From 'Smallville' to 'Lucifer': The Evolution of Tom Welling

After spending a decade playing the boy who would become Superman, the actor is finally stepping back into the spotlight for his first TV role in six years.
Courtesy of FOX

Tom Welling still remembers the exact moment he realized that he was truly done with Smallville.

After 10 years and 217 episodes following a young Clark Kent as he evolved and finally embraced his destiny to become Superman, Welling got into his car and started driving from the Vancouver set all the way to his home in Los Angeles. The drive started off as any other — it was his tradition every season to make the dayslong trek along the coast at the beginning and end of each season of The CW's superhero drama. But as he crossed the border back into the U.S. for the final time after wrapping the series finale, a strange and exciting feeling washed over him.

"I just remember finally crossing the border and being like, 'I'm free!'" he tells The Hollywood Reporter with a big laugh. "I definitely remember that final moment crossing the border, thinking to myself, 'This is a new chapter.'"

That new, post-Smallville chapter ended up spanning six years as Welling took a break from working in TV. This fall marks the end of that chapter and the beginning of yet another as he returns to the small screen for his first TV role since Smallville ended in 2011 with Fox's devilish drama Lucifer.

"It wasn't so much returning to TV, what is was is being a part of this show itself," Welling says of what drew him back. His former Smallville colleague Greg Beeman, who now directs on the third-year drama, reached out to Welling and convinced him to accept the new role with simple advice: "'Don't overthink it. Just do the show.' And he was so right."

Welling's former boss, Smallville co-creator Al Gough, isn't surprised that Lucifer is what brought his former star back to TV, noting that both he and Welling watch the series.

"You do a show for 10 seasons, and it's an action-adventure series, that's a lot of work. It takes a lot out of you. He gave it his all so he wanted to recharge," Gough says. "By going into a show like Lucifer, which is an established hit on a big network, it's a great way to get your feet wet again but it's not all on your shoulders. It allows him to do something different and really distinguish himself from Clark." And to hear Welling tell it, the fact that Lucifer, like Smallville, is produced by Warner Bros. TV, "it's just icing on the cake."

Adds Gough, "It was the combination of the right show, the right time, the right network."

While Welling never intended to take an official break from TV, a full decade of filming in another country meant that when Smallville ended, he needed to reconnect with his life. To that end, the Los Angeles-based set of Lucifer also gives him a chance to Welling to have his cake and eat it too.

"Ten years being away from family and friends, it does take a toll on you," Welling says. "I had to go off and do some things that I couldn't do when I was on the show and that took a little while. I slowly started to get back into the idea and started getting passionate about getting back to work. I'm just lucky for this opportunity to come through because now I'm living in L.A., we shoot in L.A., and it's just a completely different experience for me where I don't feel so isolated. I feel like I'm a part of my own life and a part of the show."

Getting to sleep in his own bed after a long day on set is something that Welling has never experienced before, and he couldn't be happier about it. "I'm trying to just soak this up as much as I can because at this point, it's really only for this season," he says. "I'm trying to enjoy it because it may not ever be this good again."

Lucifer showrunner Joe Henderson, meanwhile, still can't believe the DC Comics-inspired series managed to bring Welling back to the small screen.

"Tom has been on the list for a lot of years as one of the names you want to get [for casting TV roles]," Henderson says. "When we were casting this part we were like, 'Sure, let's try for Tom Welling. We're not going to get Tom Welling but let's try!' To our delight, he was in."

Henderson notes that his initial call with Welling and executive producer Ildy Modrovich to discuss the Lucifer role was unlike any other. "I talked a lot about how I had seen every episode of Smallville and knew how good of an actor he was, and I really wanted to get him outside of his box," Henderson says. "As writers just getting started, you write spec scripts for shows to prove you can write, and the first spec I ever wrote was for Smallville. That was a script I got a lot of meetings off of, so when we first talked to Tom on the phone, I started by thanking him for keeping the show on the air for 10 years because it kept my script alive for that long."

Both Henderson and Modrovich credit Welling's Lucifer character, Marcus Pierce, as being the main reason the actor agreed to join the series. "What really grabbed him is that this wasn't going to be Superman, this wasn't going to be a wholesome Clark Kent character," Modrovich says. "This is going to go darker and he's a threat to our heroes in a lot of different ways. And he thought that was great. He's not this all-American, kind, Clark Kent that he was on Smallville. He comes across as, if I may, as kind of a dick. When you first meet him, you're like, 'Wow, that guy is kind of an asshole.' Tom is so completely charming and lovable, so he's having fun with it. It's saucy."

That onscreen shift also reflects an offscreen change in Welling since Smallville went off the air. "Now he has such a different energy and he's grown into himself," he says. "I think his fans will be really surprised by what they see now. I think he wanted to flex different muscles after Smallville, and that's why our show was so appealing. We're a little bit of everything — we're a comedy, we're a drama, we're a procedural. He liked that because he can play with all these different toys."

First appearing in the Lucifer season three premiere, the highly respected and lauded police lieutenant Pierce comes into the LAPD to shake things up professionally and personally, specifically for Lucifer (Tom Ellis) and Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German).

"My character is more of a straight man role," Welling says. "He's very earnest and has a bigger agenda. That was fun because I'm playing against what Tom [Ellis] is doing. There's comedy in that. Throughout the season, you'll learn more about my character and who he is and there will be an evolution, well, actually a couple [different evolutions]. But by playing against the comedy, to me that's hilarious."

Of course, there's more to Pierce than what he first seems — and that, too, is a stark contrast to Welling's time as Clark on Smallville.

"He knows more about what's going on. Clark never really knew what was going on, he always had to figure out what was going on, that's for sure," Welling says with a laugh. "Pierce is actually pulling more strings than you even know. He looks a little different than Clark, a bit older. He's not who he seems when he comes into town. The episode I'm working on now there is a reveal of who he is and what his intentions are. He's here to throw a wrench in the wheel."

While Welling acted in a few movies during his time away from TV, it took the actor — who also executive-produced The CW's Hellcats — a moment to re-acclimate. 

"I was there, the very first take he had with Lauren," Henderson recalls. "He walks up to her and she starts blathering and he's supposed to interrupt her. We do our first take, he walks over, she starts blathering, and then she pauses and he's just looking at her."

"They call cut and Lauren is like, 'Huh, a little rusty there, Welling?'" the actor says with a laugh. "That was my first take, so it was nice to break the tension with that. After that, it broke the ice."

It was that attitude that surprised many on the Lucifer set. "He's very down-to-earth and hilarious," Modrovich says. Henderson agrees, calling Welling — who boasts an impressive Christopher Walken impression — a "goofball." And it's that sense of humor that Gough recalls the most about his time with Welling on the Smallville set. "That's not really a side you saw as much on Smallville because Clark was always very earnest, serious and saving the world, dealing with all of those villains. He was never going to be the acerbic guy who's delivering the zinger," he says. "But Tom is very funny, very sharp, so I'm hoping that's a side you'll get to see now that he's doing this new show."

Along with his sense of humor, the Lucifer showrunners were also surprised by the 6-foot-3-inch Welling's physical stature. "We had to get him a bigger motorcycle, because the motorcycle we had chosen for him looked too small on him." Adds Modrovich adds with a laugh: "Same thing as choosing a gun for him! It looked like a tiny little water gun in his hands so we had to get him a bigger gun so it wouldn't look silly."

Welling's towering height is actually what helped him get his career started almost two decades ago. Discovered at a party, Welling started out as a model for brands including Calvin Klein. That left him feeling unfulfilled, however, so when the chance to guest-star on the CBS legal drama Judging Amy came along in 2000, he jumped in with both feet. Welling played star Amy Brenneman's younger love interest Rob Meltzer for an extended stint in season two, and Brenneman recalls just how green Welling was when he stepped onto a TV set for the very first time.

"He just hadn't acted before," Brenneman says. "I thought, 'OK, he's such a beautiful young man, but we'll see.' And he just had this natural ease, which, for this show, the main thing we had to do was connect, and we did immediately. He was funny and I was amazed at his ability to stay relaxed when that big old eye of the camera is on you."

The actress recalls Welling being a "generous and complimentary" co-star.

"In the bathtub scenes, you're shot so it looks like you have nothing on from the shoulders down and I had on this battleship gray maternity bathing suit and we had to do an extra panel for my pregnancy," she recalls. "I felt really self-conscious so I grabbed these men's shorts and I looked so unsexy. And he was just like, 'Oh you look so beautiful.' He was the greatest guy of all time."

Looking back on his time with Brenneman on Judging Amy, Welling's first instinct is to laugh at his inexperience ("I really didn't know what I was doing!") but recalls the lessons he learned from his co-star with fondness. "Amy really took me under her wing," he says. "The way she treated and talked to people, when I moved onto a show where I was the lead, I knew I was going to treat people with respect and I'm going to be professional and on time. Those were all things that I saw her do."

Indeed, Gough recalls Welling's work ethic from his time on Smallville. "When you're No. 1 on the call sheet, you set the tone for the cast and on set," he recalls. "He really grew into that role. He was a young actor, his first big series, yes it's an ensemble show but he was playing Clark Kent so it all revolves around you. It ended up being a dream with that cast since it came from the top down."

As one of very few people who knew Welling before he became Clark Kent, Brenneman actually remembers the moment his life changed forever. "I'll always remember sitting on set and him talking about this audition and if he could play Clark Kent," she says. "And I told him, 'Don't get your hopes up. The business is hard.' Cut to me seeing posters [of Smallville with Welling] and I was like, 'Oh OK, or that could happen!'"

While Welling was still a relative newcomer in Hollywood, Brenneman knew early on that Welling was primed to break out. "He's a sane, hard-working, kind person, and coupled with his physical appeal, somebody was going to snap him up," she says. "We just happened to be the first one."

It wasn't long until another producer realized that, too. Smallville started its international search for a young Clark Kent, looking at actors all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, in the U.K. Gough remembers when the team was going through a stack of headshots and Welling's came up. But initially, he wouldn't come in to audition for Clark Kent because at that time, there wasn't even a pilot script written.

"In January of 2001, we finally had the script and we called him up to come into the room and read," Gough says. "At the time, this was all pre-Marvel, the last iteration of Superman was Lois & Clark, the last iteration of Batman was Batman & Robin. There were a lot of preconceived notions about what a young Superman should be, but Tom still came in and read the script. He really liked it, we talked about 'no flights, no tights,' and then he auditioned with Kristin Kreuk who we had already cast [as Clark's love interest Lana Lang]. They were really magic in the room."

Welling's inexperience at the time — along with his "ridiculously handsome" looks, according to Gough — helped bring "a real warmth and a real sincerity" to Clark.

"For Clark Kent in high school, that was exactly what we were looking for," Gough says. "When Tom came in and read, you knew it. We captured lightning in a bottle because not only was he great, but he looked like Clark Kent. With DC Comics, there was a 'likeness clause.' The actor we cast had to look like Clark Kent. We couldn't cast a long-haired blonde guy. The unicorn had to walk in. Tom for us was that unicorn."

When Welling finally accepted the role, which came down to him and Supernatural star Jensen Ackles, he felt as nervous as he had when he first stepped onto the Judging Amy set. But those nerves actually helped him get into character.

"The good thing about what I did on Smallville was I played a character who had no idea what he was doing at the beginning," he says. "In many ways, myself as an actor, I didn't have much experience. Over the course of 10 years, Clark got to know himself better, he got to know what he was capable of, understood his purpose, and I did too. I grew a lot. That was the perfect role for me."

In that time on Smallville Welling grew up personally and professionally. Gough helped guide him along that journey by creating an environment where all the young stars were allowed to do their best work.

"We created this combination of structure and freedom where they were all allowed to flourish," Gough says. "And we tried to cast in the older roles, the parents, John Schneider, Annette O'Toole, John Glover, we tried to really surround them with pros who they could also learn from. That's the best acting school you could have."

And then in season four, Gough pushed Welling to take on a new role: director. "He was nervous about it," Gough remembers, but Welling eventually moved behind the camera to direct in season five.

"When I stepped onto the set of Smallville for the first time, I was not thinking about directing or producing," Welling says with a laugh. "I was just trying to hit my mark and not screw up too bad. Over the years, I saw what directors were doing and how they could affect the set, and I thought it was like another language I could learn. The same way went with producing. I just wanted to learn everything I could while I was there."

Welling considers his years on Smallville as his college and grad school as far as the industry goes. "I got to learn on-the-job training for 10 years," he says. "As I go forward, I definitely want to develop shows with Warner Bros. and I want to direct and continue to produce. I love telling stories and creating opportunities that allow other people to follow their craft as well. Becoming an executive producer on Smallville and directing episodes, I saw more of my potential and where I could take the tools I'm learning and how to apply them."

It's a role that comes naturally to him. Gough remembers being on set in Vancouver when Smallville first introduced Supergirl (Laura Vandervoort) on the show.

"I remember watching the scenes, and every time I'd see something and I would want to go and give her a note, I'd literally hear Tom on the mic giving her that note in a very nice, warm, constructive way," Gough says. "I looked at James Marshall who was our producer/director and I go, 'You know who the best director on the set is right now? It’s Tom and we should just leave.'"

In the six years since Smallville wrapped, Gough made sure to keep in touch with Welling. Through emails and lunches to catch up, Gough kept reminding Welling that he belonged on TV.

"I have always encouraged him to come back and do television, preferably something we could do together again," he says with a laugh. "He's really one of the good guys in this business. I'm super excited he's back doing television. I've told him before, 'You have many hit shows in your future once you decide to make the return.' I think he's a total TV star."

But Gough understood why Welling had to take a step back for a while. "His first big role was an iconic role and went on for 10 years," he says. "As Christopher Reeve used to call it, 'You need to escape the cape.'"

Welling notes that there was never any doubt in his mind that he'd eventually return to television. What certainly helped pave the way was just how much the industry has changed since Smallville wrapped.

"There are so many cool things going on on TV right now, whether it's cable or broadcast. There is so much opportunity to be a part of really great shows," he says. "In the back of my mind maybe I always knew I'd be working again in this medium. I remember, during my 10 years on Smallville, noticing that there was more of sense of TV vs. film, whether you were a TV actor or a movie actor. Ten years later, that went away. Now with the way people access content on their phones, on their iPads and computers, people don't really care as long as they get to see you. Fans don't really compare TV vs. film as much as they used to."

And that's allowing Welling to have the most fun he's ever had in his career on Lucifer. He stops mid-thought to laugh as his co-star German passes by him on set.

"She just drove by listening to the X-Files on a Bluetooth speaker on a bike with a huge flag and bedazzled things all over it," he says. "Everybody on the cast, except for me, they all have these bicycles they ride around on set. It's hilarious."

So is he going to join in on the fun and get a bike of his own? "You know, I think it's a character choice," he says. "Everybody has them, so I'm not going to get one. Pierce wouldn't do that, he'd do his own thing. So I will too."

Lucifer season three premieres Monday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. on Fox.