From the first moments in the premiere of HBO’s “Watchmen” last October, the show proved to be the most urgent and prescient series on television today. Rather than adapt the universally acclaimed 1986 graphic novel “Watchmen” written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons — which had already been made into a 2009 feature film by Zack Snyder — co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof chose instead to update the world of the novel from New York City in 1985 to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2019.
The reason for the change of venue was simple, but devastating: The show’s main hero, Angela Abar, aka the police detective Sister Night (Regina King), is a direct descendant of a survivor of the very real 1921 massacre of the Tulsa neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. Lindelof first learned about the event from a 2014 piece in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Case for Reparations,” and his shock that he hadn’t known about it before grew into a resolve to make the event the centerpiece of his show.
During a Variety Streaming Room roundtable with the “Watchmen” cast, directors and executive producers, King said she had known about the Tulsa massacre. “But I knew that so many people, black people as well, were not aware of the story,” she said. “What I’d hoped actually did happen. When it premiered, people went online to see if it really existed, and they were able to discover that Tulsa wasn’t the only massacre. There was Rosewood; there was Arkansas. Whenever you have an opportunity to express your art and also do it in a space where social commentary is really present in that moment, I’m there for it.”
Indeed, “Watchmen” precipitated a major shift in awareness of the Tulsa ’21 massacre, from the successful criticisms of President Trump scheduling his first rally since the COVID-19 pandemic in Tulsa on Juneteenth, to three separate documentary projects about the massacre that have been announced in just the last few weeks.
“I was so horrified that I’d never heard of it,” said Jean Smart, who plays the tough FBI agent Laurie Blake on the show. “It was just astonishing to me that something like that could have happened so recently and that we were not taught that in school. And so the fact that our show was able to educate people about that was very meaningful.”
Even the “Watchmen” cast member who grew up in Tulsa, Tim Blake Nelson (the taciturn police detective known as Looking Glass), said he only really understood the full scope of the event when he was in his twenties.
“It was virtually concealed in terms of the real lethality of it,” Nelson said. “When I was growing up in the late ’70s, early ’80s, nobody wanted to advertise that we had this in Tulsa’s history. And so it was referred to simply as, ‘Yes, there was a race riot.’ It wasn’t called a race massacre, it was called a race riot.”
The irony that a straight, white man was the one who finally depicted the Tulsa massacre in a mainstream scripted drama is not lost on Lindelof.
“There has been no shortage of storytellers who want to tell the story over the course of the last 99 years,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think that people who wanted to tell the story of Tulsa got pushed aside, as like, ‘People don’t want to see that.’ It’s just another level of the marginalization of storytellers of color.” Lindelof said part of him wishes that the Tulsa massacre “didn’t have to be Trojan horsed” inside a genre series. “But … I’m just grateful that it’s now a part of the conversation.”
As anyone who has seen “Watchmen” knows, there is plenty to talk about with this show. Joining Lindelof, King, Smart, and Nelson for the roundtable, which was shot earlier in June, were actors Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Angela’s husband Cal Abar), Jeremy Irons (Adrian Veidt), Hong Chau (Lady Trieu), Louis Gossett Jr. (Will Reeves), Jovan Adepo (young Will Reeves), and directors and executive producers Nicole Kassell and Stephen Williams. They talked through six key scenes throughout the series.
SCENE ONE: The Tulsa ’21 Massacre (Episode 1)
The show’s premiere episode, written by Lindelof and directed by Kassell, opens with a very young Will Reeves (Danny Boyd Jr.) witnessing the total destruction of his Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, so prosperous that it came to be known as Black Wall Street. (Warning: This scene depicts many acts of racial violence and murder.)
Damon Lindelof: When I first heard about the massacre, I was overwhelmed by two things. The first was just the sheer horror of what actually happened in this incredible place in 1921. There were black owned businesses, newspapers, auto mechanics, movie theaters, prospering in Oklahoma in 1921. Just the fact that it existed, then the fact that it was wiped from existence over the course of just 48 hours took my breath away. But the thing that was most shocking was that I’d never heard of it. And I think that the more significant damage done over the course of last century, in addition to everything that was stolen from generations of everyone who lived in Greenwood, was that it was erased from history. So I knew that if we were going to depict this, it had to be the cornerstone of the show. It couldn’t just be like a flashback in Episode 4; it really needed to be the event that catalyzed every part of our story.
Nicole Kassell: It was both emotional and technical [to direct]. The pressure to get it right was enormous, knowing that it is the linchpin of the show. I just rewatched the clip with you all and it still brings me to tears, because it’s true. And to see just [the] commitment every background actor and actor on screen gave and what the cast and crew went through to do it was harrowing, but so profoundly moving. We filmed that on the first day of filming on the anniversary of the event. So it was an extraordinary, powerful way to launch the series.
SCENE TWO: The Birth of Hooded Justice (Episode 6)
Along with the Tulsa Massacre, Lindelof’s other main source of inspiration was revealing the identity of Hooded Justice, a mysterious peripheral character from the 1986 “Watchmen” graphic novel. Lindelof decided to make Hooded Justice into Will Reeves, a survivor of the Tulsa ’21 massacre who becomes one of the only black police officers working in New York City in the 1930s. Reeves’s costume as Hooded Justice — a dark hood and a noose hanging from his neck — comes from an attempted lynching by white officers in the NYPD.
It’s a harrowing past, and one that Will wants his granddaughter Angela to understand — so he provides her with his memories via a bottle of pills known as Nostalgia. Angela takes them all at once, and falls into a stream-of-consciousness fugue of Will’s experiences of that time, which director Stephen Williams shot in black-and-white, in long, unbroken takes.
In this scene, Will (Adepo) and his wife June (Danielle Deadwyler) apply the make-up that will conceal not only Will’s identity as Hooded Justice, but his skin color as well. (Warning: This scene depicts an act of murder.)
Stephen Williams: My recollection is that very early on when we started talking about the episode, I think it became clear that the intention was to take the audience on a journey that was one of subjective immersion, told from the point of view of young Will Reeves played by Jovan. And that we would stay inside his point of view, as rigorously as possible, with the understanding that that point of view was also shared by Regina’s character. So the style of long takes was just a way of trying to immerse you as deeply as possible and connect you as deeply as possible with that subjective journey.
Lindelof: Yeah, my memory of it is, there was a mix of complete and utter audacious, “I’ve got this and I know exactly how to do it,” with equal parts, “I’m going to fail miserably. I don’t know how to do this. I’m completely and totally overwhelmed by the material.” And they were happening sometimes in the very same conversation.
The black and white part — it all goes back to Tulsa. The idea that there was a vividness to the Tulsa memories that was breaking through the origin story that [Will] wanted to tell [Angela]. We were having this conversation like, “How do we do that? How do we make them break through so that we’re saying that Will, even as a 25 year old man, is still haunted by this trauma?” That’s when I remember it being Stephen who said, “Those memories should be in color and everything else should be in black and white.”
Jovan, in this episode, you play one of the only black cops in New York City and who discovers the NYPD is infested with white supremacists. How did you prepare for this role?
Adepo: I don’t think there was any clear-cut way for me to prepare.
Williams: You read the newspapers.
Adepo: I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few members in my family be in law enforcement or the military and things like that. More specifically, one of my childhood best friends who I still talk to every week, he’s actually an FBI agent. So when I first got this job, I started talking to him a lot, just because he’s a black man. We got into this little rabbit hole about where law enforcement came from, about how, initially, the whole police system, it was a for-profit, private sector that was supposed to benefit the well-offs so that they could protect their goods or their shipping interests. And then even more specifically, in the South, it was used to preserve the slave trade. Before they were called police systems, they were called night watches. And a lot of the time, people in the community would have to volunteer, or if nobody volunteered, they would have to get voted in to do it. And they called those people watchmen.
When wealthy people didn’t want to do their duty protecting the community, they would pay people to do it for them by proxy. And a lot of the time, the people who were in charge of these night watches ended up being criminals, or people who just had unfavorable reputations around town. So it’s weird to see from back then the police system started off as being filled with people who had bad reputations.
It was something that I really wanted to help tell the story of, [that] even though [my character] was one of the few black officers in the NYPD early in that time, there was still a private sector within that system that I couldn’t be a part of, and it turns out is because it was the color of my skin. That was the main thing that I zeroed in on and wanted to help highlight with this cast and the creators, to show the imbalance and inequality in the police force.
SCENE THREE: “Wounds Need Air” (Episode 9)
Back in the present day, Will (Gossett Jr.) and Angela finally have a moment to talk about Angela’s experience inside his memories, leading Will to deliver a lesson to his granddaughter that feels deeply relevant to the world as it is today: “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” It was a profound scene to play for Gossett and King — and discussing it led to a fascinating exchange between Gossett and Abdul-Mateen.
Louis Gossett Jr.: [It was] very special to play this character and having the knowledge of some of the uprisings that have happened in our history in America. I’ve been very fortunate to be touched by some of our history before this, through [the groundbreaking miniseries] “Roots” and through other things. This one was very pointed and very special. ‘Till I had locked eyes with Regina, I didn’t know what’s going to happen. And it just all came out. She’s almost like my family as it is, and it was one of those places when you dream as an actor, there’s no acting involved. You just morph yourself into the moment. I could have done it again and again and again.
I’m very blessed to be able to tell the story of our — it’s not a horrible story. It’s a learning lesson from Tulsa and North Carolina and San Francisco and all the places we know about. And to be here today to talk about it as a piece of history is very special. So I’m very glad to be here and participate with all of you at this very wonderful time in our history of our country, in our world.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Hey, Lou?
Abdul-Mateen: I wanted to ask you a question.
Gossett: I ain’t got no money.
Abdul-Mateen: [Smiles] I asked you for no money man. Not in front of all these people. I had a conversation with my uncle last week. I asked my uncle, “Man, how are you not so enraged right now because of everything that you’ve experienced? You really deserve to be up in arms.” My uncle is a 68-years-old Vietnam vet. I’m asking this speaking out of turn because you just said look at this — pardon if I’m paraphrasing — this wonderful moment right now.
Gossett: Oh, you have no idea. Being 84 and seeing this, it’s history to me. It’s wonderful. Now, everybody knows and everybody is sensitive to it. It pulled us together in such a wonderful way that we wouldn’t have to be brave about Holocausts anymore. It’s out. So now we can grow. We can grow together the way it’s supposed to be. We tell these stories and we come with a sigh of relief. I’m looking at you now and there’s new family, there’s a possibility of the new family not just in this country but in the world. So in my mind, it’s very poetically historical.
Abdul-Mateen: Trauma lasts man, it gets in our bodies, it gets in our families, it gets in our makeup, our DNA and we don’t even know that we carry it. My grandfather was born in 1886. And I have no idea what kind of baggage and trauma that I’m hanging on. This show has really caused me to perk up, to be attracted to conversations about trauma and trauma passed down because those are some things that I have, but this show really put it out there and let people watch how that could very easily be passed down and be inherited and land in someone’s lap today from an event that happened 100 years ago.
SCENE FOUR: Ozymandias Meets Lady Trieu (Episode 9)
Along with deepening the character of Hooded Justice, “Watchmen” also depicts several central characters in the original graphic novel, first among them Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the genius who orchestrated the massacre of 3 million people in New York City to stave off World War III. In this scene, Veidt meets the equally brilliant (and ruthless) Lady Trieu, who he doesn’t yet realize is also his daughter.
Hong Chau: When I first met with him, Damon told me the overall arc of Lady Trieu’s story. But of course I really needed to be able to see the actual scripts. I read the first four episodes when I first signed on and a lot of what happens with Lady Trieu happens in the later episodes and I remember being really excited that Jeremy Irons was going to be my dad. I knew that right off the bat. That was very exciting for me to get to work with Jeremy. I emailed Damon the night before we had our scene together and I just thanked him for writing a nice, juicy six page scene between he and I.
Jeremy Irons: I didn’t know what was going to happen to The Blonde Man and I didn’t really know who The Blonde Man was. I was led through like a child really, by Nikki [Kassell] and Stephen and Damon. Just doing what I was asked, but not really knowing why. So it was a mystery to me. It all came together at the end, but I didn’t think I knew about the last episode until a couple of weeks before we shot it. During a lot of my shooting, I had no idea where I was, who I was, why I was. And it became clear when I watched the program. But of course I didn’t know what was going on. The core of this wonderful bit of work is what was happening in Tulsa. And because my character didn’t know that because I was away elsewhere, I didn’t read it. I thought, “I don’t need to know this.” And it wasn’t until I watched the program that I saw how it all came together.
Chau: I think I’m the opposite of Jeremy mainly because I don’t have the level of experience where I feel I like to know as much as possible beforehand. And I feel like I’m white knuckling everything, but maybe eventually in a few decades I’ll get to Jeremy’s very relaxed state.
SCENE FIVE: The Former Silk Spectre Interrogates Looking Glass (Episode 5)
In the graphic novel, Laurie Blake is known as Laurie Jupiter, aka the masked vigilante Silk Spectre, but by the events of the show, she’s part of the FBI’s anti-vigilante task force. Her displeasure with costumed heroes comes shining through in this scene with Tulsa detective Wade Tillman, who operates as Looking Glass, known for the reflective mask that covers his entire face.
Tim Blake Nelson: It was great to wear. They made it possible for us to do our work as easily as possible. Any inhibitions in terms of the mask or difficulties were very easy to use to my advantage. I just found that mask incredibly empowering for the character. Not only is it opaque, it’s beyond opaque, in that it implicates anybody speaking with Wade. And that just made it, as I’d say, just very empowering, and it caused me as an actor to be able to do less and not more. I’ve been craving a role that was more about restraint for many years, and I finally got the opportunity to do that.
Lindelof: I just want to state for the record that Tim’s mask was not a mirrored mask. It was a greenscreen sock with a GoPro [camera] in most cases mounted on his head, basically recording the environment around it so our incredible visual effects team could later map what he was seeing onto his face. So it was infinitely even more uncomfortable probably than the mirrored mask makes it look.
Jean, you get a real sense that Laurie has very little patience for people who are in masks. What was it like for you to get inside a character that had already been well established in a previous version of ‘Watchmen’ to bring her into the world of the show?
Jean Smart: I had the advantage of the fact that the 30 plus years had gone by since she was last seen. So that certainly gave me a lot of leeway to think about how she would have changed over the years, and how she would not have changed. And her issues with vigilantes, for whatever reason, is so deep. It comes from her childhood, from her parents, from being now law enforcement who’s rounding them up and arresting them, and occasionally shooting them. It’s interesting because she became an FBI agent as part of a plea deal. But it seems to have suited her in most ways quite nicely in terms of her issues with vigilantes and her disdain for them. And the fact that she gets to mess with Wade’s mind all the time and give him a hard time about his mask is part of her game. But then she finds out that he was a survivor of the squid attack, which is like our version of 9/11. And so she suddenly sees a whole new layer of Mirror Guy.
SCENE SIX: Doctor Manhattan and Angela Abar Have A Fight (Episode 8)
One of the biggest moments in “Watchmen” is the revelation that Angela’s husband Cal is really Jon Osterman, aka Doctor Manhattan, an omniscient, nearly all-powerful being who exists at every moment in time simultaneously. At the end of the graphic novel, Jon leaves Earth, but he returns in Episode 8, a flashback episode that’s structured around the first time Jon and Angela meet in a bar in Vietnam. It’s an unusually lengthy sequence in which Jon wears a Doctor Manhattan mask (long story), so director Nicole Kassell had to keep the camera largely focused on King. In that first conversation, Jon tells Angela they will be together until they get into a big fight — and in this clip, we see how that fight unfolds. Needless to say, playing an all-knowing being was a major challenge for Abdul-Mateen.
Abdul-Mateen: It was tough. I remember the scene in the bar in between takes, if I didn’t say it, I definitely meant to say it to Regina: “I’m so sorry.” Because I felt like I couldn’t give her everything that she needed as an actor, just because of the way that this character processes information and emotes, he’s not extremely accessible from the outside. He’s an extremely difficult person to have an argument with because he won’t go there with you on the emotional level. He won’t match you. I knew that for him, I had to make sure that he was present always in the moment, which is interesting for someone who is in every moment simultaneously. I knew that if I tried to do that, then I would overwhelm myself as an actor and just put myself at a disadvantage.
Regina King: Yahya and I were in the same place for 17 pages, I believe it was, and…
King: Oh, gosh! Maybe I’m refusing that in my mind.
Kassell: And just in two days.
King: But working with Yahya, he’s just an amazing scene partner. He was giving me everything that one could possibly give, but there’s just no way we would have been able to get through that without Nicole. I mean, she definitely laid out for us what it was going to look like and what it was going to feel like. It was very helpful because when she told me, “Well, [the camera’s] only going to be on you…” You’re like, “No way. How’s that going to work?” And you easily get in your own head. Everything from, “Gosh, people are going to see my gums, they’re going to be this big smile.” I mean just the most trivial things come to mind when you are told that, but Nikki and the rest of the crew, the camera operators, everyone was we’re in a tight space for two days — 24 hours pretty much together and you can’t get there without a team and without great partners.
Kassell: When I read the script and I read the 25 pages — two people at a table in a bar, we don’t show one of their faces — not very nice words to Damon came into my mind. It was the hardest episode because to take Regina’s character on this very tiny journey from no to yes, just over 25 pages — it’s so subtle. How to make that cinematically dynamic? And it was interesting filming it because, like, day one, Regina was not in a good mood. And I was like, “Oh no, we’re screwed. Was it me? What is it?” And then by day two, I was like, “Oh, she was in character.” Whether or not that was conscious, she was annoyed and wanted to be alone and this guy’s barging into her space. And so we just got to film it in a way that was perfect.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Watch the full Variety Streaming Room with the cast and filmmakers of “Watchmen” here: