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Black Lightning's Cress Williams honored by 'historical undertaking' of suiting up

Plus: An exclusive first look photo from the midseason show’s pilot

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Bob Mahoney/The CW

To read more on Black Lightning and this year’s Comic-Con, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Black Lightning rises! Hart of Dixie alum Cress Williams will return to The CW this midseason for another superhero entry from Greg Berlanti.

After nearly a decade out of the game, metahuman Jefferson Pierce is forced to suit up again as the electricity-manipulating superhero Black Lightning when his daughters get caught up with local gang The One Hundred — and EW has an exclusive first look at him building his new suit below.

On The CW’s new superseries — from EPs Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Salim and Mara Brock Akil — the reluctant hero has powers, but his foes are much more grounded, particularly in socially conscious issues that are just as prevalent now as they were when the Black Lightning comics launched in 1977. Hence seeing Jefferson creating a new bullet-proof suit. “When I put on the suit for the first time, I felt taller, I felt like I could go through walls,” Williams says with pride. “I was extremely excited.” As are we. Here’s our full Q&A with the newest CW superhero:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about Jefferson Pierce as a character.
CRESS WILLIAMS: The bare bones details are that he’s a metahuman, meaning he was born with these abilities, and discovered them as a child. He created, with the help of a friend, Black Lightning, and was fighting crime in his community for quite a few years before he hung it up for his family. As we pick up the story, he has hung up his suit for about nine years, and then circumstances cause him to pick it back up again.

What was your audition process like?
Interestingly enough, simpler than I thought it was going to be. I was aware of the project, and pilot season was going on and I was going out for things. I was aware that it was at Fox and then I was aware that it was going to The CW. I was having a good time in pilot season, and I was enjoying things that I was going out for, and I hadn’t even read a script, but I was like, “I just want a chance, I just want a shot” before anything pans out. It came relatively quickly. I went in for a taped read, because it was a tape read for the producers. It was interesting because the day I went in, I had two auditions that day. I went to the first one and then this was the second one. Time was tight, because I was trying to rush back — it was very Jefferson Pierce — because it was my daughter’s choir concert that night. We live all the way in Pasadena and I was in L.A. I got called in. Thankfully, I got called in early, like ahead of a couple of guys, and I was like, “Hey, can I go in, because I have to get to my daughter’s concert?” The casting director was like, “Well, let’s go! Hurry up! We gotta get you to that concert!” [Laughs] I did my thing. I felt really good about it. Then, I think, relatively shortly after, they said they wanted to test me. I went into that test process, it was actually really easy. But as an actor, I’m really insecure, so until I got the job, I was just convinced there was somebody else in the wings who was going to swoop in and take it. Fortunately, I got it.

RELATED: Black Lightning boss says ‘This is an American story, this is not a black story’

What does it mean for you, as an actor, to suit up as this character? How did you feel the first time you put on the suit?
It was pretty amazing. First of all, aside from being an actor, I’ve always been a superhero fan as a child and as an adult. We’re in this age where it’s a genre both in film and television, so it’s a bucket list thing of mine to play a superhero. I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to come about, because I’m no longer in my 20s. So selfishly I was extremely excited. This is a dream come true for me. Also, just the kid in me, when I put on the suit for the first time, I felt taller, I felt like I could go through walls. I was extremely excited.

We’re getting more and more diverse superheroes these days — is it added pressure for you?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily added pressure, more as an added honor. As an actor, the only pressure I have is to just be truthful and to do my best work. Whether it was this project or anything, I take my work very seriously. I kind of always go 100 percent. That wouldn’t change regardless of the character, but it’s just the honor. Because there are so few, this is a historical undertaking that I’m honored and excited [about]. I also go back to when I first got the job, all I thought about was like, “Oh my goodness, when I was a kid, if I knew this was coming on, I would be absolutely ecstatic and just so excited.” So I’m honored to play that role, I’m honored to be a part of it and get it going.

Had you read the Black Lightning comics growing up or have you since gone back and started reading them?
I have since. I wasn’t really familiar before that, but I have since and it just has gotten me even more excited. I’ve read the ’70s version, the ’90s version and a bit of the 2000s — and it’s a bit of an amalgamation of all versions. Interestingly, what struck me about reading the ’70s version first is there was some really socially conscious issues that were being told. There was one being dealt with that was illegal immigration and slave labor/trafficking that I was like, “Wow, you could literally take this and put it literally into today without changing anything other than maybe the wardrobe and it would be applicable.” I’m really excited about that.

What brings Jefferson back into the world of being a superhero?
He’s a strong leader in his community, so when he first wore the suit, he was a teacher, so he was trying to uplift his community through education, but he was also on the streets as a hero. For the sake of his family — his wife wanted him to come home safely every night — he decided to put that side away, and has since become a principal. He’s done a lot of good through education, but there’s also something lacking on the streets. Because of that, he gets pulled back in. His family gets tied up into it and simply his daughters are in direct danger, which forces him to step up.

How does he feel about suiting up again, especially now that he has daughters of his own?
He’s definitely conflicted. First of all, wearing the suit the first time cost him his marriage. He’s divorced, but he still wears his ring. He still believes that there’s a chance that his wife is coming back and he can put his family back together again, so he’s motivated by that. His strongest motivation is getting his family back together again. Honestly, the last thing he wants to do is put the suit back on, because then it almost guarantees that his wife will not come back, they can’t get back together, so it’s really only until he’s pushed to the point where he has no choice that he puts it back on again. So he’s pretty conflicted.

Is there excitement or fear that his daughters have powers of their own?
We haven’t gotten into that. Just knowing Jefferson in that present moment and speculating how he’s going to react, probably a majority of it is going to be fear. He’s been through it. He knows what it takes and the toll that it takes. He knows the danger that’s involved. There’s going to be that fear. He also knows his ex-wife and how she feels about it. I think it’s going to have a profound effect on his family.

What do you think Jefferson’s years of experience brings to the table that makes this show different from the other CW superhero series?
What makes it different is that really we’re a family drama. The origin story aside, they don’t have the ties of a family that’s keeping them tied to reality. Our show is also just really dealing with a grass roots superhero who is not trying to save the world, he’s trying to save his community. The fact that he just has the real world ties make it different.

What are some of the cool things that your version of Black Lightning can do?
We haven’t gotten into flight, which I’m really excited about eventually getting to that. He has the ability to have limited flight, and that’s the superpower I would love to have. He controls all things electrically based, along with martial arts and the hand-to-hand combat thing. Without getting into too much, there are things that the new suit provides that the old suit didn’t. It’ll be very fun, let’s put it that way.

This story doesn’t necessarily take place in the same universe as the other Arrowverse shows, but do you hope that changes and you can cross over? Or do you think it’s better that it’s in a separate world of its own?
I kind of like the fact that it’s in a separate world of its own for a number of reasons. One, it’s the logistical fact that we’re shooting in Atlanta and all the other Arrowverse shows shoot in Vancouver, so logistically that would be very, very complicated to make it work. But also, again, we’re a different type of show. I’ve told people we’re a family drama with superpowers on top of it. Then, I’m really more intrigued about what happens as my daughters develop abilities. When it’s all said and done, when we’re really up and running seasons down the line, you’re going to have a show with three superheroes on it, so it’s not a solo show, but it’ll almost be like a team. So I’m really excited about unwrapping all of that more than combining universes.

Anything you can say about who or what he’s going up against?
The One Hundred, which anybody who’s a fan of any version of the comic books know, is an organized gang conglomerate that is in all the versions, so The One Hundred is the big entity, and Tobias Whale will be the big villain for season 1. I know that Salim’s intent is that it’s not going to be a villain of the week, but we’re really going to get to know the villains as well from a human standpoint as well.

Speaking of, you actually played a villain on Lois & Clark. Which do you like better: Playing a hero or a villain?
[Laughs] Well, generally speaking, I will say villains have more fun, because they’re inherently flawed; they’re villains. As an actor, the flaws are the things that are juicy to play. If the character is perfect, it can be a little boring. Generally speaking, I would say villains are a little more exciting to play, but if you get a flawed hero, then that can almost be just as amazing.

What are you most looking forward to doing as Black Lightning in the first season?
It wouldn’t be one thing. When we shot the pilot, it was really more like a teaser, so we haven’t even shot the full first episode, so there’s a lot of things in that full episode I’m really excited about. I’m intimidated and also excited about all the action. But I’m also just really excited to get into the relationships, because once he puts the suit back on, I was like, “Oh, what’s going to be the first scene like with his ex-wife?” We haven’t even touched on Gambi yet. Gambi is like a childhood friend who helps him design the suit and his mentor. We haven’t touched on him yet, so I’m excited to get into all of that. And just the repercussions of putting the suit back on. In episode 1, he puts it back on because he has to, but then we don’t see the day after. We haven’t seen the day after yet of like, “Wait, what did I just do? What does this mean?” I’m excited about getting into all of that.

Black Lightning will debut midseason on The CW.