Black Lightning breakout talks playing a black lesbian superhero
Nafessa Williams is very grateful for her role on Black Lightning.
On The CW’s new superhero drama, Williams stars as Anissa Pierce, the lesbian daughter of the show’s titular hero (Cress Williams) who is studying to become a doctor and discovers that she, too, has powers. In a time when representation in media is becoming increasingly more important, Williams isn’t taking the responsibility of playing a black lesbian superhero on network television lightly.
“I’m just really grateful to tell the story for young lesbians — and black lesbians in particular — who don’t really see themselves on TV,” Nafessa Williams tells EW. “My hope is that when you watch Anissa, a young lesbian is inspired to walk boldly as who she is and to love herself and to love herself exactly how she looks.”
Earlier this month, fans received a first look at Williams in costume as Thunder; however, they’ll have to wait a bit longer to see her suit up on the show. At this point in the series’ run, Anissa is still the discovery stage of having superpowers. Black Lightning‘s first two episodes ended with Anissa accidentally using her super-strength in moments of stress (after a nightmare and during a robbery), but that will change in Tuesday’s installment “LaWanda: The Book of the Burial.” Anissa begins tonight’s episode in a junkyard where she’s testing her powers out in order to figure out what the hell is going on with her body.
Ahead of Tuesday’s episode, EW hopped on the phone to chat with Williams about how she landed this historic role, what’s in store for Anissa this season, and the introduction of her new love interest, DC Comics character Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy), who makes her debut this week.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, can you walk me through how you came to join Black Lightning?
NAFESSA WILLIAMS: [I was] in the thick of pilot season last year and I got the call the second or third week of February. I read the breakdown of the character and I was sold when I saw the foundation of who Anissa was. That was one aspect of it. But, it was a no-brainer when I saw [executive producers Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil] were working on a new project. I enjoy their work. I love the way they create characters and the way they tell their stories. I knew they’d keep it authentic, and I was just honored to join and work with them, honestly.
Were you a fan of Black Lightning comics or comic books in general before signing on?
It was pretty much all new to me, so I had to go back and look into the comic book and do all my research. Thank god, there’s a lot of research out there because he’s been around since 1977. It was cool to be able to do that. I’m just happy to be part of a timely piece.
Did the Akils give you Black Lightning stories to read or was it just all on you to figure out what to read?
They pretty much give you a breakdown of who the character is and their vision for it. Then, it’s up to you to do your homework and break the character down yourself.
How does Anissa feel about these powers that she’s developing?
Well, you’ll see over the next few episodes that she is discovering her powers. She goes on this journey of self-discovery of both becoming a woman and also discovering her powers. I will say there’s a bit of a struggle she’s going through with understanding it, but once she realizes what’s happening and how they work and where they came from, she’s super excited and ready to go [in] head first. She believes it’s her passion and calling from god, and she walks in it boldly.
She’s also an activist and studying to become a doctor, so gaining these powers are kind of like another way for her to help people.
Exactly. Her parents want her to help people by becoming a doctor, but she wants to help people by actually being out there in the community. She loves being a teacher. She loves being advocate for education. She loves going into the community and actually trying to stop crime and fight social injustice. In being a superhero, this is Anissa’s way of saving the world and helping people. I love her strength and the power that she walks in.
Were there aspects of this character that you related to? What else spoke to you when you started reading the scripts?
I think what I can relate to in Anissa is that she’s aware of her calling. She walks in it fearlessly. I have that aspect of myself of just knowing what I want from life. I was always very clear of what my dreams were and I’ve always had the vision, and nobody was ever able to stop me.
We also know her sister Jennifer (China Anne McClain) will also develop powers. How do Anissa and Jennifer differ in how they handle these powers and newfound responsibility?
Anissa is very eager and excited and she feels like it’s her calling, but [I’m] not really sure that Jennifer feels the same way. I don’t want to give too much away because you guys will see the difference of how we accept and receive our powers, but I’ll say that I’m the most eager. If you ask my parents, I’m a bit too eager without fully understanding [it]. She’s just really excited about going on the journey of being a superhero.
At this point Anissa doesn’t know her father, Jefferson, is Black Lightning, so how long does it take for her to open up to him about what’s going on?
She’s in this [time of] discovery and she begins to struggle with it because she’s learning these things about herself and she’s finding out about how these powers work and where they came from. But it’s one of those things [where she wonders], Am I a freak? Do I share it? Is anyone going to believe me? My parents are over protective, how are they going to accept it? It’s almost in the mental space you’re at if you’re coming out as a gay or a lesbian to your parents. It’s a parallel like that as well. It’s a secret that she holds onto for a while because she really doesn’t know who to talk to about it and how people are going to react to that.
Do you feel any pressure playing one of network television’s only black lesbian superheroes?
I won’t say that I feel any pressure. I believe love is love. I’m just really grateful to tell the story for young lesbians — and black lesbians in particular — who don’t really see themselves on TV. My hope is that when you watch Anissa, a young lesbian is inspired to walk boldly as who she is and to love herself and to love herself exactly how she looks. Also my parents on this show, they’re very supportive of my sexual preference, and maybe this can serve as an inspiration to parents at home watching who are dealing with a child who is gay or lesbian and not knowing how to communicate or be as a open. I hope that our family on the show is an inspiration for some families just to be open and accept your children and love them. The Pierce family does a great job of doing that.
We also know you get a love interest in Grace Choi this season. What’s their dynamic like?
Anissa and Grace have a lot in common. If you’re familiar with the comics, they were a group called The Outsiders. She’s a peace of mind for Anissa. It’s pretty cool to be able to tap into that. This is something new for me, playing an openly lesbian [character] on television. I’m always opposite men, so it’s pretty cool to challenge myself and tap into something different. I was excited for that aspect as well.
Is Grace one of the first people Anissa opens up to about her powers?
We haven’t really watched that unfold yet. The journey right now is of Anissa discovering herself and it’s a huge secret.
One of my favorite parts of the show is Jefferson’s relationship with his daughters. What has it been like working with Cress?
Oh my god, it’s so cool. He’s like the big brother dad. I grew up watching Cress. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. So, it’s always an honor to link up with the people who have more experience and who have been there longer than you, and it’s perfect because I play his daughter. In some ways, he inspires me a lot in real life and it just really translates into our characters because Black Lightning, as time goes on you’ll see, he’s her hero. Her father is her hero. Most little girls watch their mother growing up and want to be just like her, but with Anissa, she’s always wanted to be like her father. This is her not knowing he’s Black Lightning. He’s just a great leader. The way he loves and communicates with us on the show is awesome. He’s just a great dad. Our mother is in our life, but we live with him. He is the parent who is there most of the time. Yeah, it’s pretty cool because Cress has been in the game for a while. He has some gems and jewels to share that I’m always trying to listen to.
What’s been the most helpful piece of advice or wisdom?
I think I watch how disciplined Cress is and I admire that the most. He’s very, very disciplined and he’s very focused. I appreciate that. He’s always working out and studying. He’s really into his craft and I respect his love for the craft.
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.