'Watchmen': Jeremy Irons' Enigmatic Role Revealed

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the actor as well as creator Damon Lindelof about bringing an iconic figure from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel to life.
Mark Hill/HBO
'Watchmen'

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode three, of HBO's Watchmen, "She Was Killed by Space Junk," as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel on which the show is based.]

After the second episode of HBO's Watchmen, in which Jeremy Irons' then-unrevealed character explored Doctor Manhattan's origin story via a stage play called "The Watchmaker's Son," series creator Damon Lindelof offered the following hint about the Lord of the Manor: "By episode two, we're not quite ready to tell you who Jeremy Irons is playing, except that he's playing exactly who you think he's playing — and while that person may be the smartest man on earth, it doesn't mean he's the best writer."

Ready or not, the reveal is officially here. The third episode finally pulled back the Irons curtain, and of course, he's playing exactly who you think he's playing: Adrian Veidt, the genius philanthropist who once operated under the masked alias "Ozymandias," chiefly responsible for the state of the Watchmen world as we know it.

The moment comes toward the end of episode three's obligatory Lord of the Manor sequence, in which he dictates a letter to a mysterious adversary known only as "The Game Warden." He signs off on the letter with the reveal of his name, with Irons purring the all-too-satisfying line delivery: "Adrian Veidt." Moments later, Veidt (presumed dead to the world at large) is seen in his private chambers, putting on his old Ozymandias costume.

"It doesn't fit him as well as it used to," Lindelof tells The Hollywood Reporter, "and that's exactly the point."

"Uniforms give you power," says Irons, weighing in on Adrian Veidt's first true Ozymandias moment of the series. "I think that's why people put them on. Masks give you even more power. It's interesting that these superheroes always wear masks and costumes; it gives them a feeling of strength and allows them to do more than if they weren't wearing them. I think it's the same with the military, a marine or a police officer. I think that's part of what Damon is exploring."

Hear more about the Adrian Veidt reveal in the latest episode of the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast:

According to Lindelof, there was never any question about bringing the original Watchmen antagonist into the fold for his HBO series: "Veidt was essential, unless he died in the interim [between the comics and the show], which would have been very sad — and we're obviously dealing with a world that believes he's dead; and he may or may not be, because who knows when or where this story is unfolding."

Several questions still abound about Veidt's existence within HBO's Watchmen, of course, including why he's living in relative isolation, surrounded by countless different Phillipses (Tom Mison) and Crookshankses (Sara Vickers). He may be an enigmatic character to Watchmen viewers who have not read or are not familiar with the source material from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, either. A quick primer: In the graphic novel, Ozymandias recognizes impending nuclear armageddon due to rapidly accelerating tensions between America and Russia. In order to thwart disaster, Veidt concocts an insane scheme, killing millions of New Yorkers with a gigantic squid monster, designed to convince the world of an imminent interdimensional invasion. (Hence the continued squid rain in HBO's Watchmen — or so we assume, at least.)

"This was my favorite character in the original Watchmen, a thousand percent," says Lindelof. "I had so many contradicting feelings to him and about him, that could only be worked out through trying to write him. He was both a philanthropist and a sociopath, apparently. I always wondered if he was asexual. He's such a good-looking guy, but he doesn't seem to be attracted to people of either gender, or even talk about things in sexual terms. His obsession with Alexander the Great was completely and utterly fascinating. But more importantly, in every single frame of the original Watchmen, this guy is in complete and total control — every single frame. What would it look like if this guy was a little bit out of control, if he was spinning out of control? I wanted to tell that story."

Enter Jeremy Irons, the Oscar, Emmy and Tony-winning actor tasked with bringing Ozymandias to life. Speaking with THR, Irons recalls his first meeting with Lindelof over lunch: "He sat there and talked for a good hour about his story while I ate. Very little of it could I comprehend. But I thought, 'This man is either insane or a genius.' There could be some overlap."

Of course, the same can be said for Irons' character; Adrian Veidt's plan to save the human race by slaughtering millions of people very much lies within that "so crazy it works" space, which very much appealed to Irons: "I thought [Veidt] was fascinating, off-the-wall, bizarre and thoroughly mesmeric to play. To play enigmas, I have always enjoyed."

For his part, Irons said he couldn't quite land on an answer regarding Lindelof as "insane or a genius," and ultimately, it didn't matter much: "He enthralled me with the ideas he had. He mystified me to a certain extent. Indeed, he had not entirely formulated everything [about the Adrian Veidt story], but his enthusiasm was such that I thought, 'Yeah, this is something I'd love to jump on board with and play my part.' I find enthusiasm a drug. I love it when I come across it."

Whatever world Veidt currently occupies, it's one he occasionally loves and loathes. There's an undeniable joy when the so-called Smartest Man in the World shoots a bison in the eye with a bow and arrow from a good distance. There's undeniable fury when the so-called Game Warden prevents Veidt from claiming said animal, due to some unknown laws between the men. Indeed, there's more joy when Veidt invents rudimentary armor for Mr. Phillips, and more fury when the armor doesn't work, leaving Veidt to vent his rage on a frozen corpse. As Phillips and Crookshanks, Mison and Vickers are tasked with playing many different characters — but as Veidt, Irons feels his work is equally loaded with layers.

"There are so many aspects to him," says the actor. "It's a bit like life, really. There are some things we love, some things we put up with, some things that annoy us. Whether we're really free or not is a question that sort of isn't answerable, but it exists. I found a deep well of enigmatic emotions and questions in him. It was very fertile for the question."

Among the greatest questions surrounding Veidt (aside from the overarching "WTF?" of it all), there's this: how does he feel about the state of the world he created, 30-odd years after the arrival of the squid? Was the cost of peace worth the millions of lives offered up in its service — was that not enough? Irons teases answers to those questions, as far as Veidt's own meditation on his history of violence. No matter the answer, he finds something universal in Veidt's actions, no matter how monstrous they seem, no matter how larger-than-life the methods.

"We do that, don't we? We go off to war, we incinerate people … we've been doing it for years," he says. "First World War, Second World War … we believe it's necessary, but I suppose there's an underlying guilt. I don't believe his feelings are all that different from anyone else who has gone off to war, whether it's Baghdad or Dresden: 'Some things have to be done,' you know? It doesn't make them right or good or wrong — it's the things that happen, and we have to live with them. I think it's the same for Mr. Veidt."

For now, the answers to those questions remain unknown to all but those who worked on Watchmen, and even those people are not entirely sure how to answer yet another major question: How will the audience respond once they see how Veidt's story connects with the greater drama unfolding in Tulsa? Irons, at least, has "absolutely no idea" how viewers will react, but he certainly knows his own reaction to the outcome.

"I was a bit surprised and delighted and satisfied," he says. "One of the great things — and you'll see it in this — is so many television series, of which we have lots, are enthralling all the way through, and then at the end, they don't really deliver."

Irons pauses for a moment, then smiles and finishes his thought like a man with inside knowledge of a vast and insidious conspiracy: "Well … let's see what happens with this."

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