The actress talks with ET about playing fan-fave Mary Hamilton, straddling two worlds as an Asian American and making her own rules.
Nicole Kang is shattering expectations. The Batwoman star currently plays Mary Hamilton, Kate Kane’s witty step-sister on The CW’s freshman superhero drama, and the 26-year-old actress is just as bubbly, charming and intelligent in real life as she appears onscreen. As Mary, a socialite who secretly owns an underground medical clinic for Gotham’s underserved, Kang often provides levity in the moody comic book series. Only recently was her character welcomed into Kate’s inner circle as the newest, but no less important, member of Team Batwoman.
Born in Boston, raised in Virginia, but a self-proclaimed New Yorker, Kang isn’t whom you’d think of when you picture Mary Hamilton, a character who doesn’t exist in the DC comics. Even so, Kang -- who recently relocated to Southern California during the coronavirus pandemic -- had a picture in her mind of who the character was, and it wasn’t what she looked like.
“I have the drawing and the illustration for Mary and she’s really blonde and [has] blue eyes,” she says in a recent phone interview with ET for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “I really give it to [executive producers] Sarah Schechter, Greg Berlanti and Caroline [Dries]. From the beginning, they’ve looked towards challenging [those norms] and diversifying what we see onscreen. How is this Gotham going to be different? We’ve seen Gotham so many times, we’ve seen what it looks like. It’s dark, but who are the people that make up that city? We have control in pushing those boundaries.”
While Mary and her mother, Catherine Hamilton-Kane (played by Asian American actress Elizabeth Anweis), weren’t written specifically to be Asian, Kang says producers sought out actors who subverted expectations for a superhero show and more accurately represented the real world. But after Kang was cast, she had a fleeting moment of doubt -- that she was there to fill an invisible diversity quota. “I remember Marcos [Siega], our director, he was like, ‘Nicole, you were cast because you were perfect for the role. You were cast because you’re good.’ He took a second to empower me and tell me that. I must’ve said something sort of flip, like, ‘I check a box or something.’”
As Kang tells it, Mary seemed tailor-made for her, which has translated seamlessly to the small screen. Deep into the first season, the character has become an early fan favorite. “When I read Mary, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is me,’” the actress remembers. “It was almost so easy, and I had so much fun with her, and I continue to have so much fun. I love being the heart of the show. I love bringing levity to the show. And it means that much more when bad things happened to Mary Hamilton.”
Finding her onscreen mother was a whole other story. Kang recalls producers having issues finding an Asian American actress to fill that part, recounting an illuminating conversation she had with her manager, “I was hearing talks. ‘Man, Nicole, it's difficult to find someone to play your mother, blah blah, whatever. And I said back to my manager, ‘They'll find someone, they're there.’ If you look, there are incredible women who have paved the road for me, to make it a little bit easier. They'll find her, and they did [in Anweis]. And she’s incredible. She's an amazing actor and has taught me so much. But her story, in terms of professionally in the acting world, has a bit more struggle than mine does, for sure.” Kang pauses for a moment. “I was really grateful that they didn't work in an adoption story or what have you.”
Speak with Kang for more than a few seconds and you’d be lucky to get in a word edgewise. The talkative actress doesn’t fit the Asian stereotype of the “model minority.” Rebellious by nature -- her words, not ours -- she is a firecracker, rule-breaker and outside-the-box thinker. The Korean American isn’t docile or quiet and didn’t exactly have aspirations of becoming a lawyer or a doctor. (Her mother is a doctor and many members of her family practice law or medicine.) Kang says her inner rebel came to life because of her dad, whom she affectionately calls her “Korean cowboy.” “He fell in love with the West. He grew up in Colorado. He fell in love with the sense of Americana there, that cowboy sort of mentality,” she says, adding that he introduced her to Westerns like No Country for Old Men.
It was during her childhood in Virginia when Kang fully grasped how different she looked from her peers. “Fourth grade, I'm like, ‘OK, I don't look like anyone here, but how am I going to make friends?’ And really early on, I love making people laugh and being ridiculous. I love pushing boundaries,” she recalls. “I was always like, 'That's not fair! Justice for Anna! She deserves lunchtime or recess!' Whatever my crusade was, I always remember being outspoken, encouraging, sort of more quietly speaking people to speak up. And I always needed that one-on-one. I was constantly downloading American culture. What's the Top 50 on the radio on 99.5? ‘OK, Red Hot Chili Peppers.’ I was always finding something, becoming obsessed with it, and then I was like, I've got to be the expert on it.”
It was Kang’s determination to find her place that fueled her personal journey in discovering where she fit in (or didn’t) as a first-generation Korean American. “I really built this world of American cinema, art culture that I had to go out and find myself because I felt, even though this is maybe not true, but I felt like my parents couldn't teach me anything about it and that I was going to have to do it all on my own,” she says. “I feel like that mentality, it made me bend rules, and I think I always knew I was a little charming and like, ‘I can get out of this one.’”
“There’s just something in there that I don't… I don’t know quite what it is, but I was always a troublemaker. And I was getting roughed up and living fully. If I could laugh, cry, scrape my knees and have an amazing outfit, that was a full day. That was a full life for me. And that's how I was. I operate at 200. I mean, there's no in between with me,” Kang emphasizes. “No way. Absolutely not.”
As the Asian community continues its fight for mainstream representation in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, how does one successfully straddle two, often opposing, worlds as Asian Americans? The answer, as Kang debates, is complicated.
“You are both, so just by living, you embrace it. That's something that you can't take for granted, and don't sell yourself short. You've been figuring out how to exist in this world so you got to cut yourself some slack -- if some of those culturally Chinese things that you couldn't squeeze in, in the 24 hours a day, weren't helping you survive day to day, weren't guiding your future, weren't bringing you here,” Kang offers. “In that sense, I think this guilt -- if I can speak to everyone's -- is to believe it. Whatever I can do to assuage that guilt and alleviate that guilt, I wish I really could. As I've gotten older, I've really, really leaned into it. I've really embraced it.”
“It's something really cool about my genetic history and something that I am now bringing into my work. I was this robust child that was operating at all times at a 12. But this beautiful string of subtleties started getting knit through my personality, my acting. It became an expression of my art, of this underbelly of who I am, and it is Korean American,” she says. “Every vulnerability, every moment that I come up short of not being Korean enough and come up short of not being American enough, it is really cracking me open and you see where I'm bleeding from. You see where I'm hurting from and I think that's the thing that makes me the only vessel like there is out there, right?"
“That's why you're going to hire me. Because of that thing that I bring, and it's at the forefront of every sentence that I speak and every breath that I take, you can't not see it,” Kang continues. “Even if I'm exuding confidence. Where is it coming from? I always think actors and artists who can let people in... is often some of the most beautiful art. But yeah, that's going to be definitely the story for a lot of Asian American people.”
Kang, who is roommates and besties with fellow CW star Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew), hopes that her Batwoman alter ego, Mary, will one day suit up. For her, it’d be a culmination of something she’s long “yearned for as a child,” to have a badass superhero who looked like her. She tells a story from this past Halloween of a young Asian girl dressed up as Mary her mother told her about.
“That’s when it hit me. I’m on TV, I’m not doing this thing in a closed environment. People can go and see this. That kind of thing really hits me hard,” Kang marvels. “Here I am on this particular show, and it does feel surreal. She is who she is, and I get to step into her shoes for a moment. I think it’s absolutely an honor, that’s what it’s all about.”
Batwoman airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.