When our own Mike Ryan spoke with Tim Blake Nelson (about The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs) a year ago, his role in creator Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen continuation was completely unknown to the public. HBO has since strategically revealed more about the TV series, which bears very little physical resemblance (although the themes largely remain the same) to Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel or the 2009 Zack Snyder movie, both set in 1980s New York City. That new-ness includes Nelson’s character and an updated setting — Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019 — and given that Nelson was born in Tulsa and spent his formative years in the area, he was bound to bring his own local flavor to the production.
Nelson, as you’re probably aware, has appeared in over 50 movies and more than a handful of TV series, although he’s perhaps regarded most fondly for his multiple Coen Brothers’ projects. That’s what happens when you embody a singing cowboy like Buster or wade into heavy drawl territory as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? So, my curiosity ran high to see how Nelson would play an Oklahoman called Looking Glass, who spends much of his onscreen time as a heavily-masked law enforcement interrogator. Nelson was nice enough to dig into his character with us, including his specific dialect. We also chatted about what local history adds to Lindelof’s Watchmen and touched on some of Nelson’s other upcoming projects.
Guess where I happen to be right now?
Well, because you’re asking in that way. You’re in … Oklahoma.
Yes, I’m actually in Tulsa right now.
Oh, fantastic! Are you downtown in the Brady district right now?
I’m near the fairgrounds as we speak, and it’s that time of year, so it’s bonkers.
Why, are you going to a BMX competition? Or are you … going to show a pig?
You kid, but there was a cow running through a neighborhood, not too long ago. I’m not even remotely joking, as you must know.
You know, I was shooting once in Georgia in a very rural area, and I was driving myself to set, and I saw this big piece of plywood in the front of someone’s yard, and it read (in spray paint), “It is not my cow.”
No context there, right?
Nope, no context at all.
Not too surprising! Well, you are definitely from Tulsa.
And the series largely takes place in Tulsa. Were you aware of the setting before you signed on?
Yeah, when I read the pilot, I knew it was set in Tulsa, and that appealed to me very much.
It begins with an often-overlooked historical event, the 1921 race massacre, which many locals didn’t even know about until recently. I wouldn’t technically use the word “cover-up,” but the truth got pretty buried. Did you know about it?
So, I graduated high school in 1982, and I heard vaguely about an incident in the early ’20s, in which the Greenwood district was decimated, but that’s all I knew. And when I went to college, my freshman year, and was interviewing to be in a poetry class that was taught by an African-American poet, he said, “Were you aware that the worst race riot” — which is what he called it at that time — “in American history was in your city?” And I said, “I know there was a race riot, but I didn’t know that it was the worst in American history.” And then I read a book about it.
Yeah, the perception for many decades was that the event should be labeled as a “riot,” but it’s since been reclassified.
As the race massacre.
Yes, and how did you go about nailing your character’s voice? Watchmen is more — how do I say — nuanced with such matters than, you know, Twister.
Well, when I was in high school, I used to travel on weekends, frequently, often by myself, to small towns. Sometimes I would just talk to people and record them because I was so enchanted by the way people spoke in my state. And I was intrigued by the stories that people had to tell. And I was insatiable. I guess you could say that I grew up on the Oklahoma dialect. And when I was given this character and learned about the horseshoe mustache that was described in the script, and also about the mirrored mask, he struck me as not a Tulsan but a more taciturn rural character, probably from southern Oklahoma. So I placed him in the Hugo area rather than making him a Tulsan, which allows for a stronger dialect and also other aspects of the way that he withholds a lot of himself in that laconic drawl that you find in a lot of Oklahoma towns.
He’s called Looking Glass, and his mask is reflective and, I’d say, more hardcore than the rest of the police force. How did you maneuver through the scenes where you can’t even use your eyes to express emotion?
In drama school, where I was for four years, we worked a lot with masks, just to help teach us that it’s often not all about the face. And I think particularly when film and television acting now proliferate and have become the way that any of us make a living, we can forget that there’s a body and a voice that go along with the eyes and the face. And so I just looked at it as a good and healthy challenge that harkened back to some of my favorite classes at Julliard.
And we’re not quite sure if Looking Glass is a “good guy” or “bad guy” yet, right?
Looking Glass, like many of the characters in this show, is dealing with trauma in his life. And that has caused him to choose the mask that he has chosen, the profession that he’s chosen, and the profession within that profession. Because he’s the guy on the force who discovers who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. And this all relates to trauma in his past.
He clearly knows his stuff when it comes to interrogation methods. I’m assuming we’ll find out more about this trauma?
There’s more to come, yes.
You’ve got some other big projects coming this fall, including Just Mercy with Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson, where you play a witness who gives pivotal testimony. That sounds intense in a different way.
Yeah, a very different character, I guess, whereas Looking Glass withholds, this character reveals extravagantly and very seldom tells the truth. And that movie deals with the work of Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Watchmen deals with vigilante heroes, and some people misconstrue it as about superheroes. There’s only one superhero in Watchmen.
That’d be Doctor Manhattan. And he’s not really on the scene, either, at least not at this point in the series.
Right. Bryan Stevenson is an actual living hero who has devoted his life to the exoneration of falsely convicted felons on death row. And he has literally not only saved lives, but he has reorganized the way that we think about justice in America. And he’s done that in Montgomery, Alabama.
This is terrible timing, given our serious subject, but do you hear those tornado sirens in the background? I’m definitely in Oklahoma. This is mortifying.
[Chuckles.] Alllllll good.
Before we go, can you tell us who you play in Amazon’s The Report, starring Adam Driver?
He’s effectively a whistleblower, which is an interesting character to get to play right now. He helped Daniel Jones discover what he needs to animate his exploration of [the CIA’s use of torture] in the wake of 9/11. It’s a character who’s actually an amalgam of several characters who helped Daniel Jones find his way to asking the right people the right questions to learn about the torture techniques that violated American and international laws in our pursuit of terrorists after 9/11. And how this was all probably more counterproductive than effective.
Sirens and everything, it’s a different and great experience to speak with an actor who’s a Tulsan — if you still consider yourself one?
I absolutely do! I love Tulsa.
HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ will premiere on Sunday, October 20.