Tim Blake Nelson reveals the original backstory for Looking Glass in Watchmen
Looking Glass originally had a much different backstory than what we saw on Watchmen, and was only changed after filming had already begun
It turns out one of the most fascinating backstories from HBO’s Watchmen was not an originally planned backstory at all, and actually replaced a completely different origin story. That’s what we learned when Tim Blake Nelson, who played masked police detective Wade Tillman, (a.k.a. Looking Glass) on the show, called into EW Live (SiriusXM, channel 109) to talk about his work on the critically acclaimed drama.
Watchmen’s fifth episode, “Little Fear of Lightning,” began with a startling opening sequence flashing back to November 2, 1985. In it, we saw a teenage Wade in Hoboken, N.J., attempting to save souls as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What happened next would save Wade’s life, yet also prove to traumatize him for the next 34 years as he was lured into a house of mirrors and tricked by a young woman into taking off all his clothes, which she then proceeded to run off with.
However, a psychic wave from Adrian Veidt’s giant teleported squid was then unleashed, killing everyone outside. Wade was spared since he was in the hall of mirrors at the time of the blast, yet the sexual embarrassment coupled with the piles of dead bodies surrounding him led to lifelong trauma and paranoia — which manifested itself through Wade building a safety bunker, becoming deeply dependent on interdimensional security equipment, and covering his hat and face with a foil-like material called reflectatine.
But that was not showrunner Damon Lindelof’s original plan. Nelson told EW Live that he had been given a completely different backstory for the character, and one that only changed after the first three episodes had already been filmed. “I had been operating under different assumptions about why he was a detective and what his story was,” says Nelson. “And based on the first three episodes, Damon and the writers changed their mind about what originally they envisioned for the reveal of who Wade was in episode 5.”
So what was the original backstory? “The backstory was entirely different,” Nelson says. “And I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it involved an interracial relationship that Wade had had that had ended very badly. And I loved that notion. I’m in an interracial marriage myself in my own real life and have three children in that marriage, and so these are issues that are very close to me. And although my interracial marriage has a very happy present — and, I think, future and past — Wade’s was really tragic and really dark and really just changed the course of his life.”
Considering the prevalent issue of race all over the series — the very first scene was set in the Tula race massacre of 1921 — it is no surprise that Wade’s original backstory was tied into that theme with an interracial relationship. But then Lindelof had other ideas. “Damon changed his mind about that and instead put Wade’s sexual awakening back at the time of the squid attack in 1985 in the original Watchmen novel,” says Nelson. “I think that was a better decision for the show as a whole and really smart writing.”
Nelson also gives his showrunner credit for crafting a new story that did not contradict any of the actors’ choices in the first three episodes. “Very much to Damon’s credit, even though I had been operating with this completely different backstory, it didn’t really change any of the macro decisions I had made about Wade,” says Nelson. “And so it was perfectly coherent with every decision I had made in the past, and I don’t credit myself with that. I credit the fact that Damon and the writers, that even though they were going to change the backstory so dramatically, they were going to do it in a way that they wouldn’t screw their actor over and make the decisions I made suddenly incoherent. And they didn’t do that. And I was just very, very excited to play this new story in a way that wasn’t going to contravene anything I had done before.”
While Lindelof has not committed to a second season of the show, saying he feels he has told the story he wanted to tell, Nelson says he is up for more Watchmen… as long as its guiding visionary is still part of the process. “I would absolutely do it,” he confirms. And everybody has said, ‘Well, only if Damon is involved.’ And I just take that for granted because I don’t think HBO would go forward with a second season of the show without Damon’s oversight. And so I would absolutely welcome the opportunity to move forward with the show because I assume Damon would be involved in some capacity. That said, I’m fine if it doesn’t move on. That really ultimately is up to Damon and the network, but I can only say that I had a great time working on the show and I always imagined that it would have a second and third and fourth season, and I was looking forward to it, but if that doesn’t transpire, then I’m fine as well.”
As for Looking Glass, what sort of emotional headspace does Nelson feel Wade is in now after all the events he’s seen and been through in season 1? “I think he believes that it still poses a danger,” Nelson says. “And I think he’s moving forward now with a similar level of weariness and a new level of really deep cynicism that’s every bit as powerful as what was motivating him in the past. And I also think he has a new ally in Laurie Blake, just like I have a new close friend in Jean Smart. And so I think that he’s going to keep doing what he does. He’s just more wise, more cynical, and more certain of the need to protect society.”