'Watchmen' Unmasks a Central Mystery: Who Is Hooded Justice?

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the actor behind the mask: "It was an amazing but unexpected experience."
Mark Hill/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode six of HBO's Watchmen, "This Extraordinary Being," as well as the comic books from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on which the show is based.]

"I really don't know why he wanted to cast me."

That's how Jovan Adepo (Fences, The Leftovers) felt about playing a young Will Reeves, a New York City police officer in the 1930s who eventually adopts a different crime-fighting style and moniker: Hooded Justice, the first ever superhero in the Watchmen universe. Hailing directly from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic books but never identified in the source material, Hooded Justice sees his mask come off in the sixth hour of Damon Lindelof's HBO series — and, as many fans expected, he and Louis Gossett Jr.'s Will are indeed one and the same. What's more, that means Regina King's Angela Abar is descended from the first recorded superhero in the Watchmen universe, making her eventual transformation into Sister Knight all the more powerful.

As young Will, Adepo carries the vast majority of the sixth episode of Watchmen, which features Angela tripping on a drug called "Nostalgia," living through her grandfather's memories. As a result, she watches Will's harrowing reasons for becoming Hooded Justice, fighting racism within his own police department, uncovering a vast and insidious conspiracy of racist criminals known as "Cyclops," and eventually his most recent act of violence: killing Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) by effectively hypnotizing him into hanging himself.

Listen to more about the episode in the Series Regular: Watchmen podcast:

Adepo may not entirely understand why he was cast, but his established history with both Lindelof and King may provide an answer. Adepo starred as Michael Murphy on two seasons of Lindelof's The Leftovers, the religious son of Regina King's Erica Murphy. The familial connection on that drama became a real-life friendship between Adepo and King and eventually led to these new fictional family ties.

Ahead, Adepo speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about becoming Hooded Justice, his first contact with Lindelof about the role, working with King once again, and much more — and yes, that includes his take on the open-ended Leftovers series finale. (If you have not watched The Leftovers yet, you are advised to steer clear of the end of this conversation.)

It's great seeing you hop back into the ring with both Damon and Regina after working with them on The Leftovers, and now reuniting with a completely different project. How did it come together?

It was an amazing but unexpected experience, even just getting the call from Damon. I remember I had just finished doing an independent movie in Nashville. I had just gotten back to Los Angeles and I was in the gym, and Damon called me, or he texted me at first and he was like, "Hey man, what's going on?" And he's really good with keeping in touch with everybody he works with, all of his actors, so I didn't really think much of it. I was like, "Hey man, what's up? What's going on? Long time no see." And he was like, "I'm just letting you know, man, I'm thinking about you for something, and I'm going to call you in like an hour." And I was like, "Holy shit, what is this?" I'm wondering what it was going to be. And we got on the phone an hour later, and I'm just leaving the gym and he's telling me the spine. And I knew he was doing Watchman at that time, but I didn't know what he was going to want from me, if I was going to play somebody's cousin or whoever the hell. I didn't know. And he was telling me that he wanted me to, the way he worded it, was to play the very first crime fighter in American history. And I was like, how does that work? Because the only thing that I had known about Watchmen was the Zack Snyder movie. I wasn't too familiar with the graphic novel. 

I'm so grateful that I worked with him before, because I think he felt it was important that I know everything. In most cases, if you're dealing with actors doing a guest arc, they give you just enough so that you can do your scenes and leave. But he told me the entire arc up until that moment: episodes one through six. It was necessary to know. He was telling me how they were trying to base the series around the Tulsa riots and how they're kind of playing in this world where police have to cover their faces for their own safety and the safety of their families and all that. That's how we kind of jumped into what he wanted me to do for the episode.

The episode reveals Will Reeves and Hooded Justice are one in the same. How did he explain to you what he envisioned for your work as this character?

The way he expressed it was that he wanted to do something that was very reminiscent of the story of Superman. And the first thing that he related to me, even before really getting into the history of the Watchmen and the Minutemen, was that he was telling the story of the young boy. You know Will's story as he's leaving Tulsa and as his father sends him out of the city and he writes on the back of the card: "Watch over this boy." And what he said for me to understand that was that this was supposed to kind of parallel Superman's father putting Kal-El into the space shuttle and sending him to Earth. That's the vision that he was basing it off of. Immediately, I was hooked. I'm a DC fan. I was like, "Hell yeah."

That's even the name of one of the tracks associated with Will: "Orphans of Krypton."

That is the name. That is the name of one of the songs, "Orphans of Krypton," and that is referring to myself and to the young baby that is with me who ends up being June. We are the orphans of Krypton, which plays beautifully. And I'm a huge fan of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' music, as well. [Lindelof] was describing that kind of parallel just for surface value. And then he told me how Will's journey takes him into New York. He joins law enforcement; he was one of the first black police officers in New York outside of Sam Battle. And he's living in this world where he's trying to be an upstanding citizen of New York, but he's having the normal issues of any black person in the early 1900s, dealing with racism and bigotry and things of that sort but still trying to do his best to be true to the law. And that's something that was a staple in his life, even early on. That's when you get into the story of him and maybe, I don't call it his obsession, but his deep admiration for Bass Reeves, the black marshal of Oklahoma. So he literally went into all of that, and I was trying to take in all of this information while trying to contain my excitement of like, "Oh my God, I'm going to play like a DC character. This is amazing!"

In the run-up to Watchmen, there were stories about how Lindelof rarely works with the same actor twice, part of the reason why it was so exciting to see him team up with Regina King again after The Leftovers — and now, another reunion. Did he explain why he wanted you for this part?

I really didn't know why he wanted to cast me. There's nothing, in my opinion, that I saw in Michael Murphy that I felt Damon must have seen to think: "I need to get Jovan to play Will." I'm sure that he will have his reasons. I try not to ask too many questions of Damon. I kind of just trust him. This was a valid question that I asked him when he hired me for The Leftovers, because that was my first job. That was the job that I was able to quit waiting tables off of, with The Leftovers. I asked him when I got to Austin: "Why me?" And he was like, "What do you want me to tell you? If there's something that I can tell you that will make you stop wondering that. I saw something in you that you did in your read, and I just trust you with the character." And I was like, "Okay." And from then on we shot it. So when this came about, he told me that it was something that he really felt I could do. I don't even know how to describe it, man. It was just the best feeling in the world, because he didn't ask me to audition or anything like that. He was just like, "Will you do it? Because I feel like you are the best person for the job." And I was just really flattered to do it. 

This episode answers a big question about Will Reeves, it answers a big question from the Watchmen mythology about Hooded Justice, and it also expresses so much of the show's thematic ideas about power and racism in America. What was your experience in exploring the subject matter? 

More than anything, I felt that it was a safe place to explore that reality. It was obviously one that has existed. I don't know to the extent of "Cyclops" in the actual world, but the elements of racism and bigotry are definitely a part of our American history, and not ones that are easily hidden. So I think us going into this project, understanding the weight of the material, especially ... and it really started with the director, Stephen Williams, and Cord Jefferson, who wrote the episode, it really started with them. They're fantastic, and they really set the tone for the type of responsibility that we had to tell the story and tell it in a way that wasn't going to try to graze over anything or circle anything. They really set the tone for how deep we were willing to go. 

We sat in Stephen's office, and this is after they show you the storyboards and the costumes and all that. He's like, okay, you've seen all the great stuff. Let's talk about stories. Let's talk about the setting that we're in. This is the 1930s. You're looking at a young man in Will who is basically stuck between a rock and a hard place in that he wants to do the right thing. He wants to be good at his job. You know how he feels about his morals, he has a very strong moral compass. But he's not able to be this standout police officer in the force because he would stick out like a sore thumb even more than he already is, being a black man, and being one of the few black men in the force. 

So I think he's kind of having to accept he's skating through his job instead of really being a top gun kind of guy, busting heads. I think he kind of gets that first awakening when he arrests [the character played by] Glen Fisher. He gets that first sight of: "Hey, you're doing your job, but try doing it less effectively. You're making too much noise around you." He's just somebody who's grown up respecting the law, and then becoming an enforcer of it, it can be hard to find out that that job isn't what you've always believed it was.

Which leads to Will's transformation as Hooded Justice, costume and all — including the face paint he wears, a second mask of sorts.

Nothing in this career or in this industry is ever guaranteed, but I definitely can say that more than anything I always try to find characters that are really interesting to play. And they're always going through some sort of turmoil. I feel like conflict and turmoil is just what makes good narratives or strong narratives. So when dealing with Will, I really wanted to try to understand everything in him. Everything that makes Will who he is. And so it was a hard pill for me to swallow that he was putting on more masks than the obvious one. You would think if you're coming past two people who are being mugged or raped or whatever the case may be, and you save them, you're a hero. And I guess it was just that revelation that June [Danielle Deadwyler] was saying: that, even as a hero, society will not accept you purely off of the fact that you are not the same color as them. So because of that, not only do you have to wear a mask, but you have to wear makeup under the mask, because people cannot know that you are a black man parading around with these antics. It'd be okay for you to do that if you were a white man, they wouldn't mind. But the fact that you are a black man in America, putting on makeup and running around at night with the pajamas on, that's going to be an issue. 

It kind of comes back around when he meets Captain Metropolis and he does that first press release. And even before the press release, when they're in bed together and he's like, you're going to always have to keep this mask on, because even your partners, your fellow Minutemen, will not be tolerant of the fact that you are a black man. So he can't seem to escape that prejudice in his daily life at work or in his adventure tactics or antics at night. He just can't get away from the fact that he is not allowed to be who he is. And it goes even deeper than that when you're talking about his sexuality. Imagine all of these layers that you have to put on every day. And there's no way of escaping it, at least not that Will is readily able to see. He's just constantly having to live behind these masks. And I think over the years, that's going to take a toll on you, even more so than it's been already. 

Taking all of that on and trying to understand a person whose lifestyle, whether it be their sexuality or their career or whatever, trying to understand someone's lifestyle that's different than mine, it was incredibly intimidating, but it was something that I was really, really dedicated to understanding. There are people who live like this every day. They put on this image that they feel is the best way that they can go about being accepted and not judged. And then they come home and they strip away all of this, and I feel like they just go home and they just pray for that day when they can finally be themselves. And some people never get to become that. So it was just interesting, and it was truly an honor to be able to play someone, or try to play someone, to the best of my ability, who is just living in skin that they feel is not theirs.

There's a dreamlike quality to the episode, since we're experiencing Will's life through Angela tripping through her grandfather's memories. A tricky thing to navigate, I'm sure, but was it easier to find that balance of reality since you knew Regina so well?

Of course, and that made it all the sweeter when it was time to film. Because when Damon first cast me, when we first agreed that I would join in this episode, I didn't tell anybody. I wasn't allowed to. But the first person who called me outside of Damon was Ms. Regina King. She was working on another episode and she had just wrapped up; she was on her way to the makeup trailer. And the makeup department is the same department that I worked with on Fences. So it was a huge family reunion, twice over. They found out that I had gotten cast and she comes in and she's like, "Who's playing young Will?" And they were like, "Oh, your son." And she was like, "What are you talking about?" Because her son is not an actor, her son is a musician. (Laughs) And they were like, "No, your son from Leftovers." And she immediately called me and was like, "Jovan, you're going to be playing Will!" And it almost brought me to tears, because Regina and I spend a lot of time together while we're both off in L.A. anyways. We hang out a lot. She's good people. She's good family. She's really close to my heart. So getting to work with her, it was just ... she was like, "When you get here, let's have dinner. Let's work this out."

What's more, the DP of that episode is the same DP we had in Leftovers. Basically the whole crew was from The Leftovers. So when we came in, we knew that it was going to be a lot of rehearsal and a lot of planning to be able to execute me getting out of the chair quietly and slipping Regina in without changing the lighting and everything. It was just a lot of long takes and a lot of rehearsals. But because she and I have such a strong rapport, we were ready for it. And whenever there was something that I was doing that didn't feel right, like, say, because she was tasked with the responsibility of matching my mannerisms, we would have a conversation of how young Will would move. Older Will, Lou Gossett, is in a wheelchair. So I was able to figure out what my strut was going to be, what my walk is, what I do with my hands. And I wanted to lead my walk with my chest, kind of poking it out and always having my hands at the ready, by my sides. Not clenched, but kind of like a loosely balled fist. I wanted Will to feel like he was never able to relax.

There's a lot of obvious tension in his physicality, you can tell.

Yes. It's ongoing. It never leaves his body, ever. Unless he's with June or he's at home in a place where he can lock the door when he's home. When he's walking, he's always like, I'm never safe. And so even with that, Regina mimics that, and that was a conversation we had. So if it was something that didn't feel honest, we would talk about it. And then I'd switch it up and then she and I would try to practice. And we were in her apartment practicing the walk, trying to match each other. The way I held my hands whenever I got upset with June in conversation, and I would kind of put my hand on my face or whatever, she would mimic it. That was a conversation that we had. And I'm not sure that I would have been able to be as open with expressing what I liked and didn't like about mannerisms and things like that with anybody else but Regina. So I feel really lucky that I was able to come to this show and do it with somebody that I had already spent two years on a TV show with.

Did you speak with Lou Gossett Jr. about the character at all, or study his performance?

I wasn't able to see all the work that he was doing in the show specifically. But I feel like any young actor, or any young actor that's doing what you should be doing, is familiar with Mr Gossett's work. And so I didn't really want to mimic him as a person. I guess maybe that's something that I should have asked the producers, if I could have actually seen some of the scenes, but I'm not sure. I know that the producers loved me, but I don't know if they were going to love me that much to let me see stuff that wasn't finished being cut yet. (Laughs) I didn't want to assume! But I tried to take as much as I could from him. They had a lot of his pictures in the makeup trailer, and I tried to assume the stature that he had. And then I also asked Regina. And I asked Damon how he presents himself, and I was hoping that what I could do was kind of set the tone of how he was as a child, and then the formative years that I was playing, the early twenties into the late thirties, and then hope that the natural journey that he had from late thirties up until where we meet him, he's kind of slowed his speech a little bit, he's kind of just taking his time more with certain things. But he still retained the core essence of Hooded Justice, which I feel like he did. When I saw the cut, I think I got really lucky that I wasn't playing this high-pitched voice guy who spoke quickly and just something that was vastly different from Lou. I think I got really lucky that I stayed in a neutral space that could still naturally be what it ended up being.

Last one: Did Nora Durst go through the machine, or was she lying?

Oh my god. This is going [on the website]. It's a quote.

Listen, who knows when I'll get another chance to ask?

I want to say that she did. I think she went through the machine. I want to believe. I'm a believer in the grand scheme of things. That's what I'm going to say, and I'm going to leave it there. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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