Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2020. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to some of the actors and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak with Jovan Adepo, Emmy-nominated supporting actor for HBO’s Watchmen.
Watchmen is the show to watch this Emmy season. The landmark sci-fi series notched up 26 nominations, including several for the much-praised cast. Despite sharing the spotlight with other actors (including Regina King on a Nostalgia-drug trip), Jovan Adepo broke through in a big way as Will Reeves/Hooded Justice — not only the first masked vigilante, but a Black and bisexual masked vigilante in the 1930s and '40s.
Adepo chatted with SYFY WIRE about his character’s historical and comic-book connections, and how they led to some interesting — and occasionally uncomfortable — conversations.
You’ve picked so many prescient projects. Is it weird for you to see how relevant Watchmen has become, how its themes are now part of the national conversation? Or to play Larry Underwood in the upcoming remake of The Stand, and then see this pandemic in real life?
It’s a little eerie. [Laughs.] When we got about two-thirds of the way through filming The Stand, the virus started to present itself as a worldwide issue. We had to laugh, not in a mocking way, but the timing! We’re sitting there filming this project about this plague that wipes out a massive amount of people, and then this real-life pandemic hit. It's just a scenario that I couldn't have written myself. It’s just a testament to the writing, that it transcends the test of time when you have writers who are willing to delve into uncomfortable subjects and inspire the types of conversations that really need to be had.
Yeah! That was something that I really curious about because of course, Sam Battle was one of the first Black police officers in New York. I wanted to know where this kind of policing structure came from, and it was interesting that at its earliest levels, law enforcement was from the private sector. People paid others to protect their buildings and their trade interests, and it started in really small communities. It was like a neighborhood watch. And most of the people who had to do it, they didn’t want to do it in the first place. It was kind of a volunteer system, and if enough people didn’t volunteer, it became a criminal punishment, a way to do community service. So the thing that started out as a “police system” was enforced by unfavorable characters to begin with, and in the early days of this system, they were called Watchmen. That’s where the term came from.
The Watchmen didn’t like to wear badges. They didn’t like things that identified them, because half the time they were on shift, they were drinking, enjoying time with prostitutes, all that kind of stuff, and they didn’t want people to know, “Oh, that’s our watchman who was sleeping with the prostitute when he was supposed to be looking after my goods.”
So it’s interesting, when you look at how some officers were covering up their badge numbers during the protests, it’s almost like history is repeating itself. It really gives you an unsettling feeling to know this system began with people who had no real intention of enforcing justice at all. They were just trying to get through their shifts of community service. So it was interesting to learn the history, and try to create Will’s understanding of justice, how he is trying to be what he thought law enforcement is really supposed to be, making sure the punishment fit the crime.
You have family members and close friends who work in law enforcement. Did you discuss any of this with them?
The experience for people in law enforcement can be drastically different, especially if we’re talking about being a person of color. A lot of my family has served in the armed forces. Some of my childhood friends are in the Navy. One of my good buddies is an agent in the FBI. So I really enjoy talking to my family and friends about these things because they never shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of that whole creed that policemen have about protecting each other, things like that. Some people feel attacked or offended if you bring that up, and shut that conversation off, but my friends have never been those types of guys. But because there’s such a large group of individuals who just don’t f***ing care about being just, it’s hard to argue that the system isn’t flawed.
When the riots were first gearing up, a friend of mine had to be out there to maintain order, while at the same time, he understood exactly what was going on and why. It’s a Black man putting on the uniform, but understanding that these protests are important. I was like, “How do you go out there and do your best to enforce the law justly? How do you react to seeing your brothers in blue maybe exercising their power incorrectly? How does that make you feel?” It’s an important conversation to have. Men and women of color who are in law enforcement have a lot to say because they’re on both sides of the fence.
There are some overt Superman allegories made between Will Reeves/Hooded Justice, but there’s a case to be made for Batman as well. Will shares Superman’s origin story, but he also shares Batman’s ability to weaponize fear.
Absolutely. Batman uses the symbol of his fear to instill fear in others. It’s very similar, if you’re talking about walking in the alley with the noose around his neck, making that a part of his uniform.
Plus he’s human. Superman can rely on his powers, where Batman accomplishes what he does out of sheer force of will...
Being a billionaire doesn’t hurt, either! [Laughs.] Will/Hooded Justice doesn’t have those kinds of resources. He doesn’t have a cape and a car and finances, but he had willpower, no pun intended. He had that deep desire to make sure nobody ever felt the level of trauma he felt. Sometimes, that is enough. If that’s strong enough, then you can do extraordinary things.
I have to give credit to Damon Lindelof and [writer] Cord Jefferson, on making sure that I understood the foundation of what type of man Will Reeves was, as a person who has really strong values, who wants to see the right thing done. And when I say “right,” I mean he wants everything to be just, as much as it can be. If there are any pure people in the world, Will as a child is one of them. He tries to maintain that morality as he grows into an adult, and that explains his deep admiration for Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. marshal of Oklahoma, and his stance on how to serve justice and protect all citizens. That’s something Batman and Superman believe in, and I wanted to stay true to that, and then react to what it feels like to witness that the world doesn’t work that way. [Laughs.]
Will wears two masks. He’s hiding his race and his sexuality. I’m not sure if he’s gay or bisexual, or if he even defined that. What kinds of discussions did you have about handling his sexuality or his relationships with June and Captain Metropolis?
We understood Will to be a bisexual man, and someone who was unsure of what that meant, unsure of how to explore it, and feel safe in exploring it, just to try and find out who the hell he really is. When it was time to film my interactions with Captain Metropolis, I discussed that with Damon and [director] Stephen [Williams], and expressed a need to be delicate. This is a young man who basically raised himself, as well as another child. And I discussed it with Danielle Deadwyler, who played June so brilliantly. We had conversations about what our journey was like, and who helped us on the way. Was there ever a foster system involved? Who lent a hand to our upbringing? If you’re ever burdened with having to live without your parents — especially in that time — there’s just going to be a gap in parental rearing.
So I don’t think he was ever really able to be comfortable about expressing his sexuality, even more so being a Black man in that time expressing that. He had to find a way to bury all of these desires, without destroying himself. So when it came to doing the intimate scenes, we wanted to be really elegant and subtle. I would like to think that when Will and Captain Metropolis first really get intimate, that was perhaps one of the few times that he had really ever done it-done it, you know what I mean? I think he may have done it a few times before. Maybe.
Depending on where you fall on the Superman question — is Superman the alter ego, is Clark Kent his critique of humanity? — you could say Hooded Justice is perhaps Will’s truest self.
Absolutely. That was an exciting element of this character. When I’m reprimanding my son because he’s wearing my costume and my makeup, June says I can’t take the mask off. It wasn’t about Hooded Justice’s mask. It was about Will’s mask. Even though I tried to present myself as this man who had all the answers, it was like, "But you don’t even know yourself. How can you wake up every day and put more costumes on, put more uniforms on, and try to be just, when you’re not being honest with yourself?" I’ve never had the opportunity to play a character with that many layers to peel back and then rearrange. It was really a treat.
I feel like it’s unfair for me to say, “Wear a Hooded Justice mask!” [Laughs.] People would be like, “Oh, come on!” So I’ll pick someone else.
I think the Looking Glass mask is f***ing cool. Excuse my language, but I love his mask. If you can actually see in it, go for that. I also like Red Scare’s mask. If you can get the jogging suit, that’s the way to go. Sister Night’s mask is the most perfect. Pirate Jenny has a netted mask; it might not be pandemic-regulation, because it has holes in it. Damn!
You could do a version with that fishnet pattern over a regular mask.
Ah! Yes! I just like her costume. It was really cool. So Pirate Jenny, Sister Night, Looking Glass, and then Hooded Justice, because I got to throw myself in there, too. [Laughs.]