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Javicia Leslie, the first bisexual 'Batwoman,' on playing an unapologetically queer hero

Javicia Leslie, who plays the title role in The CW's "Batwoman," says her character is a superhero planting seeds of empowerment for the LGBTQ community.
Image: Javicia Leslie
Javicia Leslie.NBC News; Getty Images

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]

It's not the superheroes with special powers but the mere mortals Javicia Leslie is drawn to. She was raised on Batman, and he was her favorite for being intelligent, savvy, brave — and relatable.

Leslie, now playing Batwoman on The CW, said it's important for viewers to see how human her character is, "that we see her flaws more than her victories."

"To me, that's what's more inspiring: when you're able to overcome your hardships and your flaws," she said.

By taking on the role of Batwoman, Leslie, 33, joins a long legacy of superheroes, but she's the first Black woman in the role and the first bisexual woman. She plays Ryan Wilder, a new character in the DC universe, who becomes Batwoman after finding the Batsuit in a plane crash where Kate Kane, the original Batwoman, went missing. (Kate Kane was previously played by out lesbian Ruby Rose, who departed from the role last year.)

When Leslie landed the role last June, she said, she was shocked. "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."

Javicia Leslie as Batwoman.Nino Munoz / The CW

"Batwoman" is Leslie's first lead role in a major series. She previously starred in "God Friended Me" on CBS and "The Family Business" on BET. Leslie, who has a background in mixed martial arts, worked with the show's creative team to develop the character of Wilder/Batwoman and understand who she was before finding the Batsuit.

Leslie said being the first Black Batwoman is an incredible responsibility, and, to her, that meant she had to go above and beyond.

"Even when I was tired, I had to push and persevere, because it was really important for this Batwoman to empower the individuals she represents," she said.

The character of Wilder/Batwoman is a queer woman who has gone through many of the traumas experienced by LGBTQ people, including bullying, the foster care system, homelessness and incarceration. Leslie said that Wilder has gained a sense of strength from her past and that it has affected how she operates as a soldier for the people who need her.

"What I love is that she's not only strong enough to keep going, but she's also an advocate and fights for her community," Leslie said. "I think that subconsciously it plants seeds of empowerment in our community ... seeds of power, strength and toughness."

Leslie said what she loves about the way Wilder was written is that the audience is simply dropped into her life, with a girlfriend making an appearance in the third episode. There is no coming out story.

"People are able to see this gay woman exist as she is," Leslie said. "I look forward to more stories of bi women being able to exist without justification or explanation."

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