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Reversing Expectations: Getting to Know The Flash's Tom Cavanagh

Reversing Expectations: Getting to Know The Flash's...

By Tim Beedle Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Actor Tom Cavanagh has made a compelling, ruthless villain on this season of The Flash. But offscreen, the generous actor is anything but villainous.

With the The Flash’s breath-taking season finale upon us, it’s only natural to look back on all of the episodes that preceded it. The Flash’s debut year found Barry Allen testing the limits of his abilities while uncovering the truth about his mother’s murder and sparring with some of his most well known villains. There were ups and downs, surprises, double-crosses and plenty of spectacular showdowns, most of them due to the secret machinations of one man—Harrison Wells, otherwise known as Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash.

With a story as gripping and propulsive as The Flash, it’s all too easy to overlook the strength of individual performances, particularly when we’re talking about a character we’ve been rooting against. But let’s look at Harrison Wells for a moment. Brought to life by actor Tom Cavanagh, the role has shifted from a mentor and ally to the Flash, to Barry Allen’s nemesis. It’s an adjustment that has found Cavanagh’s character befriending and aiding someone whom he purportedly hates, only to have the tables turned on him after the heroes unearth the truth about Wells.

The result is a truly complex relationship between the show’s hero and villain, and that depth has come across onscreen. While Wells has said many times that he hates and intends to kill the Flash, there’s a part of you that doesn’t believe it. It’s clear that whether he likes it or not, Wells cares about Barry Allen, and that sense of respect is also reluctantly shared by Allen. It’s a unique twist on the familiar friends-turned-enemies storyline that we see so often in super hero stories, but it wouldn’t work without this season’s phenomenal performance by Cavanagh.

But if you’re thinking Cavanagh plays a great villain because he has villainous tendencies in real life, think again. In fact, the actor is affable, fun and…dare we say it…heroic in real life, leading impromptu singing and dancing breaks on set and donating quite a bit of time and effort to the charitable organization, Nothing But Nets. At least, that’s what we discovered when we sat down to talk to him about his life on The Flash and outside of it.


Let’s start with a question I was talking to Grant about earlier. It’s funny that for two guys who are on opposite sides of this thing, you two actually have a lot in common. He’s a young guy, early in his career, anchoring a big show, and you were in a similar situation. What kind of advice have you given him?

It’s funny, we both kind of come from a little bit of the same world. The profile that you’re talking about happened to me a lot later than it did for Grant. Grant is in his 20s. That whole decade, I was just doing theater, and a lot of it was musical theater, and Grant has that background too. It’s nice to run into a guy whose dream, like mine, was essentially, I just want to get a role on Broadway!

When I started, some of the bigger roles I got in theater, I got through auditioning. Nowadays, there’s much more like, “Let’s get the star of The CW show The Flash into this Broadway role.” That’s going to be a great thing for Grant. Both of us have thought, you know, we could maybe use this platform to get some theater jobs, which is kind of nice because you don’t always run into that but it’s certainly how we feel. I live in New York and one of the reasons I live there is to get immersed into the theater.

Jesse Martin also….

At four o’clock in the morning, Jesse and I were on set doing a scene and the whole conversation was just about some of our favorite New York theater gigs. He was telling me about one of his earliest jobs—this is like, in the 80s—and he was running through the cast members and we just knew everybody. All these people that are familiar to us but would maybe not be familiar to somebody who spent their entire career in Los Angeles. There’s also many an impromptu tap dance break on set.  

That’s awesome. Grant mentioned that too.

We’re always singing and dancing. I know this isn’t the most macho thing, but we have between Carlos, Graham, Jesse and myself, a nice four-part harmony of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”!


Let’s talk about super heroes in general. Did you grown up with any kind of affinity? You’re Canadian, right?

I am, but I spent part of childhood in Africa and we had no TV or film, but we did have comic books. The Flash is and was one of my earliest favorites and I remember thinking at the time, the thing that made it relatable for me was the fact that he’s fast. When you’re eight or nine years old, you’re not Batman-tortured. Well, hopefully you’re not! You clearly can’t leap buildings in single bounds, but you can be fast, or at least be in the ballpark of fast. Also, there’s an innocence—there’s always been an innocence to Barry Allen. As a compliment to Arrow, the two of them are very different in that respect, and I think Grant brings just the right amount of resolve mixed with innocence to this role. And genuinely so. Sometimes there’s an ephemeral sense that translates to the screen when it’s genuine and I feel like he brings that.

If you could have a super power, what would it be?

It’s funny—I was asked this question recently and I had a couple of answers. The first one was unapologetic honesty, and the second one was to be able to eat as much pizza without it doing any physical harm. Then I think the person next to me said that he would like to create world peace and solve disease, and I’m like, oh yeah that’s good too.

So, high carb man?

I’m not one of those guys whose like, “Well, I’m on a kale diet!” Literally we’re talking and I’ve got the Starbucks coffee in front of me and a chocolate bar.

And you have the podcasts about snacks!

Oh, you know about that? Mike & Tom Eat Snacks. Yeah, a guy who is earning his wares in the snack game can’t really be an opponent of carbs.

That must be fun to do. Michael Ian Black’s a comic genius too.

He’s amazing. We’ve done movies and television shows together and one of our favorite times was always lunch, and then at lunch we’d just sit and talk over the grub and the food so we managed to parlay that into a podcast. It’s shocking that it has become semi-popular, but then it says a lot about the humans in North America that they are like, “Yeah! What are you going to review this week?”


Where in Africa did you grow up?

West Africa, in a coastal fishing village that happened to have a teacher training center for secondary institutions, which is where my father worked. It didn’t seem exotic at the time, but I look back on it now and have a massive amount of gratitude that that was a part of our childhood.

You were running at some point, a foundation, or an exercise—Nothing But Nets.

When I was a child, I had malaria, and my sister had quite a severe case of malaria. Nothing But Nets is essentially a very efficient pipeline to getting mosquito netting to those in need in Africa. It’s almost ironic how malaria is such a killer and how good an opponent a simple mosquito net is. was the brainchild of Rick Reilly, who wrote this article in the back pages of Sports Illustrated essentially saying, if all of us donate $10, we could probably save a village, and it turned into this massive thing where they raised more than enough to save a village. It’s grown and is now partnered with the UN.

We went over there a little while ago and gave nets to these refugee camps. You talk to the doctors there and just the gratitude they have with that simple act—you can drop the mortality rate by like 80%. It’s insane! People are dying and then you put these nets up. Everyone there that receives them, they understand how helpful it is to have that. It’s extremely simple and effective. The next generation has a decent shot at defeating one of the greatest killers of the continent. We’re hopeful. There’s a ways to go, but it feels like we’re on the right path.

The season finale of The Flash, “Fast Enough,” airs tonight at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST) on The CW.

(Written with assistance by Paul Malmont.)