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Tom Welling Reflects on Lessons From ‘Smallville’ and Talks Returning to TV for ‘Lucifer’

For a decade Tom Welling played a young Clark Kent on the Superman origin story “Smallville.” This was his first major role, and one that he calls his “version of college where I just wanted to learn as much as I could.” He has carried those lessons into his new role on Fox’s “Lucifer,” as well as into developing some new projects as a producer. “The more time goes by, the more I appreciate that experience. I know I wouldn’t have anything that I have right now if it wasn’t for that show,” Welling says.

What were your thoughts on where you wanted your career to go when you first came out to LA?

It was a “Let me see what I can do in a year” kind of thing, and I wasn’t necessarily film or television, I think I just wanted to work. And it kind of worked out because as much as I didn’t know, the character of Clark on “Smallville” didn’t know much about his life or who he was or what he should be doing. So I think we both kind of grew up together a little bit.

What do you feel you learned the most from your experience on “Smallville” that you still reference in your work today?

The idea of it being a team effort — it’s not really about one person ever — and the more you communicate the better. You have to try to elevate whatever material you have in front of you the best you can. You just try to go in there and make the best thing you can and have a good time doing it.

Are there things you wish you could have done on “Smallville” that the technology or general storytelling landscape may not have allowed for then but you see happening now?

What I see now in television is the way they can do explosions and move things in the frame and make things look more realistic. Something happens and the camera travels through that action. We had just been done when that started catching on. I think that’s a pretty useful tool for television.

During those years you also stepped behind the camera to direct a number of episodes and to become an executive producer. What did that work give you that being an actor didn’t?

It’s sort of different languages, and the more you can understand each language, the better you can communicate and tell a story. I found myself being drawn to what was happening behind the camera, and I had a camera operator who had been with us for years named JD who said I should direct one. This was like Season 4 or Season 5, and I was like, “They’re never going to let me,” but then I had a few conversations with the showrunners and people on the show, and it was about another year of getting it going where they trusted me to direct one. I love the prep of it, I love shooting it, I love working with the actors. There’s something with actors where if you give them a note and they’re able to go in and perform that note, it’s magic, and it’s really rewarding. With acting you don’t always get that sense of accomplishment because once you feel like you got it, you’re not in it anymore in some ways. I see it as another vehicle for storytelling. Guys I looked up to like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, some of their biggest achievements were projects that they created, and I just always found that inspiring. I couldn’t bring everything to the table — I couldn’t do it all myself — but I could create opportunity for stories that I’m interested in into development and into production and then onto the screen.

What led you back to television for “Lucifer”?

There was actually another project that I was chasing that I didn’t get. I was told in a very kind way that I just wasn’t the guy for this particular role that I was chasing, but having gone out for that role, the idea of moving back into television became more of a reality for me and it was exciting. Joe Henderson, who’s one of the producers, had watched “Smallville.” They called on a Monday, and I was at work on Friday.

What was it about the show or the character that was exciting enough to bring you back, and with such a quick decision?

Joe explained to me the arc of the character, which was vast, and it was a slow burn from the beginning. The whole point of the first third of the season is no one’s supposed to know who I am or why I’m there. The whole point is we want people to be like, “Who is he? Why is Tom even playing this role?” And we’re at a point in the season now where you realize he’s not who he said he was, and things are heating up in the love triangle, and I think from here the train’s really taking off.

The character is ambiguous from the audience’s perspective, but how important is it for you as the actor to know everything about him upfront?

It really is about how the audience will see the character. We want it to be where if an audience member watches the episodes but then goes back to an episode, it makes sense. So we track that all. I know pretty much everything except the actual ending.

“Lucifer” has really taught the audience not to assume you know someone’s story — even someone who is a well-known character from other source material. The audience has come to love the title character. Do you feel strongly about also being liked by the audience, or is there a part of you that would prefer to be seen as a villain?

I would lean not so much on love or bad but on understanding what he wants what he wants and why he’s doing what he’s doing. There’s more than a few things he does that are not so nice at all. This is a person, at least in certain points of the season, who doesn’t really care about what happens to anyone else — he just wants what he wants. And that can be scary — especially when you’re playing with people’s hearts and loyalty and things like that. So, that’s fun for me to play, and I’m not trying to make excuses for my character because in some ways you can’t judge your character you’re playing, but I did have to think about what it would be to kill your brother and then walk Earth for eternity. There’s things you have to simplify so you can relate to them.

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