Cord Jefferson started his career in journalism, writing for such outlets as The New York Times Magazine, USA Today, Huffington Post, and The Root. He also served as the West Coast Editor for Gawker for several years. In the short time (just six years!) since he transitioned to writing screenplays in the world of entertainment, he has already won two WGA awards (for Succession and Watchmen), and an NAACP award for Watchmen as well.
During our conversation, we discuss the many third rail issues Damon Lindelof’s “remix” of Watchmen takes on, the challenge of addressing such hallowed material, and most specifically, the episode he wrote, the extraordinary “This Extraordinary Being,” which details the origin of Hooded Justice.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Watchmen?
Cord Jefferson: I was working on The Good Place with Mike Schur, and one night he invited me to a dinner party at his house. I went over there and Damon (Lindelof) ended up being one of the guests who was invited. I believe The Leftovers had just ended probably two or three weeks before. I was a huge Leftovers fan, so I sort of sidled up to Damon and told him how much I loved it. We ended up hitting it off from there, and about a month later he emailed me and asked me if I wanted to have dinner with him. And so I went and we chatted and he told me he was going to work on this show called Watchmen. I had never read the comic. I had a lot of friends who are were obsessed with it when I was younger but I’d never read it myself. After our dinner I immediately went out and bought it and devoured it and fell in love with it. I emailed him back and told him I would love to be involved.
AD: Before Watchmen you had been writing a lot of unconventional comedy on both The Good Place and Master of None. Watchmen is a very different project. How did you feel about taking it on?
CJ: It felt really really great. For me, every comedy that I am really drawn to – whether I’m working on it or viewing it – is in your words, “unconventional.” I also find myself incredibly drawn to dramas that are very funny. My favorite shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Wire are all are full of comedic beats and really funny characters. I sort of knew that Damon being Damon, and based on Lost and The Leftovers, this wasn’t going to be a straightforward drama. This was going to have those comedic beats and moments of levity – those unconventional things that would make me interested.
AD: Almost every scene with Jean Smart has some underlying comedy.
CJ: Exactly. You can’t be holding a a foot long blue Dr. Manhattan dildo and not laugh a little bit. (Laughs).
AD: Watchmen is a very complex project with a historic lineage and a built-in fan base, and the film version debuted to very mixed reception. Did you have any trepidation taking on a project? It seems like it could be fraught with peril.
CJ: I didn’t have trepidation about working on the show beforehand. But once you get in there and start working with the material, yeah, it’s a little nerve-racking, because it is such a beloved piece of IP. It is something that people feel incredibly strongly about. I wanted to make sure that we were handling it with care. Not just the original material, but also the other subject we were dealing with which is racism, and Tulsa ’21, and reparations. There was just a lot of third rail things that were going on in the room. But I always felt incredibly comfortable in the hands of of Damon and everybody else involved.
AD: I think a lot of viewers were surprised to see the show go in a racial direction. I know for me, it wasn’t what I expected going in. The first episode really lays down a marker for what is to come. Did it surprise you at all how far the show went in that direction?
CJ: I was not surprised, because when Damon originally came to me with the idea he said openly, “I want this to be a show that deals heavily with race.” He knew from the outset that he wanted that to be the focus of the series. To your point, a lot of people were surprised. I think a lot of people when they tuned into the Watchmen premiere were not expecting it to open with the Tulsa massacre. I think that a lot of people were expecting something else, but it felt unconventional in the right way.
AD: In the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being” which you wrote, you had to deal with jumping back and forth in time, Hooded Justice’s origin story, racial tokenism on the police force, police brutality, and then there’s the sexuality. When you sat down to write this, were you like, “Jesus, I gotta pack a lot into this.” (Laughs)
CJ: Absolutely! It felt pretty daunting at the outset. The thing that I think really helped with that episode was the incorporation of another weird thing which was “Nostalgia.” We basically tell you at the outset that you were going to experience something like a drug trip. There’s going to be sort of surreal hallucinogenic elements and you just need to go along for the ride. I think that being able to abandon the sort of traditional narrative, we were able to incorporate a ton of stuff in a short amount of time.
AD: With episode 5 being a sort of stand alone about Looking Glass and then episode 6 largely being the same, but for Hooded Justice, did it concern you that the show could lose momentum from the main storyline by going that route? I mean, there are only nine episodes to pull this all together and two of them are largely about single characters.
CJ: It didn’t ever feel different to me than any other show. You start out on any show and you’re always nervous that the things that you’re doing in episode one and two are not going to have enough steam to get you through to the end. I was a little nervous that that was going to happen, but I felt incredibly comfortable in Damon’s hands. He’s a guy who has made, to my mind, two shows that belong in the pantheon of TV. When things felt like they were getting a little sticky at times, I had to remind myself that Damon’s incredibly smart and everybody else in the room was incredibly smart – it put me at ease.
AD: Not to make a bad pun, but you were clearly given a lot of rope with which to extend yourself. (Laughs). There’s something very dramatic about the character of Hooded Justice wearing a noose and being a black man underneath. He comes on the police force, discovers he’s the “token black man,” and becomes Hooded Justice to fulfill his desire for justice. It’s a great, classic, origin story.
CJ: The real origin story If we’re thinking of Hooded Justice, in our mind, was Tulsa ’21. In the same way that Superman’s parents put him in the rocket-ship and thrust him away right as his planet was about to explode. Everything that happens beyond that is him struggling with how to deal with that trauma and the deep wounds that were given to him when he was a little boy. In the ’30s when he joins the police force in New York that is him trying to right the wrongs of the past. This deep injustice happened to me and my family and my community, and so if I put on a badge, and a gun, and a blue uniform, I’m going to be able to put back a sense of justice in a world that’s so full of injustice. Then he does that and he’s turned on by his own fellow police officers, who try to lynch him.
He realizes that I can’t get justice in this way – the way that I thought I would be able to get justice, the way that my hero Bass Reeves got justice. I need to figure out a new way in order to get justice in my life and in the world, so he turns into Hooded Justice. We show that that trauma spirals into his life, and into his child’s life. Then his child brings that trauma into his child’s life. That’s how trauma is passed down from generation to generation. We meet Angela Abar in the present, and she’s still very angry and dealing with the problems of the past. We’re showing that one hundred years later that the wounds of Tulsa ’21 still resonate in people’s lives. That is laid bare in in episode 6.
AD: And then there’s the closeted nature of Will’s (Hooded Justice) sexuality. In an episode that already had so much in it, that added another layer of resonance to the character.
CJ: That’s in the original text that suggests that Hooded Justice had a sexual relationship with Captain Metropolis. In our mind, erasing that reality in order to make our story easier was just not something that was going to happen. We didn’t want to erase the fact that Will was a queer character. We decided to keep it in and I’m really really happy we did, because I think that it adds to the story that we’re telling. It’s the story of a man who wears a mask in his day to day life, and at his work, and who was also wearing multiple masks in his personal life. He’s hiding so much of himself from everybody in his life in order to get by.
AD: Jovan Adepo was pretty amazing. It’s a very brave performance. I imagine you probably feel pretty lucky to have gotten somebody who could give such an expansive performance.
CJ: Oh, god! I mean, it’s incredible. Because a lot of it he’s playing through the mask. All he has is his eyes and his body movement. I think that we were incredibly lucky to get Jovan. Everybody in the episode. I mean Danielle Deadwyler is amazing, Regina’s obviously amazing, everybody did such a such an incredible job.
AD: I spoke to Tim Blake Nelson lfor Watchmen and he just raved about Regina’s generosity and professionalism.
CJ: She’s in “This Extraordinary Being” for what? Maybe all of 5 or 6 minutes? But those 5 or 6 minutes are just amazing. Her performance in the lynching scene where she has no lines at all, it’s just her face with with this look of sheer terror–it was so moving when I watched it back.
AD: When you’re watching the first episode, you are so into Don Johnson’s character, and then just like that, he’s killed off! But “This Extraordinary Being” finishes his story with haunting aplomb.
CJ: Surprisingly, that was one of the earliest things that we put in the script. We had Don Johnson being hanged before we had ever written episode 6 – before we knew exactly how he was going to be hanged. That was a visual the room liked so much that we decided to work backwards from there.
AD: And then you had Lou Gossett who I’ve always thought was a busy actor, but not as often in the caliber of projects that I thought he deserved. It must have been great to write lines for him in something so significant. He’s so terrific.
CJ: I totally agree. I remember watching An Officer and a Gentleman when I was a little kid and being spellbound by him. When I found out that we had cast him, I was so incredibly excited. The ability to work on something with Lou Gossett is a dream come true.
AD: When this project was announced, there were a lot of people wondering not only how they were going to do this right, but how they were going to do it all. The rapturous response must be incredibly gratifying.
CJ: Like I said, it has so many third rail issues in it. to take something that is so beloved, that you know a lot of eyeballs are going to be on, and deals with racial violence, with sexual violence, with reparations, and racism in America – to take something that has all of these things that could make It incredibly difficult and complex and was just full of big swings, and to have people appreciate it…I feel so incredibly grateful for that.