This article contains major spoilers for Watchmen episode 3 and the book.
The worst kept secret in TV is finally out. Watchmen episode 3 reveals what most of the audience knew all along: Jeremy Irons is playing Adrian Veidt, formerly the superhero known as Ozymandias. While there’s still plenty of mystery surrounding Veidt on the HBO series, notably what project he’s working on while he’s toiling away in “captivity” in some unknown location, the official confirmation of his identity means that it’s time for some of the larger Watchmen pieces to start falling into place.
For those unfamiliar, Adrian Veidt was a member of the second generation of masked crimefighters in the Watchmen universe, first rising to prominence in the mid-1960s alongside the second Silk Spectre (who is now FBI Agent Laurie Blake, played by Jean Smart), the second Nite Owl, Rorschach, and the superhuman Doctor Manhattan. Like nearly all heroes in the Watchmen universe, Veidt has no metahuman abilities, but is an Olympic-level athlete with a vast fortune and a keen mind that earned him the nickname “the smartest man in the world.”
As a young man, Veidt idolized Alexander the Great, the Macedonian general who had conquered vast swathes of the world before his death at 33. Veidt spent his early adulthood following in Alexander’s footsteps, searching for meaning in the hope that he could achieve a lasting legacy that would match that of his hero. But ultimately, Veidt became disillusioned when he realized that Alexander had “not united all the world, not built a unity that would survive him.” After a hashish-fueled vision, he adopted the superheroic identity of Ozymandias. “Thus began my path of conquest,” Veidt recalls in Watchmen, “Conquest not of men but of the evils that beset them.”
But within a few years of costumed adventuring, it was clear to “the smartest man in the world” that he wasn’t making enough of a difference to stop the inevitable march towards the collapse of civilization, whether via nuclear war or environmental catastrophe. So Veidt devised a plan to unite the world’s governments by convincing them they faced attack from extradimensional entities. A carefully orchestrated smear campaign led Dr. Manhattan to leave Earth for an exile on Mars, and he murdered Edward Blake when the super soldier and government operative stumbled on his plan…a plan that required the deaths of three million New Yorkers via the creation of a genetically engineered, giant, psychic squid (its effects are still being felt in the HBO Watchmen universe).
Irons was unfamiliar with all of the wild details about Veidt’s past when took on the role. “I was a complete virgin,” he says. “No idea at all. I hadn’t heard of it. I hadn’t seen Zack Snyder’s film. I hadn’t read the graphic novel.”
But it was an extended pitch from Watchmen executive producer and writer Damon Lindelof that got him on board.
“I listened to Damon go on about this story and I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying and couldn’t believe the rest of it,” Irons says. “A man of huge energy [and] wonderful imagination. And at the end as we were wrapping up, I thought, well, fantastic enthusiasm, fantastic mind. This is going to be very interesting. And so I went away and I read the graphic novel to get a sort of idea about this world and then went ahead Damon’s ideas.”
When we last see Veidt in the comic, he was a 36-year-old man privately celebrating his victory, as the United States and Soviet Union, previously on the brink of turning the Cold War very hot, had agreed to set aside their differences in order to combat the perceived threat of alien squids. HBO’s Watchmen picks up 34 years later, and the Veidt we meet here is older and perhaps more eccentric than the one we left in the book. He’s also in a mysterious undisclosed location with a series of identical servants following his orders to the best of their ability.
“You can play sort of two dimensional stuff in a graphic novel, [but] you have to add different colors I think,” Irons says. “And I think there was a desire that I play him as a little quirky and bizarre, maybe with a touch of humor to counterpoint what else was happening, which of course I had no idea of because I was where I was, on my own with these two rather tedious people who looked after me.”
While Watchmen episode 3 does finally reveal that Irons is playing Veidt, the circumstances of his “captivity” remain a mystery. He seems to be very much alive, despite a newspaper headline in episode 1 that read “Veidt Declared Dead.” The reasoning for that is revealed in HBO’s Peteypedia supplemental materials, which reveals the full text of that newspaper article. Among the other details, it’s revealed that Veidt hadn’t made a public appearance since 2007, and “was declared missing in 2012” just as Trieu Industries was finalizing its purchase of Veidt Enterprises. Despite the publication of Rorschach’s journal, Veidt’s culpability in the giant squid incident and the millions of deaths associated with it, was dismissed by the public.
Irons was given a fairly complete picture of Veidt by Lindelof, who told him all the details that will be revealed up through episode eight of the nine episode series. It was enough for the actor to form a clear picture of the character and his essential qualities, which he sums up as “enigmatic…inconsistent…human.”
“I think [Veidt] may be slightly larger than life, but apart from that magnification, he is pretty like most of us in some ways where we have secrets, we have things we’re trying to do that perhaps other people can’t understand. We appear to behave in a rather odd manner sometimes,” he says. “So, I didn’t see it as being that different to me. The slightly different rules, maybe [a] slightly different purpose, a slightly different location to the one I normally live in, but I think there’s a truth behind him and an essential, accurate human nature.”
We even get to see Irons put on the memorable purple and gold costume of Ozymandias, mask and all, in a moment on the show that is simultaneously eere and faintly triumphant.
“It’s very interesting that superheroes wear masks and costumes,” he says. “It sort of removes them from everyday reality and perhaps gives them a feeling of power and they do the same as soldiers…and with the policemen. It sort of puts them into that role where they behave perhaps differently than they would at the table with the kids…We see what happens when he has his costume and we see him put it on. We don’t see what he then goes off to do. I think it’s his ultimate persona when the costume comes on. I felt a bit bizarre as an actor, but there we are. There’s elements I suppose of all costume that can make you feel a bit bizarre.”
With the mystery of Veidt’s identity solved, the next piece of the puzzle is just where the hell he might be and what he’s up to. With each episode, his circumstances become more surreal and his actions more outrageous. The Veidt mystery has so far remained a side story in HBO’s Watchmen, and Irons tried to keep that sense of isolation as he was reading the scripts.
“I was not aware, as he is not aware, of what was going on elsewhere. So I just lived in this rather large house trying to keep myself busy, interested, and trying to have some effect on my future,” he says. “I’ve read a bit of the other stuff but I thought, ‘I can’t cope with this. I don’t know what this is. I don’t need to know this.’ So I just concentrated, as we do in life. We just live our own lives, don’t we? We’re sort of aware that other people have other problems and they’re doing other things, and we read about this in the newspapers, but in the main, we just go down our road.”
The mysterious road of Adrian Veidt continues on HBO’s Watchmen on Sunday nights at 9 pm.