If you are the CEO of a company, real or fictional, you should always be prepared for any eventuality, and Smallville’s Lex Luthor is no exception. At the end of the show’s seventh year, the follicle-challenged villain disappeared, along with Clark Kent, after bringing down the Fortress of Solitude around them. As a result, Tess Mercer became the acting head of LuthorCorp, having been chosen by Lex to take over in his absence. She had big shoes to fill, but as season eight has unfolded, Tess has proven to be a more-than-worthy pinch-hitter. She has also revealed herself to be more than meets the eye.
“Tess has felt like a victim for a long time and is in search of redemption,” explains the actress who plays her, Cassidy Freeman. “It seems as if whenever my character begins a journey and feels like she’s going to find some goodness in the world, someone comes into her life that she can’t pass up. Tess winds up putting a great deal of faith into this person and over and over again is betrayed. First it was her dad, then Oliver Queen [a.k.a. The Green Arrow, played by Justin Hartley], followed by Lex Luthor [Michael Rosenbaum], and now she’s looking to Clark [Tom Welling].
“And it doesn’t need to be a romantic relationship either. For example, I see Lex to be more of a mentor or an older brother to Tess. It is, though, always someone who holds power, and I think she feels very out of control and needs to feel that control. However, I don’t believe that Tess is going to find that until she looks within herself. That’s what makes her such an interesting character to play. She’s extremely passionate about things and cares so much that she’ll go to some scary places to get the job done, which is why so many people see her as evil or a villain. However, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
In April 2008, Freeman filmed a pilot for the CW Network, along with, of all people, Justin Hartley, which was never picked up. When the role of Tess Mercer in Smallville came along, the network executives immediately thought of her and asked her to audition. She booked the role and subsequently began shooting her first episode, the season eight opener "Odyssey". In it, Tess takes over a search of the Fortress, but there is no sign of Lex. Returning to Luther Manor, she interrupts Lois Lane (Erica Durance), who, disguised in a French maid costume, is looking for clues to lead her to a missing Chloe (Allison Mack). Like Tess, this was unknown territory for Freeman, and one that both she and her character had to make sense of.
“This was only the second or third TV show that I’d ever done, so I was a little nervous,” recalls the actress. “I came onto the set to do my first scene and there were dozens and dozens of people there to watch. All the producers, every single crewmember, you name it. They were all thrilled that the show was starting up again for the season, and meanwhile I was thinking, ‘Could there be more people here to watch me.’ Erica was wonderful and so was the director, Kevin Fair. They all knew it was my first day, but I just remember walking in there and hearing this little voice inside my head saying, ‘Don’t screw up.’
“Because Smallville has been going for so long, it’s like a well-oiled machine and I enjoy that. It’s like stepping into someone’s life who has his or her day planned out on a calendar. So there weren’t many surprises for me with that first episode. Everything was scheduled and everyone had a very fluid way of doing things. I felt totally at home and I remember being really excited to receive the next script and then the next one, because up to that point I’d never played a character where I didn’t know the beginning, middle and end of her story arc.
“The initial [acting] challenges for me with this role were to very gingerly draw influence from the Lex Luthor character along with Michael Rosenbaum as an actor, because I needed to come out of the gate as part of his clan in a way. I had to resemble Lex and that world of LuthorCorp, and then out of that be able to create who Tess is. Granted, I had Eve Teschmahcer [Lex’s girlfriend in the 1978 Superman feature film] along with Mercy Graves [Lex’s personal bodyguard and chauffeur in the Superman animated TV series and comic books] to draw from, too, but I had to make Tess my own.
“So although I had these guidelines, I also had the freedom to create who I as well as the show’s writers and producers thought Tess is supposed to be. It’s sometimes difficult, though, to play evil. As a villain you have to believe that what you’re doing is not evil, or else you’re a one-note character. That makes the best villain, and I learned that by watching John Glover, who does that amazingly well as Lionel Luthor.”
Tess first crosses paths with Clark Kent in the season eight Smallville episode "Plastique" when he saves her from an exploding bus. In fact, a young woman named Bette (Jessica Parker Kennedy) caused the explosion. She had previously been exposed to a kryptonite meteor, the radiation from which gave her the ability to fire an explosive beam from her eyes. Tess wastes no time in recruiting Bette to join a team of individuals who also have special powers.
“That episode was really fun to shoot,” says Freeman. “It was directed by an American director, Rick Rosenthal, and I actually went to college with his son, which we figured out on-set. Rick is a very laid-back director and I thought he was a good match with this hectic type of story with tons of actors and extras as well as loads of blood and plenty of fire. So nothing got too out of hand thanks to Rick.
“I also really liked the character of Bette, or Plastique, and the idea of this being Tess’s first kind of soirée into doing something on her own schedule or in her own book by bringing Bette into the Injustice League. Also, if you love comic books and that whole heroic thing, the scene with Clark carrying Tess out of a burning bus is pretty cool. I felt sorry for Tom that he had to carry me so many times through burning rubble, but he was very amicable about it. That scene is quite reminiscent of how Clark saved Lex, which is when they met, so I thought that was a clever nod to the Smallville mythology by the writers.”
In "Toxic", Oliver Queen fights for his life after being poisoned by an old enemy who has the same fate planned for Tess. This story, which is a favorite of Freeman’s, also delves into her character’s relationship with Oliver. “This was the episode that I think we shot over an entire month,” says the actress. “There was a rockslide and we had to cancel one of our days on-location out at Squamish [British Columbia], which was doubling as the Caribbean. So we had to shift our filming days and it just seemed like the episode took forever to shoot. Something else that sticks out for me about working on this story is that my character had to be tanned, so they put fake tan [make-up] on my skin. It looked fine on-camera, but whenever I stood next to anyone else on-set I looked like an Oompa-Loompa [the creatures first seen in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory],” she chuckles.
“Mairzee Almas directed "Toxic", and I just feel she has such a beautiful vision as well as a wonderful concept of relationships. Oh my, God, there was a scene where I had to put leeches on Justin Hartley. I knew how uncomfortable he was about them and how much he didn’t like them, and I did my best to be strong for him, but, I mean, they’re leeches, who wants to touch leeches. And they were real. People would ask me, ‘Were they fake?’ Nope, they were real, and we even had a leech tamer on-set, too.”
Originally there was talk by Smallville writers/producers about Tess and Clark becoming romantically involved, but that was then changed to a back-story between Tess and Oliver Queen. Her and Clark’s relationship has since evolved in quite a different way.
“What I love about Clark’s and Tess’ relationship is that it involves these two powerful and passionate people who go about things in very opposite ways,” notes Freeman. “Clark is on the defensive a lot of the time and always ‘dodging bullets.’ If I had to give him an astrological sign I’d say he was a Pisces because he tends to go with whatever is being thrown at him. He does this almost out of a sense of helplessness in that should he make the wrong decision he could really hurt someone. Tess, on the other hand, is someone on the offensive. She’s very headstrong and wants answers and wants them now.
“At the beginning, she really did not trust Clark,” continues the actress. “Tess knew there was something ‘odd’ about him and that there was a reason why Lex was so obsessed with him. However, once she gets to know Clark a bit better, I think he sort of wins her over and Tess starts to understand why Lex was so obsessed with finding out about Clark, because he’s an anomaly. Now she’s in search of a hero, and she honestly believes that someone like Clark can bring some good to the world and change a world that, to her, has been brutally unfair. Again, it’s weird because she’s doing all these awful things for the betterment of the world.”
In the episode "Bulletproof", audiences learn that Tess knows where Lex is. She, in turn, discovers that he has been keeping track of her actions via a nano-transmitter he had surgically implanted into her optic nerve. “This [story] was a big turning point for my character,” says Freeman. “I love the moment when you get to see Tess Mercer not be the angry hard woman she’s shown herself to be. That’s a moment in a person’s life where he or she needs to follow their intuition, even though it might be scary and easier to go hide. To really take a stand and move forward is the strongest thing they can do, and even though Lex betrayed my character in a way, I think she almost thanks him for it. It has forced Tess to now become a much stronger person. Unfortunately, he had to screw her over in the process, but we all get hurt sometimes, don’t we?
“Lex provided Tess with a sense of power and belonging that she didn’t have before. I believe him to be a man in her life who didn’t want her sexually or romantically, but rather saw in her a fight and a pain that he could use and mold into whatever he wanted. Tess became Lex’s successor and someone he could trust in, but also someone who he could manipulate, place a camera in her eye and betray her. Her impression of Lex began as one of awe and a lot of respect, which then made his betrayal that much more difficult and heart-wrenching when she realized that, like every other man in her life, he had another idea in mind and used her. That’s what it felt like to her, so now she could care less. She was so vindictive, upset and angry, but has since let all that go.”
Earlier this month, the Smallville cast and crew wrapped production on the last two episodes of season eight, both of which Freeman is anxious for fans to see. “The first one is called "Injustice", so I think we can all guess what goes on there,” she says. “We’ll get to meet some new characters in it, and I just think it’s neat that we introduced something [The Injustice League] in episode two and then the writers brought it back in episode 21. As for episode 22, "Doomsday", it was down to the wire whether or not it was going to be the season finale or the series finale. That was especially hard for the writers, who had to come up with two different ways that the story could go. Obviously I can’t go into specifics, but I can say that it’s going to be a cool episode,” enthuses the actress.
The youngest of three children, Freeman has two older brothers, Crispin and Clark, who also work in the business. In June, she and Clark are scheduled to start filming the horror movie YellowBrickRoad, which was written by and will be directed by two of her college friends, Andy Mitten and Jesse Holland. Andy is the third member of Clark’s band, The Real D’Coy, which the actress performs with as well. “I love music and think it’s very healing,” muses Freeman. “There’s nothing quite like it. It’s like when you smell something and immediately feel as if you’ve been transported to another place; music is a very similar thing. You hear a song and all of a sudden it’s like you’re back in eighth grade.”
As for Smallville, it remains a mystery whether or not the actress will be returning as Tess Mercer in season nine. “I know if she’s going to be there, but I can't say anything yet one way or the other,” says Freeman. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”