Supergirl star Sam Witwer on his 'risky' Agent Liberty-centric episode
Supergirl is about to reveal Agent Liberty’s (Sam Witwer) origin story.
After introducing Sam Witwer’s steel-masked, alien-hating villain in the first two episodes, the CW drama will jump back and show how Ben Lockwood became this frightening leader of a xenophobic movement in Sunday’s episode. Cheekily titled “Man of Steel,” the Derek Simon-penned hour unveils the birth of Agent Liberty by revisiting past events on the show.
“403 is a risky episode in that it does take the show in a different place,” the Smallville alum tells EW. “Agent Liberty/Ben Lockwood kind of hijacks the show for an entire episode and the regular cast kind of pop in and out, but it really takes you through the seasons of Supergirl from this guy’s perspective. There was an alien invasion, what was he doing? Where was he?”
He continues: “I’m crossing my fingers that the audience accepts it because if you turn on Supergirl, you want to see the characters that you know and love. So, they took a big risk and said, ‘Well, we’re actually going to pause for a second and take you on a different journey. Then, we’re gonna bring you right back to the show that you love.’ Let’s just hope it works.”
Below, Witwer talks to EW about returning to the DC Universe, how playing Darth Maul on the Star Wars animated series influenced his performance, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You spent an entire season on Smallville before joining Supergirl. How does it feel to be back in the DC Universe?
SAM WITWER: Familiar yet different, I suppose. It’s interesting because the DC Comics universe, in terms of television, has become a lot larger and a lot more an established thing. On Smallville, we were just kind of out there, checking things out, and making a young Superman show, and Supergirl is part of a larger universe that has a lot of established rules. Being a DC Comics fan myself, it feels very familiar.
What attracted you to the role of Agent Liberty?
They promised me a very well-rounded character, and I dare say they delivered. By the end of this upcoming episode, I think people are going to understand him a lot better.
Can you set up what we can expect from this Agent Liberty-centric flashback episode?
The episode is largely him. They kind of do Supergirl, but from the perspective of this character Ben Lockwood, who will later become Agent Liberty. The episode is kind of a retelling of previous notable events in previous seasons but we tell it through his perspective — what was happening to him professionally, what was happening to him personally, what was happening to his family — and really charts the course of taking a good man who believed very strongly in liberty for everyone, including aliens, down this path where life deals him a really bad hand over and over again. It takes you a point where he feels he should put on a mask and incite this Earth first movement.
Did the producers share this backstory with you when you first signed on, or did you learn all of this when you got the script for the episode?
So, the audition consisted of a giant monologue, and I guess that’s because [showrunners Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller] knew they wanted this character’s superpower to be his ability to orate, to speak, to say words that would inspire or incite an audience. For that reason, the audition material was a big long monologue. I remember at one point I was reading it and found the monologue to be very reasonable and then the last sentence in the monologue was something that was very violent and unreasonable, right? You just go, “Whoa!” I remember reading that monologue and talking to a friend — and I thought it was from a scene from an episode — I said, “It’s really wonderful, but this villainous turn at the end is so abrupt. I really loved this audition piece until it made that turn, and it was just so quick.” What I didn’t realize was that they were testing my ability to read this in various ways, which they did. They asked me to do this monologue in every possible way they could think of — some of them a little more reasonable and some of them a little bit more fanatic.
Once they hired me, what I was really impressed with was that the script took this monologue and stretched out the entire sense of the monologue over the course of an entire episode. As you see in the upcoming episode, Ben Lockwood is in almost every scene of the episode, and it takes you through years of this guy’s life until he gets to a point where he’s maybe doing some things the audience maybe isn’t going to agree with. I was really quite impressed by the fact that there was nothing at all abrupt about this character’s journey from altruistic young man to a character that’s doing some villainous things. It was a very gradual process throughout this episode and in fact, I think it continues to be a gradual process in the episodes that follow.
Did this gradual process help you understand the character more? Did being able to go through this episode help you figure the character out yourself?
Here’s the funny thing: Episode 403 was the first thing we shot this season. So by the time I shot the stuff you saw [in episode 2] with him orating and saying these bigoted things, or him hurting Tiya Sircar — who I worked with on Star Wars: Rebels funny enough and did some bad things to her there, too, as Darth Maul — I was very, very familiar with this guy’s motivations and I understood how to play those scenes because we had shot 403 before any of that stuff. It’ll be funny for audience members to go back and watch those two episodes after they watch the next episode and see if they can understand where the vitriol comes from, understand where this character’s beef lies.
Dude, I will tell you Supergirl writer Derek Simon did an amazing job on the 403 script. It was one of those scripts where you just read it and go, “Well, if we shoot it and say all the words, it’s gonna be a damn good episode.” So, there was a lot of pressure coming into a new show and having the first episode that I’m shooting for them be, in a weird way, kind of a pilot for Agent Liberty. Derek did an amazing job. I absolutely agreed with the way that he wrote it. I completely understood the character by the end of the first read. It was really, really good. I felt like I was in good hands.
Was the fact that the season was dealing with this pointed allegory for immigration and racial issues what attracted you to the show?
Superman and Supergirl are the ultimate immigrant stories; they always have been. So, it just seemed right that they tackle this whole thing about aliens and if they have a right to be here, and the fact that both Superman and Supergirl’s stories are about, yes, we all have a right to be here. But what I also liked was that Derek Simon poses a whole bunch of questions that make Agent Liberty’s motivations seem quite reasonable. The guy really has dealt with some serious, serious problems, and it’s designed to make you see his point of view, and I was proud of that. Playing the character, it’s my job to be the guardian of his point of view.
Look, I’m never interested in playing a character that doesn’t have motivations or playing a character that is just a mustache-twirling bad guy. That’s not interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is our motivations and to get people to empathize with what the character is going through, and I dare say that Ben Lockwood is going through a lot.
In the trailers and these first two episodes, Agent Liberty comes across as a frightening individual. What have you done to make him so scary?
I will tell you this: I have a voice-acting career and I’ve played frightening characters, and I’m so glad that we shot 403 before we shot episodes 1 and 2 because I probably would’ve done some things differently vocally. I actually would’ve made him a lot scarier. I would’ve made him terrifying. That would’ve been my instinct, and I maybe would’ve gone too far with it. Once we shot 403, I realized, “No, you gotta be able to recognize Ben Lockwood and his very human motivations and his very voice behind the mask.” Again, they did me a great, great service by having me shoot 403 before we shot one and two.
Yes, I think he’s scary and somewhat intimidating behind all that armor and the mask and the things that he’s saying are scary, but I tried to make it sound like there’s just a guy behind the mask. I didn’t change my dialect, deepen my voice. I just kind of let it ride, let it be Ben Lockwood’s voice behind that mask. But it’s a very interesting character that will continue to evolve.
Did playing Darth Maul influence your take on this character?
It does in some of the later episodes, not so much at first. If you were to ask me, “Can you manipulate your voice to make someone afraid?” Yes, I think I probably can, but it was not appropriate once I understood what they wanted to do with the character. First and foremost, he’s gotta be a real guy. Here’s a hint: He’s a real guy that’s in over his head.
Can you tease what we can expect from Agent Liberty’s first in-person encounter with Kara?
It’s best that I don’t because that’s kind of a climactic moment. I will tell you this: There is some tangential contact between those characters before they ever actually meet face to face. I don’t want to give away too much. There’s some climactic moments ahead that I really shouldn’t talk about. It’s not like these characters have nothing to do with each other until that moment. They kind of weave in and out of each other’s lives until there.
Is there anything else you wanted to add about this new role?
I don’t think anyone anywhere gets ahead by looking at people who have different viewpoints or different beliefs as the enemy. I just fundamentally don’t believe in that. So, the fact that they allowed Agent Liberty to make a few good points — and he doesn’t quite yet — and have a real point of view and be a human character, I think, was the right move. If we were talking about where I land ideologically, I’m certainly on the Supergirl end of the spectrum in real life, I would like to think, but it was nice — and is nice, frankly — to play a character where you can really feel some kinsmanship and go, “Wow, yeah, I understand what this person is going through and I understand why they think some of the bad choices they’re making are good choices.”
Supergirl airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on The CW.