Right out of the gate, HBO’s Watchmen TV series proved itself to be an equally bizarre but wholly distinguishable beast from Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel and Zack Snyder’s movie. Still, homage was the name of the game in the third episode, which introduced Jean Smart as an older version of Laurie Blake/Silk Spectre II, who’s moved past her vigilante days and is now, in fact, leading the FBI’s anti-vigilante task force. Watching Smart go toe-to-toe with Tim Blake Nelson‘s Looking Glass and Regina King‘s Angela Abar/Sister Night provided some real kicks for viewers, and the cagey Laurie-Angela showdown continued with this week’s episode.
From Frasier to Fargo, the Designing Women actress’ career has gone to many wild places and now landed in the superhero realm, and to an even more surreal place than Legion a few years ago. Smart was gracious enough to sit down with us to discuss Laurie Blake’s hangups, which (and you knew this was coming) just happen to include Doctor Manhattan. And, yes, we discussed that big, blue sex toy, her extensive Watchmen monologuing, and where Laurie will go from here.
You’ve really been pushing into new career frontiers over the past five years. Fargo, Legion, and it’s unfair for me to throw in Dirty John, but I’m gonna do it anyway. And now Watchmen. Which of these roles seems like the biggest “I’ve never done this before” move?
Oh gosh. I’d have to tie Watchmen and Fargo for that. I’ve probably played similar roles in the past in the theater but not on camera. I’ve played a lot of iconic villainesses in the theater. Not that these women are villainesses, but like Clytemnestra and strong women who are in extraordinary circumstances.
As with Legion, Watchmen doesn’t tackle the idea of superheroes in a typical way. How did that appeal to you?
It’s kind of fun because Laurie’s very much a mortal, but she’s in this kind-of somewhat altered universe, so it’s kind of fun to ride the fence between those two worlds. It makes it kind of timeless. You don’t see everybody on cellphones [which are outlawed]. I think of all the things in movies we can’t do anymore simply because of cellphones or TSA or things like that. You can’t have romantic goodbyes in airports when the person runs onto the plane and proposes. You can’t have people desperately trying to find a payphone to tell somebody something before the bomb goes off. It’s just all that stuff you can’t do anymore. So we don’t have any of those rules now in Watchmen. We can be very, very real but sort-of do what we want at the same time.
I believe you’ve said that you’re still digging through the expansive Watchmen graphic novel, but had you watched the movie beforehand?
No. Damon [Lindelof] actually felt that with his very different take on this story, that it wouldn’t be helpful to watch it.
I’d agree that it’s not necessary, and it was a divisive movie as well, so there was potential to muddy your waters, so to speak.
I think I saw a scene from it, and it’s interesting because with Malin Ackerman, I actually played her mother on a pilot a few years ago. It didn’t get picked up.
Speaking of Malin, there was some criticism surrounding how Laurie was drawn in the comics and the movie, with the claim that Silk Spectre II was too objectified. Now you get to step out in black suits and looking all-business.
Oh, I certainly didn’t want to put on that outfit! [Laughs]
Nobody wants to wear that, I’m sure…
I was very grateful for that. Well, that was then. It was sort-of typical, and she was a beautiful young girl, and I didn’t really think about that particularly. It seemed kind-of reasonable to a certain extent. She’s now living in a man’s world at the FBI, and I think she’s found some comfort in that because she didn’t have to be that kind of person anymore, but at the same time, she obviously still thinks of herself as a sexual person. She’s attractive and likes being the only woman in the room. I don’t think she’s trying to deflect that kind of attention, but at the same time, she’ll never really ever admit that.
Well, your joke-monologues carried the entire third episode and fleshed out the graphic-novel basics for viewers. How intensive was that whole process?
Well, we shot it so many times, over a period of days, and then we went back, and I thought it was completely done, but then I thought, “Okay, I can move on.” And then two weeks or a month later, we had to go back and do it again for another scene where Angela’s actually watching it onscreen, so I had all the match all the movement and replay what we had shot. That part was not my favorite.
One of my favorite parts was where Laurie met Tim Blake Nelson’s character, and Laurie checks her teeth in his Looking Glass mask.
Oh my god, she’s so disrespectful. Just terrible!
And the way Tim handled that, even under the mask, was tremendous.
He’s so good. And then she says, “Or you can just take the silly mask off, Wade.” She cuts him down and lets him know that she knows exactly who he is, and she thinks it’s ridiculous in just a couple of words. It’s so much fun working with Tim. He’s the best.
So when Laurie’s talking to Angela about the masks in the fourth episode, do you think she’s getting her message across?
I think at that point, and Regina may have a different answer, but Angela’s still trying to figure out this bizarre woman who’s come into their midst. I think she thinks I’m full of shit, but there’s a part of her that knows that it’s also true. And I’m making light of it, but I’m actually saying things that are part of my painful past, but I’m making it sound very flip, which is Laurie’s style. But yeah, with Angela, she maybe thinks that I’m a little bit dangerous. I act like a goofball and say something stupid like, a line about gophers? She makes these silly jokes. She tries to keep people off balance by coming off very strong, and she’s obviously very bright, and then she’ll say or do something kind-of goofy. She reminds me of a cross between Brenda Starr and Columbo. I’m dating myself! Peter Falk played a detective who would act like he wasn’t always sure what was going on, and then he’d make a joke, and you’d realize later on that he was manipulating a person, and that was fun to watch.
Laurie is pretty damn hard-boiled now. I was surprised, and it makes me wonder what she’s been doing these past few decades. Did you have any sense of that?
Sure, we find out later in the season how she wound up working for the FBI, which is interesting, and the fact that she’s still sort-of obsessed with Doctor Manhattan…
Completely! But wow, she’s really come into a strange place. She lives by herself, except for her big owl, and she only has black suits hanging in her closet. It’s actually a very lonely existence, and I think she’s bitter about a lot of things.
She’s definitely carrying some torches. Maybe for Nite Owl.
And definitely for Doctor Manhattan.
Oh sure, yeah.
Does it seem like, realistic to you, that she would be pulling out … a blue dildo all these years later?
I don’t know what you’re talking about! Well, you know, there are women who still go to Graceland every year and weep about Elvis. I think because it was her first love, and it was such a dramatic time in her life. I think she also misses the whole package, not just him, but as much as she disparages that [vigilante] life that she had, because her parents forced her into it, she misses that. I think that people can obsess, and the fact that she was rejected, a total rejection, and she has that weird connection with these phone booths. That would keep somebody going if they were in the right mindset.
Not only that, but Doctor Manhattan was always a really terrible communicator. I would say he’s still incredibly bad at it.
Well, he’s a typical man, what can you say?
Dropping a car out of the sky — that’s his way of talking to her. But where do you think Laurie is in terms of processing her own trauma?
I think that she’s really good at denying lots of things. She maybe when she lies in bed at night, alone and in the dark, still thinks about certain things, but I think for the most part, she thinks she’s got it all together and doing something that’s good and productive. And she thinks that she’s moved on, but she’s still got a lot of hangups about the past.
So if Laurie was able to reunite with Doctor Manhattan on Earth, do you think it would last?
Hmm, good question. I think not. Too much time has gone by, and I think too much pain. I think she’s got too much anger.
HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ airs on Sunday nights at 9:00pm EST.