'Watchmen' Star Tim Blake Nelson On Wearing That Mask And Working With Regina King [Interview]

Watchmen showed audiences another side of actor Tim Blake Nelson. As Wade Tillman (a.k.a. Looking Glass), Nelson is more imposing than ever before. The reserved cop, to put it mildly, doesn't need to beat anybody to a pulp to prove or illustrate his immense strength. Look no further than the interrogation scene to see a man in complete control of his surroundings, body, and power.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Nelson's casting imbued an authenticity to Wade and the setting of Damon Lindelof's magnum opus. As a storyteller himself, having written and directed several films, including the thinking man's stoner pic, Leaves of Grass, Nelson is as much in awe of Watchmen's storytelling as the rest of us. After the series concluded with answers as exciting as the questions, we spoke to Nelson about his experience working on and watching the show, acting opposite of Regina King, and similarities between Minority Report and Watchmen.

The last time we spoke you said that reading the book and learning its aesthetic terms, that helped you build the character in a profound way. How so?

Just the space around the characters inside the cells and the laconic nature of the dialogue when the graphic novel is in its cartoon form was incredibly helpful to me. How pictures rather than words seem to dominate. Actions rather than sentiments seemed always to drive the narrative. It helped me very much in terms of playing Looking Glass in as lean and restrained way possible.

That lean and reserved approach, what sort of effect do you think that creates?

I think it confers like the mask, a degree of power and status on the character. That seemed to be what Damon wanted for him, that he pursued truth. That's his function in the story is that it's the detective who interrogates suspects by withholding as much information about himself as possible. Through that inscrutability causing others around him to be off guard.

The first interrogation scene you did, what was on your mind filming that scene? 

Well, when I put the mask on I immediately understood that rather than doing more with my voice and body, I should probably actually be doing less so that the opacity of the mask was setting the direction rather than creating an obstacle. So I just felt like I could go even further in term to concealment by doing less. This was just an intuitive response once I put on the mask.

Have you experienced that often before where one detail about a character answered a lot of questions for you?

Every part, hopefully, will give you something like that and sometimes it's biographical. Like in this movie I'm in right now, Just Mercy. This character was nearly burned alive when he was very young, and once I'd read that, it just motivated everything he said and did. With Wade Tillman in Watchmen, for whatever reason it was something physical.

How did you land on his voice? 

It felt like dropping back into myself, which is essentially what that voice is. It's what's called a back placement dialect, that was the one that was going to take the least effort. That particular drawl from a particular area of Oklahoma where people are just very withheld but in a relaxed rather than a tense way, just seemed, I don't know, it seemed the right way to go. So again, it was a somewhat intuitive process. I knew from what Damon had written that the guy was a badass. That he was unyielding and tough and all of that and created its own particular stew of notions that led me into the back of my throat for this voice.

Is the badass always a fun role to play for an actor? Recently, I think Watchmen and Buster Scruggs are probably the most badass characters you've played. 

Yeah, I mean, the fun with Buster was the contradiction because he doesn't present as a badass until he has to. Otherwise, he's this affable singing cowboy riding along, minding his own business, untroubled by the long desert ride and lack of companionship other than his horse and ready for whatever adventure might present. Then only when he is challenged does he resort to lethality. The tension in, that the Coen's wrote is, relies on the character being played as completely friendly and unintimidating. That's actually one of the reasons they hired me because I'm just going to unlikely gunslinger at five-foot-five. It was just all about the friendly smile until everything turns. That's where the humor comes from.

Whereas Wade is really not meant to be particularly funny other than the occasional dry remark. That was just clear in the writing. Now the one interesting development was that the original costumes weren't what you see. That was the result of a collaboration, a three-way collaboration between the costume designer and Damon and me to push it more toward an Oklahoma, what I'd call, rock and roll Western feel.

Having grown up in Oklahoma, did that make the show more meaningful for you? Are there any people from there you knew that influenced Wade?

There's one guy who really influenced the character of Wade. Actually, two guys. One guy with whom I worked at Tulsa Beef, the meatpacking company in Tulsa one summer, with whom I used to go fishing on the Verdigris River. Then another guy from the southern area of the state in Little Dixie in a town called Broken Bow that also helped inspire [my film] Leaves of Grass. So I kind of put two of these characters together in terms of building Wade. But another big influence was the fact that Damon had called for the horseshoe mustache in the script. Again, that's a particular type when it comes to rural Oklahoma. Again, it's the dry, laid back, confident restraint. Then also definitely the kind of guy you want to stay away from at a bar.

But you'd probably want on your team.

Yeah. On your paintball team maybe.

[Laughs] When you started playing Wade, did you already know he was dealing with trauma?

I didn't. I knew he had a different trauma in his background. The writers changed their minds about using that one. But Damon is so good that even in changing his mind, it didn't trouble me in terms of any of the choices I've made under the assumption that it was this other story.

Did you ever consider what would've happened to him if the squid didn't arrive?

I don't think he would have ended up with the horseshoe mustache. If he'd just gone on proselyting and continuing to pursue to follow the tenants of religious Christian fundamentalism, I think he most certainly would have been a different guy and probably would've considered the squid attack an act of God. I don't know. It's an interesting question.

watchmen Martial Feats of Comanche HorsemanshipThe episode, "Little Fear of Lightning," you get the closest to Wade. You see him with his guard down more when he's in the bar. When you read the dialogue for that scene, how did you interpret it? How did you need to portray what was on the page there?

Well, I was led in that scene, not just by the dialogue from Damon and Carly Wray, his co-writer, but also my scene partner, Paula Malcolmson, who's just so open and easy and giving as an actor. We had immediate chemistry with one another and it was very easy to play those themes. Honestly, it didn't feel like acting at all. So eventually I just lost myself in her and what she was giving me, and let Wade go.

It was like acting with Regina and also with Jean Smart. A great scene partner just makes your life so easy as an actor because it's like playing with a tennis pro. You're just better. Your tennis game gets worse if you're not playing with a good partner. Then when you play with the pro, you feel like you can beat anyone. You can play with anyone I guess, instead of beat, I should say. You can play with anyone and hit the ball with any pace you'd like because that's what a tennis pro does for you. Paula was like that. Same with Regina and Jean Smart.

The last time we talked it was obvious how much you were enjoying working with Regina King. What's maybe a scene or two where you really enjoyed what she was giving you in a scene?

The last scene or the final scene with her in episode five was one of the best days I've ever had in terms of a scene partner. The intensity she brought to the interchange at my desk caused me to forget that there were even cameras and a crew around. Regina King just gives you those eyes and you're lost in them. You're lost in the situation you're playing because of that. As I talk to you right now, I can see those eyes as she's leaning over me and saying, "Don't fuck with me."

Obviously, Wade is not a people person, but you do sense he respects Angela and there's more to the relationship than we see. Do you think there's a lot more history between them?

I think there's certainly more history there to explore, but that may be up to the audiences. It's not clear that Damon is going to keep going, so who knows? But it feels like there's more to it. There's more there. He certainly lets the audience know in episode two that he's aware of where her kids came from.

As simply a viewer, what was it like for you watching the show? What did you appreciate about the writing and the end result?

Damon is just one of those storytellers who he gives you an experience as an audience member, not unlike that of someone watching a great magician or juggler or a circus performer, which you cannot believe the suspension or that you cannot believe the narrative acrobatics and prestidigitation going on in front of you. To the extent that it absolutely seems to defy the laws and in the way that he tells stories. When you're about three-quarters of the way through, you just can't imagine he's going to pull it all together.

Almost like again, an acrobat completing a great physical feat. As an audience member, the story was actually so intricate that I often forgot myself even though I read it all as we were making it and hope that I knew every nook and cranny because that's my job as an actor. That even I was forgetting aspects of it that would have spoiled the excitement I was feeling. I just got lost in it. So it was very exciting and also exciting to see where he chose to elaborate and where he chose to withhold.

So there was more explained in the sixth episode in the script than ended up in the show. Likewise, some of the editorial choices that remind you, or that contextualize certain lines. As an example, in episode five weren't called for in the text telling you that he was even balancing it all the way until delivery.

In the end, there's a sweet justice to Wade arresting Adrian Veidt, the man sort of responsible for his pain. Is it a triumphant moment for Wade at all?

Yeah, that's an interesting question. I actually wasn't thinking about that when we were shooting it. I was simply thinking of the expediency of needing to get him back to face justice rather than its connection to Wade's tragic past because I think that Wade operates more from expediency than from emotion. So, it's probably a disappointing answer.

Makes sense, though. You worked with Steven Spielberg during a part of his career I find really fascinating, which is post-9/11 when he made very dark movies reflecting the times. Was it different working with him then? And Watchmen, too, reflects the world today in similar ways. Do you see any parallels between the two?

Well, Watchmen and Minority Report are both outlandishly unrealistic, but spiritually rooted in the absolute realities of the moment. Each deals with law enforcement in increasingly dangerous times. Specifically, post-9/11. When we are confronted with the temptation or seduced by the temptation to really to win the arms race between law and order and criminality in ways that threaten our civil liberties.

In the case of Minority Report, a technology is developed. Even though it's a biotechnology, it's still a technology. So the technology is developed that those are going to commit a crime even before you do. Can you imagine a greater invading of privacy than that? Yet in Minority Report, it's on the verge of becoming national policy because it's been so effective. In Watchmen because a bunch of policemen were killed, the police can now conceal themselves with masks. And are therefore free to, because their identities are concealed, to deploy a kind of vigilantism in which brutality and abuses are concealed along with the identity of, or hidden along with the identity of law and order betrayers. The show is an examination of how that ramifies.

I think it's the Adrian Veidt character who says masks allow men to be cruel. I think that's the line. To me, the show is very much about the temptation for that species of revenge we call vigilantism. That goes back to the Moore and Gibbons' novel too, I think.