Beatrice Hazlehurst talks to the stars of HBO's adaptation of comic classic Watchmen, which starts on Soho and Neon on Monday.
There was only one question showrunner Damon Lindelof asked himself before tackling one of the most beloved comic series of all time for HBO: why am I doing this?
Over the course of a highly publicised career that encompassed the creation of multiple hit television shows such as Lost and The Leftovers, Lindelof has learned fear is a key component to achieving greatness. However, adapting cult classic Watchmen — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' satirical superhero book, argued by Time Magazine to be among the 100 best novels ever written — induced flat-out terror.
"I had to acknowledge that if my relationship with this is very personal and emotional, then many others must feel this way too," Lindelof explains. "They're going to look at anyone doing any kind of version of Watchmen as sacrilege. At the same time, if I'm too comfortable, there's a likely result that everyone's going to hate it, and hate me for doing it."
It was the screenwriter's undeniable passion for the project that quickly attracted Hollywood's most coveted talent. Not one but two Oscar-winners — Regina King and Jeremy Irons — signed on to star and director Nicole Kassell was soon recruited to envision the series' early episodes.
Set in an alternate, yet very-close-to-home version of 2019, HBO's Watchmen updates the mid-1980s Cold War anxieties unpacked in the original comics with the United States' most prevalent issues: racial tension and gun control. Considering entertainers grapple with cancel culture daily, it comes as no surprise to Lindelof that the subject matter will inevitably ruffle feathers.
"I think everything we make is going to step on toes but the thing we can control is how hard we step on them. Every generation has the narcissistic belief that the world is going to end on our watch, so any television show that is not representing the world on the brink of annihilation, the audience will reject. It feels uncomfortable because of the times we are in - but not talking about race in America feels more irresponsible."
Still, as a cisgendered, straight, white man, Lindelof recognises he has all the hallmarks of America's long-time oppressors. Consequently, the screenwriter worried before committing to the project that audiences might consider his take on the nation's contemporary concerns exploitative. For that reason, Lindelof ensured that inclusion on both sides of the camera was prioritised.
"I was very reluctant to take on this material but it also felt essential," he adds. "I did more listening than I've ever done in my career before on this show. It was challenging, but the process of making of this show changed me as a person and a writer in overwhelmingly positive ways."
Regina King, who takes on a lead role as Detective Angela Abar — the Government-sanctioned vigilante who mothers white children by day and fights white supremacy at night — believes it was Lindelof's commitment to accurately depict the issues faced by so many communities that lead her to accept the role without hesitation.
"We can trust him because he's telling a story that's so honest for him. He's put so many people's truths in one space and how perfect is it to do that in alternate history? It's like medicine with a spoonful of sugar."
For King, it's a career-defining character. Upon joining the Watchmen cast, co-star Don Johnson made a point of reinforcing she'd made the right choice — comparing the offer of a character like Abar after If Beale Street Could Talk to lightning striking twice.
"I've never seen this woman before on TV. She is not only complex but complex in a space that encompasses multiple genres. If someone has seen that before they definitely haven't seen it be a woman of colour."
However, it's no secret comic book fans are among the world's most zealous and each actor will face significant online scrutiny when the show debuts on Monday. Irons, who had never encountered the original graphic novel before accepting the role of ageing superhero Ozymandias, remains unfazed by fan interaction — despite researching the Watchmen world via message boards.
"I want to play him from the inside with the truth that I find, then let them judge ... but at the end of the day the audience gets what they get," claims Irons. "It's a story that has equal relevance to the 1980s story ... things are getting ever-faster and something has to give."
"This show a result of everything that's happened in the world, the industry and everything that's happened in our lives," agrees King. "Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been prepared for this, Damon and Nicole wouldn't have been prepared for this."
Lindelof will always be grateful for social media's engagement with television, reasoning the relationship has forced studios to recognise the collective intelligence of audiences. Intricate and complicated shows that leave room for interpretation are becoming increasingly easier to greenlight, therefore "raising the bar" for story tellers. Watchmen is a product and a prime example of television's second coming — particularly because fake reality has never seemed real.
"We can never recreate the original Watchmen but if we cook with these ingredients we may be able to create a new dish that tastes like it was made by the same chef. You have to go with your gut."
Who: Regina King, Jeremy Irons and Damon Lindelof
When: SoHo, Monday 2pm (same time as US) and 9.30pm