Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of HBO’s “Watchmen.”
Jean Smart knew nothing about “Watchmen,” the groundbreaking comic book saga about a ragged band of costumed superheroes, when she was approached about joining the cast of HBO’s reboot of the popular franchise.
But the more Smart learned about the cynical, no-nonsense FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake, who brings a dose of hardened reality to the fantastic “Watchmen” world, the more she was intrigued. “I thought, ‘I have to play this woman,’” she recalled.
Still, Smart was compelled to ask “Watchmen” creator Damon Lindelof about one eyebrow-raising moment in a hotel room, in which Blake opens a silver case and removes a large, shiny cylindrical object.
“I said to Damon, ‘OK, we have to talk about the blue elephant in the room,’” Smart said with a loud laugh.
Viewers watching the third installment of “Watchmen” may also raise their eyebrows during the brief scene, musing, “Is that what I think it is?” The revelation that Blake is the former wife of Dr. Manhattan, the genetically transformed, blue-skinned nuclear physicist who resides on another planet, provides a clue. Future episodes will reveal more about Blake’s past and her connection with characters from the original “Watchmen.”
“When he said, ‘Don’t worry,’ I just said, ‘OK,’ ” she said, continuing to laugh while calling in from Philadelphia, where she is filming an HBO limited series,"Mare of Easttown,” with Kate Winslet.
Smart’s Agent Blake is the latest offbeat role for the veteran actress, who came to TV prominence on the ‘80s comedy “Designing Women” and has since scored Emmy awards and nominations for her portrayals of a diverse gallery of comic or tragicomic characters, including Frasier Crane’s love interest on “Frasier”; First Lady Martha Logan on “24"; and Samantha Newly’s overbearing mother-in-law in the Christina Applegate comedy “Samantha Who?”
During the past few years, Smart has taken on darker roles in attention-grabbing dramas, including Floyd Gerhardt, the cold-blooded matriarch of a crime family, in Season 2 of “Fargo,” and psychiatric therapist Melanie Bird in “Legion.”
But she is particularly excited about her involvement in “Watchmen,” in which Blake and her mission to arrest costumed, crime-fighting vigilantes will face off against Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night (Regina King), as they investigate the murder of police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). The series merges the alternate reality of “Watchmen” with a plot referencing the Tulsa, Okla., riot of 1921, in which white terrorists destroyed a prosperous African American community.
Only three episodes in, I feel viewers are still figuring out the world of “Watchmen,” and then Agent Blake arrives, bringing this grounded reality.
I hope it just adds to the fun. [Laughs.] She brings a more grounded presence to the story. At first it seems a little more realistic, then we find out who she is, and it’s fun to see how she figures into the world.
How did you get involved?
Damon called me. I didn’t know anything about the “Watchmen” world. One of the producers gave me a crash course in “Watchmen” history. One of the writers and I went out for dinner and drinks, and we went over Laurie’s relationships and the backstory. It was a great time.
Did you watch the movie?
They told us not to watch the movie. They didn’t feel it would be helpful for Damon’s take on it, and I didn’t have time to read the graphic novel before we started filming. I started making my way through it once we started shooting. It’s a lot to take in. It’s amazingly rich and complicated.
What was it about the role that made you say, “I have to play her”?
First of all, it’s Damon Lindelof, so you know you’ll be part of something that will be interesting and beautifully done. But I also loved her attitude, her sense of humor, her intelligence. She uses her humor and her brains as a way to keep people at arm’s length. There’s so much going on, and she doesn’t let anyone in.
You have so many moments where it looks like you were having fun — the line where you say to Regina, “I eat good guys for breakfast,” and another where you’re using the shiny mask worn by Looking Glass [Tim Blake Nelson] as a mirror to pick your teeth.
It was great. Regina is so enormously talented and so kind. And it’s a scene that when it ends, it’s not remotely the way the audience thinks it’s going to end. Laurie thinks she’s got Angela buffaloed, and then Angela comes back and basically cuts her legs from under her. That doesn’t happen to Laurie very often, and she realizes at that point that this investigation is going to be a lot harder than she thought. It’s going to be a very fun relationship to watch.
So, not to be indelicate, but what’s with what you call “the blue elephant in the room”?
I think people either have to get it right away or they don’t. It’s sort of a little wink. But it’s also sad. Here’s this person who thinks she’s in control — she intimidates people — and yet she’s actually a sad person living a very lonely existence. She’s pining for someone who’s been living on another planet for 30 years. What does that say about her?
What can you tell us about what Agent Blake will experience during the season?
She comes to Tulsa thinking she’s there to solve a murder, and it’s going to be “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.” She can quickly go back home. But it’s not remotely like that. What happens is almost as mind-boggling for her as it is for the audience, and her relationship with Angela goes through all sorts of ups and downs. And the ending is indescribable. It’s not going to be anything like anyone is expecting.
What do you feel about how the series blends its fantastical foundation with hot-button topics like race?
It’s such a testament to Damon, and it’s brilliant. When he does something, he goes all out and goes for broke. As much as he was concerned about how the show would be received by “Watchmen” fans and [Alan Moore, the original writer of “Watchmen”]. He just went for it. He swung for the fences and it paid off better than he could have imagined.
It’s clear from looking at your career over the years that there is no typical “Jean Smart role.”
Actors become actors because we don’t want to do the same thing all the time. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, for whatever reason. For better and worse, I have not been typecast, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve always been kind of a late bloomer, but I feel extraordinarily fortunate. Who would have thought I’d be playing a badass FBI agent at this stage of the game?
Your performance in “Fargo” was also memorable.
That was definitely one of the highlights. It was an extraordinary experience in every possible way, as “Watchmen” is. Those two are at the top of my all-time favorite jobs.
And you appeared in “Legion,” another comic book project.
I know! What’s up with that? Noah Hawley is like Damon. Where he’s involved, sign me up.
What do you think of the debate going on now about whether comic book movies are real cinema?
The bottom line is, if a story is a good story with interesting characters, I don’t understand why the world it’s set in should make a difference. I also don’t put “Watchmen” in the category of those other projects.
Do you ever see a time when you think you might slow down?
People are always going to need people who are older. I want to be Betty White [laughs]. I’ve been doing a lot of projects leaning toward the dark side. If I could get a brilliantly, screamingly funny sitcom so I could stay in town and not fly home every weekend, that would be great.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)