It’s a striking way to introduce Laurie, who, as fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen” will note, was once a costumed crime-fighter herself. Written and set in the mid-1980s, the graphic novel spends quite a bit of time with Laurie Juspeczyk, a.k.a. Silk Spectre, the daughter of two original Minutemen members: Sally Jupiter, a stage mother who passed on the Silk Spectre mantle to her daughter, and Edward Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian, a roguish man whose murder sets the plot in motion.
After series creator Damon Lindelof offered veteran actress Jean Smart the role of Laurie, one of the most prominent characters to cross over from the comic, she received a crash course in “Watchmen” history. But the show would take place in the modern day, roughly 35 years after the events of the comic, meaning she’d be allowed a certain amount of freedom in playing the character.
One of her first questions for Lindelof, whose vision for the show she recently described to The Washington Post as “bold,” was: “You’re not going to make me wear that costume, are you?”
The answer was no, as Laurie long ago shed her superhero garments in favor of Bureau-friendly business attire. She also seems to have swapped her mother’s real surname for her father’s, which might surprise some viewers given that, in the comic, she is not only shocked to discover her father’s identity, but also learns that he once tried to rape her mother.
“She has this push-pull toward that world, and toward her early life, that she just can’t reconcile,” Smart said. “I knew someone who had a very abusive stepfather, but when he grew up and got married, he named his child after his stepfather, who had died. It’s a complicated psychology, especially when someone dies. It’s like that joke: It doesn’t matter what you do in life — as soon as you die, you become a saint, and everyone can only say good things about you.”
As another nod to Laurie’s story line in the comic, the episode begins in, and intermittently returns to, an enhanced phone booth that allows people to send messages to Mars — in Laurie’s case, to her former lover Dr. Manhattan, a superhuman who proved useful to the U.S. government in winning the Vietnam War but who eventually fled the planet after finding humanity to be too complicated. At the end of the comic, Laurie is living under the name Sandra Hollis alongside her new partner, Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl, who goes by Sam. But in the show, she clings, albeit somewhat bitterly, to her first love.
“You can see why she maybe changed, or why she would’ve become the way she is,” Smart said. “She’s living a very lonely life. You find out that she’s been carrying a torch for this person who’s superhuman and who she hasn’t even seen in 30 years. … In the message, she gives him a hard time, and then she tries to make him laugh. And then she’s sort of like, you’re probably never even going to hear this.
“Damon told me that after the tsunami in Japan … they set up these phone booths where people could go and they would talk to their loved ones who were lost. And it’s so heartbreaking to think — I would do that. I would absolutely do that. There’s always a part of you that thinks, what if they could hear me?”
There’s much more to Laurie than she lets on, and it becomes increasingly clear that she uses her biting sense of humor as a defense mechanism. Her character heads to Tulsa, where the bulk of the show’s action has taken place so far, at the behest of Oklahoma Sen. Joe Keene Jr. (James Wolk) to investigate the death of police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). She makes wisecracks at the expense of those she doesn’t trust — a younger agent, for example, or retired detective Angela Abar (Regina King).
Laurie senses the challenge posed by Angela, who, as the agent and viewers both know, has continued to fight crime as a masked vigilante named Sister Night. She recognizes Angela shares her ability to easily deceive others and confronts her about the chief’s death after a Seventh Kavalry member wearing a Rorschach mask and a bomb vest derails the funeral.
“I love that scene because you can tell that Laurie thinks she is really intimidating this woman, and then Angela just snaps,” Smart laughed. “Not too many people do that to Laurie. It’s fun when we see it happen, because she’s not used to not having the last word. … Her relationship with Angela is very complicated. There’s a begrudging respect, I think, that grows.”
Smart’s respect for her screen partner, though, is anything but begrudging. After acknowledging she has been fortunate enough to avoid “nightmare” co-workers throughout her career — “I’m sorry, if Meryl Streep can be nice to everyone on set, so can you!” — Smart still made a point of crediting King with setting a positive tone on set. Working on the show was “one of the most fun” experiences, Smart said, made better by the fact that she got to know Laurie as viewers will — script by script.
“It’s always the quandary of an actor when you’re doing a series as opposed to a movie, because when you look at a movie script, you can see the beginning, the middle and the end, so you can see where the character ends up,” she explained. “The trick with that, of course, is to not play the ending at the beginning of the film. A series is good, in a way, because it’s more like real life, where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know where a relationship is going to go.”
Details of what occurred in Laurie’s life during the past few decades will be woven throughout the season, Smart said. But similar to the comic, which concludes each chapter with supplementary material on the history of the “Watchmen” universe, HBO created a website called Peteypedia that links to the writings of an Agent Dale Petey, who also works for the FBI’s anti-vigilante task force. Among Petey’s many revelations is that Laurie and Dan themselves were arrested in 1995 for violating the Keene Act.
“Their capture reignited cultural fascination with masked vigilantes,” Petey wrote in a memorandum that also includes a disclaimer acknowledging Laurie’s active rejection of her past: “The argument in full risks offending our colleague Agent Laurie Blake, as what needs chronicling here covers matters that are personal to her (presuming she even reads our memos; I have sent her many, without receipt or response). But her history is our history.”