Louis Gossett Jr. just earned an Emmy nomination for his role as Will Reeves in the HBO limited series “Watchmen.” He is a previous Oscar winner for “An Officer and a Gentleman” and Emmy champ for “Roots.”
Gossett spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria before this year’s Emmy nominations about the writing of “Watchmen,” the lessons of the series and his recollections of winning his Oscar. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Louis, this show tackles themes creatively and unexpectedly with a real sense of urgency and gravity and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how the show tackles racism, identity and trauma so uniquely.
Louis Gossett Jr.: Well, racism is an old word. You couldn’t use it at least 10, 15 years ago without losing work. But it’s been active since the first European came to the shores of Africa. What he saw was an established civilization and larger-than-life people, very healthy, very strong. And, of course, the Marco Polos, etc. compared it with what they got from Europe and they had just gotten gunpowder from China and they said, “We have to do something about this. Otherwise, we let them alone, they’re gonna run the planet.” True history. We did run the planet for a while. We made the mistakes and we’re the first ones to have slaves. We’re the first ones to have women in harems. We’re the first ones to make a mistake and then realize that that’s not the way to go. We went back to the basics in Africa and started doing things for one another. So everything you did was for the benefit of the old tribe and that philosophy is what Marco Polo was scared of.
One would think it was because of their physical fitness, which was fantastic, but when the first explorers came to Africa, we were practicing medicine, astronomy, animal husbandry, family members, so the tribalism was the thing that kept us going for so long. I did a movie in Tanzania, which is one country south of Kenya. I was driven past Mount Kilimanjaro and as the guide said, “Here is where they found the first man ever found, the skull of the first man.” So it made sense that civilization started at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kilimanjaro starts at 5,000 feet and that’s where the plane starts and it goes up from there. So there’s so much history I got as a young man, 19, 20, 21 years old, and it occurred to me that maybe I should share this with other young people. There is no better and there is no worse. It starts there. This is just me and my foundation. We can’t do without one another, and whoever discovered it first just shared that information with one another as a member of mankind.
So every film I did, including “Watchmen,” is playing those characters with that philosophy. That philosophy seems to hold on even in the presence of a brilliant man like Damon Lindelof, who came up with some stuff about Tulsa, and that’s one of my favorite subjects, Tulsa, and Bass Reeves, the most successful martial in the West. From Bass Reeves came a copy of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and all that stuff and it submerged him into history. The other part of my favorite subject is the town of Tulsa, how it became Black Wall Street and obviously made the same mistakes as rich folks do and they got bombed down. So now you go back to that history and what a wonderful opportunity for somebody like me to help a brilliant man like Damon tell that story even deeper by my portrayal of Bass Reeves and the feelings that got me when they started bombing the theater. We had a little rubbing because he’s a brilliant man, wants things to be as is, but I kind of like my contemporary, Cicely Tyson, if you hire us, we use our age and experience to add to the whole. So here I am a result of it, talking to an Australian, and I’m not the enemy, I’m the addition and with my experience to add to that wonderful tapestry that that brilliant young man wrote. So it became like a piece of cake, and so I think that in the not too distant future, I’m gonna give him a hug and we’ll get to continue on as artists together.
GD: Yeah. That’s the hope, right? The pilot opens on the devastating massacre that happened in Tulsa just shy of 100 years ago as you mention. It’s such a dark event. It wasn’t well-known and it reminds us that history tends to repeat itself. When you read the script and you see that Lindelof decided to start the show there, what were your reactions? Because it is surprising and very, very evocative.
LG: It surprised me that he was able to enter it. He said he did it when he was in his sleep and got an explosion of thoughts and he started to write. He wasn’t thinking about whether it was going to be popular or not. He’s a brilliant man. So he entered into the foray, absolutely brilliant writing. It flows like a river and what I did, what he did not like is I stopped reading. I was there to give justice and credibility to the character. But he writes so flamboyantly that I find myself getting off the mark. So I went back to the character, to servicing his story. I read a little bit here and a little bit there so I know what he’s writing but my contribution had to be what I was acknowledging. We kind of rubbed elbows. But we are talking about Emmys. So the outcome is really wonderful. The hope is to work with him in the not too distant future as partners of something.
GD: Yeah, I love everything that Damon’s done and “Watchmen” was probably one of his best works. What I’m amazed about is the show was already quite relevant when it was being made and when it aired but now even more so. It challenges views on law enforcement. Could you have ever imagined how prescient the show would become?
LG: The actual coincidence doesn’t come from us, it comes from God and whatever you want to believe. If I could have written it, I couldn’t have written it better. The timing, I couldn’t have timed it better and the happenstances of greeting people at the right times, certain places at the right times and it was in my particular case the right time because it’s an opportunity to tell a true story, to make it the stuff that’s untrue true. But living that experience organically as that character, whose hero is Bass Reeves, and living him authentically so that it’s good enough to join the company and you give us a call about our ideas. Now, that’s one idea that’s been at least in my memory, seven riots like that and the town that was also built in Tulsa was a small town right outside of Tulsa called Boley. And there’s a film that Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte produced called “Buck and the Preacher” and that was a story about freed slaves called the Exodusters. Some of them got lucky and found oil. The other was the number one Black rodeo in the world in Boley, Oklahoma. So there’s a lot of history in some of those stories. And, of course, Bass Reeves is the most successful martial ever in the West. More than Wyatt Earp. He was able to be the Lone Ranger with masks. He was able to play characters and he always got his man. it’s time to tell those stories without taking over, but including this tapestry, to share with everyone. And the sooner we start sharing our deepest strengths with one another around a table, the better we are, the less war we’ll get, the more together we will feel. And that’s the only thing we need is our togetherness for our mutual salvation.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the keys to understanding the point and the outcome of this show. There’s an episode where we learn more about Reeves as an NYPD cop. He becomes Hooded Justice and he’s in a relationship with Captain Metropolis, which I found quite audacious and different. What was your take on that really interesting twist in this story?
LG: I think Damon’s a clever man. He knows how to get your attention. He’s a brilliant man. So you should ask Damon that because I’d be guessing. But my take is I’m completely drawn by his ability to change my mind and to move the story along. One of the things that he moved me along on, which I told him about was the wearing of the masks, how apropos that was. There was a Black poet by the name of Paul Laurence Dunbar and one of the poems that he wrote was called “We Wear the Mask.” “We wear the mask that grins and lies, it shields our face and hides our eyes.” It goes on like that. We’ve had to wear masks, and in the last scene that this old man does, that you see him on, is he says, “Sometimes you gotta take the mask off because wounds do not heal in the dark.” So you see the double, triple meanings that Damon has written. It’s just gorgeous. I mean, the words just fall out of it. Eventually, all of us on this planet have to have the courage to sit around the table, take all the masks off and be one. We’re not gonna come together without it.
GD: And you know what, in addition to the brilliant writing, I think every performer probably even elevates when they’re with other performers. They’re bringing their A-game. You got to work with Hong Chau, who was brilliant, and then, of course, Regina King. What’s the highlight of working with her?
LG: I love her. I love them all. But when you go to HBO and Warner Bros., you better bring your A-game because they’ve got some high-quality people. I did “Boardwalk Empire” with them, too. So you gotta bring your A-game. I did the first HBO movie, started in Canada, Toronto. So I’ve been with HBO for quite a while. It’s exciting for you to even call my number and say, “Hello, good morning.”
GD: What does Regina King bring to a set that is unique? What is it about her that is so special?
LG: Brilliance, youthful energy, and she’s gorgeous. I was watching her today on “Poetic Justice.” Boy was she good in that thing. Brilliant woman. She’s only just begun, too. If I was 20 years younger, she’d be in big trouble.
GD: (Laughs.) I’ll let her know next time I speak to her. I really enjoyed your role in the show. It was very surprising ‘cause you start off obviously as being this wheelchair-bound man. We realize that you’re connected to the Tulsa massacre and you’re connected to Hooded Justice. If there was anything at all that you take away from the show, apart from its larger themes about this particular character, what did you enjoy playing about him?
LG: Cat and mouse. It makes the audience be fascinated on who he really is and it puts us in the catbird seat by kind of playing a dalliance of certain things. And you have fun doing it. So people always like to see you when you’re on the screen. They wanna see what you’re into and then you’re gone. They can’t wait for you to come back. It’s a wonderful way they put their character together. I’m putting my hands in boiling water and come out and peel the boiled egg and eat it. “Wait a minute, no human being can do that.” And I’m sitting there with a flashlight and a body hanging and I ask her in the scene before, “You think I can lift up 300 pounds?” That’s all he said. And the next scene she comes home and there he is with a 300-pound man hanging from the tree. That’s beautiful to get that kind of dalliance, the audience’s attention. I can’t wait to work. “Me too, guys.”
GD: Yeah. Well, we’re going to hope for the best now that people can start going back to work in this current condition. I want to go back in history, if we can, for a little bit. Because when people think about Louis Gossett Jr., a lot of people think about “Roots.” You won an Emmy back in 1977. But most importantly for me, I will always remember you as being part of “An Officer and a Gentleman” which you won the Oscar for. And I actually remember you were nominated against Charles Durning, John Lithgow, James Mason and Robert Preston. You won. You looked very dapper and you commented that you wanted to bring your kid up on the stage. Now, that was a long time ago when you won that. But when you think back, what’s your highlight, fondest memory?
LG: Well, I had made a decision that the way it used to go, when they gave it to Bob Hope and to Fred Astaire, to get it to the old guys, get in there in their suits and say, “Thank you for a wonderful career,” I had two guys where it was their last movies, James Mason and Robert Preston, and they both deserved those Oscars, and Charlie Durning. So I had kind of gotten into an ease. My son had gone with me and my agent was on the other side and I’m thinking about, “Well it’s good to be in the top five.” But I got hit in the ribcage by my agent, and said, “They said your name. Get up there.” And I looked it up and it was Superman, Christopher Reeve, and Susan Sarandon. So I asked my son to go and he (shakes head). So I walked up and the audience exploded. I didn’t know what I was going to say. I shook his hand, I did the little Superman thing, he shook my hand a little too much, and I gave Susan Sarandon a kiss. I stood there and started to speak the truth. I have a cousin who helped me in my house so I could study properly, and I had been with my agent for 17 years. I finally said thank you, and my son and I said to the other guys, “This is ours.” Figured I’d get out while I was still ahead.
GD: That’s a very gracious way. I love it when winners include their fellow nominees. It’s a really gracious thing to do. You know what, though, to be honest, I’m sure other people bring this up with you, but I can’t help myself. Now that I have you on my screen, I have to tell you that one of my favorite films of all time is “Enemy Mine.” As a young boy, I watched it so often. It’s a really good film by Wolfgang Petersen. It’s a great film about brotherhood and friendship and cultural difference, which is interesting because a lot of what we talked about before is kind of relevant to that and you were with Dennis Quaid playing Jerry. What did you think about “Enemy Mine”? Because it didn’t really get a great, fair shot from the critics. But I think it’s lasted the test of time.
LG: Well, the reason why it didn’t get a fair shake was because it was part of the product that was sold by Robert Devons to Margaret Davis. He sold 25 movies from 20th Century Fox. So it never got a chance to get out of the theater. When it hit cable, it became a cult following. The reason I got the part is nobody wanted to play a character with five and a half hours makeup of the morning and they couldn’t see your eyes, your face or your mouth so it was a challenge to me. I had to go to a mine and I had to go to a ballet dancer, learn how to stretch and walk on flat feet, squatting. I learned some stuff from my childhood. I was able to weave it together and a character that was hopefully, thank God, credible, and it became a life of its own. There are kids that have seen it now and they want me to stop and talk to them again. (Imitates voice) “Oh, of course.” They want me to speak like that. And when you get emotional, it gets deeper and when you get spiritual, it gets lighter. It became second nature for a while. Five hours of makeup, three hours to take it off in the evening. Six months.
GD: That’s a whole day in itself. And then you have to do a performance on top of that. I feel like a kid just talking about it. Movies do that to you. You think back on what they mean to you and that was one for me.
LG: You’ve got to be willing to commit all that you have for the success of the thing you’re doing in the arts. People will tell when you’re not committed completely.