Watchmen Interview: Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II

For Watchmen, Patrick Wilson, whose body made a lot of women swoon when he used it to seduce Kate Winslet in Little Children, had to let himself go a bit to play the paunchy Dan Dreiberg –- also known as Nite Owl II. Or at least, he used to be. Thanks to a federal law banning masked superheroes, Dan spends his days moping around, pining as much for Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) as he does for the years when he used to fight injustice Batman-style. As part of my series of interviews with the cast and filmmakers behind the superhero epic Watchmen, I chatted with Wilson about playing the movie's moral do-gooder, trying to kick ass while half-blind, and the apparent absurdity of the job he gets paid to do.

Cole Haddon: Were you a fan of the Watchmen graphic novel before you got the part?

Patrick Wilson: Not really. I'd heard of it. One of my best friends, he's a diehard comic fan. Every Wednesday for 20 years, he's gone and got comics. Before I even opened the script, I called him and said, "All right, Watchmen. What have you got?" And he said, "Oh God." Then he said, "If you're ever going to do a comic book movie, this is the one." I have such tremendous respect for him, and I knew he wouldn't lead me wrong, that going into this I knew I was treading on hallowed ground.

CH: I have to say, I think the Watchmen movie might have more heart than the book. That's not to say creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons didn't bring it with the writing and artwork, but there just seems to be more of the human element on the screen.

PW: I think it's one of the benefits of the medium, when you think of all the things you can lose when you go from a book to a film. With [Watchmen], specifically with [Malin and her character], there's a real difference reading a female portrayal of her conflict –- especially if you're a man reading it –- with [Billy Crudup's nuclear superman] Dr. Manhattan and Dan. But when you see [Malin] do it, and there's such a humanity and groundedness to it, that's when I think film can really round out a character because so much can be said [by an actor] with so little.

CH: Dan Dreiberg is the most human of all the characters in Watchmen, the book's moral ballast and noblest heart. Was it very difficult playing such a character against such a massive cinematic backdrop?

PW: You know what's funny: I thought, whether this was a huge comic book movie or a little play, [Dan's] as much a detailed character with as big an arc as anyone I've ever played. So I never really got caught up in the genre aspect of the film because so much of it was organic. Even when Billy was there, [covered] in all his LEDs and dots and things, it's still Billy Crudup, a fantastic actor. So I never felt like I was in some crazy CGI movie. For most of it, at least with my character, I never got the feeling of sacrificing performance for effects. I think these characters are so real and this is such a human struggle –- certainly between Dan and Laurie, a woman torn between one man [Dr. Manhattan] who isn't there for her emotionally and a man [Dan] who doesn't feel like he fits into society because he basically lost his job, his purpose. These are extremely human stories. It just so happens they're costumed adventurers.

CH: Whenever I see a costumed superhero movie, the first thing I think is, "God, it must have been hell working in that mask."

PW: I can go back and watch the Michael Keaton Batman and understand now, like, "Wow, he can't turn his head." The leaps and bounds they have made with using the material since then. The designers were so great and really receptive to ideas. I remember in one scene where I wanted to have the cowl down, they made it with the right material so I could do that. I did put the kibash on the whole corset thing [that was suggested, though]. Maybe while [my character] was younger [in the flashbacks]. The whole point of Dan is [he's let himself go a bit]. I worked too hard for my gut."

CH: What about those dark goggles? How did they affect your scenes?

PW: That was actually a real problem in the fights. The first fight scene we did was [the jail scene], and they had made the [goggles] so sealed to my head –- [because of] the suction. I was so hot because the only skin showing was [around my mouth here], so you'd get about ten seconds into the fight and the goggles would fog up and I couldn't see. We had to think, "What would Dan have done?" So we cut these little slits in the goggles to let the air out. The goggles actually became work, to figure out how to make them work in the scenes.

CH: They're a welcome aspect of Nite Owl II's costume, though. They allow for more access to Dan when they're removed.

PW: That's what we were shooting for. I was looking to find as many moments to show, "Wow, I haven’t seen that [on a movie superhero costume before]." Have the goggles hang down here [under my chin], cowl down, cape off, seeing the zippers on the suit because it helps you imagine, "How did he get into this costume?" I just couldn’t imagine Dan had a bunch of people helping him out, so we tried to make it look as practical as possible for that reason. It was such a bit part of the comic, to see him putting it on.

**Slight Spoilers ahead if you haven't read the graphic novel.**

CH: Lastly, I've got to ask. I've seen the pictures of Billy Crudup dressed up in his Tron suit on set, which helped the filmmakers render the glowing CGI version of him. You mentioned that, at the end of the day, it's still Billy Crudup, a great actor under all those LEDs and dots, but there has to be a certain silliness to acting opposite something like that, isn't there?

PW: I've known Billy for a long time. Honestly, I remember seeing Jesus' Son and sitting in the movie theater thinking, "I don't know who that guy is. That's an unbelievable actor." I think he's one of the best actors around. That being said, my first day of shooting was the funeral scene. Adrian [Veidt/Ozymandias] (Matthew Goode) gets his umbrella. Poor Dan has to be standing out in the rain because, of course, he forgot his umbrella, and I remember getting out of this car and it was this moment when [Billy as Dr. Manhattan] was like, "Dan." But I hadn't worked with Billy yet, so when I get out of the car and he's staring at me, trying not to blink with 150 dots on his face and his little helmet on, I just started laughing. "This is ridiculous!" Anytime you have an experience with someone you have a history with, like with Billy and Jackie [Earle Haley as Rorschach], and you see them on set in their costumes, you're like, "What do we do for a living?!" That was that moment for Billy and me.

Get more insights into the Watchmen movie and phenomenon by reading my other interviews with stars Billy Crudup and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and co-creator Dave Gibbons.