The actress talks to ET about playing an empowered black lesbian superhero and why Beyonce is the inspiration behind her character.
Jefferson Pierce isn't the only one harboring superpowers on Black Lightning.
On Tuesday's episode of The CW's newest DC Comics entry, Jefferson's eldest daughter, Anissa, begins to embrace her newfound super-strength, an ability she unexpectedly manifests through trauma after she and her younger sister, Jennifer, were kidnapped by the powerful 100 gang overtaking Freeland. As crime continues to skyrocket in the city and innocent black youth are shot and killed by police, Anissa seems more than willing to do her part to bring justice to Freeland.
"So much has been changing in my life," Anissa says at one point in the episode, contemplating whether she wants to jump into the dangerous world of crime-fighting (unbeknownst to her, very much like her father). "It'd be nice though, superpowers -- a way to make the world a better place, really change things." But something tells us it's not that simple. ET spoke with Black Lightning star Nafessa Williams, who plays Anissa, on why it's "time" and "necessary" for a show of this nature to be on TV.
ET: Why do you think Black Lightning has connected?
Nafessa Williams: We're coming from a real, authentic place. Most superheroes, they're in alternate universes fighting aliens. We're really within the community fighting the crime, fighting the social justice, trying to be advocates for education, really touching on topics that need light shed on them. Most superheroes are young or in their 20s, and as you can see with Black Lightning, he's in his mid-40s and he has a family, so that affects you a bit differently as opposed to being a young, single superhero. I think being in a real city like Freeland is cool and different to see.
What kind of reactions have fans of the show had?
You have to wake up when you're watching it. It pushes the envelope. It's bringing these social issues; it's in our face. You have to lean a little bit more because it's deeper than just a superhero show. This is a show that our country needs right now. This is a show that is a part of the change that we want to see, so you open your eyes a little differently to it.
In the comics, your character, Anissa, is gay, and in the show, they really embrace that part of who she is. What have you enjoyed exploring as you've gotten to know her?
[At first] everyone was like, "How do you feel about playing a lesbian?" It's my first time, which I was excited about, because I'm always opposite men. When people ask, "How do you prepare?" my answer is always love. It's about a loving relationship. It's not about anything other than that, so make sure that that's portrayed and make sure that that's at the foundation of it all because that's truly what it's about. It's not about a man and a woman, it's about two people who love each other. I believe that young lesbian women need to see themselves on TV. They need to see the representation, especially young black lesbians.
It's this big conversation when it's happening every day and it's normal; it's just two people who are in love. It's about her being a superhero, and it's about her being a strong, dominant force that she is. It's about her not backing down to anything or anyone. It's about putting her life on the line to fight for social justice, regardless of the outcome. I mean, she's willing to go to the prison. She's willing to risk her life to fight for what's right.
In the first episode, it seemed like Anissa was in a healthy relationship. What can you tease in the romance department?
Anissa is hella focused on being a superhero right now and discovering her powers. She's not really at the point where a relationship is a priority. You see that she's at this stage of discovery of who she is and discovering her powers, and she's struggling with it. She's trying to understand it: Where did it come from? Am I a freak? Do I say anything to anybody? Should I keep this a secret? That's been her focus: trying to map this thing out.
Anissa's new powers catch her by surprise at first. How does she handle this moving forward?
It's a secret that she's keeping in and she's not really sure who to tell, if she can even go to her parents. I will say that once she acknowledges and accepts what's happening, she's really, really excited to go full-on superhero mode.
We got a sense of what that looks like, with the official image of Anissa as her superhero alter ego, Thunder, released earlier this month. What was your reaction to seeing that photo for the first time?
It was emotional for me, like, I cried putting on my suit on for the first time because it was a historic moment. To be able to give voice to Thunder and lend myself over to her, I'm just so honored. Like, really.
Anissa and Jennifer are very different in personality and in their outlook on life. How does their sisterly bond evolve?
They're best friends, they love each other, but they're sisters, and you know how it is when you have a nagging little sister or a sister who thinks she knows it all. You'll see that relationship unfold even more. We have a lot of fun together and I think it's cool to see a strong sister bond on TV. China [Anne McClain] and I love working together; we have this organic chemistry in real life and in front of the camera.
There are also some complicated family factors when it comes to Jefferson and Lynn's complex relationship status. What do you think Anissa and Jennifer think about all of that?
I think they want their parents back together. She's there but she's not. You also see them struggle with that as well. You see that they love each other a lot; they want to be together, but it's one of the downfalls of being a superhero. I think it's also cool that we see a father at the head of the house. Most times on TV, especially in black households, the mother is a single parent holding it down, so kudos to the single black fathers who are doing the things that Jefferson Pierce is. It's a great depiction to be able to portray that.
Before I let you go, we have to also give some love to the awesome music on the show, too.
The music alone is amazing! For me, I'm hoping we can get some Beyonce and Solange in the show because they're the inspirational music for my character. I have pictures of Solange, because I believe that if no one is a voice for the culture, Solange is. Her albumA Seat at the Table is such inspiration for me; I listen to it going to work. Beyonce's "Freedom," I listen to that when I am suiting up and getting into superhero mode. Kendrick Lamar is another [inspiration].
What do you want people to know about the rest of the season?
I want everyone to be aware of what their superpower is because I believe that we all have superpowers. I believe that we have those strengths about us that get us throughout the day. Whatever it is that we are doing in our everyday lives or that we're faced with, I believe that there's an inner superpower strength that we all possess. I just want us all to make sure we're walking in our superpower, embracing who we are, how we look as a culture and be OK with that, especially at a time when everyone is following the trend of looking the same and not appreciating their uniqueness. That's what I want people to take away from the show.
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.