INTERVIEW: Javicia Leslie on becoming BATWOMAN and the power of representation

Comic News

This Sunday sees the return of The CW’s Batwoman series, albeit with a significant difference: actress Javicia Leslie has joined the series as its new lead, playing brand-new character Ryan Wilder. The addition makes Leslie the first Black woman to portray Batwoman, and the second openly gay actress to star on the series after previous lead Ruby Rose. Ahead of the second season premiere for Batwoman, Leslie sat down with members of the press to answer questions about joining the series, making Batwoman her own, the importance of representation, and much more.

Actress Javicia Leslie

The session kicked off with a question about Leslie’s first impression of Ryan Wilder. She described Ryan as “the opposite of Gotham,” showing a different perspective on the city that viewers usually get from rich and powerful characters like Bruce Wayne. As an actress with a martial arts background, Leslie said that it has helped her to do a lot of her own stunts on the series, and that it gives her a common language to use with the stunt coordinators when blocking an action sequence.

Regarding any pressure she may have felt as a new actor playing a new character joining an existing show, Leslie said she experienced the opposite. “My only job was to really create the world of Ryan,” she said, “to make sure that that felt authentic and grounded.” She said she felt confident in doing that given the solid foundation the series had already established for itself.

On the importance of Ryan’s sexuality, Leslie likened the introduction of Ryan, even before Leslie was cast, as an out lesbian to Leslie’s own description upon her casting as “the first Black Batwoman.” The actress acknowledged the role that those titles play in media, and that it highlights the importance of representation in all corners of media. “We’re reducing our representation, but it doesn’t change the population of who is a part of that community,” she said, “So that’s why it’s necessary to say it. That’s why it’s necessary to find some kind of way that finally people of that community can identify with superheroes.” Leslie said that Ryan Wilder’s sexuality is “not talked about, it exists, which is reality.” Whereas Kate Kane had a coming out story during the show’s first season, Leslie said Ryan is past that phase of her life, particularly given the character’s background as an orphan and a foster child.

Asked about Ryan Wilder’s similarities to Bruce Wayne in terms of deriving her power from the Batsuit, Leslie said she felt the same thing herself when she donned the uniform. “We’re all trying to find a way to find our superhero suit,” she said, and described Ryan as tired of having no one to protect her and her community. Leslie said her position at the intersection of Blackness, Black womanhood, and queerness, she recognized the importance and power of that representation, and praised the series for being “very specific” rather than trying to please or represent “the masses.”

Ryan Wilder

In reference to what she hopes viewers take away from Ryan Wilder, Leslie said she has always felt like what she sees in superhero shows is “the opposite of me,” whereas Ryan is more relatable. “She’s not some rich, wealthy socialite. She is literally like all of us, and she’s now entering this world of fantasy. You can really imagine yourself in that world through Ryan’s journey.”

A question was asked about what Ryan Wilder’s possibly interaction with Bruce Wayne might be like. “They definitely will have their own dynamic,” Leslie said, adding that “it gets addressed right away” in the season premiere. Asked about sitting in the Batmobile, Leslie described the car as “powerful” and with its own energy even before you get into it. She praised the designers and production team who brought the car to life. “It’s super-fun and epic, and super-cool that young kids are going to get to see this Batwoman in the Batmobile.”

With a new generation of young viewers likely to see her as an inspiration, Leslie described the situation as “surreal,” and said she’s “super-excited to see little kids with big afros representing Batwoman. I wish that I had a superhero to watch on television every week that I could feel myself being represented through,” she continued, “And I just pray that this opens doors for more characters to be represented in our superhero communities.” Asked who her personal hero is, Leslie named her mom, a single mother and retired member of the Army who raised her and her brother. “If that isn’t a superhero I don’t know what a superhero is,” she said.

On the responsibility of being a role model for young children of color, Leslie described learning Black history herself as a child in a majority African-American school district, saying that she “learned Black history in a different way than I’m sure a lot of other African-American kids.” She said that all of the Black entertainers she learned about – Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, and others – were not only actors and artists but also activists because they had to be. She said she remembers the moment as a child when she realized, “I want what I do in my life to make such an impact that 20, 40, 60 years later there’s a kid reading about what I was able to do for our world, for our people, and I wanted to do it through my art, through my passion.” She said she prays that her legacy is one that gives underrepresented people who view her work the inspiration to make a difference just as she was inspired by those she learned about when she was younger.

A question was asked about whether Ryan will connect with any characters during the second season in a similar way that, during the first season of the series, Kate Kane connected with a young lesbian character who ended up seeing Kate as a role model. Leslie praised the character, Parker Torres, and said she hopes they’re able to bring her back at some point. Leslie went on to say that a character introduced in the script that she just read may end up being a similar character. “I can definitely see this character being impacted by who Ryan is in Gotham, by who Batwoman is in Gotham, especially when we’re living in a world where our ‘police’ are not being held accountable for their actions. Ryan definitely is on the side of, if she were real she would say, ‘Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor.’ That’s the perspective that she comes from.” Leslie also described an encounter that Ryan has in her early days as Batwoman in which she meets a young girl who addresses her as Batwoman. Ryan quickly says that she’s not Batwoman, but the girl says “To me you are.”

The changes to the Batsuit were mentioned, with Ryan Wilder donning her own version of the suit as compared to Kate Kane’s suit and even Bruce Wayne’s suit. Leslie said she “felt a shift in myself in owning the character” when she switched from the Kate Kane suit to Wilder’s suit. She said wearing the previous suit felt like wearing someone else’s shoes, and that the first time she put on the newly-designed costume “felt like ‘This is it. This is our Batwoman.’ At the end of the day, the suit represents a legacy. It’s not that only one person can wear the suit.” She mentions the history of Batman’s suit being donned by others when Bruce Wayne was missing or incapacitated, saying, “It’s not about the last name, it’s about the character of the person, it’s about the morality of the person, and Ryan has that. She may not come from wealth and prestige, but she’s a person that knows what’s right and what’s wrong and will always fight for what’s right.”

A questioner mentions Ryan’s drive in the first episode of the season, and how that will help or hurt her throughout the season. Leslie said, between quarantining and costume fittings, she had six to eight weeks to spend getting to know Ryan and her past, so when she first saw Ryan’s drive in the first script she understood it in the context of where Ryan came from. She also described her history with foster care – Leslie’s grandmother’s sister was a foster parent, so she has cousins who were foster kids – and how it helped her understand Ryan’s life and perspective, and her reaction to the murder of her adoptive mother. “I’m going to have that type of energy or that type of drive every time I get a chance to avenge her death or save anyone.” She said part of Ryan’s journey is in learning to focus that drive and energy in service of a bigger picture. She also teased how an event that takes place at the end of the season premiere will impact Ryan’s journey in a way that reflects the character’s strength and pride, for better or worse.

Leslie said she has not yet seen her action figure, but that she’s excited to have one. Asked about comic influences of her own, Leslie said she was raised on comic book movies and TV shows, but that she didn’t read them herself as her brother wouldn’t let her touch his collection and her mom wouldn’t buy them for her. She said that, after she didn’t develop magical powers like Sabrina the Teenage Witch when she was a teenager, Batman became her favorite hero because he’s a person who doesn’t have powers but is still a hero.

The dynamic between Ryan Wilder and Alice was mentioned as being very different from that of Alice and Kate Kane (they were sisters). Leslie said that people do things sometimes without realizing what consequences they will have for others, which is something Alice will have to face over the course of the season. “She’s unleashed a lot of evil on Gotham, but the story never follows the homeless person in the alley who was affected by what she did. So now she’s being met with the impact of her actions, so it’s definitely going to be a very interesting relationship between the two. It’s going to be a huge part of the season and in Ryan’s journey and Alice’s journey.”

Javicia Leslie debuts as Ryan Wilder in the season 2 premiere of Batwoman this Sunday, January 17th, on The CW.

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