Interview: Javicia Leslie on her groundbreaking role in Batwoman S2
When Season 1 Batwoman, billionaire Kate Kane, goes missing in action (following actress Ruby Rose’s exit due to a back injury), homeless ex-con Ryan Wilder, played by Javicia Leslie, stumbles upon the batsuit and, with it, a chance to rise above the system that has kept her powerless all her life.
Apart from being a lesbian, Javicia’s rogue Batwoman is nothing like her predecessor. A scrappy vigilante, Ryan is sassy, agile, raw, fallible and even goofy. She’s not your stereotypical all-American hero, but she could be exactly what Gotham needs…
Nominated for Best Superhero Adaptation by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films earlier this year, Batwoman also picked up nominations at the 2020 GLAAD Media Awards and the Queerties. Season 2 has an 89% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics consensus says it maintains “the show’s excellence while giving Javicia Leslie plenty of room to spread her wings.”
Fun fact: South African Werner Pretorius, who worked on the Oscar-winning 2005 film Tsotsi, is the head of department for special makeup effects on Batwoman.
We caught up with Javicia to find out more about her groundbreaking role:
What was your first thought when you heard you’d got the part?
In our industry, we’re more used to hearing the word ‘no’ than the word ‘yes’, so that’s what I was expecting. To hear ‘yes’, it took me for a loop. It took me a second to react. When I finally reacted, of course I started crying. But then, a few hours later, I opened up my phone and I’m reading the trades, and that’s when it dawned on me, because the first thing I saw was ‘Javicia Leslie, the first Black woman, the first Black actress to play Batwoman.’ When I was auditioning for it, it never really… went through my head, [except] in a negative way, like, ‘They’re not going to cast a Black woman.’ So, when I saw that in the articles, I realised this was way bigger [than me]. And at the time, with so much going on with my people, I felt like it was something that we needed. It was a boost that we all needed to feel.
I grew up watching Batman and I know how I would get lost in that world, and just to be able to bring some of that entertainment and some of that joy, through our lens, it’s really important. I’m really honoured to be a part of that.
What does it mean to be a Black superhero in 2021?
I think Chadwick [Boseman, the star of Black Panther] really opened up a door for us as artists, especially artists in the superhero genre. Something I live by is that I believe God blesses us with our passions to find our purposes. Chadwick’s purpose was fulfilled through his art. He was using his art as activism. And it allowed roles like Batwoman to be filled by a Black artist, knowing that there is an audience for that. I think Black Panther showed that there is an audience for Black superheroes. So I really just pray that a part of my purpose is to use my passion to also [set] the stage for someone else to tell their story as a Black superhero or as a Black artist in general.
What’s helped you face the challenges getting to this point?
I think a lot of it has to do with my faith. I feel like I am where I’m supposed to be. It took a lot for me to be able to trust that, for me to be able to trust my journey, that God has me. If I would have gotten those roles, and they would have said yes, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. So to every ‘no’, for every closed door, it’s really the beginning of a beautiful opening: you have to have faith that it’s there.
My entire journey in LA was just believing that there is a bigger picture. My mom is my biggest supporter, but even she at one point said, ‘When are you going to come home and get a real job?’
I had to have faith and I had to know that there’s a bigger picture, and I’m so happy I held on. If there’s any advice I’d give any aspiring anything, anything you want to do, you can’t stop, you can’t listen to the naysayers, you can’t listen to the ‘nos’.
I just want to see representation at its finest and at its highest, and I’m tired of waiting for someone to give it to us. I think that what’s really going to allow it to happen is to continue to bring it to the forefront on our own.
What challenges did you face in taking on this role?
To be completely transparent, when everything first started and we started filming, it was like a fast moving vehicle, and I didn’t really have time to react to a lot of stuff, because I didn’t know how to be a superhero. I remember, the first time I put the suit on, I was just like, ‘How do I hold my hands?’. I didn’t understand the concept of any of it. So, while Ryan is learning to be Batwoman, Javicia is learning to be a superhero. And it was really scary and I didn’t know: was I doing it right, you know? And I could try to emulate other people but it wasn’t natural for me because I knew I had to find this on my own.
You also faced vicious online trolling…
In between scenes, if there was a long period of time, I’d get on Instagram. I remember one day, I got on Instagram, and I read comments that were just… they were breaking me. I’m a pretty tough cookie. I’ve been through a lot. But to see people say such nasty things, and they haven’t even seen the show yet – this is how I knew that this had nothing to do with the dislike of a character. You’ve never even seen the character. This was all about the idea that this character should be played by a white woman, and ‘What do you mean she’s Black? Batwoman can’t be Black.’
The comments just got nastier and nastier, and I would block people but they would find a way to get to me. So I had read some really disgusting comments, and I went back on set to shoot my last take of the day, and [afterwards], I got to my trailer, and I just started crying. I couldn’t stop crying. I was just like, ‘It’s not fair, to have something that’s so beautiful in my life… have this shadow on it.’ This is life-changing for me, and it’s so important to so many people, and there are these people in this world that want to take that away from us.
What are your hopes for 2021? What are you demanding more of?
I’m demanding changing the definition of normalcy and what we think is normal, what we define as normal. Representation is so important, especially in under-represented communities.
We’ve shown as Black people that the Black dollar is powerful, and I think because of that, we really should be more represented.
And when you’re representing us, represent us in all shapes, sizes, and colours and shades. I’m ready to see some more chocolate leads, chocolate female leads. I’m ready to see more love stories with dark-skinned Black women. We don’t get that enough. I look at Issa Rae and I’m like, ‘That should be way more common.’ It’s not to throw shade towards any other complexion in our beautiful array of complexions that we have as Black women, I just feel like I want to see more of it, because it empowers so many individuals that feel powerless in the world where they don’t see themselves.
And they don’t see themselves as beautiful, because this country [America] specifically has told us that we weren’t, has told us that our complexion doesn’t represent beauty, our hair doesn’t represent beauty – which is funny because they’re out there trying to get our hair and get our complexion and get our butts, trying to get our sizes and our shapes. You take it from us, but then you tell us it’s not beautiful.
I just want to see representation at its finest and at its highest, and I’m tired of waiting for someone to give it to us. I think that what’s really going to allow it to happen is to continue to bring it to the forefront on our own. You have to have your Issa Raes, have your Ava DuVernays, have your women that are creating the content to show us in all of our beauty. That’s really important.
At the end of the day, life imitates art. To know that it’s possible is to see it; to see it is to believe it. And you need to start seeing more of it.