It’s a testament to Tim Blake Nelson that his vocal cords can pull attention away from a police officer wearing a panda mask, a convulsing white supremacist and squid raining from the sky. HBO’s buzzy new series Watchmen — a continuation (not an adaptation) of the famed comic book series — takes major swings in its first episode. But the most unexpected one might be Nelson’s surprisingly sexy voice.
As the character Looking Glass, Nelson wears a reflective chrome mask. He’s the lead interrogator for the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police force grappling with an unexpected rise of a KKK-like organization called the Seventh Cavalry. There’s a scene in the first episode where Looking Glass — with a slow, serious drawl — interrogates a white supremacist inside a pod walled by a slideshow full of blinding light. The scene is eerie and uncomfortable. It’s also deeply alluring.
“I just like the roughness of it,” Robbie Cartwright, a 23-year-old fan from Chicago, tells MEL of Nelson’s timbre. Cartwright is aroused by older men’s voices, like Sam Elliott narrating Dodge Ram commercials. As Looking Glass, Nelson — perhaps best known for his goofy role in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? — is serious, knowledgeable and controlled.
For his part, Cartwright would prefer this masc daddy to keep his mask on. “No shade,” he says. “But… a little shade?”
When there’s no wry smile or raised eyebrow, Tim Blake Nelson emotes solely through his Southern accent. “This is the first time I’ve just sat there and actually listened,” Hannah Woodhead, a magazine editor in London, says of Nelson’s voice. “There’s something about that slow drawl. He’s kind of [soft-spoken], but it feels weirdly reassuring.”
Nelson, a renowned character actor, is one of those celebrities you know from somewhere. He was in Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and even Hoot. Most of the time, he’s playing a Southerner with a unique drawl.
In Watchmen, the actor, who is actually from Tulsa, returns to his sweet hometown sound. “The Tulsa dialect that Nelson is doing is more mumbly, chewy and jagged, which is more the Missouri side, while also having a lilting quality, which is more Texan,” explains Abe El-Raheb, a screenwriter from Tulsa who’s lived in Louisiana and Texas.
Last year, Nelson’s voice contributed to an Academy Award Best Song nomination for “A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from the Coen brothers’ 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Nelson is low-key an onscreen singing savant. In O’ Brother Where Art Thou, Nelson’s breakout role, he sings vaudeville blues classic “In the Jailhouse Now” alongside George Clooney. “He works some really subtle, genius physical comedy through his accent manipulation in the film,” says Brooklyn-based fan Anay Katyal, 23. “It’s also damn charming to me. I can’t lie.”
“The dynamic he has seems very important to the rest of the cast,” says Amanda Rodriquez, a 24-year-old from La Puente, California. “I feel he’s going to steal the show for sure. His voice is very captivating.”
Part of the charm of his role in Watchmen is the overall foreboding mood Nelson helps create. After the pilot, there’s a lot more to unfold, especially with Looking Glass’ backstory (why’d he join the police force, anyway?). As Sunday night’s episode approaches, it’s not Regina King as the punishing Sister Night or Jeremy Irons’ eccentric life in a European castle I’m most looking forward to seeing again. It’s Nelson’s downright cavernous sound.