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SFN+ | Batwoman Season 2: Javicia Leslie talks Black Action Heroines

After Ruby Rose’s departure from the Batwoman series after the first season playing Kate Kane, we get to know the new Batwoman: Meet Javicia Leslie and Ryan Wilder…

After the dramatic events at the end of Season 1 of Batwoman, which saw Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) have a public stand-off with Commander Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott) and the Crows, we begin Season 2 with the disappearance of Kate and a Gotham that grappling with their missing hero, believing Batwoman has fled the city.

But Kate Kane’s disappearance hits hardest at home where Jacob, Sophie (Meagan Tandy), Luke (Camrus Johnson), Mary (Nicole Kang) and even psychopath Alice (Rachel Skarsten) each struggle with the devastating news in their own way. Meanwhile, the False Face Society tightens its grip on Gotham, distributing a perilous new drug known as Snakebite, “Bruce Wayne” (guest star Warren Christie) finds his way home to wreak havoc, Safiyah (guest star Shivaani Ghai) surfaces with plans for revenge, and a new set of villains descends on the city…

However, someone else is destined to take on the role (both on-screen and off) of Batwoman: Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie). Based on the characters created for DC by Bob Kane with Bill Finger, Ryan is a smart, sassy lesbian with a difficult past. When she finds Kate’s Batsuit, she sees it as her chance to finally be powerful and no longer a victim as she survives the tough streets of Gotham.

As chaos and uncertainty proliferate, Ryan realises how much the symbol on the suit means to Gotham, launching her on a personal journey that takes her from fledgeling substitute to confident caped crusader, from living in her van with her plant to chasing villains in the Batmobile. Ryan Wilder becomes a very different Batwoman than Kate Kane – her own Batwoman – but with the same understanding of what it means to be a hero.

We spoke to Javicia Leslie about taking on the role of Ryan, the importance of the role during the Black Lives Matter movement and finding her very own Catwoman…

Ryan is a character that’s been made for the show – how was it taking on a character that hasn’t been established in the comic books?

It was a lot of fun because whatever decisions we make is now the history of Ryan and it feels a little bit more creative because we’re the ones creating the story as we go. I think that the pressure of [not] having to emulate someone else helps a lot. To be able to just freely go into this world, freely go into this life of Ryan makes it very fearless. It makes me feel very supported because I know that the work that we did and the work that we do is something that was very much in-house.

We’ve seen from your Instagram that you’ve been watching some old Batman movies, were you always a fan of Batman and superheroes? Which of the Batman films or iterations is your favourite?

I’ve always been a fan of Batman. That was the first superhero movie I’d ever seen. It was so epic to me. I think technically Michael Keaton was the first [iteration of Batman] that I saw. I don’t know if I can pick my favourite Batman, but I can definitely tell you Tim Burton’s version of Batman, in general, has always been my favourite because it’s very dark, it’s very melodramatic and I think that when you look at a superhero show, you want to get lost in it. You don’t want to feel like this is reality. I feel like his was so far from reality and it made it fun for me. So if I had to pick (which I don’t feel like I should have to because all of them are amazing!) but Val Kilmer I think might be my favourite so far. But characters like Heath Ledger’s Joker brings me to Christian Bale’s Batman and then characters like the Penguin take me back to Michael Keaton’s Batman…

Who in the Batman universe would you like to see Ryan go against?

Let’s bring ’em all [haha]! Let’s bring Joker, Penguin… let’s bring all of them! I love the energy Batman and Catwoman had. I would love to have that supervillain/love interest where you know this person is really bad for you but you can’t help but want [them]. So I would love Batwoman to find her own version of the Catwoman.

How have both you and Ryan tackled that responsibility of becoming a superhero?

I feel like that’s something I really connect with when it comes to Ryan – this journey that we both have to go on to become a superhero. I didn’t know how to be a superhero. I remember my first day on set, I was just like, how does a superhero fold their hands? No one else on the show has been a superhero yet so I had to figure it out on my own. I think it makes the journey very authentic because along with Ryan figuring out how to become Batwoman, I’m figuring out how to become Batwoman. I’m not ashamed about that. I feel like that’s what makes it so much fun, and that’s what makes it an enjoyable experience. Every single thing that I do on set is my first time doing it. I’ve been practising Muay Thai before I started filming this, but I’ve never done it for the camera, and so as Ryan is learning to do everything that she does, so am I. It just makes for a very fun experience.

Kate Kane had a lot of history with the central characters in Batwoman – how do they react to Ryan taking on the role of Batwoman?

I think it’s hard for everyone when Ryan shows up in the Bat-suit. She shows up at a time when they’re losing their minds because [they’re] figuring out where Kate is. Then this random chick just shows up… Can you imagine?! So everyone is so confused and I feel like everyone has a right to be confused. I would be confused! [I’m] part of that team [and I’m] missing our hero and then all of a sudden this random chick just shows up in a suit! You really watch them go on this journey because at the end of the day, if we don’t have a superhero then the whole city just turns to ashes.

I think that the journey of Ryan and the rest of the characters goes from ‘okay fine’ to ‘let’s do this!’. That transition doesn’t happen overnight – she has to earn it, they have to earn her trust, she has to earn their trust. We all have to work to become a team and it doesn’t happen overnight at all.

You have a martial arts background, have you always wanted to utilise those skills in an acting project?

Yes, I’ve always wanted to do action. Action is my passion when it comes to acting and this is also a genre that’s very underrepresented in the black community and the queer community. So to be able to do an action role is super fun. I always say I want to be the first black Laura Croft because I played Tomb Raider when I was a kid and then I loved the movie but to see us in that world is rare, especially at that time, and now it’s happening more often but seeing a black female action star is what I’m super passionate about.

What was it like taking on the stunts for Batwoman?

We have the most amazing stunt team. They’re so amazing, they make sure we’re protected. We practice all of our choreography before we even go on set. I come from a martial arts background, so maybe it’s a little easier but I feel for any person, even if you were coming in and never threw a punch before, our stunt team does this amazing job creating choreography and we feel very safe and protected. It’s just about making sure that we take our time. It’s about making sure that we rehearse enough. It just makes it so much more fun to know that we’ve done the work before we even show up on set, so now with the cameras rolling we’re just really reenacting what we’ve already practised.

Can you tell us more about Ryan’s Bat suit?

I [start the series in] Kate Kane’s suit and then I move into Ryan suit. [Kate’s suit] represents so much – she saved so many people last season and so immediately when I put that on, I felt that responsibility. But it didn’t dawn on me that I also felt like I wasn’t me. It felt like ‘okay, I have to make sure that the city sees me as Kate Kane’ and then a transition happens and Ryan crates the suit.

The first time I put on Ryan’s suit, I felt like ‘okay, this is our Batwoman, this is Ryan’. I felt more powerful because I knew that this hadn’t been done before. It’s scary to step on screen with a big afro. It’s funny because as a black [woman], there is a natural hair journey that we all go through where when you straighten your hair, you kind of fit in more but the moment we start wearing our hair naturally we stand out. It’s a very scary thing at first and so even in the suit with my big afro, I was scared at first that it might take up too much space. In society, you don’t want to take up too much space, you don’t want people to have to walk around or notice when you walk into a room just because you look different.

So I think that originally I was a little scared but then there’s this power. I grew up watching Foxy Brown – there is power when you have that afro. 

I feel like that’s what Ryan had to find, she had to find that journey, like ‘look these are my roots, this is where I come from, I’m going to save people being exactly who I am’. To be able to wear that suit and represent that was super important and very epic for me, and I know there are going to be so many people that feel that same feeling.

You are the first black woman to portray Batwoman in any media but the timing of your casting also felt very powerful as it was right in the middle of the huge Black Lives Matter protest last summer. How did it feel putting on the suit in that context?

The first time I put this suit on, it felt an immense amount of responsibility because the moment you put it on, the moment you see that Bat symbol across your chest, you know that no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, a person sees that as a superhero. It represents a superhero. It represents good, it represents what’s right, it represents selflessness. So I remember the first day I put it on, I was just like ‘oh wow, okay, this is real’. 

I remember the first time I went into the Bat cave, I looked around and I got emotional because I knew no person of colour had done this yet, and had been able to wear that suit in the Bat cave. That’s epic. It just represents so many people and it’s so needed right now. I’m so happy that we had something light to grab onto, even for a second, among a lot of darkness. 

I wake up black and I go to sleep black – this isn’t something I just put on for the day. I’m used to being black and I just look forward to our entertainment being used to seeing this type of representation. I’m so honoured that I’m a part of this journey.

Your predecessor on Batwoman, Ruby Rose, as well as several other actors who are involved in these huge franchises, have sadly been a victim of online abuse. Did you have any reservations about taking on this role for that reason and what your experience has been?

I didn’t have any reservations for that reason. I kind of felt like this is a part of my journey and I’m very supported by my family, I’m very supported by God and I felt like that was really all I needed when going into this role. I think for me, I never really wanted to focus on that. It’s not to say it’s not happening, it’s just to say that there is a bigger picture and the bigger goal is to be able to represent Ryan, so that when people are watching the show they can connect to a character that they may feel represents their lives. That was always the most important thing to me. Comments and stuff like that come with the territory as any role honestly, so it’s just about making sure that I’m always supported in my work and always supported by the people who love me.

What were the emotions and celebrations like when you found out you got such a life changing role?

I felt emotional because really, at the time when we first found out I had been waiting, I think, three days from my last test, but even before that, I had auditioned weeks before, so it had been a long process, at least in my mind. I was nervous, I needed to find out. I remember just barely wanting to eat, barely being able to sleep because I knew that this was a life-changing role for me. So it wasn’t about the answer being yes, it was really just finding out. So when I did find out, I actually didn’t believe that they chose me. I was in the middle of praying and meditating because I was very stressed and I received a call from my manager and oh my goodness… There’s always this part of me that when I find out I’ve booked something I’m like, ‘Are you sure? Can you call him back and make sure?’ [I was] definitely overwhelmed with happiness, but I also felt very honoured when I realised what this role represented for us.

Catch the first episode Batwoman Season 2 on E4

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