It was horrifyingly violent, pulsing with fear, heartbreak, and an unshakable sense of injustice. We watch as many as 300 Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma gunned down, lynched, tied up and dragged by cars, and massacred; in the streets, their apartments, their homes, and the successful businesses they owned and ran.
The HBO limited series, which premiered last October, was a “remix” of Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ hallowed 1986 DC Comics series. Masterminded by Lost and The Leftovers braintrust Damon Lindelof, this version was a sci-fi alt-history, set in a contemporary America where Robert Redford is serving the longest presidential term in history. He has signed into law reparations for Black Americans. Vietnam is a state.
Viewers were conditioned then to expect a fair amount of fictional dramatization in pursuit of the show’s larger points on race in modern America. What so many didn’t realize until after that explosive premiere episode was that the opening sequence wasn’t part of Lindelof’s science fiction. It actually happened, one of the most despicable and deadly acts of violence on American soil, entirely race-motivated… and entirely swept under the rug of our history.
“When I first found out that it was actually a true event, that it wasn't exaggerated at all, I was in disbelief,” Smart, who starred as former superhero turned FBI agent Laurie Blake, says. “I thought, How could I not have known that? It’s so shocking and shameful.”
Growing up in Seattle, her late father was a history teacher, but with as much respect as she has for his work, she’s not certain that he knew about it either. Even her Watchmen co-star, Tim Blake Nelson, who grew up in Tulsa, told her that what little was taught to him was always misleadingly framed as a “race riot”—not as the violent attack on a Black community that it was.
But what Smart has also witnessed in the months since the Watchmen finale aired in December was an electric reckoning on race. A Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd and an epidemic of police brutality directed at Black people carried with it a rally cry to stop ignoring America’s history of systemic racism and racial violence.
That Watchmen had brought the silenced history of the Tulsa massacre to people’s consciousness only amplified that conversation.
In many ways, the recent months of national awakening have exposed Watchmen as eerily prescient. It debuted over a year ago, yet its depiction of white supremacy, police corruption, and institutional nefariousness has made the sci-fi series arguably the most searingly relevant TV show of this time.
As Dani Di Placido wrote in Forbes, “the series explores how trusted institutions are steeped in white supremacy from inception, and the impossibility of changing the system from within; an inability to trust the police sparks the first act of masked vigilantism that defines the story.”
Then there’s the character who, in a twist, becomes the series’ Big Bad: Joe Keene (James Wolk), a racist politician so craven for authority that his plan doesn’t stop at stealing the presidency. He aims to become a demigod by stealing the superpowers of Doctor Manhattan.
Even the conversation surrounding the pandemic echoes the history of Watchmen, Smart says. In the original comic series, albeit through the manipulation of an evil-genius, the world’s superpowers avert escalating nuclear war tensions by instead uniting to fight against an epidemic of exploding squids. (It’s sci-fi.)
“The whole idea of a sort of a catastrophe that gives the entire world a common enemy, so that we hopefully will come together to fight it and stop fighting amongst ourselves…” she says, then laughs. “Although I don’t quite see that happening right now, for a variety of reasons which we don’t have to go into…”
But the sheer extent to which Watchmen has become so timely and even portentous has shaken her a bit. She spoke to Damon Lindelof recently about it, who told her he couldn’t even articulate how strange it’s made him feel.
“It’s odd that something you think of as science fiction has become anything but fiction,” she says. “But it’s made me very proud to have been on the show. Because it sparked some really important conversations.”
The whole reason we’re talking about any of this is because Smart’s work on the series is nominated for a 2020 Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, one of Watchmen’s 26 nods, more than any other series.
It’s Smart’s ninth Emmy nomination, which includes two wins for Guest Actress in a Comedy series for her work on Frasier, a 2008 Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy trophy for Samantha Who?, and a Lifetime Achievement in the Hearts of Gay Men predating all of that for her iconic breakout turn as the relentlessly sunny and loopy Charlene Frazier on Designing Women.
She’s just returned to her sweltering Los Angeles house, baking in a heat wave, from a trip to the beach with her family. For a while she had been doing comparatively great during quarantine, savoring the mental and physical respite from a busy work schedule. “But I lately just hit a wall,” she admits.
Her brother hasn’t been doing well. And, largely, she’s been feeling useless.
“I was thinking at first about comparing it to when we had the earthquake in 1984, and the week or so afterwards,” she says. The ability to help energized her. A friend and her family came and stayed with her for a week because their building had been condemned. Another couple came and stayed for similar reasons. Because her gas wasn’t turned off, she’d have neighbors over for dinner by candlelight every night, some of whom she met for the first time.
“I missed that feeling of having to make decisions that actually were important,” she says. “I realized that, you know, aside from my kids, I didn’t ever really have to make decisions that had any kind of import. But this is frustrating because I feel like there’s nothing I can do. Besides, you know, donate to food banks and things like that, it’s like you can’t go and actually physically help people. It’s an odd feeling. Helpless.”
Prior to the shutdown she had been filming the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet. They were about 80 percent complete with the project. She recently learned that production will start again at the end of September, which means she’ll be flying to Philadelphia to finish it. The idea of a plane journey is unnerving enough. But then there’s the reality of, once she arrives, having to quarantine in a hotel room for almost two weeks.
A producer friend of hers recently had to do the same thing for a project starting up again in Vancouver. “He said, make sure you have at least a little balcony or a little patio, or you’ll become a serial killer.” She chuckles when asked if that might help her get into character. “It might help a little bit. She’s rather grumpy so at least I’ll be grumpy.”
It’s a tone that, it has to be said, Smart has become exceptionally good at playing.
“Grumpy” may not be the right word to describe Laurie Blake. World-weary, perhaps. Forever exasperated, sure. If nothing else, a once-famous superhero named Silk Spectre who has loved, lost, and saved the world while doing it, she is the toughest and smartest person in the room, and with a short fuse for anyone who tests that fact.
Her entrance in the third episode of Watchmen, “She Was Killed By Space Junk” is as character-establishing as they come.
It’s framed by a monologue, delivered partly in jest and partly with a profound seriousness to Doctor Manhattan, the love of her life, through a phone booth that purports to deliver her message to space. It wrinkles with more subtleties than most performances contain in an entire season, climaxing with an uproarious cackle trumpeted straight up to the sky.
We see Laurie in full FBI mode, staging a sting operation to capture a masked vigilante. She wields a gun with the same precision she does her tongue. The sensual swagger of the former Silk Spectre still radiates through her, the trench coat wearing on her with the same confidence and ease of a superhero’s spandex.
“Sir, are your civil rights being violated?” she asks when she encounters a white supremacist who has been nabbed by vigilantes and taken in for questioning. “Sorry, I was just kidding,” she tells him after he pleads for her help. “I don’t care.”
That same cackle you hear in the episode’s big conclusion—the one familiar to anyone who’s watched Smart’s memorable comedy turns, especially on Designing Women—explodes with frequency during our conversation.
Just as when we first talked with her about the role for a profile published on The Daily Beast in November, maybe the longest laugh fit comes at the suggestion that she is playing, alongside Regina King’s Angela Abar, one of the year’s most impressive female badasses—and at age 68, no less.
Getting in gun fights, tossing foul-mouthed insults, being an action hero: Does playing a character like that make her think of herself any differently?
“I might have to ask my husband,” she says, laughing again. “I think he always looked at me that way. Women rarely get to play this kind of part, so that’s always kind of fun to do something like that. But I certainly thought that at this stage of the game that is not the kind of role I was going to be offered.”
While Watchmen was airing, the messaging was mixed about whether or not the series had a future beyond the original nine episodes. At one point HBO was submitting it in Drama Series awards categories, where shows with planned future seasons go, and talking with Lindelof about how to keep the story going. But ultimately it was decided to let the show stand for itself as is and not continue.
Smart gets it, but she’s bummed. Among the many reasons, she found it refreshing and invigorating to play against King exploring a dynamic between two women in very different arenas of enforcement, and felt there was much more territory to mine there. In a demented way, she laughs, they could’ve been a unique, kind of revolutionary Cagney and Lacey, harboring a skepticism, but undeniable admiration of each other.
“A really Grudging with a capital G respect,” she says.
Even though Laurie Blake isn’t continuing, there is, at least, one element of her Watchmen story that seems primed to live on.
Still in constant rotation in GIF and screenshot form on social media is the unforgettable scene in Laurie’s apartment, when the character gets into bed and—perhaps lonely, perhaps… other things—opens a box from her nightstand, pulls out a gigantic blue dildo roughly the size of an adult man’s arm, presumably a facsimile of Dr. Manhattan’s own asset.
She erupts again at the news that people are still talking about that scene.
“I was on Seth Meyers not too long ago and he brought that up,” she says. “And I said, ‘It’s gonna sound horrible I say this, but this is the only time I’m glad that my parents aren’t still here. I’m not quite sure how that would have gone over…”