By Kati Johnston
Special to MSN Entertainment
Burnaby, British Columbia -- Outside, it's a glorious Indian summer day in a dusty, nondescript neighborhood of warehouses near Vancouver.
But tucked inside one of those warehouses is a penthouse aerie worthy of Architectural Digest: all chrome, marble and warm wood, adorned with well-chosen art, books and pretty much the best of everything money can buy. From its well-appointed balcony, a view to die for: the skyline of Metropolis.
Welcome to Season 6 of the hit CW series "Smallville" and the bachelor pad of Oliver Queen, played by the boyishly dashing Justin Hartley ("Passions"). Oliver is the latest DC Comics character to visit Smallville and the young Clark Kent, future Superman, played by Tom Welling. Like Clark, Oliver has a secret: By night he darts into a secret compartment of his penthouse and suits up to become the Green Arrow, who, like Robin Hood, robs from the rich to give to the poor.
In the scene being filmed today (part of the sixth episode, "Reunion"), Oliver is giving a disbelieving Clark some nasty background about the Luthor family -- part of the reason Oliver has come to Smallville -- to persuade Clark to join forces to fight evil, forming the embryonic stage of the Justice League.
"I thought it was an act of kindness," Oliver says, relating a story about Lionel Luthor's sparing no expense to save the life of a schoolmate mortally wounded by his son, Lex. "Now that I'm older, I realize it was just an act. Lionel was trying to cover up what had happened between Duncan and Lex. Keep the stink off the Luthor name." As the story sinks in, Clark begins to realize the breadth of the evil of the Luthors -- including his onetime friend, Lex -- and he sees that he will need to step in as the past has come back to haunt Smallville.
Naturally, all of this leaves Clark somewhat tortured, which, of course, is part of the deep appeal of the series.
Life After High School
The premise of the series is brilliant: Focus on the young Clark Kent, wrestling with his powers, keeping an agonizing secret, even as he tries to fit in at high school -- where everyone is struggling. In Season 6, Clark is a young man who has graduated high school and is beginning to take shape as the adult he will be, but the turmoil remains.
Unlike other series that sparkled while their characters were in high school,
only to peter out after graduation day ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Beverly Hills 90210," "Gilmore Girls"), Welling believes "Smallville's" focus has
allowed it to grow along with its young cast members.
"The show rarely focused on the actual academic school year," Welling says during a break between takes, in an interview conducted, fittingly, in the nearby set of the newsroom of The Daily Planet. "It's been about the human drama ... about trying to be normal. I think a lot of people can relate to that. There is no normal."
Welling says he's excited about this season's development of the Justice
League and Clark's coming more to terms with his destiny. And he's looking
forward to his second stint at directing (his debut aired in April 2006) episode
16 of the new season.
"It's wonderfully fulfilling," Welling says of directing. "I really enjoy it; I learned a lot more about the cast and crew." After being on the set for nearly five years, he says, "I met a lot of people here I never knew before."
Season 6 will also signal subtly that Clark is leaving boyhood behind: less plaid. His plaid jacket will rarely be seen as Clark's focus moves away from the family farm. But the royal blue and red T-shirts, which showcase Welling's fighting-trim form, remain. So how many royal-blue T-shirts does Welling reckon he's worn over the course of the show? The star lets out a hoot of laughter.
"Thousands, as opposed to hundreds, really," he says. He tells of going to the T-shirt wardrobe trailer, having spilled something on a shirt and needing a new one, and watching the wardrobe coordinator scrutinize "racks and racks" of seemingly identical blue shirts, finally selecting "this one perfect one."
So at least some choices Clark will face won't be agonizing.
From "Smallville" to Metropolis
Back at Oliver's penthouse, Welling and Hartley are rehearsing another scene, in which Clark arrives, uninvited, while Oliver is practicing his archery. As Oliver lets a high-tech arrow fly, eyes closed, he waits for it to hit its target -- but doesn't hear it land. He opens his eyes to see Clark Kent has appeared -- and caught the arrow, midflight.
Director Jeannot Szwarc, a French-born veteran who's helmed several episodes of "Smallville," as well as "Without a Trace," "Boston Legal" and other shows, is demonstrating how Clark should grab and hold the arrow. Only problem is, Szwarc is at least a foot shorter than Welling, and his arrow grip is, shall we say, not quite as iron-firm as Clark's. Welling steps into the shot, immediately kneels down and holds the arrow limp-wristed, mocking the good-humored Szwarc and cracking up the crew.
Other times, the budding director in Welling is evident, as he makes blocking suggestions for navigating around the set; Szwarc is accommodating and they try Welling's alternatives. In between takes, Welling makes finger-puppets for the camera and tells a story about a party he was at recently at the Chateau Marmont, featuring an apparently cut-rate party psychic who had to be told that the "bad energy" of the place was because John Belushi had died there.
But when the cameras are rolling, he and everyone else are all business, working over the gleaming new penthouse set, becoming familiar with its furnishings and angles. The set is the brainchild of producer and production designer David Willson, whose sleek original designs incorporate elements of art deco and art nouveau and hearken back to the original "Superman" comic era, but with a decidedly 21st century glint.
Willson says the painted skyline outside Oliver's terrace has elements of San Francisco, Chicago and even Seattle ("that rounded building; it's based on the Seattle Art Museum"). Inside, the actors are getting used to the new set. During a particularly moving revelation, Hartley sits down on a postmodern chair, musing, and Szwarc interrupts him. "You look uncomfortable!" Hartley yelps, "This chair is unreal!" Then he composes himself: "I can look comfortable; I don't have to be comfortable."
Hero of the People
Uncomfy chairs notwithstanding, Hartley is having the time of his life. In an interview, he can barely contain his enthusiasm for his "Smallville" opportunity. Oliver has come to Smallville not only to exhort Clark to more formally fight the bad guys but to provide a love interest for Lois Lane (Erica Durance). For Hartley, it's all good.
"Any time you find yourself coming to work with a smile on your face at 6 a.m., that's great," he says. And after working in soaps, where actors typically cram 20 to 30 pages of dialogue per day and get one take, he says getting to work on several takes to get the perfect shot is a luxury.
His character, Oliver, the Green Arrow, "is a spokesman for the little guy," Hartley says. "He feels responsible ... trying to compensate for the demons in his past." As a kid, he tormented Lex Luthor in boarding school. As an adult, Oliver has changed his ways, Hartley says, and wants to make up for the mistakes of his youth. Hartley has taken serious archery lessons and says he can hit the bull's eye "pretty much every time." "People always ask me, 'But are you Geena Davis good?" he adds with a laugh.
The only thing Hartley isn't over-the-moon thrilled about is being so far away from his family: his wife, Lindsay Korman Hartley, whom he met on "Passions," and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabella. Hartley flies home to Los Angeles each weekend, but says it's hard to be away from home.
While dad's off filming, Hartley says, little Isabella has taken to watching the pilot episode of "Aquaman," which was produced by "Smallville" co-creator Al Gough, though ultimately not picked up by a network. "She calls me Aquaman, or Justin," he says grinning. "I call home and I hear this man's voice in the background, and it's me, in that pilot. It's pretty funny."
Except for being homesick, Hartley seems to be enjoying himself and even welcomes the ripple effects that come with fame.
"You have to be receptive to people ... I was in a Starbucks in Vancouver, and Renee Zellweger walks in; everyone in the store recognized her. I was wondering what that would be like, to have everyone recognize you," he says. Then, after she left the coffee shop, Hartley says, "I looked around, and every single person had a smile on their face, and that was because they had seen Renee Zellweger.
"That's a pretty great thing to be able to do -- bring a smile to someone, just for walking into a Starbucks."
Aww ... now we're all smiling. So here's to finding your true path and
saving the world, one bad guy, and one Starbucks, at a
"Smallville" kicks off its sixth season on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 8
p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
Kati Johnston is a freelance writer who specializes in entertainment: firstname.lastname@example.org
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