SPOILER WARNING: This article contains potential spoilers for future installments of “The Flash.”
Since the very first episode of “The Flash,” it’s been clear that Dr. Harrison Wells — played by Tom Cavanagh — had much more going on than just being the head of S.T.A.R. Labs. For starters, it was quickly revealed he wasn’t actually disabled as a result of the particle accelerator explosion, as he stands up out of his wheelchair with ease at the end of the pilot. Oh, and also he was in possession of a future newspaper, stating that The Flash would go missing in about a decade’s time during a “Crisis.”
As the first season of “The Flash” has progressed, the mystery of Wells has deepened, with him often doing morally dubious things — like, say, murdering morally questionable CEO Simon Stagg — in the name of The Flash’s best interests, while the rest of the main characters remained unaware. Then, last month’s midseason finale, “The Man in the Yellow Suit,” established a definite connection of some kind between Wells and the Reverse-Flash, who murdered Barry’s (Grant Gustin) mother. Complicating things further, the Reverse-Flash and Wells met face to face in that same episode, with the former savagely beating the latter — all of this generating plenty of speculation from fans online.
This past Sunday, during The CW’s “The Flash” and “Arrow” panel at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Cavanagh stated in fairly uncertain terms that he is indeed playing the Reverse-Flash, though precisely what that means remains to seen as his tale continues to unfold during the next few months of “The Flash.” To gain more insight on what it all means for Harrison Wells, Reverse-Flash, The Flash and “The Flash,” CBR News sat down one-on-one with Cavanagh immediately following the TCA panel for an in-depth interview on what’s coming next, and the fun of playing his complex role.
CBR News: Tom, at the panel, you stated that Harrison is Reverse-Flash. But it can’t be that simple — right?
Tom Cavanagh: Or can it be that simple? As a betting man, I would wager that it can be that simple. On the other hand, I’m not a keeper of the flame. These guys no doubt have stuff up their sleeve as we progress.
For my own edification, I’m so very happy to finally be able to talk about it. It’s the reason I signed on, and for six months of just dodging and parrying and deflecting, I’m happy to be able to talk about Harrison Wells and the Reverse-Flash, finally.
Have you kept an eye on all of the speculation that’s centered on your character the past few months?
Leaving myself out of it, I think there’s two levels here. One of the most enjoyable things about doing this show is these guys, like Andrew [Kreisberg] and Greg [Berlanti] and Geoff [Johns], are not interested in just teasing stuff along. The perfect example of this, it doesn’t really involve me, is the Iris/Barry storyline. That’s the kind of thing that in other hands, on other television shows, you’d see that going on for years — longing gazes. You know how it works, you’ve seen it a million times. We’re not doing that here. Stuff that would be a season-ending cliffhanger, to us, is just another episode.
They did the same thing, I feel, with the Reverse-Flash. Because they’re so open in getting things out, it was nice for them, and I think nice for the viewers, to have stuff to mash on, stuff to consider, and stuff to question. I think the Reverse-Flash is a very good example of that. Even though we’ve done a bit of unveiling, there’s a lot of questions about well, who is Harrison? Because Harrison is completely necessary in furthering Barry’s agenda, which is good for humanity, and good for Central City — it’s a positive thing.
What is Harrison’s persona to the Reverse-Flash? Will these good things keep happening? It gets a little complicated, and I think that’s good. I think a lot of the speculation has been, what I’ve encountered in social media, “Is he good or bad?” I understand that, but honestly, in this iteration, it isn’t that simple. It can’t be that simple. You want Barry to succeed, then you can’t just paint Reverse-Flash as bad, because Harrison and Reverse-Flash are responsible for helping Barry achieve his potential. And the reason that happens is, that helps Reverse-Flash achieve his potential. Eggs get broken along the way, certainly that’s bad, but at the same time, there’s complications to it. How do you sustain the Harrison Wells persona as the Reverse-Flash persona gets unveiled further? I think that’s interesting. Does he just disappear? Well, no, he doesn’t — why doesn’t he? That’s all tied in, organically so.
It’s explained clearly and satisfyingly. There’s resolution. Even as season 2 has been unveiled to me, there are unexpected storylines that explain things, and allow us to sustain things, that make perfect sense. Joe West’s pursuit of who the Harrison Wells character is, for example, is just a brilliant storyline. I guess the word, which you don’t often run into television but I really like, is there seems to be a real respect for the guys who do our show, and the core community they do it for.
How do you translate all of that into your performance — as you described, being so many things at once?
It’s so much fun. It’s just so much fun to do that. Any actor will say, when you get a chance — not even a chance, an obligation — to delver lines that have two different meanings, or come from two different places, or play on two different levels, that’s tremendously enjoyable. It’s been really enjoyable, because the way I always approached Harrison Wells was not from the Harrison Wells character, but rather the reason to be here for me was the Reverse-Flash. So approaching the Harrison Wells character was actually approaching it from the truest sense of who I am, and that is the Reverse-Flash. And there are little things in my performance, that if people ever were to rewind all of it — God, I don’t know why they would do that — but when they would, there are moments when, as Harrison Wells, he completely unveils himself. Takes off the glasses and is essentially saying, “Take a good look.” That’s not an accident where I’m just like, cleaning glasses, but rather, it’s like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh. Keep talking about who killed your mother. Uh-huh.” There’s stuff like that in there.
It’s delicious to play. You’re not just playing one character, you’re playing two. And you’re hiding one, but then you’re unveiling it at some point. How real is Harrison Wells? There’s a lot of different levels at play. What’s great about it is, it’s all been thought out by guys much smarter than me. [Laughs]
Since we can talk about Reverse-Flash, I’m going to get geeky with you: There are a couple of different Reverse-Flashes in the comics. None are named Harrison Wells. Is there one you see your character close to? To me, the character seems a lot like the Hunter Zolomon Reverse-Flash from Geoff Johns’ “Flash” run — he believed he was acting for the greater good of the Flash.
To me — to me — there is one Reverse-Flash. I think I’m not going to get in right yet to the specifics of it, but that is, as I approach it, when I play it, that’s the starting-off point.
You have a clear idea.
Absolutely. A hundred percent.
Which is what you’ve been doing since you signed on — you always knew this was the plan?
A hundred percent. That was the reasoning. That was [talking to] Andrew Kreisberg — I’ve worked with him before, this is like my third show for Greg — “Am I a scientist? Uh, no…” Literally, the door closes. “Sit down.” I’m like, “Oh!”
In fairness, I will say they’ve done a great job with the complexities of the Harrison character, as well. At first, I thought it might just be a guy spouting scientific terms. But he’s damaged, and there’s history there, there’s aloofness and arrogance and intelligence. All that alone has been fun to play, then coupled with the fact that he also has this colossal secret. It’s been great. And any time you get to put on a superhero suit is a good day.
Have you done that?
Oh yeah. In episode nine, which we’ve seen, there’s a massive fight between Barry and Reverse-Flash.
And that was you in the suit?
It was, and we had to like, vibrate it. But I’ve got some great shots of just Grant and I — because it was finally like, “OK, here we go. We’re finally doing the thing.” That particular scene, we had a major league football stadium all to ourselves, shooting at 4:30 in the morning, with incredible production value, wearing suits and blood and all that kind of stuff — if you were to tell your 6-year-old stuff that you have this to look forward to, it’d be a pretty happy day.
That’s interesting that was actually you, because from the way it plays out on TV, it could have been anybody in the suit.
It could. We definitely have stuntmen and all that kind of stuff, but both Grant and I like to do that stuff, because that’s who we are.
Well, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
That’s exactly it: Why wouldn’t you?
To wrap: Try any new snacks lately? [Cavanagh and his former “Ed” co-star Michael Ian Black host the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, where they review snacks.]
We have two new episodes out on [Mike and Tom Eat Snacks]. We’re actually looking to do a new one tonight if I have time. I’m glad you’re on the MATES train.
I’m just a big fan of snacks!
Likewise! The power of snacks. People love snacks.
“The Flash” returns with new episodes Tuesday, Jan. 20 on The CW. Keep reading CBR for more from the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.