This article contains spoilers for Watchmen episode 5.
HBO’s Watchmen tells a new story in the familiar world established by the legendary graphic novel. It includes fresh characters (such as Regina King’s Sister Night) as well as those with a legacy tied to the book (such as Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt). But one of the new characters in particular, Wade Tillman, who goes by the professional name of Detective Looking Glass (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is likely to become a fan favorite. The mysterious interrogation specialist for the Tulsa PD boasts a striking, mirrored full-face mask. The visual parallels to a legacy character like Rorschach are unavoidable, and the character’s laconic, direct manner add to the sense of mystery surrounding him. But both the full mask, and the secrecy of the character himself very nearly prevented Nelson from taking on the role of Looking Glass early on.
“There was very little about Looking Glass in the first episode, other than his intriguing choice for a mask, and a description of a horseshoe mustache,” Nelson says. “Initially, I said I would do it when they offered it to me and then they said ‘there’s not going to be enough to do,’ so the offer was pulled. Then they came back a few days later and said, ‘no, we’re going to enlarge this character.’ So I started to learn about him as the show went along almost as an article of faith, just trusting that [Watchmen executive producer and writer] Damon [Lindelof] was going to give more substance to him. And that ended up happening in some really wonderful ways.”
Of course, by now anyone who has seen Watchmen episode 5 knows Wade Tillman’s tragic origin story. A young Jehovah’s Witness from Oklahoma, Wade was in Hoboken, NJ on Nov. 2, 1985, the night that the giant genetically engineered “alien” squid materialized in midtown Manhattan and killed millions of people with its psychic shockwave. Wade had just been deceived by a gang member which likely helped conflate the two events in his mind, and he became a specialist in detecting truth and intentions in others. And despite his chilly demeanor, he runs a support group for other survivors of the attack and people who suffer from “extradimensional anxiety.” But that reflective mask isn’t just an affectation. Instead, it’s made of a material that conspiracy theorists believe can block psychic blasts, so he wears it as much for “personal safety” as he does to conceal his identity.
But then there’s the matter of the mask itself, which completely obscures the actor’s face behind its reflective material. Despite the fact that Looking Glass always appears to be sweating when he removes the mask, Nelson says that he enjoyed developing ways to communicate through it.
“The mask is fine to wear. I really like it,” he says. “Actually it furnishes a wonderful challenge that is specific to itself. In drama school we did mask class and the reason they taught that was to take away the visage, which is an essential form of expression that we have, and force the actor to use only body and voice. I looked at this as a really fun exercise over an entire season of television in which I would get to explore that. And moreover going in the opposite direction with this character. Rather than amplifying body and voice to use the mask to pull back even more. In other words, go in the opposite direction, use less of my voice, less of my body, and to simplify. And usually I don’t get to do that with the characters I play.”
And while all superhero movies and TV shows face intense scrutiny from fans, Watchmen is particularly beloved, and brought with it the dual pressures of launching a new genre show on the most prestigious cable network of all and living up to the legacy of the book. And with that came a certain amount of secrecy as the show was in production. While Damon Lindelof had a plan in place, there were times when the actors had to make decisions about their portrayals without having the full picture.
“Every script was sort of a new adventure,” Jean Smart, who plays FBI Agent Lauri Blake says. “We have somebody like Damon Lindelof you can sort of trust that it’s going to be interesting.”
And as Nelson said, there may be more to the character of Looking Glass than what we see when we meet him in episode one.
“It was definitely a process of learning as we went along,” Nelson says. “I liken it to those cartoon characters on the top of the train engine laying the track ahead of the locomotive. That’s really exciting and certainly goes against what actors normally do, which is you have a part and it’s got a discrete beginning, middle, and end, and you understand where you fit into the story and you make decisions that cohere with all that. With this, it’s more like real life. You’re discovering who you are every day through actions and challenges and that’s pretty great.”