“Watch over this boy.” These are the words that accompanied a young child, Will Reeves, who escaped the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, as reimagined in the pilot for Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. And the now 105-year-old Will Reeves, played by Louis Gossett Jr., still carries the trauma from that event (and others), even as he resettled in Tulsa. Now in its back half, Watchmen season one has slowly pieced together Will’s history, digging into his connection to his hometown and characters like Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked cops in modern-day Tulsa trying to keep white supremacists in Rorschach masks at bay.
As Will, Gossett Jr. has met each new discovery with a mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and a palpable sense of pride. He may have had to flee a Tulsa besieged by racists, but it’s clear that he’s done running. Watchmen has already uncovered plenty of secrets, but tonight’s episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” features the lengthiest (and most mind-bending) trip to the past. To prepare, The A.V. Club spoke to Gossett Jr. about reckoning with the past, the way Watchmen tackles whitewashing in history, and why he’d work with Regina King under just about any conditions.
The A.V. Club: You’ve obviously played a range of characters in your decades-long career, but what’s it like to play someone with such a mysterious background? How do you approach hinting at these big developments while keeping them hidden?
Louis Gossett Jr.: Well, I have to connect the dots, because that brilliant brain of Damon’s [Lindelof], I couldn’t hang on to a lot of the stuff. I actually made the decision to read the story, then put it aside, and focus on what my contribution would be—what I could add to the character. I became connected to the most successful marshal in the West, Bass Reeves [The first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River—Ed.]. I grew up on the different elements of that character and then created this thing, this person. I don’t think they even realized that it would fit. I didn’t realize it would fit! I just did the best I could, and it turns out that my contribution to the story lent to the mysteriousness of it. It was a wonderful challenge to be involved with a character that kept my attention 24/7. I like to stretch like that.
AVC: You mention the connection you felt to Bass Reeves. Did you grow up with stories about him?
LG: Yes. He was the most successful marshal in the West. I’m very familiar with his story. A lot of the cowboys were based on Bass Reeves’ adventures, including all kinds of the marshals. Wyatt Earp was second to Bass Reeves, but there’s other characters that Bass Reeves made famous. Events from his life were taken and used to create other Western heroes. Because he was a legend—he never lost a man except for one guy he didn’t catch. And that was probably his son. But he had the most successful career in the history of all the Western stories.
AVC: He was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, correct?
LG: Yes, he was. So our producer was very clever, but there’s even more to the story. So I added to that and it was a lot of fun to play that character, and it did work. So I’m very glad.
AVC: Just how secretive was the production? Because with some of these superhero-related projects, they try to keep people in the dark by only giving out partial scripts. Were there things that you guys were not allowed to disclose to each other?
LG: We did get full scripts, but I made a choice not to know about some things that I’m not supposed to know about in the first place. So I had to make choices of taking the full story. I read it once. A lot of [scripts] I understood; some I did not. And I moved them to the side to put my contribution in there for what it was worth. And it fit.
AVC: It’s funny, because your approach seems to be very much on the opposite end of the spectrum from the people who are watching the show. These days, everybody’s going straight online to theorize. Are there people in your life who are asking you to give them secrets about the show?
LG: Not yet, but they will. But I haven’t made myself available for it yet, ‘cause I’m busy getting ready and doing other things. But they like it. That’s what matters, is that they like the story and they’re riveted to find out more.
AVC: What’s it like being on this kind of journey, where you’re learning more about a character and their world every week, with someone like Regina King?
LG: Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to be stretched like that. The goal is to take all that information and make it as simple as possible. So much of it is internal, and it works better than I ever expected it to work. [Laughs.] I didn’t know it had worked until I saw [the show].
I love that girl. I love Regina to death. She’s only just begun. We could read the telephone book together, I wouldn’t mind. [Laughs.] She’s the best. I gave her some little hints, and she bit the hook. Then she came back to me and I bit the hooks. So we made a little magic together, and I sometimes feel like maybe in some other lifetime we were relatives anyway. But it was a pleasure to play all the little secrets and all stuff. And I got her attention, I got her curiosity. That makes for a full relationship on camera. It was just wonderful.
AVC: Do you have a favorite scene that you worked on together?
LG: When we’re in the bakery, and I stuck my hand in that hot water. [Laughs] I’m supposed to be eating this hard-boiled egg, but it was cold. If you know about eating cold eggs and peeling them, that stuff gets stuck in your mouth. I didn’t know what to do with the egg—a cold egg can get stuck in your throat. There wasn’t hot water, which would have made peeling it easier. There I am, showing off my superhuman abilities by putting my hands in that boiling water and peeling the eggs. It was actually cold, which made it more difficult. Eating a cold egg, that mush—it’s not good for speaking! It’s hard to get your lines out.
AVC: I want to come back to something that you mentioned about Bass Reeves, about how he inspired so many very popular characters and stories. It feels like it’s part of the show’s commentary on how Black people’s contributions in this country, have either been whitewashed, minimized, or just flat-out erased.
LG: You made a very fortunate statement by using the word “erased.” I founded an organization called Eracism. When the first explorers came to Africa, they saw that the tribes had this tribal concept, where everybody was important and everything they did was for the benefit of the whole tribe. Everyone contributed—they all had a role—and they were very successful. And the first explorers might’ve said, because they were explorers and conquerors, “but if I let this happen and flourish, we won’t be able to run this world.”
So they made a mistake out of fear, to try to eliminate and control the African culture. But it’s not just about the African culture; it has to do with mankind’s culture. So the combination of mankind, all the cultures, the best of every culture combined is what’s going to keep us floating. By changing the stories of Bass Reeves and other larger-than-life characters, or giving those stories to people they invented—that might’ve been a mistake. But now we’re correcting that mistake, as we do, in time. This story [of Watchmen] is a symbol of correcting that mistake, ’cause there’s nobody better, nobody worse than anyone else. There’s nothing but mankind. So they’re hinting on that particular stuff because we need each other definitely for our mutual salvation.
AVC: With those historical elements, it does feel of a piece with Roots, the miniseries you starred back in the ’70s. What role do you think television and film playing in uncovering things that people may be forgot?
LG: Well, it’s created a chance for people–it’s given them a choice: They can exploit or they can educate. As far as the education part, HBO has taken that up. I’m very proud to be part of that family. They’re doing a beautiful job of educating, and reminding us that here we are together on this planet, and the only way we can survive as a people is to do things together. We’re down to the basics now—we can’t do without one another, without mankind being one people, for the salvation of us all. So all those things from the past, the mistakes and the historical decisions—they’re part of our history, but today, we desperately need the best of everybody for our mutual salvation.
AVC: Speaking of a way forward, Watchmen incorporates the idea of reparations, which has actually been a part of the debates for the 2020 presidential election.
LG: Reparations is one thing, but it’s more than reparations. It’s–what’s the word I can come up with? The word is amalgamation. What’s a word I can use to put us back together once and for all? You’re a writer. You can find that word I’m talking about. [Laughs.] Maybe reconciliation?
AVC: [Laughs.] No, you’ve got it. “Amalgamation”—you’re talking about uniting people.
LG: Yes, that’s right. Because there’s no time for resentment, there’s no time for revenge. There’s no time for bad things. There’s only time for us to get together for mutual salvation; otherwise, we’re all lost. We have to work together to clear up the oceans, and make sure the food chain is there available for us all. I have a personal opinion that every child in the world has to have free medicine, free food, shelter, clothing, and education. We have to make sure every child is educated. That’s how you make the world better, not worse. So we all must be together to make that mutual decision to do that. It should be a necessary thing, and everything we do on a daily basis should be for the benefit of the whole tribe. So we have to stop this “me against you.” There’s no such thing anymore.
AVC: That’s just one of several heady themes that make up the show. What has struck you as the most provocative idea so far?
LG: The thing that fascinates me about it is how many masks we wear on a daily basis to get what we need, to behave a certain way. I think we need to drop these masks in order to get closer. I pray for the day when we can we all meet together without masks, and without agendas.
AVC: Watchmen also presents a very different way of interacting with technology; in the show, people don’t rely on it. Most of them are kind of scared of it.
LG: Yeah, technology has good and bad aspects, but as humans, we need to know that none of us are in control over anybody else. We’ve expended our ozone layer, which has created all kinds of problems. If we worked together, we could actually do something about that. We have to cooperate, because unlike a character on the show, we can’t move to another planet. [Laughs.] And even if we did, we’d probably do the same thing there, if we don’t learn the lessons.
AVC: As the season goes on, the claims your character Will has made are slowly proven true. After having lived such a long life, which includes great blights in this country’s history, where is Will’s mind as we approach the end of the season? What is he thinking in terms of his future, his family, and the country’s future?
LG: I call him, in short, an agent of correction. He wants things to be correct. Especially his niece or his granddaughter, whatever she is. His family member. It was the implanted in her, that push for salvation. That will benefit them and us all.
AVC: You’ve spoken about how you and your character see the need for humanity to work together, to put aside some of the pettier things. But the show does raise questions about placing unquestioning faith in our government—that our leaders might not always be deserving of our complete trust.
LG: I think their agendas are private. Sometimes they’re controlled by finance, or by certain industries and certain corporations. None of that works anymore. We’re supposed to be the most intelligent species on the planet. We all may as well be in this big 747 airplane. It’s at 30,000 feet, it’s about to crash, and the people inside the plane are fighting over who’s going to be in first-class. The plane is crashing. What good is first class?