“I didn’t grow up being able to see characters like Ryan Wilder exist on television,” says Javicia Leslie. “I didn’t get that representation.” The rising star is talking with GAY TIMES from Vancouver as she shoots the brand new season of Batwoman, in which she makes history as the first ever Black – and bisexual – iteration of the iconic title character. “There’s a million shows happening right now, but there are a group of people that feel represented because of the lead in our show,” she explains. “That’s what is important.”
Following Ruby Rose’s shock exit from the series, Javicia – known for her roles on The Family Business and God Friended Me – made her explosive debut on the franchise earlier this year as Ryan, a former convict who seeks vengeance against those who killed her adoptive mother. In the notoriously gloomy world of Gotham, Ryan, while troubled (see last sentence), has injected some much-needed fun into the universe thanks to her stubborn nature, recklessness and wit – which Javicia says isn’t too far removed from herself.
“I was talking to my co-stars about this and I was like, ‘I don’t even know if this can be considered acting because her and I are so much alike!’ Our sense of humour is pretty much the same,” admits Javicia. “We’re both kids in this adult life who have to realise that it’s time to be responsible! We’re fighting for people that don’t have voices.”
Read ahead for our full interview with Javicia, in which she discusses her groundbreaking new role as Batwoman, how her mother’s military background impacted her growing up (as well as her take on the character), and the importance of on-screen superheroes reflecting the world we live in.
Javicia, you are killing it on Batwoman right now. How does it feel to have made history?
It’s amazing! It’s such a beautiful journey and more-so, I hope it opens more doors for artists after me; that they’re able to play these roles without the colour of their skin, gender or their queerness ever being a deciding factor against them. So, I’m excited to be part of that journey when it comes to opening up those doors.
I can’t imagine how wild this past year has been for you, rising to superstardom as the first ever Black Batwoman – in a global pandemic no less! How are you coping personally?
It’s so funny because I was thinking about that right before I called in, like, ‘Wow, this is so cool, just to do this phone interview with GAY TIMES!’ Like, this is amazing. I can’t wait to get out of here and experience the world in my shoes now. Know what I mean? I can’t wait to meet cool people! I can’t wait to do Comic-Con. I can’t wait to fully experience what this means. With everything going on, it took away the experience of being able to experience the world. But, I think that we’re really lucky to still be working during a pandemic where a lot of people aren’t. I don’t take that for granted, whatsoever, and I just look forward to us getting through this and going back to experiencing each other and the world. It’s such a beautiful world, and I think this is really going to make us appreciate this planet.
You were a bit of a superhero fanatic before you were cast as Batwoman, right?
Yeah! As kids, it was our way of playing with our imaginations and so I grew up watching all of the superhero movies, pretending to be in them! I was a huge Batman fan, huge. Then I was such a huge Storm fan because she was, honestly, the only Black female superhero we had in a movie.
Now look at you Javicia, you’re running around Vancouver in a cape!
[Laughs] Yes! Isn’t it cool? Now I’m that Black superhero.
As an out, Black female hero, Ryan isn’t like many leading characters on television. She’s confident in her sexuality and identity – plus witty as hell. How much of yourself did you incorporate into the character?
I was talking to my co-stars about this and I was like, ‘I don’t even know if this can be considered acting because her and I are so much alike!’ Our sense of humour is pretty much the same. We’re both kids in this adult life who have to realise that it’s time to be responsible! We’re fighting for people that don’t have voices. I was raised by a single mom. My mom is retired army and so I watched her be a superhero in my life. Not only was she a superhero to me, she was a superhero to so many people that she became a part of their lives. So, watching her stand up for other people always gave me the guts to stand up for what’s right, and that’s something that me and Ryan really have in common.
So, we have to attribute this glorious depiction of Batwoman to your mother!
Oh yeah! Mama Jackie needs to get her cheque!
Batwoman is incredibly refreshing because Ryan’s sexuality isn’t a defining aspect of her character, and her adoptive mother was extremely supportive when she came out. Do you think we’re moving towards a future where there’ll be less trauma attached to LGBTQ+ characters and more positive queer narratives?
My story wasn’t traumatic, you know? What I love the most about Ryan is that it’s very realistic for a lot of people’s stories nowadays, and they’re just able to exist without having to constantly explain who they are. As a Black woman, as a queer woman, you don’t hear it a million times throughout the show. We just allow her to exist, and that’s fun as a viewer to just watch people exist in their reality. You’re gonna see her story and her love story. Actually, a bit of it starts in episode four and then it goes on and gets really deep. Just to be able to watch this character exist without feeling like she has to defend herself the whole season is amazing.
How does it feel to be part of this change?
It’s exciting! I didn’t grow up being able to see characters like Ryan Wilder exist on television. I didn’t get that representation. My representation of Black people outside of Family Matters and stuff like that was kids shows and cartoons. In every cartoon, there’d be that one token Black kid, so that was my representation. So, to know that we have a show where we have a Black and queer lead, is so important and dope. There’s a million shows happening right now, but there are a group of people that feel represented because of the lead in our show. That’s what is important.
I know only a few episodes have aired, but what’s been your favourite Ryan moment so far?
My favourite Ryan moment is whenever she’s trying to be stubborn and a badass without listening to her team, because then you get to watch her make those mistakes. It’s really cool to watch her fail, honestly, because no one wants a perfect hero. I didn’t want a perfect hero growing up and that’s why I love Batman. He didn’t have any mad powers. He had to use his intelligence and his team, which is one of the most important parts and that’s something that Ryan does struggle with; the aspect of teamwork is hard for her because she’s never had a family. So, she’s always had to be on her own. With that, there’s a lot of struggle that she’s gonna go through, but it’s always fun to watch her fail! It’s always fun when someone says, ‘Don’t do that!’ and she does anyway. The laughter that comes with it is very enjoyable to be a part of.
Are you similar to Ryan in that aspect too?
I used to be! Not anymore. Now, I have too much at stake to be stubborn!
Like you said, Ryan has injected some much-needed fun into the rather gloomy world of Gotham. Was this intentional?
I think Caroline [Dries] wanted Ryan to be very different from the other superheroes in Gotham, so it was important for her to stand out. When I did the audition, there were parts that were written with more comedic relief, but then with the layer of my energy in general, I think it added a bit more comedy! What I love so much about this role is that it doesn’t feel away from me. It feels part of my own journey into becoming a superhero. Know what I mean? Like how Ryan couldn’t get into her suit the correct way in the first episode! I couldn’t get into the suit the correct way in the first episode either, so it’s an honest and grounded situation and performance. That allows us to feel safe that we’re making the right decisions when it comes to the comedy layers, because those are the decisions that I would’ve naturally made.
The comics have made strides in recent years with LGBTQ+ superheroes, but it feels like that isn’t entirely reflected on-screen. Why do you think there’s been hesitation from creators to have superheroes reflect the world we live in?
Well, I don’t feel like I’m coming in at the beginning anymore. Black Lightning had Anissa Pierce as Thunder, and she’s a Black, female lesbian hero. Then we have Nicole Maines on Supergirl, who is one of our first transgender superheroes. So I think that it’s happening, but it just isn’t happening enough. Really, I think that goes back to behind-the-scenes and the creators – we need more diversity there. I think that writers and creators write from their own experiences. Not saying they can only write from their experiences, but primarily, their writing comes from what they see or what they are. That means we need more creators of diversity and we’ll get more diverse stories.
What impact have you personally witnessed this iteration of Batwoman have on audiences so far?
It’s been amazing. I remember when I first got booked there was this little girl who saw it on the news and she said, ‘Hey dad, that woman looks like me.’ To be a part of something that makes a kid feel represented is the point.
At the moment in the superhero genre, there’s been a lot of talk about multiverses. If you had to cross over as Batwoman into any television show or film, what would it be?
C’mon, I think Batman could use some light-heartedness! Let’s have Ryan meet Bruce Wayne and do some magic together. Why can’t they both exist? I think they could exist in the same project. That would be really dope.
Would Ryan stomp Batman?
I think that, at first, they’re gonna be against each other because Ryan doesn’t like anything that feels part of the police or whatever. Also, she’s gonna look at him like, ‘You’re just like everyone else.’ But I think that once she really gets to know him, the way we’ve all gotten to know Bruce Wayne throughout the different movies and stories, she’s gonna appreciate him. I think they’ll be a dynamic team.
Let’s manifest this and make it a reality.
Exactly! Let’s manifest this Sam!
The second season of Batwoman airs every Sunday in the United States on The CW.