Tim Blake Nelson has had a long and varied career in cinema both in front of and behind the camera. With Damon Lindelof’s remix of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Nelson got to do two things that aren’t often asked of him: Play a relatively straight-forward character and (at least for one full episode) hold the screen as a lead.
In our conversation, we talk about his relationship with his co-stars, his first significant foray into television, and what it’s like working with the visionary Damon Lindelof.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Watchmen?
Tim Blake Nelson: I got a call from my friend Tom Spezialy who was working with Damon (Lindelof) on the show. He wanted me to read the script and consider playing Looking Glass. As strange as it is to say, I didn’t know much about Damon, because I’m not really well versed in television visionaries beyond I guess David Milch and David Kelly. That’s pretty much as deep as I went. I quickly learned who Damon was and then read the script and was astonished to discover that it was set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and that it chronicled the race massacre of 1921. The further I got into the material, the more I wanted to be a part of it. Then there was a dance back and forth a bit with Damon who wasn’t sure the part was going to be big enough to interest me.
AD: I had read that he offered it to you, retracted the offer, and then came back to you again.
TBN: That’s exactly what happened.He said I feel like it might not be enough to interest you over a season. I said fine. I really appreciated the honesty, because one goes into TV roles with some measure of trepidation because you don’t know where the role is going to go. Particularly with an agile storyteller like Damon. So, I forgot about it. But Tom said, I wouldn’t entirely forget about it because we went through the same process with Lou Gossett. Damon might just come back around to you, and it only took a few days and Tom got back in touch and said Damon has a notion or two about where the role might go, and he wants to discuss it with you. What he offered was a promise, which was I don’t know exactly how, but the role will evolve in ways that would interest any actor. He said, why don’t you take a leap of faith here? And I said absolutely.
AD: I imagine that’s largely because on most movies you typically have a full script when you start shooting, whereas with television, the scripts are being written as you go along. I assume at this point you had no idea that episode 5 was going to be built entirely around you.
TBN: I had no idea about that . And you’re precisely right because a movie gives you your whole life at least in the context of the narrative. Television doesn’t do that, unless it’s a limited series and it’s been written completely ahead of time, or, it’s based on a biographical or historical story. But with Watchman that wasn’t the case. So, I didn’t know where it was headed. Now that said, (Watchmen director) Nicole Kassell tipped the hand a little bit when I met with her while I was considering coming on. She told me what Damon was envisioning for the character, even though he hadn’t told me. And it was really provocative.
So, I had the advantage of being able to build the character toward that through the first three or four episodes. But then unbeknownst to me, Damon completely changed his mind and that future no longer pertained, he had built a different one. But it was just a different one, not an incoherent one. Nothing I’d done wasn’t going to fit with the new episode five he had written. I’d been building the character based on a completely different biography than the one with which I was eventually supplied. But because Damon is so sensitive and so smart it still cohered with everything that he’d had me do in the episodes building up to it.
AD: You mentioned having trepidation around doing television in general, but did you have any concerns about taking on such difficult material? Especially since the film version received such a mixed response. It just seems like this could have gone wrong in a million different ways.
TBN: I was never afraid because the more I got to know about Damon the more I trusted that my character and this material couldn’t be in better hands. And television, in a very weird way is actually a more like life in terms of the way you experience it is an actor than a movie is because in life you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re getting these episodes right before you shoot them in a manner akin to the way you experience each new day. What you really want are certain parameters in which to operate and Damon gives you all of those.
In a good, healthy life you have those parameters. Suddenly, they get removed and it gets very exciting. That of course is the case in television. But you’re never obliterated with Damon. You’re always surprised, but you’re never destroyed. That makes television with somebody like Damon leading you very exciting, and it allowed me to really grow as an actor. That allows you to do what people want to see when they watch a movie or tune into a television show, which is responding in the moment to shit that’s happening to them.
AD: I don’t think many people expected to view the first episode of Watchmen and find it covering the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. You’re from Tulsa, so that had two be interesting for you, but was it surprising to discover Watchmen going to such a dark place in terms of racism and white supremacy?
TBN: Watchmen dealt with heavy material, going back to the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic. I would have expected nothing less from a guy like Damon. What he ultimately did is he asked himself, if nuclear holocaust was what was most impacting our daily lives in the 1980’s as an existential threat right as glasnost was happening because Gorbachev was 85, really, well what’s that now in America? He decided it was race. And really, culturally it was either going to be race, or gender, or economic disparity. Those are the real three choices.
You could do a 99 versus the 1%, you could do gender issues, or you could do racial tension. He chose to center around race. He alighted on Tulsa because he did his research and learned that most lethal race massacre in U.S. history was this event in 1921 that’s been largely covered up. He exposed it and used that as the animating moment for the entire series and placed it in 2019. You’d get this astonishing result regardless of who’s in it. I consider myself a very small part of that result and really credit Damon.
AD: While Watchmen is certainly dealing in heavy subject matter, there’s some strange humor in it too. As Looking Glass, you are literally playing a person who is wearing a tin-foil mask and hat, believing that “reflectatine” is going to keep him safe. How did you approach playing a character disposed to believe such a thing?
TBN: Well, to believe it. You’ve got to buy into the hokum of the world in which you are existing. I think that’s true regardless. If you’re going to do Twelfth Night, you have to believe that Viola looks like a boy. If you’re going to do Fantastic Four, you have to believe that the Human Torch can actually light on fire and use fire in a weaponized way, but he won’t be hurt himself. Even in realism, you have to believe that Willy Loman thinks that the seeds are going to grow in the courtyard of the apartment in Brooklyn. You have to buy into the epistemology of the world you’re inhabiting, and then this one, the mythology also. Yeah, reflectatine s going to protect him from being irradiated by the big squid fall when it happens. You have to be like a kid in that regard which is why actors like me are so childish. (Laughs).
Because that’s where we want to live, and we’re never so excited as when we get to believe in falling squid. I never look at that as a challenge, I just get excited by it. I’ve always enjoyed the hokum. The weirder the hokum is in a story that more excited I am by it. One of my favorite movies is The Fifth Element. Another one is Blade Runner. The more outlandish it all is the more it appeals to me. Damon never allowed whether something would be perceived as credible to inhibit him. Because of that, every week in Watchmen you have stuff happening – just in the Jeremy Irons section alone – that is just utterly ridiculous, but at the same time, somehow credible. That kind of daredevil approach to narrative is really fun, and as an actor I’m always drawn to that.
AD: Getting back to episode 5, that must have felt like a real gift to get this almost stand alone episode built around your character. It’s like you had your own mini-movie right in the middle of the series.
TBN: I had certainly never experienced something like that before – in terms of a character just suddenly blooming in that way. In part because I’ve never done much television in the past, but also because in movies I tend to play outlandish supporting roles rather than what this guy is, which is a more restrained supporting role who then blooms in his muted colors. Wade doesn’t ever become outlandish. He’s just given an origin story – for lack of a better way of putting it – that explains his restraint. This was new to me in a lot of different respects, because I don’t normally get to enjoy an hour inside of a narrative in which I’m the lead character and I’m not normally given roles known for their restraint.
AD: The story of your character as a young man being sexually humiliated is obviously heartrending, but I also thought your chemistry with Paula Malcolmson was fantastic, and to have her turn out to be part of the Rorschach group was equally painful. She seemed like a potential oasis for your character and then to find her to be setting you up was very affecting.
TBN: Paula was a great gift for the episode and also for me, because she has become a friend. I look forward to doing something with her again. In fact, I tried to get her on this movie I’m about to shoot in Arkansas but she’s in Northern Ireland and can’t get back. She’s not only a fantastic actress but an extraordinary human being. We took to one another like a moth to a flame. Damon has this ability to aggregate really great people. Paula is one example. but it goes all the way to the top. Regina King is one of the best people I’ve ever met doing what I do. As our leader day-in and day-out on set among the cast she couldn’t have set a better example in terms of generosity as a performer, the truth she was mining in every scene, the respect for everyone on set, and her overall wit, decency, and intelligence.
AD: You’re character has this often hilariously contentious relationship with Jean Smart and then at the end, you two team up for a mini-buddy cop movie in the final episode to help save the day and also unceremoniously dispatch Jeremy Irons.
TBN: When I was told I would be coming back for the final episode in a significant way and that it would involve a separate story line with Jean and Jeremy, I couldn’t have been more delighted. Jean and I became very close during her first episode and we spent a lot of time together both on and off set in Atlanta. I just admire Jean tremendously. Mostly for her wry wisdom and having been at this for a while and having fulfilled the ambition to keep doing it. She’s just been a very close friend through the whole process of the show. A week doesn’t go by without us being in contact with one another. She’s just become a good friend. I keep saying that about people on the show – Andrew Howard is another – because Damon put a group together that really got along. That’s this ancillary skill he has in addition to all the others. He’s interested in creating an environment in which people support one another. He put together a really good group.
AD: I imagine that allows you to do your best work.
TBN: It certainly does.