Jovan Adepo (‘Watchmen’) on why ‘it was important for people to see’ Will Reeves’ backstory [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jovan Adepo dropped in to lead the sixth episode of “Watchmen,” playing the younger version of Will Reeves, and just got his first Emmy nomination for it. He is nominated in Best Limited Series/Movie Supporting Actor alongside co-stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Louis Gossett Jr.

Adepo spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about the relevance of his episode of “Watchmen,” the behind the scenes process of filming it and why his experience on “Fences” will always stick with him. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: It was funny, I was reading an article the other day. I remember reading one from Backstage where Damon Lindelof was talking about, “I broke my one casting rule for ‘Watchmen’ to never work with anyone again and I did it for Regina King,” but he was mistaken because he did it twice in this one show. Because the both of you worked on “The Leftovers” with him and now you’re back. He normally does not repeat actors that often. So were you ever expecting to get a call to work with Damon ever again? 

Jovan Adepo: No, not at all. And the thing is, Damon checks in with his actors. Most of the actors that he worked with, they become friends, I assume, but checks in with me all the time. So it wasn’t a weird thing to hear from him. Like, he would occasionally text just to see how I’m doing and if I’m up to anything fun or anything like that. So when I heard from him, I remember it must have been in January of last year and I was just in the gym and he sent me a text message like, “Hey, Jovan how’s everything?” And I was like, “Cool D, everything’s good.” And then when he told me exactly the reason for him messaging me, then I was completely blown away and kind of just in disbelief, like you said, because he’s not known to work with actors again. So I was pretty surprised, to answer your question.

GD: Your character in this is great because you play the younger version of Will Reeves and he survives the Tulsa race massacre and there was this huge thing that happened online when this episode was released where I think this event has sadly been so ignored and covered up by history in our country that it’s not one that a lot of people actually know about. I know people who were like, “Is this part of ‘Watchmen’s’ alternate universe kind of thing?” So I know you weren’t in the episode that depicted that event, but it obviously haunts him. So what kind of research was important for you when you went into this project? 

JA: So I had already been aware of the Tulsa massacre just because when I went to school, I was a political science and history and government major. So I kind of already had this, I would say, just a general knowledge of that event in history. So as far as preparing for the episode, I was really fortunate that Damon and the writers had really gone out of their way to make sure that I had all of the materials and not even just about that particular moment in history, but also just the kind of universe that they were building for the show. Just because, as you know, I was coming into the sixth episode and it was just kind of a one-off. So I think I was just really lucky that all of the questions that I had about Will and his, I guess, evolution into Hooded Justice as well as all of the characters that he’d be in contact with, I was lucky that Damon provided all of the backstory and filled me in on what happened to Will up until that moment where the first episode starts. 

GD: And we should talk about Hooded Justice, because the huge reveal is one of the biggest reveals in the whole series, is that Will turns into Hooded Justice and what I loved about it, because I loved the original comic book, and it’s sort of like Hooded Justice is suddenly, we find out in this, contrary to popular belief, a Black gay man and it does that in a way where it doesn’t retcon anything from the comics. So I’m curious just what was your reaction when you first found out that you were going to get to do that origin story? 

JA: I didn’t know what to say because I had seen the film that I thought was great by Zack Snyder so I knew vaguely of who Hooded Justice was, but I didn’t know his name and everything like that. I just remember seeing a photo from the original graphic novel and just being like, “Oh, I remember seeing the live-action version of that in the film.” But I didn’t know anything about his backstory other than that his identity was unknown to a majority of the people, if not everyone in that universe. So when Damon told me that he was deciding to make this character Black and what it meant for him to be the first vigilante in racist America, I thought it was something that was incredibly amazing and it was definitely an opportunity that I feel even to this day, that I was really blessed to be a part of. 

GD: I’m curious because a lot of the themes of this show is kind of about wearing a mask and he can’t be himself in a lot of ways, equally in that time in America. So do you think it’s kind of easier for him to be Hooded Justice than it is for him to be Will Reeves in some sense? 

JA: I think you could look at it that way. I mean, it’s kind of like a double-edged sword because he has the luxury of hiding his identity behind… I don’t want to say luxury. I guess he just has the ability to hide himself behind the mask but at the same time, it’s kind of like with anybody, if they’re pretending to be someone that they’re not, they’re always going to have that yearning to be able to show people who they really are because who wants to spend their whole lives hiding behind what people think they are as opposed to getting to be your natural self? I think he had a duty once he decided to pick up the mantle as Hooded Justice to put the makeup on and put the mask on. But if you’re asking if in my opinion, if Will wanted to, I think if he had the choice to pick, he would love to be just Will Reeves, the complete Will Reeves, and that means being comfortable in his color, being comfortable in his sexuality and just who he has become since he was born.

GD: Yeah, you see him try to do that so hard because he tries not to wear a mask. He tries to be a good citizen, join the police force. But there’s racists in the police force and he tries to explore his sexuality but the lover or boyfriend he finds kind of uses him and demeans him, in a way. So I’m wondering, what does that do for him as a superhero? What does that turn Hooded Justice into as an outlet for him? 

JA: Well, I think before you talk about what it turns them into as a superhero, I think you have to look at what it does to him as a person. If it’s about how he just has done his best to escape the harsh reality of the circumstances he’s living in, like you said, he tried to put on the mask and fight crime in hopes of providing justice because he truly believed initially that he could do that with a badge, and when he found out he couldn’t, it was like this harsh reality that he had to kind of embrace and when it comes to exploring his sexuality, I think perhaps he looked at Nelson as someone who was finally able to understand what he was going through. But then again, as you see in the episode, we found out that he doesn’t because even though he’s more than happy to spend his private time with his lover, when they’re out in public, he has to hide his body, and Nelson is who gave him the idea that nobody’s ever allowed to know who you are other than what you represent with that mask. That’s heartbreaking to Will. I guess it’s a natural segue into your original question is that having all of these different instances of the episode kind of playing and weighing in on Will, I think that just naturally feeds into his aggression, which, as you see, is something he’s battled with his entire life. 

GD: And from a technical standpoint, this episode is very highly stylized. It’s kind of like a dream sequence almost, filmed in black and white sepia tone, directed by Stephen Williams. How did he sort of guide you through that? What was his outlook on the tone of the episode? 

JA: I remember flying into Atlanta where they filmed the entire season. I remember coming in and meeting all of the people involved in the production and I sat in Stephen’s office with Danielle Deadwyler, who plays June brilliantly, by the way. We sat in Stephen’s office and he walked us through exactly what he was trying to do with this continuous shot idea and I can tell you, as soon as he explained it, I was incredibly excited, but just kind of freaking out at the same time, because one of the main things that he emphasized would have to happen is that there was going to have to be rehearsal, for one thing, and just have to be on point with all of your blocking, because whenever you saw, I’m sure they’ve talked about it in interviews before, but whenever you saw moments where Regina and I were swapping in and out, that wasn’t really a camera trick. That was them having to move the camera slightly and me and Regina having to switch out of it and being able to switch positions. But you can’t be shaking when you get back on camera or breathing heavy or whatever. So it was like we had to do takes over and over and over again to make it right. But I think from that first day, what we understood to be preparing ourselves to do, we were all really committed to it and we knew that it was important for people to see it and for people to be drawn in because of the technicality of it. But I think once people were able to see what we were trying to do, they appreciated it. I think so.

GD: That must have made your stunt work extra hard. Did you have to learn your own stunts? Because I know that scene where he actually gets to beat up some racists and then goes through the back room and it’s one continuous shot through the back room to the front to jumping out the window, was that a similar kind of experience there? Was there any trickery at all? 

JA: Yes. But at the same time, it would not be right of me to take complete credit for all of those stunts. We had, first of all, a great stunt team. But then we also had great individual stuntmen who were able to step in whenever there was something that I couldn’t do. I know a lot of actors are like, “Yeah, I was doing all my own stunts.” Nah. They would never be able to let me do that. There were some things that I was allowed to do that I wanted to do. But we definitely had a team come in and kind of tighten up the rough edges. And there were some, for sure. 

GD: It’s so timely that we’re talking about this episode now because there was just an article that came out, the headline was, “Damon Lindelof‘s ‘Watchmen’ was ahead of its time by nine months,” because now we find ourselves talking about all the white supremacist systems and white-centric-ness that has invaded our culture and practices for a long, long time and how do we confront that? So I’m curious, have you watched, reexamined the episode as we’ve been going through the Black Lives Matter protest? It certainly seems like something that just is speaking directly to us right now. 

JA: Well, I think it is quite odd and I did read that article as well, how we happened to touch base with this subject well before all of these protests started. And yeah, I’ve rewatched the episode multiple times just because it’s just something that I feel like the more you watch, the more things you catch, the more things you learn. It’s just weird that this conversation about America’s long history of trying to, I guess, get rid of Blackness and what it means to be Black and if that’s our culture or just our presence in general, it’s just kind of a troubling thing when you try to consider all of the amazing things that Black people have done, especially for this country and how you would think that looking at a timeline in our American history, how we all start from one point and end up in a more positive space. But if you’re looking outside and if you’re watching the news and if you’re looking on social media, it’s almost like we’ve gone back in time. Every positive step we take forward, we take eight steps back. So it’s kind of a weird thing when you look at that episode and it’s troubling, for sure. I mean, that’s for lack of a better term, troubling to kind of think that maybe we haven’t really progressed as much as one would imagine. 

GD: I rewatched it again before talking to you and the thing that struck me that I don’t know if it hit me the same way before was the moment, because his wife keeps asking him, “Are you angry?” And you’re like, “I’m not that angry.” And then after he is hanged, comes close to death and is hanged by these racists, he comes home and just finally says, “OK, I’m angry,” but it’s so exhausted and it’s almost like he doesn’t have the space to be as angry as he should be, as he is entitled to be. What was that moment like for you? 

JA: Well, I think it’s just understanding that with most people, or maybe not most, but a lot of people, anger comes from pain, and I think that that moment was a moment where he felt like after all he had been through in his life and especially that night, that there was no room for him to try to hide that from someone that he trusted. He obviously trusts June. She’s been in his life for a really long time and after a traumatizing experience like that, it’s just like, how can anyone really hold onto that type of pain? So I think that was just a moment of understanding that people, when they are aggressive, it comes from them feeling like they need to protect themselves from something, and we all know all the things that Will is fighting for and what he’s running from. So I think in that moment, it was just kind of like a release and it was something that in order for him to try to fix the issue, he needed to admit to having one. 

GD: There’s a really emotional moment for him where you come back home and Will’s son is putting on the Hooded Justice makeup and putting on a version of the costume and Will tries to break him out of that and I was just wondering if you can talk about what that scene was like for you. What does that moment mean of a son, someone you’re taking care of putting on that mantle? 

JA: Well, I think for Will it was just a moment of him witnessing how traumatic experiences can not only affect you but affect the loved ones around you. I think when Will decided to put on the hood and to put on the costume and try to fight crime, he was trying to prevent the injustices that were happening around him from evolving into his son’s life as well. But also, in doing that, if we’re talking about all the masks that he was putting on him, trying to cover up his true self, that’s probably one of the most negative aspects of him becoming Hooded Justice that he never imagined would, I guess, take over his household. So I think in him coming home and feeling like he’s beaten the Klan members and he’s burned down the warehouse and he’s able to come home and tell June about this mesmerism and all the different things that he imagined were affecting the people around him, he goes home and he sees his son, the one thing that he’s created in this life that he wanted to fight for is possibly taking on the same emotional or personal burdens that he’s carried with him for many years. 

GD: And before I let you go, I wanted to bring it back to another point in your career quickly, because this episode has a certain theatricality to it in those long takes and I was reminded that I first was aware of you during “Fences,” the movie adaptation of “Fences,” which is based on a play. And I’m wondering if you took anything from that experience of working with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and how that has projected you going forward? 

JA: Well, I imagine that I will take that experience with every single job that I do moving forward. I don’t think that is something that I would only draw upon once in a while. That was my first film work and it was obviously with an incredibly talented cast. I was the luckiest person on the planet to be able to be in that film. I think the biggest thing that I learned from them is to take my time and to enjoy the journey. So when it comes to taking on any job in the future and even the ones that I did following “Fences,” the lessons that I learned from Denzel, Viola, Stephen [McKinley Henderson], Russell [Hornsby], Mykelti [Williamson] and everyone that was involved in that project, I’ve always kept near and dear to my heart, for sure. 

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