'Watchmen' Star on How That Fiery Death Raises an Existential Question: "What Is Life?"

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with Tom Mison about that revealing stage play and how it fits within the greater themes of the Damon Lindelof drama.
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode two of HBO's Watchmen, "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship," as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel on which the show is based.]

In its second hour, HBO's Watchmen revealed several key pieces of information about its sprawling narrative, including some helpful reminders about Doctor Manhattan, the atomic demigod at the heart of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book, and very likely of great importance in the world of Damon Lindelof's sorta-sequel. Tasked with bringing Manhattan to life in the form of a half-baked stage play performance: Tom Mison, the Sleepy Hollow veteran who plays Mr. Phillips — many Mr. Phillipses, in fact.

The revelation comes in grisly form: Mr. Phillips, playing the role of Jon Osterman, steps into a chamber on the way to becoming Doctor Manhattan. As a special effect, the Lord of the Manor (Jeremy Irons) incinerates the chamber with Phillips inside. Phillips' loud, painful death precedes the arrival of a second Mr. Phillips playing the role of Doctor Manhattan, descending from high above the stage in all his blue, nude glory.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Mison is quick to point out: "I'm grateful to say my body double did that. He spent about four hours being raised and lowered, naked, completely painted blue." Mison's task was complicated enough without having to worry about physically transforming into the iconic superhero, based on the subsequent reveal that the incinerated Phillips and the blue Phillips are but two of untold amounts of other Phillipses — not to mention the various amounts of Crookshankses, played by Sara Vickers.

Mison, Vickers and Irons' work on the Lord of the Manor scenes precedes the bulk of the Atlanta-based production on Watchmen, with their story arc written and produced in Wales right at the start of the HBO drama's journey. Ahead, Mison speaks with THR about what was involved on his end to bring life to the crises of infinite Phillipses, his conversations with Lindelof about the character(s), how closely he studied the graphic novel, all things "The Watchmaker's Son," and the most surreal question he was forced to ask along the way.

Listen to the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast for more on "Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship."

Your Watchmen journey isn't quite as strange as the one your character is on — or characters, as it were — but you were removed from the larger production for the Lord of the Manor scenes. Can you describe the experience a bit, and what it's been like now that Watchmen is out in the world?

It's amazing to watch it. Of course, I was quite removed from the main thread. All of the country house stuff we shot before Damon had finished writing the script for the main thread. The episodes had been broken but not written, but he'd written all nine episodes of our stuff before, so we could drop shoot that before everything kicked off in Atlanta. So I've just loved watching what everyone else has been doing. 

My whole experience started with a two-hour conversation with Damon about comics generally, the Watchmen comics in particular, and the show as a whole. It seemed as though the tone of [my scenes] was quite similar to "Tales of the Black Freighter," which is a comic within the comic of Alan Moore's Watchmen. That for a small section of each episode, you'll flick away to a completely separate story, and hopefully it will throw everyone off guard in quite a fun way. And then gradually over the nine episodes, you'll see how our world is connected to the world of the rest of the show.

I was aware of that from the very beginning and found that quite exciting. In fact, the first script that I read, he had put in a little red herring to avoid leaks and spoilers, and the name of the play that Jeremy's character writes wasn't "The Watchmaker's Son." It was, in fact, "The Black Freighter," which is the comic within the comic. I guess that then made me think, "Oh my god, Jeremy's character has to be the guy in the comics." Oh, gosh, what's his name? 

Max Shea, the comic book writer?

Exactly. So I assumed that, oh, my god, the whole show is going to be about the writer, and the artist, and the scientists who built the squid in Watchmen, and I was immediately, much like most of the fans over the last six months, coming up with wild and horribly inaccurate theories. (Laughs) I think Damon's idea is a lot better than my one.

How much of the story did Damon lay out in your first conversation? A limited amount? The full scope?

He pretty much laid out the scope. He's so smart. Before he got any actors involved, he clearly had the whole thing mapped out. Because it's something that's so complex and has so many layers, it's so important to have a really solid captain steering the ship. So I think for any of the actors, no matter how confused we were, there was always someone we could turn to for answers of a sort. But I think the thrilling thing about Damon's writing is that every time there's an answer, it always comes with another query. You're never going to get anything straight, and I think that's what's exciting.

It became really clear to me shooting this how much Damon and the writers really love the audience. I don't think you're ever going to get tricked or tripped up by Damon with any malice. Any trickery is because there's going to be a really satisfying payoff, and I think that's such a rare thing in writers to have that love for the audience and want to keep you guessing, and probably it's why, rather than the model of dumping all episodes at once, it's brilliant to have some spread out week by week. Because he wants you to be talking between each week, and he wants to give you really satisfying answers alongside bigger questions. I think it's terrific. It's a great skill of his.

Thanks to "The Watchmaker's Son," we now know you're not just playing Mr. Phillips. You are playing many Mr. Phillipses. What are some of the challenges involved with playing someone who is a bit of a blank canvas?

Well, in many ways, it's quite tricky to be a blank canvas. Sara Vickers, who plays Crookshanks, and I would regularly have discussions about "Which one are you now?" And "How are you doing it? How are you acting in this one?" And I think we found quite a nice balance. The only character traits we have are how they interact with their master, so you'd have one who would be with him from the moment he wakes up, and bathes him, and dresses him, and feeds him until the moment he goes to sleep. Then there'd be others who might have spent the last two weeks tarring the stable roof and have never seen him before, and then suddenly maybe it's the first time they've seen him for weeks. There might be one who might say the last time he saw the master, the master beat the shit out of him, or the last time he saw the master, the master was very loving to him. It's about finding little triggers so that each of these servants are the same, but there's something slightly different about each of them.

For the first time in my career, I actually really relied on costume, working with Charlotte Walker, who was the costume designer for the Welsh side of the shoot. She would come up with really quick little triggers for each of the characters. This one is a stable boy, and then I could come up with something about the stable boy. And this one works in the kitchen, and so he probably never sees the master. And this one's such and such. Costume was really helpful for the first time in my career. So that made it even more exciting. It was a new approach that I'd never tried before.

In episode two, we see "The Watchmaker's Son," the Lord of the Manor's play, and it's a very revealing Doctor Manhattan origin story filled with callbacks to the comics. What do you remember about staging the sequence?

I think it was probably the best two days that I've ever had in my career. It was so much fun to do, especially knowing the comics so well. Being able to reenact such a seminal moment in comic book history ... and also working out what is bad acting, because we knew that Phillips and Crookshanks shouldn't be Laurence Olivier and Ellen Terry. They've never done it before, but it still needs to be completely engaging. And that was hilarious. We were just rolling about, trying to work out how to do bad acting well, as opposed to my normal approach, which is good acting badly. (Laughs) Jeremy was thrilled to be sitting out for a bit.

Did you rehearse the way you would with a stage play?

We actually did spend an afternoon on the set before we shot to rehearse just the play and the mechanics of the play, and then try and work it. It was the first time that we'd done any of the multiples of us, so for [director Nicole Kassell], that was such an amazing task to be able to do all of that in two days. So yes, we rehearsed through it a lot to get the right tone. It has to be a funny theme, and I think she's managed to achieve that. And then it was two days flat-out hard work, and really satisfying. Most of it was with hoods on our faces actually, and there were maybe five of me. There was me and four other guys, and Sara and four other girls scattered around, and then we'd shoot in one direction, and then I'd swap out with one of the other guys, and Sara would swap out with one of the other girls. And then about six months after we shot it, Sara and I flew over to Atlanta to stand in front of the green screen and do all the facial expressions for all the other guys so that [post-production] could take it out and stick it onto one of the other people. A really, really long process, but at no point was it tiresome. My wife found it absolutely hilarious when I was blown up and burned to a cinder.

How did you want to play that moment? Does Mr. Phillips walk into the chamber knowing he'll burn alive and it will please his master, or is it a complete surprise?

I saw it as being complete surprise. I think Mr. Phillips really expected to have gone through all of it, be able to take a bow, and get a big hug from the master and have won, when instead he gets his face blown off, all for Jeremy's perverse pleasure. That seems to be a good approach to all of the Phillipses, because so many of them reach a grisly end. I think, dramatically speaking, it's so much more interesting if it's a complete surprise to them, that they just think they're in Downton Abbey and they end up in Looney Tunes.

So much of your role is devoted to Phillips pleasing his master, as played by Jeremy Irons. What were some of your takeaways from working with him?

We had never met before the pilot. We'd had lots of mutual acquaintances and friends, but we went and rehearsed the first scene, the beginning of the horseshoe scene [from the pilot], and then they said, "Okay, everybody out, and we'll set up." I went back to my trailer, and a couple minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and it was Jeremy. He just came in, and sat down, and said, "All right, what do you think?" And he shared his thoughts, and I said mine, and we chatted for a long time. And then he said, "Great. Well, let's go and play." And that was such an important moment from the very beginning to know that he just wants to go and play around in this weird world. Of such a long, illustrious career, he'd never done anything like Watchmen, and so he just wanted to go and have fun with it. And it's quite nice to see an actor who's been doing it for so long still get such childish joy from it. It's nice to know that it's possible to enjoy a career 50-odd years into it. He turned 70 when we were there, so it must be about 50 years in a career, and he lives for it. He loves it and just wants to play around and throw ideas about. And that's the reason I wanted to become an actor: to go and use your imagination, and constructive pissing about, I think, is a good way to describe it. And Jeremy loves constructive pissing about as well. And that was throughout the whole thing.

The Lord of the Manor scenes are isolated from the rest of the series, even from a production standpoint. When you started reading scripts for the episodes, did you get a sense of how your story would fit within the larger Tulsa picture?

After we'd wrapped in Wales, that's when the scripts for the rest of the episodes started going out. And I think it must've been about episode four or five that I made the decision not to read any more of them. I'd shot the Lord of the Manor stuff, and I was so engrossed and loving the rest of it so much that I wanted to watch it, and I wanted to watch it and enjoy it as an audience member. So I actually stopped reading halfway through. I don't know what happens in the end. I still don't, and I can't wait to watch it. Which is so nice. That's so nice to have that for a job, because you don't often get to do that. [But] Damon was very clear from the start how it would tag onto the A-story. And actually, as we were shooting toward the end, we saw how it all literally became involved with the A-story.

You compare your scenes tonally to "Tales of the Black Freighter," which mapped onto the main story of Watchmen in ways that boast multiple interpretations — not the least of which is man's desperate attempt at survival on the backs of so many corpses, not unlike how Ozymandias "saves the world" with the attack on New York. It feels fairly resonant with your storyline as well.

It did raise some questions that we started with the very, very first time we sat around the table in London, before we went to Wales. We all sat down at a table with Stephen Williams, who is one of the excellent directors, and Jeremy and Sara and I, and we must've had a conversation for about an hour about what is life. I think, if there was a fly on the wall watching a group of actors sitting around, discussing what is fucking life? That's the absurdity of our job. Are Phillips and Crookshanks really alive, or are they not? And if they're not, what is [the Lord of the Manor] allowed to do to us? If they are, what is he allowed to do with us? I think Jeremy chain-smoked his way through most of it. It was such a stressful conversation. But not really one I'd ever imagine I'd have in my career: "What is life?"

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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