When it comes to comic book adaptations, it’s no secret that fanboys are ready and willing to die for their favorite work. So if you’re adapting, serializing, reinventing, or resurrecting their beloved—and already perfect—work of art, prepare for the worst, and just try your darndest not to fuck it up. The internet has created a new critical battlefield, an invisible front of fansites and message boards in which geeks lob long-range comments and messages at their latest pariah, to inflict mass damage to the ego, and boy can it hurt. Just ask George Clooney.
When it was announced that Watchmen—the most celebrated graphic novel of all time—was finally coming to the big screen with 300 director Zack Snyder at the helm (the film had long been considered unfilmable) there was rabid speculation on who would play the masked vigilantes of the book’s title. Specifically, fans fretted over who would be cast as Rorschach, their beloved hard-boiled sociopath in the ink-blot mask, a fan-favorite in the Watchmen universe. Then, at the 2007 Comic-Con, it was revealed that Jackie Earle Haley—a former child star who just had a career revival with an Oscar nominated performance in Little Children—had been cast as Rorschach. The reaction online went something like this: “Wow, I’m very happy with the decision of Jackie. Can’t fucking wait now.”
Watchmen is set in an alternate version of New York circa 1985, where costumed heroes have been outlawed, and the Cold War has escalated to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. When someone starts killing off the now-retired vigilantes, Haley’s character Rorschach puts on his mask and starts investigating. Cue conspiracy. We spoke to the actor about what it’s like behind the famous mask, training for fight scenes, and who would win in a fight—his character, or that dude who dresses like a bat.
There’s been speculation about the ending of the film. Apparently it’s different from the book? That’s more of like, a Zack question—you just dropped a landmine right off the bat! But you know, this is kind of well-documented, but that’s a good question for Zack. I know that there have been some changes, but I think that the biggest concern about the ending is still intact. That’s the way that I feel about it. The biggest aspect of it, that I think everybody was concerned about a year ago, it’s like, you know, the dilemmas are intact.
Were you familiar with the Watchmen property before being cast? I read it before I was cast, but not before I heard about this project. I was remotely familiar. I had seen the Rorschach character, but, I’ve never been a huge comic book fan. This was kind of my first graphic novel reading, so I started in the right place. Since then, I’ve been sucked into the world, man! I went from there and I read V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Dark Knight Returns. It can be an amazing medium. I always thought that it was a little kids’ medium, and I was wrong!
What’s it like getting into comic books at such a late age? Especially since you probably had to study Watchmen intensely? Even to this day, when I start a comic book, it takes me a little while to get into the flow, but once I get sucked in, I totally get it. I get it now, but it is a little different because you read the words and then you can absorb them even more when you start to look at the imagery. And, when you’re dealing with somebody like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the layers of symbolism and meaning that start to take shape under the words themselves add so much more depth. I read the book a few times, and it seems to me that if you were to read that book over the next couple of decades, you’re bound to always see something new. I wonder if there’s really anybody who has fully absorbed everything in there.
Did you feel transformed when you put on Rorschach’s mask? Oh, absolutely. That’s always true with every character—especially if the character is a departure from yourself in terms of physical look. But this even forces that up a notch because on one hand, when you’re acting with your face covered, you’re kind of hindered. But on the other hand, when you’re playing Rorschach, and you throw that mask on, you’re just extremely motivated. When you throw on the costume and you throw on the mask, and you have your gloves on, and you thrust your hands in your pockets—there’s something about that that really does kind of trigger an embodiment that goes internal as well as external. It’s a weird experience, man, I don’t even know how to describe it.
What was the difference between acting with the mask on, and the mask off? Did the character change at all when his face was exposed? That’s such a good question. I think that there’s some automatic things that come into play for both me, and for Rorschach. When he gets into that outfit, there is a little something to him, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a much tighter difference than Clark Kent and Superman. I think he’s completely Rorschach without the outfit, but when he does throw it on to go out—is a cop a different man in and out of uniform? I think no, he’s the same guy, but once he, you know, he’s got his chest puffed out a little bit more, and when you throw the girdle on, you got your badge on—there’s a little something to you. I think maybe there’s a little of that somewhere inside of him.
To fans, Rorschach is considered a superhero, but in the world of Watchmen, he’s an outlaw, and he’s a borderline psychopath who uses questionable methods to fight evil. Do you think he’s a superhero? Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I’m just trying to think of how to describe it. You can see that there’s just some real interesting depth that these guys created. I think when they set out to do this, they really wanted to kind of take that comic book world, and use it as a back-drop to take a more of an adult look at it. What happens in the real world, if you take a guy like Batman—a costumed vigilante—I mean, he’d be a fucking nutbag!
Who do you think would win in a fight, Batman or Rorschach? [Laughing] Rorschach, of course.
This is the first time you’ve acted in a project with so many special effects. Was that a shock to your acting system? This wasn’t like 300, where everything was just a green screen. There were tons of amazing sets, and it was all sorts of real-world, amazing, cool stuff around us. I mean, there were still all sorts of stuff that we had to kind of envision, like even doing a scene with Billy, where he was wearing his outfit. And I was wearing a blank mask that was actually open. My eyes were cut out which might have been helpful to the other actors because they can actually look at me. I think it’s really exciting watching this coming out now—as opposed to 8 or 10 years ago. There’s just so much amazing stuff on the screen. Zack’s work is just so beautiful.
Have you seen the final product? Yeah, I love it. The thing about Zack is his work is so cool and so visual. I remember on the set, any time I’d be anywhere near the monitors, and just watch, and I’m talking not the dailies, but just watching what’s coming through the tap, every single shot that I would look at that Zack was setting up, and directing, and tweaking, and making better, I was continually blown away about how bitchin’ it looked! And that was just the raw feed, there was still just a beautiful thing going on with the lighting, and the sets, and the composition. So, when Zack got this thing in post and they started layering in the many effects that are in there, it just started getting more and more amazing. And I remember seeing the first trailer—man, I was just blown away. The hair on my arms just standing up, just like Billy in the trailer, and what’s funny is every time we’ve seen more footage since then, which we’ve seen a bunch, I mean, every single frame of it is awesome to me. I mean, God, it’s just beautiful.
Did your black belt in karate come in handy during your fight scenes? Yeah, a little bit. But all of the other guys had to go to fight school, just to get up to speed before they’d start choreographing. I didn’t have to spend near the time in there, for a couple of reasons, just cause I already knew the basics—so I’d go in there, and learn some choreography pretty quick.
I read that you were up for a role in a Clint Eastwood film around the same time you got cast in Watchmen. Which movie? I think we were working on trying to get into Changeling. It was a cute story how my agent called one day and said, Hey, listen, I’ve got some bad news and some good news, what do you want first? I said, well, I guess the bad news. He says, Well, you’re not going to be able to do the Clint Eastwood film. I’m like, Oh, dang! What was the good news? YOU’VE BEEN CAST IN THE MOVIE WATCHMEN! So, needless to say, I flipped out a bit.
I know you had a small role in the new Scorsese movie. What was that like? Oh, yeah. You had to kind of pinch yourself. I mean, being Rorschach—nothing’s cooler than that—but, I did a small thing in Shutter Island. I did a pivotal role in a pivotal scene, and what a treat that was. I got to go into Boston for a couple of weeks, and I just found myself there acting across from Leonardo, and with Martin directing the scene. I mean, am I dreaming? Don’t anybody wake me up! It was just cool. And it was just such a well-written script, based on a very cool novel, and you throw in Marty, and all the other people that he put around that thing, and I can’t wait to see it.