Supergirl: Chyler Leigh opens up about Alex's coming-out story
After it was revealed that a character on one of The CW superhero shows would explore his or her sexuality this season, fans of Supergirl long suspected that Alex Danvers would be coming out — and they didn’t have to wait long for confirmation.
Within the first three episodes of season 2, Alex (Chyler Leigh) encountered Detective Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima), and an instant spark was born. Though their chemistry was palpable and connection immediate, viewers watched as Alex slowly came to the realization that she was, in fact, gay, leading to an inspiring relationship dubbed “Sanvers” by fans. But how was that dynamic created behind the scenes? EW sat down with Leigh to get her take on the journey that Alex has made this season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go back to when you first learned Alex would be coming out. What did the executive producers tell you, and what was your reaction?
CHYLER LEIGH: Well, I got a call from Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg, and they were saying, “Hey, we’d really love for you to come in and sit down so we can talk creative with you.” I was like, “Oh, okay, I didn’t realize we were going to do that, that’s great!” I was sitting in their office, and all of a sudden, they’re like, “So, we want to just tell you what we’re thinking, what we’re going to do, and wanted to get your take on it.” They had this funny little smile on their face, I’m like, “What’s going on?” They’re like, “Well, so this season, Alex is gay.” I was like, “Oh, what?” They just went into the whole story, explaining the why behind the what, and that it’s not like this thing that all of a sudden is just spilling out, it’s a discovery for her. That’s how we wanted to approach it. You have so many stories — shows and movies — where people are already established as gay, lesbian, bi[sexual]; these are people who are coming in like that. This was a great opportunity to show somebody who’s figuring it out, the light bulb moment and putting the puzzle pieces together.
When they were explaining it to me, I was like, “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought it,” because last season you just didn’t really see any of that side of Alex. When they originally said, “Hey, we’re thinking about a love interest,” but they didn’t say what the whole thing was, I was almost like, “Oh, I don’t know if we should do that yet,” because I don’t want it to become about Alex in a relationship, where we don’t get to see enough about her discovering more about who she is because so much of it was hidden last season. Then when they started to explain the whole idea, at first I was kind of taken back a little bit, not in a negative way, but just going, “Oh, okay.” Then the weight of it hit me, thinking, “Oooh, okay, we need to really, really do justice to this in a really beautiful way.” It was right around the time of the Orlando shooting, and I just all of a sudden was hit with this weight, because I knew that then I was going to be a face for the LGBT community, and I was like, “I gotta get this right. I don’t want to go out there and say one thing and then do something else. I just want to make sure that this is very respectful and tasteful and being done with sensitivity.” That’s what they were all about, too. We had an open dialogue about stuff.
We had a conversation with Greg Berlanti about it. He was probably anticipating about a 20-minute conversation; it was almost an hour and a half. I was like, “No, no, no, no, I’m picking your brain on everything, because I just want to know where we’re coming from and be prepared.” He was just telling me all these wonderful things about people who are figuring it out later in life, that there was a 77-year-old woman who had been married for such a long time, but never felt like it was quite right; she was married to a man. Then, at 77, she meets this woman who she just has this attraction for, like kindred spirits, a connection, and then realizes, “Huh, maybe all this time, this is where my heart really was,” and she has this discovery. Now they’re just living it up. I think it’s just beautiful, and I’m just so grateful to be a part of this. I take it very seriously because it’s incredibly important for it to be done right.
What was casting for Maggie like? You went through chemistry reads, so what do you remember of Floriana coming in to do it?
Well, in that conversation when I was talking with Greg, I was like, “Listen, I don’t want to come across like I’m super strong about this whole thing, but at the same time, just hear my heart, hear where I’m coming from: I’m insisting on being in the room.” We were in Canada at that point. We had already made our move up there, which we learned we were moving to Canada, and then I learned that I’m a lesbian, and I’m just going, “All right, hold on a second, give me a minute to breathe here.” [Laughs.] So, I was up in Canada, and I was like, “Please give me the short list of who you were thinking,” because I want to make sure that we’ve got a good connection. I’m very particular about who’s on our set, just because we’ve got a vibe. We’ve got such a great cast, and it’s a family, and I’m a mom, so for me, I want to make sure that everybody gets along. This was incredibly important to me because I knew how delicately this was going to be treated.
They sent up the audition tapes for three girls. I looked them over, my husband looked them over with me. He’s like, “I’m going to make sure you get a good girl!” I was like, “All right, honey.” It’s pretty great — he picked out my girlfriend before I did. So, we saw the tape, and he was like, “I think this is your girl,” and he was talking about Floriana. I said, “All right, I’m going to test her in the room to see how it goes.” She was the second one to come in after the first girl who came in — they were all lovely. The first girl came in, and I looked at casting and everybody in there is like, [shakes head] “Not it.” Then, Floriana came in second, and the moment she walked in — and she’s stunningly beautiful, so that is one thing, but I could see that she and I, we’re a wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve kind of person and real-deal kind of person. Life’s too short, I don’t have time for B.S. I was like, “I’m just going to put it out there and say, ‘This is me, this is where I’m at, this is who I am, who are you?'” We didn’t even have many moments to really talk, because she’s testing. But it was just this thing, all of a sudden I just look over at her, “Huh, I like this one, I think she’s great.” We did the scenes, she walked out, and I looked over like, [nods head] “She’s the one.” We had the third girl come in, she was lovely, too, but I was like, “No, no, Floriana is the one.”
We get through the whole process, and it seemed like everybody was on the same page. I wrote to Greg, I wrote to Andrew, I wrote to Peter Roth. I’ve known Peter since I was a teenager, so I was like, [mimes typing] “Dear Peter, I want her. Get her for me. I love you. Thank you. Take care. Bye.” He was just like, “Chyler, I can’t believe you emailed me.” I was like, “No, for real.” He’s like, “I totally see it, I get it, she’s lovely and wonderful.” Then I get the call that she was going to do it. I got her information. I literally hunted her down. It sounds really creepy, actually. Hmm. But I was like, “Please, please, you’re lovely and wonderful, please come, please be a part of it.” She’s like, “I love it.” It was pretty awesome.
Since you didn’t know each other beforehand, did you take any time to get to know each other, or was the onscreen chemistry just immediate?
Well, she was in L.A., so I didn’t really have time to sit down or what not. But we texted each other quite a few times and went back and forth, tried bonding that way. But when she came on set, it was like, “Oh, okay.” It’s one of those times where you meet somebody and it feels like you’ve known them forever. It’s the same thing. We were very similar in a lot of ways, so it was just easy. That’s what I really appreciate about it; we didn’t have to manufacture something. In our business, you never really know who you’re going to get and who you’re going to work with. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s awful, and you gotta do what you gotta do. But this was one of those cases where she’s a special girl and we have a cool bond.
When you started shooting the episodes with the very first seed of Alex and Maggie’s burgeoning relationship, were you nervous?
I was. The first scene that I had with Maggie was in episode 3, and she shows up in the airport, and we’ve got this whole crime scene situation. That was fine. There was this flirty thing, and it was this unspoken thing going on, but you see the fans that watched — the second they saw a photo of us, they were just like, “Oh my god, they’re in love with each other!” [Laughs.] I’ll tell you when it was, it was when the light bulb started to go off in the dialogue for Alex, and all of a sudden, I was like, “These words are coming out my mouth!” and I felt uncomfortable, because I hadn’t walked in Alex’s shoes from that side of her. I felt like I was coming out as Alex, so I’m just saying all these things, and I’m talking to my husband going, “This is so strange, but it’s amazing and I love it.” It was challenging, though, for sure. The director, Glen Winter, who is just amazing — this was episode 5, the episode where I sit down with her in the bar and say, “Maybe there’s truth to what you said.” I kind of felt like I was nauseous doing it, because I’m a very emotional person, so I don’t have to sit here and think of things that make me super sad from my past to be able to cry. I don’t know, I think I have this empathy reserve in my body that I can just defer to that. “Okay, I feel things really intensely, just use it.” So all the stuff in the bar, I really felt it. That’s something that people have been relating to the most because it’s honest. I’m not trying to [whispers] bullshit people. That’s not me. That’s when it started for me, episode 5, when it was going, “Oh my gosh, these words are coming out of my mouth!”
Would you say that’s been the toughest part about playing Alex coming out?
There were almost stages of it. Alex coming out to the family, with Kara, those scenes with her were — I love Melissa [Benoist], she’s like an actual sister. I love that girl to death, she’s amazing, so working with her is always so wonderful because I feel we too have this really amazing connection. I’m always appreciative because a lot of times when I’m crying, I can just look at her and she’s going to make me cry. It was challenging in all the best ways. There were moments along the way, like, “Okay, take a deep breath and go for it.” But I’m just so grateful to be in this position, and to do what I’m doing, and tell such a beautiful story, and affect so many people that that takes precedence over anything else. It’s not me, it’s about what we’re doing — that’s more important than anything.
Now that we’ve gotten a little bit more of Maggie’s background, what’s next for the couple? Kreisberg intimated they’ll be on a more even playing field as a couple.
Yeah, that’s a great way to say it because it is that moment when Maggie reveals what actually happened in her coming out, or being outed, that all of a sudden, it’s this realization that we both have things we’re working through. Maggie’s been in prior relationships, and Alex hasn’t really been a part of it. That was the whole happy, bubbly thing when she came out. “Ahh, this is amazing!” Maggie did want to protect Alex in so many different ways. Once she realizes, it’s not about protecting, it’s about being honest. There’s a great moment in episode 17, Kevin Smith’s episode — who is probably the coolest person on the planet — where they have this moment that we run into one of Maggie’s exes. Alex is kind of like, “Oh, let’s go chat her up.” I think there’s profiling thing that’s going on. [Laughs.] Alex is, you know, she’s Alex. She finds out what really happened between them and it’s a much deeper story, a darker story. It’s a lovely episode for Floriana, just learning more about Maggie’s background and what’s gone on in hers, and how it really does level the playing field between the both of them. So there’s great development in that.
Do you still watch Grey’s Anatomy?
I have not seen it since I died. I’m so grateful for that time, but afterward, it was like letting it go. I never really watch shows anyway. I don’t really have much time for TV. I watch Supergirl and I love it, it’s amazing. That’s where I am now in my life, so that is what I’m investing my time in. After leaving Grey’s, I left Grey’s, like let it go.
Did you like the ending for Lexie, and in a sense, for Mark (Eric Dane)?
I felt like they did justice to the story in the way that it ended. It was that — not Romeo & Juliet — but it was that heartbreak and that moment of surrender, I guess, in letting Lexie die. I mean, I cried for hours after we had finished filming, just letting it go. It’s letting go a part of yourself, but I think it was handled really well. I thought it was a beautiful way to go. If you’re going to die, die under a fuselage of a plane! Why not, right?
If you could go back to Shondaland, on which of the shows would you like to appear?
I haven’t even watched any shows. I don’t even know! Honestly. I know How to Get Away with Murder; Viola Davis is just something else, she’s something fierce, she’s amazing. But I don’t think there’s any room for Alex Danvers on those shows; there’s no aliens to kill on them!
If Alex were to get powers for a day, what power would you want?
I love that Alex doesn’t have powers. I mean, her sister has all these amazing powers. Maybe the gift of healing? I’m trying to think of what she’d choose because she doesn’t really need the powers, and that’s what I love so much about Alex. It’s such a cool angle to come from, that you don’t have to have superpowers to become powerful. I think all the people that are on the show right now cover all the bases. What would be a really good power? Maybe making people trip? Like telekinesis? Maybe that’s a good one. Telekinesis, let’s go with that. She’s probably go, “Oh, my hands are tied up, so I’m going to pick up that dumpster with my eyes and knock you over with it!” Or “Tie your shoelaces together!” That kind of stuff. “Give you a wedgie!”
Sounds like a solid use of powers.
Absolutely. Those are really excellent examples. [Laughs.] Wow, I just turned into my 13-year-old son. Anyways!
If you could scrub one thing off your IMDB, what would it be?
Oh dear god, there’s too many of those. I won’t even mention it because then people will look for it. Forget it. We all have skeletons in the closet, don’t we? Yeah, there’s plenty that will just remain there.
You didn’t end up singing in the Supergirl/Flash musical crossover, but you did sing with your husband. What was that like?
“Nowhere” is the song that we sing together, and it’s a song that Nathan [West] originally wrote. It was really a love letter to me, for me, about me. Initially, when he did it, he sung the whole thing himself, so it was just going to be his song and his profession, but the more he was listening to it, he was like, “No, babe, I think you need to be in this because it’s our story. It’s part of who we are and where we’re at in our life.” Right now, him doing so much with music, recording, and being back and forth in and out of Canada, and me working as much as I do, there’s little time for us to connect. It was our way of saying, “We’re together even when we’re not together.” It’s a very poetic way to go about it. For me to be on it, he was just like, “Honey, I really want you on this journey with me.” I was like, “Absolutely, I would love to do that.” I love singing with him. We work really well together in that side of our relationship. It really was an opportunity to bring in something new. We’ve done little things here and there, and put things up, songs that we’ve worked on together, but this was a real effort for us to get something out there, to put something out that really shared our journey with everybody else. I mean, I’ve known him for 18 years — in April, it’ll be 18 years that we’ve been together, married for 15. If you can do something new and keep things fresh and alive, let’s do that. It’s been amazing.
Can you tell me about this #SelfiesForChyler movement?
Yes, oh my gosh, I’m getting so many amazing stories from everyone that have been so humbling and so incredible just to hear these beautiful stories, these heartbreaking stories, and different experiences of how people have come out, or have been outed or haven’t yet. They’re heartbreaking, but they’re inspiring at the same time. There’s this young lady that put out this idea of saying, “Here’s our appreciation for Chyler and where she’s at.”
My husband and I have an organization called Charity Pulse. We’re figuring out ways to put an altruistic lens on the entertainment industry, but also highlighting people who are doing extraordinary things in the world today in all different facets — artists, one way or another.
I wrote this article called “Your stripes are beautiful,” based on my 7-year-old daughter coming up to me at one point and seeing my stretch marks and going, “Mommy, why do you have all those stripes?” It’s something I’ve always been insecure about. You know, you have kids, your body changes, and just in general as women, I think we go through so much, and there’s so much pressure to be perfect in our industry, and to look a certain way, that I just wanted to speak to the truth behind it. You know what, we all struggle in one way, shape or form, and to say that you’re perfectly confident in yourself is a little far-fetched.
So I put this article out, and there’s been so much response, like, “This is exactly where I am,” or, “This is what I felt.” It’s a lot like Alex’s story; I’ve been telling my story. This girl said, “In honor of what Chyler said and how she put herself out there, let’s put up a selfie of ourselves and share a little bit of where we’ve come from,” and I’ve got thousands of these beautiful people from teenagers up into their 40s and 50s sending their selfies saying, “I would never post a picture of myself, but was so inspired by what you’re doing, what you’re saying, here I am.”
Last night — I’m going to cry — I was reading them, and it’s so moving. It’s so powerful, and it’s just amazing to know. It’s not about me, what it’s about is people understanding that it’s okay to be who you are, right where you are. I’m looking at these last night going, “Great, my eyes are going to be swollen shut in the morning!” I just didn’t know what to do, so I’m going to put something out toward everybody because I’m so grateful that people trust me with their stories. But it’s all part of what we’re trying to do with Charity Pulse, so to see it actualized and see it happening is really powerful. I’m so grateful for it, but scrolling through all these #SelfiesForChyler, it’s so humbling and such an honor. I appreciate it tremendously, people putting me in a position to share. I’m a mom at heart and I always have been. I feel like I have millions of kids now, and it’s amazing. I’m grateful.
Supergirl airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.