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'Batwoman' star Javicia Leslie on stepping into the iconic superhero role

Leslie is assuming the mantle of Gotham City’s masked vigilante in the second season of The CW series.

There’s a new Batwoman in town. After Ruby Rose’s shocking exit from the titular role last spring, Javicia Leslie will assume the mantle of Gotham City’s newest masked vigilante for the second season of “Batwoman” on The CW.

The 33-year-old actress, best known for her work on the CBS comedy-drama “God Friended Me” and the BET crime drama “The Family Business,” will play Ryan Wilder, who is a new addition to the DC universe.

Image: Javicia Leslie
Javicia Leslie as Batwoman.Nino Munoz / The CW

A former drug-runner that has spent years evading the police of Gotham City, Ryan has a tragic life story: She lost her single mother during childbirth, her adoptive mother was killed in front of her and she served 18 months in prison for a crime she did not commit. Given the scarcity of her job opportunities, Ryan is forced to live in a van by the river, which is where she finds Kate Kane’s Batsuit. After taking the suit for a test drive, she feels powerful enough to take control of her own life and to fight the system that has overlooked her for decades.

It’s a dream role for Leslie, whose naturally engaging and thoughtful presence is immediately reflected in her dazzling debut as the first Black and bisexual actress to don Batwoman’s legendary cape and cowl. As a self-proclaimed “super fan” of the DC universe and Arrowverse, Leslie auditioned for the lead role over Zoom a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was really, really shocked,” Leslie told NBC News, recalling the day in early July that she landed the role. "I really thought, when my manager’s number showed up on my phone, ‘Ugh, I guess I didn’t get it.’ When I answered the phone, she said, ‘May I speak to Ryan Wilder?’ And I just lost it. I couldn’t believe it; I started crying. I called my mom, and we cried together."

Born in the southern German city of Augsburg into an American military family, Leslie was raised in Maryland and earned a business degree from Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia, where she also starred in multiple theater productions and began to fall in love with acting.

“I just really loved the idea of being able to get away from life and how I was able to really feel some of the pain that I was going through as a person,” she said. “It made me realize how much I needed acting.”

Instead of pursuing acting after graduation, Leslie decided to find a more stable job in her early 20s and worked for the government on a two-year contract. While she found the work meaningful, she said she felt “stifled” and “couldn’t express myself” in a creatively fulfilling way. After her contract ended in 2012, Leslie moved to Los Angeles with a little bit of saved income to help with her career change, and she has since committed herself to mastering her craft for the better part of the last decade.

In the eight weeks between landing the role and the start of filming, Leslie focused on staying in shape using her background in mixed martial arts and creating her character’s backstory by imagining the harrowing events that transpired before Ryan found the Batsuit.

Leslie said the process of developing Ryan’s character has been a collaborative one with showrunner Caroline Dries, the series’ executive producers and the rest of the creative team, who also made the decision early on to revamp the iconic Batsuit to better suit Leslie.

“It was important that you could see the silhouette of Batwoman,” Leslie said. “I have a lot of muscle tone on my body, and I think it can be tough to accentuate that. It also helps to show my curves.”

“To create an Afro was very important, because it was like, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this. If we’re gonna have a Black Batwoman, let’s have a sistah,’” she added. “I think that this Batwoman is really strong, and you can see the strength just in how she looks when her suit is on.”

Image: Javicia Leslie as Ryan Wilder in "Batwoman."
Javicia Leslie as Ryan Wilder in "Batwoman."The CW

Leslie has been an advocate for diverse on-screen representation and acknowledged that her new role has the potential to be a game changer when it comes to diversity in the superhero genre — especially for Black and LGBTQ performers.

“This isn’t for me; this is for all of the people that feel underrepresented,” Leslie said. “I think one of the things that’s really made underrepresented people feel like they’re not enough and feel like they have to continue to fight so hard to feel represented is because they couldn’t see themselves.”

While the response to her casting has been largely positive, there are always the social media haters, including some who have criticized the casting of a queer Black woman in the iconic superhero role. But Leslie said she doesn’t let the haters get to her.

“No one’s even seen the show yet, so if they have something negative to say, they’re usually just coming from a place of pain from something that they’re experiencing. When I look at it like that, I don’t take it personally at all,” she said. “This is just one of the many roles that I will do in my life, and because of that, I’m really just able to operate with my goals in mind, which is just to create amazing content.”

Using a fitting analogy, Leslie said she looks at the situation “like good vs. evil.”

“I can’t let evil win because they hurt my feelings,” she said. “It’s imperative that good wins, and good is finally seeing representation. Good is finally being able to see anyone in the Batworld be Black and be queer.”

While her character’s introduction will offset some of the established character dynamics, namely the one between Batwoman and supervillain Alice (Rachel Skarsten), Leslie teases that Ryan’s personal journey will drive the development of the second season.

“Ryan kind of comes in as a solo person on her own mission, and you really watch her have to change her mentality about what this suit means and what the responsibility of this suit means. You watch her go into this journey of becoming a superhero,” Leslie said. “She doesn’t start off as a superhero at all; she just starts off as a normal person that is going into this to get her own revenge for things. As she continues to move through this journey, she really starts to realize what this suit represents, and that’s how she becomes the superhero that Gotham City needs.”

Season two of “Batwoman” premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on The CW.

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