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'Supergirl': How Melissa Benoist convinced CBS she would fly

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Darren Michaels/CBS

It’s been 40 years. Can you believe four decades have passed since a major broadcast network launched a TV show about a female superhero based on a comic-book character? You have to go all the way back to 1975’s Wonder Woman to find a costumed lead heroine — Lynda Carter, gold lasso, star-spangled shorts. That’s why CBS’ upcoming Supergirl is a series that’s equal parts revolutionary and way, way overdue.

And the fate of the series all depends on a 26-year-old from Colorado in her first lead role: former Glee actress Melissa Benoist, whose days and nights are crammed with learning to perform one superpowered feat after another. Like during EW’s visit to the L.A. set when Benoist had her first Kryptonian quick change. Remember how Christopher Reeve’s hunky dork Clark Kent whipped off his glasses while rushing to transform into Superman? It’s like that, only with a feminine twist — the glasses come off, then she releases her pinned-up hair with a freeing toss, like a shampoo ad. (But not too much like a shampoo ad — that would be the silly come-hither version that Benoist jokingly performs between takes.)

Oh, and no pressure — she’s told production is running behind and she only has “one shot” to do this manuever.

So Benoist, naturally, just starts rapping Eminem: “You better never let it go! You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow… “

She doesn’t finish, but the next lyric, the one that’s so perfectly fitting, hangs in the air anyway: This opportunity comes once in a lifetime …

“Action!”

Benoist strides through a chaotic horde of extras, flicks off her specs, pulls the hairpin, and her locks … don’t … quite … unfurl in time.

So? Girl’s got thick hair, okay? Her cousin Superman never had to deal with this.

And that’s the whole point of the show. “It’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” executive producer Greg Berlanti has often said. Because Rogers had to do every dance move Astaire performed, “but backwards and in heels.” Which is exactly how the superproducer, also responsible for The Flash and Arrow, pitched the show to CBS last year, along with key monologue from the show’s pilot — the one where Calista Flockhart’s media empire boss tackles head-on the “girl vs. woman” naming issue, reframing “girl” as empowering, not belittling. So take that, Twitter.  

“I didn’t want to do a Supergirl show and call it something else,” Berlanti says. “And I knew sometimes corporate people and executives can get scared. We wanted to have the conversation that we felt the audience would have.” 

Once CBS was on board, the biggest challenge was finding an actress who could pull off playing Kara Zor-El (a.k.a. Supergirl). Benoist was the first seen out of thousands that producers considered — just like Stephen Amell was the first to audition for Arrow, and Grant Gustin was first in line for Flash. So it’s like fate, right? Actually, Benoist’s placement was no accident. Casting director David Rapaport “made sure [producers] saw Melissa first,” exec producer Sarah Schechter reveals. “By the third time, he knew how superstitious Greg and [exec producer Andrew Kreisberg] were, and he used that.”

There was a good reason Rapaport pushed for Benoist. She brought a joyful optimism to her audition that influenced the pilot script even while it was still being written. Yet it took months to get everybody, including CBS, to agree. “I definitely had a moment where I couldn’t understand why I [hadn’t gotten it],” Benoist recalls. “Some people were hesitant because I hadn’t had much experience.”

Another concern was the producers’ Annie Hall-ish rom-com conception of Kara, which veered from most tights-wearing crime-fighters and from Supergirl’s flying-cheerleader look in the comics. “Everyone just wanted to be sure,” Berlanti says. “They knew that this was the most important decision that we would make. They have pictures in the comics of a massive mane of blond hair, and an emphasis on her chest or legs. Whereas if you’re casting Superman, everyone’s going to go, ‘How much does he remind you of Christopher Reeve?'”

Other perception-busting casting moves included tapping True Blood‘s Mehcad Brooks (tall, ripped, African-American) as Superman’s buddy Jimmy Olsen, typically a redheaded geek. “I’m like, ‘Wait — the Jimmy Olsen?'” Brooks says about being approached for the part. “I’ve gone out for things where people talk about ‘color-blind casting’ before, but normally it doesn’t go your way.” After getting the good news, “I screamed like there was a fire.”

For the role of Kara’s demanding boss, media magnate Cat Grant, Berlanti swayed Flockhart to come back to broadcast TV, where she last worked on his ABC show Brothers & Sisters. “I don’t know that I’ve ever begged as hard as that,” Berlanti says of signing Flockhart.

With the cast in place, the next hurdle was scripting the ambitious pilot, in which Kara juggles a regular, bill-paying job as a personal assistant in National City with her love life, all the while secretly moonlighting as a freelance hero capturing alien bad guys. (Kara’s famous cousin, Superman, remains off screen in Metropolis.) The pilot, reported to cost $14 million and stuffed to the gills with special effects, took more than a month to film. “It sometimes turned a little tedious for us, like, ‘Take 40!'” says Jeremy Jordan, who plays Kara’s friend-zoned confidant Winslow. “We were like, ‘Am I that bad of an actor?’ But they wanted to get a bunch of options so they could find the right tone.”

CBS tested the pilot with a focus group where producers had a particularly scary moment during a scene in which a villain beats up Supergirl. The focus group did not like that. At all. “The first time a man punches a woman, everyone went, ‘Oh my God’ — so that was tricky,” says showrunner Ali Adler. But as Supergirl recovered and triumphed, the dials turned positive again. “She has the exact same powers as Superman, so I think we just needed to show the audience that,” Adler says.

In May, CBS greenlit Supergirl to series and almost immediately the finished pilot leaked onto BitTorrent. Given the polished high-def quality of the print, some suspected studio Warner Bros. secretly leaked the pilot itself in order to create buzz. Berlanti is adament this wasn’t the case. “No, no, no, it wasn’t,” he said. “When people watch stuff that way, it’s like going to a restaurant and leaving before you pay the bill.”

Still, fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive, especially toward Benoist. Now comes the rest of the hard part: crafting all the episodes to come this season, which Benoist teases is a “roller-coaster crash test of what it takes to be a hero” as her character tackles Phantom Zone fugitives while solidifying her team of helpers.

Which brings us back to the Supergirl herself. She’s sometimes working until 2:30 a.m., cheerfully hanging board-stiff on “flying” wires (which feels like trying to set a record for holding the world’s longest plank), wearing a corset under an increasingly uncomfortable muscle-padded suit, dragging around a cape all day … and all that time, she’s showing the same spirit, on screen and off, that landed her this role of lifetime — even when she’s not feeling it inside. “Kara is so optimistic, and so positive, and just full of hope all the time,” Benoist says. “My tendency can sometimes be ‘Oh, man, if I were in this situation, I’d feel hopeless.’ But she never feels that. There’s never really a horribly dark moment in Supergirl’s life.”

Yet for executives watching her every move, Benoist is the one element — the most important one — they’re not worried about. “She is going to change the way girls feel about themselves with her energy and her light,” Adler declares. “It’s crazy. She’s going to fly.”

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