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Multi-Tracking: Tom Cavanagh Talks The Flash

Playing multiple versions of one character is child's play for Tom Cavanagh.

David M. Gutiérrez
  • Photo: Catie Laffoon; Grooming: Thea Istenes
  • Courtesy The CW
  • Courtesy The CW
  • Courtesy The CW
  • Photo: Catie Laffoon; Grooming: Thea Istenes

By all accounts, Tom Cavanagh should be in the midst of an identity crisis.

Cavanagh plays Harrison Wells, the scientist-in-residence, on the CW’s The Flash, a science fiction series based on the DC Comics character. Harrison Wells is a brilliant scientist from an alternate earth, Earth-Two, who assists the Flash, played by Grant Gustin, in saving Central City from its weekly doom, all the while pursuing his own mysterious agenda.

Sounds simple enough, but Earth-Two’s Wells has filled the science role once held by his other-earth self, Harrison Wells of Earth-One, whose identity was assumed by a villain from the future, the Reverse Flash. 

For any other actor, the alternate-earth meets future timeline meets character-nesting-doll would prove impossible. But for Cavanagh, it’s a feast. 

Cavanagh has a strong, approachable everyman quality, in the same vein as Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks. It’s that likeability that worked for so well for Cavanagh in the NBC drama, Ed, that led to him being the series’ lead and breakout star.

Since then, he’s starred in a number of series and features, but it’s his role(s) on The Flash that allow him to play everything from distraught father to time-displaced killer and everything in-between.

Cavanagh spoke with to discuss playing multiple roles on a single series, working as a member of “Team Flash” alongside Danielle Panabaker and Carlos Valdes, and cagily teased what’s in store for the future.

Now that we’re nearing the finale of The Flash’s second season, can you tell us how many characters you’ve played thus far?

I played the Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash; Harrison Wells in disguise; Harrison Wells from Earth-Two, and Harrison Wells [from Earth-One] before I took over his body as the Reverse Flash. Four characters in two seasons.

How do you approach the roles differently?

The starting point for me is always Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash. He’s why I signed on to do the show. The other roles fall into place from there.

We started in the pilot episode where Grant Gustin, as Barry Allen, becomes the Flash. He has a mentor, Harrison Wells from Earth-One, and we find out that he’s actually the Reverse Flash in disguise. And so the starting point is pretty convenient for everything, and allows the rest to fall into place. Then it becomes a “Big Book of Pretend” for each character.

The first one uses a wheelchair for his disguise because no one suspects the man in the wheelchair to be the arch villain. His cadences are different [from the others]. He’s an intelligent person.

The Reverse Flash has what I like to a call timeless way of speaking. He doesn’t use colloquialisms from 2016, he’s a little more formal, and he takes joy in destroying people. He has a larger perspective because he comes from 100-plus years in the future and has seen it all. It’s easy to play a character like that. He’s the arch in arch-villain.

The Harrison Wells that I’m playing this season is a man who comes from a whole different earth, Earth-Two.

The third guy whose body got taken over is a Steve Jobs-type scientist, just a very smart guy, and for his troubles got his face crushed and was taken over by a villain from the future.

Are you enjoying playing so many different characters on a single series?

It’s been fun because, as an actor, you normally sign on to do one role on a show.  And to have it be the way it is for me, to play three to four or more characters, has been a boon.

The people that suffer that most [in keeping track of the multiple characters] apart from the viewers would be the wardrobe department. With the exception of Eobard Thawne, all the characters have the same name. When I tell them I’m playing Harrison Wells, they say, “Which one? Which Earth? Earth-One? Well, which guy?” The poor wardrobe people have to outfit four guys with the same name.

Part of playing the Reverse Flash means getting to wear a super-villain costume. What was it like putting it on for the first time?

It’s funny. It’s like what I said earlier, a page from “the Big Book of Pretend.” That’s a lot of what acting is.  Often times, you’re tapping into the things you did as a youth. You pretended. A lot of us pretended to be Batman, to be our favorite super-hero. A lot of times, you pretended to have the power of imagination at your side.

Then, when it comes to be outfitted, because you’re actually doing it in your [“real life”], I have to say it’s really a grand moment. This is really the time that you want to [do that]. This is the era.

And the first time you put it on, [the cameras are] rolling, and off you go at superspeed. I’ve gotten to do some great, great thrilling stunts in the suit. It is a dream come true.

I understand that it’s a job, and I’m getting paid, but the second that a director yells, “Action”, all that disappears, and you’re a guy in a supersuit. It’s extremely thrilling. I’ve said before that I wish that anyone who is a legitimate comic book fan could have this opportunity. It really feels like a privilege.

Playing this role means entering a world of fandom and a built-in following. What’s that been like?

Walking into this, I knew that there was a lot of fervor and passion there. What I wasn’t prepared for was how welcoming it would be. It’s not exclusive. And it’s not just me [who feels that way]. Jesse L. Martin and I have played a lot of different characters of the last 20-odd years, and neither of us have delved into this world [of fandom].

People have been so welcoming and kind and generous to us. You’re taking something that’s so dear to them, and it could be tricky. You’re doing one interpretation of something that’s existed for decades. And maybe your interpretation is not to their liking.

But, what we have found is people are really patient with us. At the helm of our show, in Geoff Johns, we have somebody that knows the world phenomenally well and that this iteration of the Flash is in extremely capable hands. I don’t know that the cast as a whole was prepared for how warm the welcome would be and we’re incredibly grateful for it.

What’s the journey been like for this Earth-Two’s Harrison Wells? 

Earth-2 Wells has been tremendous. I wouldn’t want to be caustic and say it’s been so simple as compared to last year. Last year, I was playing two to three characters at once, so every sentence was weighted that way. If I was to say, “It’s good to see you, Barry,” it’s tossed away, but it also meant [my character] was waiting 136 years for that moment. There were always those levels I had to play with.

As an actor, it is delicious.  This is the stuff that every actor will tell you they strive to do. Every line has two, three different meanings and you can lean on it, or toss it away – it’s really enjoyable.

The second season, playing a guy from a different earth, gives you a myriad of other opportunities, where you’re a guy that looks the same and has the same name but is completely different.  Now, you’re just going to town trying to craft a different character with a different way of speaking, a whole different persona. And that’s been extremely enjoyable.

Moreover, the nice thing about season one is the guy had a clear goal. The Reverse Flash needs to use Barry’s speed to get back to his time. The man just wants to go home. It was very similar.

The same needs existed in this season’s Harrison Wells as a man who wants to go home, whose world is being threatened, but his daughter has been kidnapped by the most terrible thing out there, [the super-villain from Earth-Two] Zoom, and he’s got to get his daughter back. It’s a very simple, clean, and obvious goal, and he’s going to get it.

The characters you’ve played are never straightforward and pursue hidden agendas. Is that something you think will continue on for Harrison Wells of Earth-2 as the series continues? Do you see him becoming a full ally of Barry’s as opposed to someone using him and Team Flash for his own goals?

I think the show functions best – and this is not a character specific idea – when things are grating against each other a little bit, not just some overarching conflict. Last year, when I played the Reverse Flash, I posed this grand threat to the group, and this year, Zoom posed a grand threat to the group. But I think the show functions best when we have that daily grating and daily conflict.

Grant Gustin is so winning as the Flash. Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) is so sympathetic in her role, and Cisco (Carlos Valdes) is such fun. These are all positive attributes. You need the negative attributes. You need the dark to let the light in, and let the comic book world come alive. Overall, I think the show functions best when you have that antagonism and I’m happy to be the guy to provide that.

The super-power and family aspects of the show are its strong cornerstones. But the show also focuses on its familial elements and relationships. Do you see the show as mainly about family?

No, not at all. Not to overstate the obvious, but I see it as The Flash. It’s from a comic book world and its [comic book] roots are a large part of that. I think the Flash is one of the most accessible superheroes out there. Nonetheless, this is a man who can run faster than anybody else.

It lives in that world. I think the family stuff is something that adds heart to it. I think the humorous stuff that Wells and Cisco do together really helps it. I always feel that one of the quickest avenues to audience appreciation is to make them laugh. And I think our show has that. It has a sense of humor, it’s got the family [aspect], and it’s got heart.

And then, it’s got the spectacle. And without the spectacle, I don’t know what the show would be, because it isn’t a family drama.

On the topic of family, Harrison Wells has a daughter, Jesse Quick (Violett Beane). How do you see that relationship developing?

There are some nice teasers in the second season for calling his daughter “Jesse Quick.” For those that know the mythology, there’s much more to mine there. I don’t know how involved Harrison Wells would be. In all good comic books, all characters have to experience their journey on their own. I don’t know how much of that is planned out as of yet. But if you know the mythology, that’s an interesting storyline.

What’s been your favorite scene from this year?

That’s easy. That’s a softball question for me. A no-brainer. In episode 17 of this year, “Flash Back,” Barry travels back in time to learn from season one’s Harrison Wells, who is the Reverse Flash [in disguise]. I figure out that something is up, chain the Flash to a chair, and go to kill him.

It’s one of the longest scenes we’ve ever shot on the show. It went on for four or five pages. It was basically me telling him, “I know who you are,” and the Flash trying to convince me I’m wrong. Then, it’s me getting out of my wheelchair, showing him I’m the Reverse Flash, and moving in to kill him.

Then, it’s the Flash turning the tables on me, me turning the tables on him, then him turning the tables on me one last time until we got to a sort of détente because there’s a Dementor “Harry Potter”-type Time Wraith trying to kill us. 

That’s the nice thing about doing a superhero show, there can always be something else trying to get you. That’s sort of how this show rolls; it’s got a lot of twists to it. But we got to sit down in that scene and went face-to-face and toe-to-toe. I know it was one of Grant’s favorites and was my favorite moment of the season by far.

How would you like to see Harrison Wells develop in future seasons?

I’ve enjoyed this season as Harrison Wells of Earth-Two. I signed on as the Reverse Flash, so for me, I’m just always looking for the opportunity to put on the suit.

The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 pm on The CW network.