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[This story contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Titans season four “Lex Luthor.”]
In its season four return, HBO Max’s Titans introduces Lex Luthor, one of Superman’s greatest foes, and in the same hour kills him off.
But before he goes, in yet another unexpected twist, Lex — who is revealed to have a terminal illness — leaves Joshua Orpin’s Superboy his empire and legacy, Lexcorp. Lex’s arrival is not only surprising for the Titan, but comes at a particularly interesting time after Superman fails to show up for the young hero.
While Lex’s presence is short-lived, the actor who plays him Titus Welliver understands that there’s a significance to his fleeting time with Superboy — particularly in the absence of Superman — that will play a sharp role in helping shape the Titan’s season four arc.
It’s a role that Welliver came in well-prepared for. Knowledgeable of the Titans comics, the actor was specific about how his Lex would both fit into the show’s aesthetic and the villain’s well-established canon, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “it ain’t broke, so you don’t have to fix it.”
Still, from that signature beard to his Einstein-influenced wardrobe, the actor brought his own nuance to a character with a crowded history of portrayals. It resulted in, arguably, one of the most distinguishing features of Welliver’s iteration: it’s not, in fact, all about Lex.
“This was very specifically designed to be focused on the conflict for Superboy and, in many ways, much less about Lex Luthor and instead using him as the road to get to a deeper understanding of [that character],” he shares.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Welliver about portraying yet another iteration of the well-known villain, how the absence of Superman makes things more interesting narratively, how he and the team approached Lex’s look and why he asked for Jaws-inspired editing when introducing the character.
Titans villains have a very specific vibe that really sets them apart from their other iterations and confidently fits them into the aesthetic of this specific universe. With so many other Lex Luthors out there, how did you think about embodying him for the Titans series?
You can’t deviate from the source material, so the idea is to take the absolute core and the essence of who that character is and, if you can, throw some kind of personal nuance performance-wise into that character that hasn’t been seen before. I think any good actor tries to personalize something — not personalize it in the sense of their own personality but putting a little bit of their own kind of spin or mark on something. I felt that with the nature of the show being a very mature and sophisticated version of Titans. It’s certainly not the Titans of the comics that I read as a kid. These are not the “Aw, shucks,” go-go dancing Titans. They’re rough and tumble and that’s the brilliance of the show. They take this very broad genre and ground it so that when you’re watching it, you don’t feel like you’re watching camp. You feel you’re invested in the characters. That was the thing that, for me, was the most important and to bring him forward a little bit.
I think what I wanted to do is to bring some level of subtlety to that character because it would be very easy to be super broad. It’s the old sort of when you’re confronted by a person, a guy can be screaming and yelling and throwing his hands in the air and saying, “I’m going to bust you up.” That’s one version. But it’s the guy who’s very, very still, and is speaking in a calm voice — that’s the guy you have to be worried about. I thought I really wanted to bring a stillness to him. He’s really centered — not humorless because he does display. He has a sense of humor. And also to stay away from the tropes of “villain stuff,” even though that’s fun to play, there’s a time and a place and Titans is not the time or the place. Certainly not the place to do that. So that’s kind of where I came to that. It was very collaborative. And I have read the comics and everything, so I was able to speak pretty clearly about things. I had the knowledge of the canon. That was helpful to me, knowing the source material.
Lex is generally known as a powerful villain, but he’s not a villain with “superpowers.” He’s a cutting, ruthless businessman and genius, and that presents a different kind of challenge for the Titans. He’s also not starring opposite his typical foil, Superman. Can you talk about what that does for the story?
Well, here’s the thing with Lex Luthor. If you know the comic books, you know his life work has been trying to — because he doesn’t have superpowers — create things based on his massive mind, and how to combat and defeat Superman. He got hip to the kryptonite pretty early and he’s used that as a source. Over the years, he’s created clones and massive robots and destructive weapons and things to deal with Superman. I think, in this scenario, he’s dealing specifically with Superboy, so it takes on a different thing. There are no scenes with Lex Luthor and Superman at all. It’s his relationship to his son. I think that’s an interesting dynamic. He is still the same Lex Luthor, who has all of this power and this knowledge to get what he wants, but there’s also the conflict of an undeniable emotional connection he feels to Superboy. And he’s dying. He has this disease that is killing him. There’s this weird demonstration of a need to connect with Superboy and to perhaps pass on to him. He basically says Lexcorp goes to you. I got nobody else. Superboy’s response is I don’t think of you as my father. Initially, there’s a manipulation because he is Superboy but he’s also a young man. Lex is very well-versed in manipulation, so you see him touch a nerve when the meeting doesn’t end up happening with Superboy and Superman. Superboy sort of brushes it off, but Lex says, “That must have been disappointing to you.” Superboy takes the bait a little bit.
It not working out for Superman and Superboy does something interesting because it leaves Superboy with only half of who he is to help form the whole idea of who he is. How might that dynamic play out for the character and, ultimately, affect his season arc?
Really they brought Lex in to propel Superboy’s story and push him forward because the audience wants to know more about him, and how that affects him — that internal conflict of being part-Lex Luthor, part-Superman. Because [Superboy] displays at times certain behaviors that make you go, “Oh, that’s Lex.” The idea was also to have a kind of connective tissue to what the audience has seen before. Now they can put a face to it. Everybody knows Lex Luthor and they’ve been anticipating what that’s going to be and now there’s a physical embodiment of that character. That really plays in the scenes that Lex and Superboy have together. It’s an interesting thing because it’s two people who don’t know each other, and who are polarized in an odd way. But there’s an undeniable curiosity and a pull for Superboy towards Lex. I imagine that for people who have been adopted, they live a life, people love them and raise them and then they get to a certain age and they want to know about their biological parents. So I think that as a metaphor, it kind of works.I think that speaks to the writing, which is very, very smart. Having Superman not be there — it being elusive — is the nagging question for Superboy. He’s only getting to meet the darker side of himself, and I think that presents a deep conflict inside of him.
To go back to the absence of Superman here — which is something Titans has previously dealt with in terms of bigger DC characters and getting access to them — what do you think that does for Lex as a character and the show?
If you had Superman and Lex together, then it kind of falls into this trope of, do I make a choice? Good versus evil. What is the dominating energy of this combination? This is less about that and more about this kid craving a sense of understanding of Superboy’s history and who he is. It’s subtle, but I think it’s also very poignant because it absolutely goes against if a person was sitting down episodically writing something. They go, we’re going to bring Superman in and we’ll get Batman in there. Maybe we’ll slide the Joker in. But this was very specifically designed to be focused on the conflict for Superboy and, in many ways, much less about Lex Luthor, but using him as the road to get to a deeper understanding of Superboy.
You definitely have a specific look for your iteration of Lex. I’m thinking most notably of the beard, but also his costuming. Can you talk about how you and the team thought about how he would present?
Obviously, he’s got to be bald. Its like you can’t have Batman without a cape, so there was that. The idea of the beard was a little bit of a conflict because I had to keep the beard potentially for another thing that I was attached to already. But I felt that it gave him a different look. It wasn’t a grizzled Lex Luthor. He’s still pressed, he’s still very pulled together. For me the beard represented gravitas because it wasn’t a little beard, it was a big beard against the clean-shaven head. And the beard ultimately represents — because it’s a big beard — a kind of wisdom that comes with that. When you see someone who’s older, that beard represents time and commitment. It’s always been kind of symbolic to a certain degree. People with beards, they’re sage.
With the costume, my idea was that Albert Einstein was known to have multiple pairs of the same trousers, shirts and coats because he did not want to muddle himself with things that he considered to be trivial, like picking out clothing. He wasn’t concerned with that. It wasn’t his genius saying, “I’m so smart. I don’t have time to pick up my clothing.” It was something that vexxed him. So I said, I think Lex is the same. I think he has multiple black suits that he wears, multiple black shirts and ties. That’s his thing. He doesn’t think about that. When he gets up, takes a shower does his thing and goes in, and there’s no thought about it. But I wanted him to be really kind of streamlined. I wanted him to look not like he’s slovenly, of “I’ve got 10 pairs of khakis and a white shirt.”
I’m simple, but I’m pressed because, for him, it’s also all about presentation. I said, when this guy enters a room, he doesn’t move for anybody. So it was important to have that silhouette. I thought also a lot about — and I spoke with the producers about this — parallels to the character of Colonel Walter Kurtz who Marlon Brando plays in Apocalypse Now. I kept saying, hey, when there are opportunities, maybe let’s not reveal Luthor physically right away. Maybe reveal him in bits and pieces, perhaps his face has half in shadow. Make him a bit more elusive because everybody’s gonna go “Oh, Lex Luthor!” I said, let’s sort of do it like the great white shark. We didn’t see the shark in Jaws for quite a while and I liked the idea that it was just his voice or you can see his lips or his eye. That was all a really great collaboration.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Titans season four streams Thursdays on HBO Max.
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