Why ‘Watchmen’ Star Tim Blake Nelson Loved Acting Behind a Mask

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “Taking away the face actually empowered my character,” says the veteran character actor who plays Looking Glass in the sci-fi miniseries

A version of this story about Tim Blake Nelson and “Watchmen” first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

The world of Damon Lindelof’s limited series “Watchmen” is the present-day United States, but it’s a United States that diverged from the country we live in about 35 years ago and has run on an alternate path ever since. Veteran character actor Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) plays Wade Tillman, a.k.a. Looking Glass, a mysterious detective who, like all police officers in the series’ world, wears a mask — but his is a mirrored head covering that reveals nothing.

“Watchmen” presents an alternative version of our world, but it’s one in which the police are brutal and act with impunity, and a group of white supremacists fights a racist war against the government. It’s sci-fi but it feels pretty current.
I credit Damon with having incredible antennae for cultural phenomena, culture occurrences — cultural fractures, frankly. Unfortunately, the show is quite prescient. There have been many instances of racial unrest and police brutality well before “Watchmen,” and the tragedy of George Floyd is just the most recent horrific example. Damon was concerning himself with something quite trenchant and serious that’s conflicting our country. Also, masks play an enormous role in the show, and we all know that masks have taken on a new significance with the coronavirus.

For much of the time, your face is completely invisible behind the mirrored mask. What is it like performing behind the mask, both logistically and in how you approach the character?
There were a lot of challenges, but they fed nicely into playing the role in hopefully a more compelling way, and certainly a more interesting way for me as an actor.

The biggest challenge was that I often had to wear a GoPro crown, by which I literally mean, a hat of sorts with a GoPro affixed to it over a green-screen mask. That was a bit cumbersome because it would fall off, and it’s not what an actor really wants, to be wearing a camera. And yet I quickly realized that I was part of the surveillance apparatus, if you will, of the project itself. And that lent itself to this guy, who’s a detective. So I started to see it as almost an extension of my brain. And once I looked at it that way, and also I had to keep my head still and be sensitive to any movement, it turned into a boon rather than a challenge

Similarly, wearing the mask, I thought, having worked with masks in drama school, “Well, this is going to amplify the voice and to demand more expression from the body to compensate for the lack of facial expression.” And what I found instead was that taking away the face actually made me inscrutable in a way that that empowered my character.

Because of that, I had to do less, not more. And so the character suddenly became much more restrained and allowed for more subtlety, fewer words, fewer movements, and a voice that instead of being louder could actually be quieter.

That was incredibly gratifying for me as an actor, particularly since most of the roles I’ve been asked to play in my career have been the opposite of that–either extravagantly stupid or flamboyant or wordy. This was a quieter, more restrained character, and I’ve been waiting to get to play a character like that.

We don’t know much about his backstory until the fifth episode, when we see an incident that happened in 1985 and changed the course of history for the world and for Wade Tillman. But that wasn’t the backstory you were originally told, was it?
No. The backstory with which I was presented when I was offered the role ended up changing in a dramatic way. But the writers and Damon were so sensitive that even though the details changed quite dramatically, the spirit of it didn’t. So I wasn’t cursed with having to look back at the work I’d done in the first four episodes and thinking, “Oh, this doesn’t cohere at all with what’s being revealed.” It actually made great sense, and that was an incredible relief to me.

The new backstory involves a teenage Tillman trapped stark naked in a carnival house of mirrors while a horrifying attack kills almost everyone around him. Are you disappointed that they hired a younger actor to play the part in those scenes?
You know, I’ve done one role with full frontal nudity, a long time ago in a wonderful movie called “The Good Girl.” So I have had that experience and I wouldn’t object to having it in the future, but I don’t thirst for it, either. And I don’t think audiences do, now that I’m at the ripe age of 56.

What I really wanted to have happen, though, was for my middle son, Teddy, who’s the perfect age for it, I really wanted him to audition. At the time he was interested in acting, but he said, “No, I think I’ll give that one a miss. I don’t want to play the young you.”

To read more from the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.

EmmyWrap Kaitlyn Dever

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