It’s not easy filling Lex Luthor’s shoes, but that’s exactly what Cassidy Freeman was asked to do when she was cast as Tess Mercer on Smallville. While originally brought in to be the show’s antagonist, Tess evolved over the course of the series and eventually ended up teaming with Clark Kent and his pals, taking over Watchtower from Chloe Sullivan.
We recently talked to Freeman about the evolution of her character and the end of Smallville, which aired its final episode on May 13. We also discussed her big scene with Michael Rosenbaum, her plans for life after the show and the chances of a spin-off with Tess and Emil singing Elvis duets.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
Well I have two older brothers who are both actors and I watched them when I was a kid. They’re five and 10 years older, so I had a lot of space between us to be able to be inspired by them. I started doing school plays as a little kid and just really, really liked it. I’m not sure if I always knew I’d be an actor, but I always knew that I’d be performing in some way and it started super, super young for me.
Did you go to college for acting?
I did. I had an agent from when I was eight to 14 in Chicago, auditioning for movies and stuff. And then I got super close to a couple of things and the letdown from not booking them was a little too much for this 14-year-old girl to handle, so I stopped auditioning. And I just did school plays and played sports and was a teenager, which I’m really glad that I did that.
And then I went to college in Vermont – Middlebury College – for acting. It’s a liberal arts school. It’s not a conservatory, but I majored in theatre and Spanish, then left school and went straight to LA.
Some people we’ve interviewed go out to LA and work right away and others have long stretches of unemployment. Which camp did you fall into?
That’s one of the beautiful things about this particular field and also I think is kind of the representation of the West Coast is that there are no rules. I grew up in Chicago, which is the Midwest, but often people on the West Coast think that’s pretty far east. Then I went to school literally on the East Coast in that kind of world. And there’s a lot of like little rules and regulations.
And then you come out here and there are no rules. People come out here from the East Coast and they’re like, “Well, what’s steps one through seven that I have to fulfill to be successful?” And it’s not law school. It’s not business school. There’s no steps. All you can do is look back on people that you admire and people’s careers that you admire and see what steps they took and know that taking those specific steps is not going to give you the same results, but rather learn from maybe their life’s path or how they balanced their life and what they thought was important and how they set up their priorities.
So I came out to California not knowing what was going to happen, but my brother lived out here – my middle brother whose like my best friend. So I had that support system and we lived together. And his name is funnily enough Clark. He graduated from the same school I went to and we came out here when I was 18 actually for like four months or five months I lived in California just to see if I liked it or not. Then I went to college and then came back. And it took a while – and I say a while, but it’s not the same while as other people, which is apropos to what I was saying before that there are no rules. I was in town for three years and I did short films and I did student films and I couldn’t got hold of any manager or agent ever that would want to represent me. It was really odd.
Every six months that passed and I was frustrated, people would say, “Well it takes a while. Just stick it out. It takes a while.” Three years seemed like a really long time to 23-year-old me. But it’s really not a long time in the grand scheme of things, I’ve learned now. And it’s not a long time comparatively to people who have been there 20 years and are still going for it.
What changed after that three years?
It was really just, I think, a mixture of things. An opportunity came along for me to go to New York, actually, and do an Off-Broadway show with some people I’d gone to college with for like a summer theatre festival called the Potomac Theatre Project. I went back and everyone in LA was like, “Don’t go, don’t go. You’re going to lose your footing here. You’re going to lose your momentum.”
I was like, “I don’t have any momentum. Nobody knows who I am. What am I losing here by going to New York for four or five months – not even four months?” So I went and I did this show in New York and I got to really exercise my acting muscles outside of a class and really perform. A manager saw me in that audience and then she sent me back to LA. Then everything started happening.
So I think it was a mixture of that opportunity and also knowing myself better. Because I think life is kind of like sand – the more you grasp it, the more falls through your hands. But if you just relax a little bit, you can hold the whole handful.
In 2008, you joined the cast of Smallville and, at least originally, you were brought on to replace Lex Luthor on the show. How was the audition process for Tess Mercer and what was it like coming onto a show that had already been on for seven seasons?
I had never seen the show before I auditioned for it. Well, before I got the audition. I watched the season seven finale when I got the audition because I could find it easily. Or maybe it was just airing, actually. That was around the time that I got the audition.
I had shot a pilot for the CW called Austin Golden Hour with Justin Hartley, where we played EMTs. And that was my first audition for a pilot ever and that was my first pilot that I ever booked and it was my first TV job. We shot that pilot. It didn’t end up going, so we both got pulled in to audition for Smallville because the CW really likes their actors, which I think is a beautiful testament to their loyalty.
So they pulled us in for that and I swear to God I walked in, I did it, I walked out and I was like, “There’s absolutely no way I’m getting that part. I just bombed that audition.” Because they were like, “She’s got to be vixeny, sexy, totally like hardcore bitch,” and I was like, “I am not any of those things and I do not know how in God’s name I’m going to pull this one off.” So I wore a short skirt and boots and I was all, “I’m going to try – question mark?” [Laughs.] I thought I really, really failed. And then I didn’t fail, I guess. I got a call for a callback and I was like, “You have got to be kidding me.”
I wasn’t expecting it at all, but I guess they saw something in this character outside of just very simple, descriptive words. I think it’s hard sometimes for actors to go in and try to play something that they may not feel that they are, but really no one knows what they want. They want someone that walks in there with confidence and can make them feel something. Whether you’re blonde or brown haired, whether you’re tall or short, whatever you are, whether you’re white or not, you can do that. So you’ve got to convince them that they want you. [Laughs.] And even though I had no idea that I’d done that, I guess that I’d done that.
And then starting the show was daunting after seven years, but I have to say with three of us coming on that season, it felt like a shift. So it didn’t feel like: “Here’s Cassidy, the new girl.” It felt like: “Here’s Cassidy and Justin and Sam [Witwer] and you all are new characters and the show’s kind of shifting a little bit and lets see if it works.” But it also takes a little bit of the pressure off because when you do a pilot – which I just did one, so I’m like in this place right now – you don’t know if it’s going to go to series. So you may have just spent that time shooting a really great TV show and making friends and creating this family and you could maybe never see them again. And you have to be okay with that.
Doing Smallville didn’t have that pressure because I was like, “I know the show’s on for at least a year.” So this is going to be a really cool experience.
You mentioned that you didn’t quite sync up with the way Tess was originally described to you. Over time, the character changed a lot on screen from when you were first cast. Do you think that was always the plan or do you think they saw something in you and adapted the role more towards you?
I don’t think they planned that at all. I think they had a vision for her and I think it kind of changed. I think that is kind of because they cast me. But I think they’re happy about it. I hope they are. They say they are. [Laughs.] If they’re not, they’re lying to me. When you’re a painter, someone says, “I love that painting,” and no matter how deeply you went into yourself to paint it, they don’t know that because they’re looking at something that’s not you. As an actor, when they’re like, “I love your work,” they kind of have to like you too. They have to like a part of you because you’re bringing a part of you to it. It’s inherently personal. If you don’t like Julia Roberts, you’re not going to love her characters because she brings so much of herself to that.
In saying that, the greatest compliment I ever got from anyone wasn’t that I was pretty or that I was whatever, it was that I was likable. I think that’s a really awesome compliment because, as an actor, if you’re likable, then people are always rooting for you even if you’re doing stuff that’s pretty messed up. Which also means that you are relatable. Which also means that you’re human. Those qualities in an actor and in a character are paramount because if you don’t care about a character, goodbye character. They don’t need you. But if someone likes you, even if you are kicking people to death or shooting people or doing really crappy stuff, you’ve got to stay because you want to know what’s going to happen to that character.
And I’m not saying that I planned this from the beginning, but I will say that I struggled in the beginning with being very two-dimensional, which is how I at first interpreted this character as being kind of a replacement because Michael [Rosenbaum] wasn’t coming back. And she was really bitchy and wore a lot of smoking eye makeup and was a total weird sexual vixen that like manipulated people through her sexuality. And that’s not something that, even if I tried, I could do in real life. It was uncharted territory for me and when I first started I felt really like I was putting something on.
Then as I relaxed a little bit into it and realized that the only time that you really are succeeding as an actor is if you are bringing yourself to something and you’re really getting people to feel because you’re feeling through storytelling. That is success. It doesn’t matter if people were like, “You were so vixeny.” I didn’t care. I wanted people to feel things. Maybe I sabotaged the bitchy Tess into making her more likable and more human, but I also think it made the character way more interesting.
You ruined their plans in a really fantastic way.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
The Smallville finale was this victory lap for Clark Kent as he finally became Superman and married Lois Lane, which was a triumphant moment for everyone. Meanwhile, Tess got strapped to a table, her dad tried to cut her heart out and she ended up getting stabbed by Lex. Your character got redeemed in the end, but overall it was not a fun finale for Tess.
No, no, I was not shedding tears at the wedding. I was getting my ass kicked in the lab. But let’s be honest – is this really any different than any other episode? [Laughs.] Not really, right?
Was she even invited to the wedding?
Yes she was. If you notice, in that scene when I go to Watchtower and I realize that all of the satellites are offline, when I walk in I’m walking in with a dry cleaning bag and that’s supposedly the dress I’m supposed to wear to the wedding. So I walk in and throw the bag on the stairs because that’s taking second priority to the fact that I know something’s off. Granny freaky Goodness just came and made me feel like the world’s coming to an end, which it inevitably was.
I think some character had to be that character. Given the history of all those character together, I was the only choice. It would be weird if I was standing up there and Oliver was off doing that or Chloe was
off doing that.
What was it like filming a scene with Michael Rosenbaum, who you were essentially brought in to replace? Was it fun to get to do a scene with Lex Luthor?
Absolutely. We’d never even met before. Honestly, I think because of all the stories I’d heard about him, it felt like I already knew him. I think we both came to the table knowing that we had this one scene to do, knowing what a big f’ing deal it was for the series, and just ready to have fun and hang out and get to know one another. It’s kind of that thing where like if everybody on set loves him and everybody on set seems to love me, we’re obviously going to get along.
I heard very funny stories that he breaks into song and he’s very flamboyant and fun. And those are all true. But in essence we spent five hours together.
Did you have to do a lot of stunt training and fight choreography work initially to train for the role of Tess?
No, whenever one of those scenes comes up, they just teach us that specific fight. And we as actors do everything that we can do that’s not dangerous until we can’t do something or it doesn’t look right, then the stunt double will step in.
So you end up doing most of it yourself?
I do because I want to and they actually have to tell me not to do the stuff that’s really dangerous. But there is one stunt that no one believes that I actually did and that was in “Checkmate” when I’m wearing that crazy wig and running around as a double agent in season nine. Tess is running and she flips over this chain-link fence – like climbs up, throws her legs over it, flips over it and lands on her feet. And that was totally f’ing me and no one believes it, but it was.
Jacob Rupp, who’s our stunt choreographer and coordinator, he taught me how to do it. He kind of pulled me aside and was like, “You want to learn how to do this so that you do it?”
[Editor’s Note – You can see the scene she is talking about below …]
How long did it take you to get it down?
Oh, a couple of minutes. They put a mat on the other side. They hide a mat underneath the ground so it’s not super dangerous. And I’m wearing flats – I’m not wearing the heels that you usually see me in. They do little things to make it safer, but you kind of just have to let go and go for it.
It is surprising that they put you in heels since you are actually pretty tall in real life. How is it being tall in Hollywood, since most actors are short?
They are. They’re like shoes – the smaller the size, the cuter they are.
You know, I think there’s actually a bit of a revolution coming. I see a lot more taller women coming to the plate and I think that – or at least I hope that – people are noticing talent more than size.
Plus, both Tom [Welling] and Justin are very, very tall dudes, so they made it easy for us. Erica [Durance] is 5’8”, she’s not short by any means.
Now that Smallville is over, what are the chances we can get a spin-off of Tess and Emil taking their Elvis duet act from the episode “Fortune” on the road, traveling around the country together on a tour bus?
Or like a cruise ship, maybe? I’m behind that. If you can get that going, I’m signing up.
Out of your entire run on the show, that might have been Tess’ best scene. It was so much fun to watch.
It was fun because it was so unlike her.
Emil was really fantastic in that scene too.
Yeah, AJ – Alessandro Juliani. He’s great. He’s super great. He was in Battlestar. It’s funny, I actually knew him before I started. He was friends with my neighbor in Vancouver and my neighbor was like, “I have a friend who’s an actor.” I met him and his girlfriend and saw him on stage in summer Shakespeare in Vancouver. Then he started being on the show and I was like, “Whoa.” Then we were always like, “When are we going to get our scene together? We’re friends.” Then we got that scene and we were all like, “Whoa.”
He’s a great singer. He’s got a great voice. It was really, really fun and we actually went back before we started filming, after Christmas, and recorded that in a recording studio together. It was so much fun and it was kind of a dream come true for me to get to sing because I love singing and I was like, “Well, there’s never going to be a time when Tess Mercer is going to break into song.” And then they created that moment. It was a total dream come true.
Speaking of singing, you are part of a three-piece band called The Real D’Coy, which you play in with your brother, Clark. How did that come about and how often do you do shows?
We’re a little bit on hiatus right now because life has been a little crazy. It was kind of something to fill our time when none of us were working in Hollywood and now thankfully all of us are, which is great. It was me and my brother Clark and our friend Andy Mitton, who is really busy right now because he and our other friend Jesse Holland wrote and directed the feature horror film YellowBrickRoad that we shot two years ago and is actually coming out in theaters next month. My brother Clark and I produced it and Andy and Jesse directed it and wrote it and Clark and I play brother and sister in the movie. The whole cast is a bunch of friends from Middlebury, where we went to college. It’s a very incestuous and fabulous group of people.
It’s coming out in AMC theaters in 36 cities in this new distribution deal with BloodyDisgusting.com. They release a horror movie every month in AMC theaters, which is pretty cool for those independent films.
So we’re not really playing that much music anymore, but I try to sing and play music as much as I can, even if it’s just for fun and not in preparation for a tour or CD.
You play keyboard in the band. Do you play any other instruments?
I grew up playing alto saxophone. And I play the guitar.
Why is there not more saxophone in music these days?
That’s a really, really good question. I think part of it is because Lisa Simpson has cornered the market in that and I think also because it’s not a very easy sing-alongable to instrument and right now we’re in pretty heavy lyrical music versus like big band music.
But think of all the great 80s music that had saxophone in it.
Or even Dave Matthews.
You are missing an opportunity here to bring the sax back.
[Laughs.] I’m going to talk to some people about that.
So what’s next? You mentioned that you recently shot a pilot.
It’s for A&E, it’s called Longmire. It’s Warner Bros. television again, but it’s set up for the network A&E, so it would be cable. It’s based on a bunch of mystery novels by Craig Johnson and they are about a sheriff named Walt Longmire who solves crimes in Wyoming. It’s pretty cool. We don’t know if it’s going to go yet. They just finished filming. It’s totally up in the air. If it goes, I think it would be a really good show.
What’s your part in it?
I play Walt’s daughter. I’m the sheriff’s daughter.
What else is on the horizon for you?
I’m going to have some fun. I’m going to hang out with the people I love and spend some time. I have like eight weddings this year to go, so that’s awesome. I’m just going to hang out and see what comes up next.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I think you’ve just learned a lot of things you didn’t know about me.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I’d probably be a veterinarian. I love animals. I love my dog maybe too much. And I’ve always loved medical things. I don’t know if I have the stomach to be a human doctor, but I think it might be easier for me to operate on a dog than for me to operate on like a child just emotionally. But I always wanted to be a veterinarian when I was kid. Mainly actually like sea mammals. I wanted to work with like sea mammals.
You should be a TV doctor.
That’s the third idea now. If you can keep sending those ideas, that would be awesome.