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Murdoch Mysteries: Daniel Maslany on playing Detective Watts’ and his dark backstory

Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched Murdoch Mysteries’ latest instalment, “Brother’s Keeper.”

Back in 2016, Daniel Maslany was part of another CBC series. Four in the Morning featured Maslany as Bondurant, part of a quartet of twentysomethings who stumbled their way into odd adventures in the dead of the night in Toronto. Four in the Morning was cancelled after just one season—I think it was just a little ahead of its time—but it freed up Maslany to play Detective Watts on Murdoch Mysteries. In fact, if it wasn’t for Four in the Morning‘s outrageous production schedule he might not have been hired for Murdoch at all.

“I’d been up the previous night until five in the morning and then had the [Murdoch Mysteries] audition the next day,” Maslany remembers. “And I think it actually really helped. He’s a little bit more grounded and lazy and sloppy, and so, my exhaustion just from shooting the night before really helped.”

That sloppy—yet brilliant—detective has been part the series for three seasons. On Monday night, viewers were treated to Watts’ backstory. We spoke to Maslany to get the scoop on what makes the man tick and what it’s been like being part of the show.

So if you hadn’t been super tired and had that experience on Four in the Morning, Watts might have been totally different.
Daniel Maslany: I mean, Watts might have been someone else. I think there’s so much luck in this business, and I’ve … I can count all the different kind of serendipitous things that fall into place when I did a role and a lot of it is out of my control.

People have said a lot that Watts reminds them of Columbo. Are you seeing that? Was he an inspiration?
DM: In the writing, Columbo was actually written in the original breakdown for the character. It was a reference I didn’t know. I didn’t grow up watching Columbo, so I watched some clips to get some ideas, and then it sort of veered in its own … anything that goes through the filter of someone else, it becomes their own, so yeah, I had that as a reference point, but also so much had been in the script from Simon McNabb in that first episode. Norma Bailey was the director and she was always really encouraging me.

That became sort of a game in that first episode, and I honestly was happy with that being the character and would have been happy to play him in that realm for the rest of these three seasons. I found that really fun world to play in as a foil to Murdoch and be sort of his opposite.

But then I started getting these episodes, especially in Season 11 where it was taking Watts to a more human, emotional place, and that was really exciting to sort open him up in that way.

Your speaking voice with me right now is very different from the way that Watts speaks. What was the inspiration for the language choice?
DM: I think some of it had to do with the fact … we talked about being tired in the first episode and having to wake up earlier, and that kind of thing. I think it was also the most maybe grown-up role I’d ever played? So I kind of felt like I had to play it as grown-up/adult a little bit. So it’s kind of like a false … a false grown-up voice to it, which I think is appropriate, since he’s a really young. He’s a young detective, and he’s filling some big shoes, and he’s playing cops-and-robbers with all these real grown-ups. I feel like he plays a bit older than himself.

When Watts first came on to the scene a lot of fans said, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he coming onto this show? Is he going to replace somebody?’ But now you’ve become a fan favourite. What’s it been like to be embraced by the fans?
DM: It’s super exciting. I mean, I know it is such a loyal fan base, so I was … I kind loved the hot/cold attitude that they had with him, especially early on. It’s fun. What I find with the fans is that they like investing in the reality of the show, so they are actually cheering for the good guys and angry at the bad guys. And obviously no one would want to watch a show where everybody’s happy and good, but a lot of the comments you see online are, ‘I just want them all to be happy. I want the bad guys to go away.’ And the bad guys can’t go away or else there’s no show. So when Watts veers into more of an antagonistic realm, it’s fun seeing them be upset about that, because he’s not always super nice to Murdoch but obviously that’s the fun of it.

We’ve gotten a little bit of backstory into Watts in the last couple of seasons, but man, you really reveal a lot about this character in Monday’s episode.
DM: Yeah, I was as surprised, probably, as people will be watching the episode reading it, because this was all news to me, and with each more dramatic-leaning episode that I’ve had for Watts, I’m learning more about his backstory, and part of me, the nervous, scared actor me, wonders, ‘Oh, is this the same guy?’ and ‘Does this make sense that he would be so quirky and distracted and out of it if he’s had such a tragic past?’

I’ve been sort of realizing that these are his walls and his protection, his barriers that he puts up because he’s had a really tragic childhood, leading up to when he comes to Station House No. 1 and then to Station House No. 4, and then he keeps losing people in his life. So I’ve had this list that I keep going back to when Watts is having a sort of a sadder moment. He’s lost this person, this person, this person, and that list keeps getting longer with each episode. Because a lot of people have just left him or died.

You share some wonderful scenes with Yannick as William Murdoch, especially in the interrogation room. What was it like working with him up close and personal, just the two of you like that?
DM: That was such an exciting day, because we shot all of the interrogation stuff and the scene right before that where I’m getting my arm bandaged all in one day, and we got to shoot it chronologically, which is such a dream, because so often you’re shooting out of order, you’re trying to connect the dots, and especially with this script, because they’re so many alternate versions that are told, and his interpretations that are told.

It was really nice to work chronologically, and Craig David Wallace, the director and I, had a long chat after the first table read of this episode, where he broke down every single interrogation with me, and we went, ‘OK, what are the games being played? What is at stake? Is Watts just protecting himself, or is he protecting Hubert here?’ We kind of designed this whole arc, and also never talked to Yannick about it, because then there was this sort of playfulness and this mystery. But there’s an unknown of how’s the dynamic going to work once we both get in the room together. So Yannick didn’t know about these kind of things that we had discussed, and then it was really fun in the blocking watching Yannick react and see where he goes with it, with anything.

People don’t realize how much homework can go into making a TV show, and you did a lot of it for this episode.
DM: Yeah, I mean, I think everybody has a different process. Coming from the theatre, I really need to spend time with a script before I feel comfortable with it. I’m amazed by actors who can pick up a few pages, memorize it, and then shoot the scene and have such grounded and nuanced performances, but I do need to take some time and actually sort of think about the thought process of the character before I feel ready to share it.

I wanted to ask about the wardrobe that Joanna has created for Watts. She’s new to Murdoch this year with regard to the clothing. I guess that’s just another layer of getting into that character; putting on those suits, putting on that hat really gets you into character.
DM: Yeah, she was so great. She gave me a really fun new suit that’s a green plaid suit this season. It’s great, and I feel like it’s nice that it was established in a really silly Halloween episode, ’cause it fit so much with his really heightened palette there, and now it’s become one of his staples that he wears. In [Monday’s] episode, obviously, Watts shoots his own sleeve, his own arm. And so they have to cut a little hole in it and patch it, but it’s such a beautifully handmade suit, so they were like really worried to damage it at all. So it’s a really nice kind of a patching that they did. It still looks pretty great.

What can you say about Watts’ journey for the rest of this season?
DM: The joke is less about him bumping up against the way things are supposed to be done, and he’s learning to be a team member within the station house and work well with others, so he’s growing as a person and as a detective, and he’s also starting to question his own philosophy. So we see that unravel even a little bit more as the season goes on.

What did you think of this episode? Do you have a message for Daniel Maslany? Let me know in the comments below!

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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