The Flash’s Tom Cavanagh Spills on Directing His Costars & Creating the Look of Barry’s Dark Future
Scientist, evil speedster in disguise, fake scientist, author, mentor, dad, surrogate dad—Tom Cavanagh has played it all on The Flash, and for tonight’s episode, he also played the role of director.
S.T.A.R. Labs’ resident sometimes-a-scientist went got behind the camera to helm “The Once and Future Flash,” an episode that takes Barry (Grant Gustin) about eight years into the future to see what life is like after Iris’ (Candice Patton) death at the hands of Savitar. There, he meets not only an older Cisco (Carlos Valdes) and mourning Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), but he also encounters sad emo Barry Allen, meaning Barry comes face to face with himself.
It’s clearly not going to be a typical episode of The Flash, so maybe it makes sense that it wasn’t directed by someone who typically directs episodes of The Flash. Even so, that doesn’t mean Cavanagh’s job was easy.
“I might describe it as ‘aggressive,'” he told E! News of the episode when we hopped on the phone with him. “Visually robust and aggressive.”
Read on to find out exactly what it was like for Cavanagh to direct his costars for tonight’s brand new episode!
E! News: So how did you directing come about? Who approached who?
Tom Cavanagh: This is my third show for Greg Berlanti, and he knows I direct, and he was like, “you interested in directing,” basically, was how it came about. Usually when I sign on to a show I have it built in that I’m going to do some of them, and this one was no different. And you know, The Flash is not an easy show for any director. We always say no director is going to come in and skate. It’s not an easy show to direct. We shoot it in eight days but clearly it’s a ten day show in terms of what the schedule is for the show, so there’s no easy days.
It’s not like two people talking about romance in an alcove, you know what I mean? It’s two people talking about romance in an alcove that’s on top of a mountain with, like, a demon coming to chase them, descending from a spaceship firing lightning bolts while they talk about love, you know what I mean? Spectacle is a part of the comic book ethos, and you have to have it. So that’s incumbent on a director to deliver that spectacle, and the result is that it’s never a simple and easy thing to do on time and on budget.
So Greg’s like, would you direct it, and I think my response to him was a mixture of confidence and gratitude, and inside was like, oh man. From the big book of “oh what could go wrong now?” But I love doing it. I love directing and getting to play with the tools at our disposal for The Flash was a massive treat. This is not a small budget show. This is a show where we kind of swing for the fences a little bit when it comes to Spectacle and stuff. To make a little hour-long superhero movie was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.
This episode looks particularly tricky, with two Barrys and the introduction of this future we’ve never seen before. Would you say it was trickier than a normal episode?
I might describe it as aggressive. Visually robust and aggressive. But then the higher the mountain you get to climb, the better the view. So you know, I’ve always had visuals I wanted to see on The Flash sometimes, so when you’re in charge of what it’s going to look like visually, you get to do that. So that’s a phenomenal canvas to get to paint, right? Obviously none of this stuff without its challenges, but nobody likes to hear an actor talk about challenges—myself included. So I’m not going to bore you with all that kind of stuff.
I will say it was great to team up with the departments that I don’t often as an actor get to cross-pollinate with to any extent. You know, like the fact that there was just nonstop talking to special effects and visual effects to get the moments right, and being reliant on their phenomenal abilities. That was one of the most joyous parts of doing this show.
Speaking of an actor talking about challenges, I’ve seen quotes from Grant about how hard it was to act just those eight years older than current Barry. So what was that like for you to direct everyone in what was such a challenging role for them?
You know, it was great, because it was sanctioned for me to scream and yell at them. I was allowed to do that. No, I’m kidding. You know, he’ll call it a challenge, and I’m sure it was a challenge, but he’s just so very talented. He really is, and you see a lot of him and a lot of Carlos Valdes who plays Cisco, and you know, they’re not lazy actors. They’re really talented and thoughtful and they both kind of were looking for avenues where they could speak to the subtleties that come with age as opposed to these grand sweeping differences.
When I say that I’m talking about, OK so, how does your voice sound in eight years? Does it sound different? How will it sound different? What will your mannerisms be? If you’ve been beaten down by life, will that affect how you walk, how you look? How does it affect how your optimism level is, where your hopes are? How are you in eight years? What are you going to hang onto, and what are you going to divorce yourself from? And the great thing about this cast is they’re like, OK good.
Grant and I were talking about it like, when I create a different character, I don’t try and shoot closely to the guy I did last. I look at it as an opportunity to do something different, and I think for these guys, who don’t have the same opportunity as I do in terms of creating new characters, this was their opportunity. They all jumped into it fully and I think I can sing their praises all day long, but I think you see when you see the episode, you say oh wow.
For me as a director, to watch my friends and castmates—and I said this to them I think everyday, I was like it’s just a joy to watch them do it. Because when I’m acting in a scene with them, I’m not observing them. I’m in the scene, and I’m reacting to what’s in front of me, and I’m not parsing their abilities, but as a director it’s a different thing. You’re behind the monitor and you’re watching the scene unfold, and I think you’re a lot more giving to just sit and enjoy the show in front of you, and it was a tremendous show indeed.
So what does this not-too-distant future look like? What can you tell me?
I will say that we thought of it as like, how can we add to the show with this storyline? We thought well, if the future’s a much more dark and forbidding place, with light slanting through it with it being a lot more gloomy and dark, that would sort of add a character to the story. I think we did that. I think we benefit from, as any long-running show does, having established things that the audience accepts. There are things where the audience will say ah, this is Barry’s house, ah, this is the speed lab, ah, this is the cortex, ah, this is the pipeline.
Now, this is an opportunity because people have an understanding of what that should look like to just blow it up and rip it apart and make it look different, and suddenly that creates a mood, because we’ve already established the one thing and then we tear it up and make it this dark and different and dangerous place. So we had ideas of how we could make it look that way, and once again we rely on production design and set decoration and all these people who are incredibly good at their jobs to make this vision come true, and I think they did an amazing job. Like the way the future looks, the feel that it has is not something that we’ve done often on this show, and I’m happy with it.
How much are you in the episode?
I’m in it. It was nice for me to able to like, again be sanctioned at criticizing my own foibles. Do it better! Oh my god, you’re terrible! I think an actor oftentimes is a perfectionist. They want to get the thing right. When I direct myself, I’m very much like, yep, good enough, moving on, not going to have any more indulgent time with Tom Cavanagh. Good enough, got the lines right, good, let’s go on to Grant, let’s go onto Candice, let’s not waste time with this guy. I think also in the edit room, I’m the first guy to go. Like, cut that guy, cut HR. Cut Harry. But I’m in it. I don’t want to give it away, but the part I play in this is enjoyable indeed.
I also need to ask about your IndieGoGo campaign with Grant, because it looks hilarious. What exactly are you guys doing?
Here’s what it is. It’s like, two ne’er do wells, two errant humans on a stakeout. So much of this comes from what Grant and I do off camera. They’ll yell cut, and then we have all this banter and repartee that never makes it on air, and finally I was like I’m gonna give this stuff a home. Over the years, we’ve kind of created these kind of dumb doppelganger personas, like the one guy will say the most obvious fact, like there’s North America, but South America is another part of America, and the other guy’s like, yeah, I don’t think so. What do you mean you don’t think so? There’s North America and South America. Yeah, I’ll look it up. You don’t need to look it up! I’ll look it up, but I don’t think so.
These are the kind of guys we’ve created off camera, so these are the kind of guys, the world’s two worst bank robbers, are going to attempt to pull a heist. Very different from the personas you see on The Flash, and I think both Grant and I were happy to have an outlet to express these personas.
So it’s called Tom and Grant, and it’s about these two guys on a stakeout. It’s very hard for Grant and I once we start going on these riffs to get through them with a straight face, so we’ll see how that goes, but we’re both very excited about doing it. Literally we end the Flash and then the next day we start this thing, so we’re excited to go to camera on it.
I’m surprised you guys got any work done on your episode.
Yeah, it’s funny right? There’s a lot of stuff that went back and forth. I talked to the editor, and he was like, oh my god, the dailies, the way you guys are yelling at each other, that’s like a show in and of itself. I’m like, yeah I know, that hopefully the public will never see, because first off, the words are not polite, and second of all, it’s funny but we don’t want to undermine what we’re trying to do on The Flash. But it’s great. It’s a boon to be doing a show with people that are fun and people that you love and people you love being around. Dream come true, right?
I worked with Mike Farrell, who did M-A-S-H, and I asked him how well the cast of M-A-S-H got along, because it’s heartbreaking when people you love on camera don’t really care for each other off camera. Mike said this thing, he’s like here’s how well we got along: nine years in, on Friday, as we would be ending our week together after nine seasons together, we would get together to see where we were all gonna get together on Saturday night.
There’s an element of that to The Flash, which I think we adore. People aren’t going back to their trailers. They’re playing cards or games together or we’re singing songs or doing that kind of banter or repartee, so it’s certainly a great place to go to work.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on the CW.