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Black Lightning’s Nafessa Williams on leaving a hated day job to go be a superhero

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How Will Smith fandom, Pam Grier movies, and Beyoncé’s music combined into one of the few queer black role models on TV.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

Mild spoilers ahead for The CW’s Black Lightning.

Black Lightning is one of broadcast television’s few black superhero shows. Based on the DC comics of the same name, Black Lightning follows Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a school principal and family man in his 40s, who’s conflicted between returning to the superhero life and ignoring crime on the streets.

But Black Lightning’s standout character is his eldest daughter, Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams). Anissa is a social justice activist and student with budding superpowers of her own. Like the comic book character, she’s gay, which makes her one of the few queer people of color on broadcast television. That already small pool is shrinking, a 2017 GLAAD survey on television found. Lesbian superheroes are even less common in any screen medium. Women superheroes like Wonder Woman, who is queer in the comics, and Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, who really wanted her to be portrayed as bisexual, had their queer scenes erased from their respective films.

From the first episode of Black Lightning, where Anissa comes to terms with her new powers and explores her relationship, her storyline seems to echo her father’s, and her arc holds a lot of potential to grow more prominent as the season continues. After all, in the books, Anissa’s alter ego is Thunder, a superhero in her own right. I spoke with Nafessa Williams about the mantle she’s taking on, what heroes of Black History Month she admires, and her brief flirtation with working in a homicide department instead of acting.

Black Lightning is in the middle of its first season. It airs every Tuesday at 9PM ET on the CW.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve said that young black lesbians need to see themselves on TV. Why is media representation so important?

We all need representation. When we watch TV, we want to see ourselves, and we want to become inspired by the characters we’re seeing. We want to be moved and empowered. And more importantly, we just want to know we can connect with them. That’s why I feel like it’s important for young black lesbians to see themselves and be confident in themselves, to walk boldly in their sexuality.

Also, if you watched the last episode, Anissa’s parents are very supportive. She came out as a teenager, and they have supported her 100 percent. So I believe it’s important for parents of those young lesbians to see that as well. If they’re having issues or struggling with accepting their child’s sexuality, then hopefully my TV family can inspire them to love their child and support them, no matter what.

Has that been reflected in your interactions with fans?

It’s been fans telling me they’re really, really happy to see themselves. I’ve gotten tweets like, “I’ve needed this, I’ve needed this. About time.” “Thank you for representing us.” They’re just happy to see themselves. That’s what I’m most honored about to play this character. I’m really passionate, and although I’m not a lesbian, I can relate to being a black woman and feeling like we’ve lacked the representation over the years. I can understand wanting to see yourself, needing to be inspired, connecting to someone who is like you.

What’s it like to play a character who’s already fully out, and has been out since before the first episode? How did you process the character’s background?

I always do a thorough biography of who my character is, and this is all something I create, as well as what’s already been written in the comic book. This character exists exactly the same way in the comic books, so you take what’s there and you do the research. And then, as an actor, as an artist, it is now my job to dig deeper and find out why, and how, and what was it like to come out.

I like to definitely think that Anissa has always known who she was, and I wanted to embody that. There are deeper issues. You go beneath the surface and find out, what was it like for her mentally? What was it like coming out? How old was she? Just digging deeper to find out the history of who she is, because yes, she’s out and bold and proud when the show airs. I really bring who I am to the character. Believe it or not, I am a tomboy. I look really girly but I have a lot of Anissa in me.

[Creator] Salim [Akil] told us in the beginning that he just wanted us to be ourselves and bring the authenticity of who we are to the characters. So I went back to the blaxploitation days and watched those films. I watched Pam Grier, and I studied her. I also studied some other superhero movies, and women in action, to draw inspiration and create my own lane.

Image: The CW

Is the show making a metaphor between being a lesbian and being a secret superhero?

Exactly! Yeah, because when you think about it, she’s discovered these powers, and she’s struggling with the idea of what it means. “How do I mention this to anyone? Are they going to believe me, are they going to think I’m a freak?” Those are the same issues gay people go through. Discovering her powers could be the same way as her discovering her sexuality.

Do you think Anissa and her dad will team up at some point?

[Laughs] Right now, we’re on this journey of Anissa discovering her powers. At this point, no one knows, so I do not want to give anything away. This is all going to be really good for you to watch, and watch the story unfold. But I will say this: you can imagine if her mother doesn’t want her father being Black Lightning, what that would mean if she finds out her child also has superpowers. We’re seeing that they’re struggling with it. It’s broken up their family. [The moment] is going to be really, really good.

Is there a different chemistry between Anissa and her first girlfriend vs. her and Grace Choi?

As you can see, the relationship [between Anissa and her first girlfriend] is rocky. And with Grace, they have this instant connection. They have this instant connection that I feel she did not have with her first girlfriend. They have much more in common, they get each other, and it starts off really light. Grace is in the comic book, so it’s pretty cool for fans to see that we’re sticking true to that. With Grace, we hit it off right away. They have that compatibility thing that’s really working.

More and more black creatives are coming out with amazing new work that feels like a reaction to present politics. Do you believe that’s what we’re seeing here?

Yeah, it’s present politics, social issues that we’re just fed up with. On the show, we’re touching on a lot of political and social issues — social injustice and police brutality. And I think it’s being told in such a beautiful way, so kudos to our writers and our producers who are putting such a dynamic show for the culture.

And it’s time to do something. It is our time. I’m just excited to be part of a dynamic show that’s pushing the culture. Our show is for the kids in the inner city who need to see their stories being told on TV. I’m from Philly, West Philly, a city that is very similar to Freeland in the show. I was a little brown girl with cornrows, going to a school just like Garfield in our show. I feel so connected to the characters because I know them.

Image: The CW

Your character on the show is an activist. In the first episode, she was arrested for protesting. Do you have that activist’s spirit?

I’m always wanting and willing to be a voice for my people, a voice for the injustice. And what better way to do it than through my art, through this television show? It’s always been something I’ve been interested in. Now Anissa has allowed me to go even deeper into it. She inspires me. She reminds me of my strength and what I can do. I’m learning from her, and I’m inspired by her.

Some of my friends are like, “Dude, you’re not a superhero.” In my mind, I’m like, “I don’t need help picking this up, I’m Thunder.” And that’s always my first reaction, “I’m Thunder, I’m Thunder.” I’m saying it as a joke, but she gives me some inner strength I didn’t know that I had. So it’s cool because she’s inspired me in so many ways. Inspired me to dig deeper into our history, and do more research. And I found this newfound connection with Malcolm X, because Anissa loves Malcolm X. My [on-screen] father, Jefferson Pierce, takes a little more of a Martin Luther King approach. But Anissa’s like, “No, we gotta fight.” She’s more of the Malcolm X.

It’s just been cool to give light to those iconic black people who fought for us. They joke at the school and call me Harriet Tubman. I love that. These people have done so much for us to be where we are today, and I feel truly, truly honored to keep their names alive and to continue the fight that they have fought for us.

You’ve said Beyon and Solange are inspirational music for Anissa. Do you have other role models for her?

If you were to come into my room at the studio where we film, you’ll see pictures of Harriet Tubman. You’ll see pictures of Rosa Parks. I’ve got Solange on my wall. I’ve got Trayvon Martin. I’m remembering the people who I have to be a voice for, who are no longer here. Sandra Bland is on my wall. I’ve got this wall of inspiration of people who inspired who Anissa is.

Solange and Beyoncé, they had great albums that were for the culture, and that reminded us of our beauty and strength and excellence. It was such great timing that their albums came out right before the show. Their albums are what I listen to when I’m suiting up or driving to work to remind me of who Anissa is. Solange, she’s got that fight in her. She’s willing to do anything to be a voice for us. And that’s who Anissa is. She’s strong, she’s powerful, she’s willing to risk her life for it. She’s willing to go to prison for it. She’s willing to fight a police officer if that’s what it takes, if she feels like she’s not being treated fairly. So their albums inspired the hell out of me.

Do you get to perform your own stunts? For instance, in the scene where you knock a robber across a store?

That was really, really great. It was so awesome. I do have a stunt double for the things I can’t do. But I do do a good bit of my stunts. Like, I definitely flew that guy, but I had a double to assist with everything. But yeah, it’s been cool. I’ve been in stunt training since July. It’s cool to stay active and keep my body going. I’m learning new choreography. I’ve been pretty athletic coming up as a kid, so it’s cool not to lose touch with that. It’s so fun.

Image: The CW

What’s your experience been like, working alongside China Anne McClain?

Oh my God, all we do is laugh and geek. We have so much fun. She is truly like a little sister to me. We get each other. [Laughs] China’s always, every second that she can, running off to Craft [Services, which provides production catering] to eat some sweets. And that’s her favorite thing to do, so we always joke about how, literally you yell “Cut,” you look for China, she’s probably at Craft.

We really have a lot of fun. I knew it’d be easy to play her sister because we have this instant connection. Our chemistry was there right away when we did our last audition. The minute we met each other, it was just like I had known her forever. We both love Cardi B. [Laughs] China is super fun and down-to-earth, really smart and focused and great at what she does. I love that little girl to death. I really do.

Who else have you looked up to in the entertainment industry?

Will Smith has always been an inspiration for me. We both grew up in West Philly, and I didn’t see many people doing what he did. That was the inspiration for me to say, “Well, if Will did it, came from where I came from, I can do it.” Before I moved to LA, I was like, “Okay, I want to be the female Will Smith.” [Laughs] That was my goal.

I was like, “Okay, how do you do that? First, you gotta move to where he moved to. He’s not living here anymore. You gotta go to LA. Second was, who was his acting coach? Find his acting coach and go to coach with them.” So I found his acting coach, Aaron Speiser, studied with him for four years, and I took all the necessary steps I saw Will take. He works really, really hard and he’s really, really dedicated. He’s killing it.

So Will is definitely the inspiration for me. He’s definitely on my list of people I must work with before this is all said and done. And I want to thank him for being an inspiration and showing a little girl like me from Philly that it’s possible. Yeah, Will Smith for sure.

Your mini-bio mentions you briefly pursued a career in law, in the homicide department. Has that experience been useful as an actor?

Yeah, I definitely thought I wanted to be a lawyer until I tried it. I almost went to law school, and then I was like, “Mom, this is not happening, you’ll see me play one on TV.” But I at least tried before I walked away from it. So for sure, the things I’ve seen within my community, the things I’ve seen within the criminal justice system have been a direct inspiration and connection to my character, and I’ve been able to draw inspiration from my previous life.

What was that moment like, of deciding not to be a lawyer?

I was over my job. I hated it. I was literally starting to go to work every morning and I’d be crying. And I was like, “This is no way to live. You can’t live your life like this.” I used to watch TV, and I really wanted to be Rudy Huxtable [from The Cosby Show]. I was like, “I look like her, she looks like me.” I wanted to be her. I wanted to be all the little brown girls on TV who I saw. I wanted to be Lisa Turtle [from Saved by the Bell]. I wanted to be Tatyana Ali [from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air].

I was really addicted to TV when I was a kid. I loved TV. I’d come home in elementary school and I’d write down my own TV Guide in a composition book. I would escape what was going on in the inner city in Philly, and imagine myself being one of those characters, living that life they were living. That was the inspiration for me. That was the spark. I was really, really young, about six or seven, when it first sparked in me that I wanted to see myself on TV. I didn’t have any family in the industry. I just thought it was like a far-fetched dream. I didn’t know how those people got on TV. I just went on through life, graduated, went to college, and I was working, and I really, really hated it.

I’d always modeled, done some acting, I dabbled in it here and there growing up. And it wasn’t until one day that I was just like, “I can’t do this. I have to be happy. I have to do what I love.” I went on an audition in Philly, and my job told me I couldn’t go, and they fired me. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the first day of the rest of my life. [Laughs]

Ever since that moment, I was like, “I’m going to go and not going to let anybody stop me.” I booked a soap opera in New York, and then that got canceled, and the rest is history. I just try to tell people that it’s about doing what you love and following your dreams and doing what makes you happy because that’s when I believe life truly begins.