade does it, felt in a weird way satisfyingly heroic.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.