Javicia Leslie is preparing for her next battle. It's the mid-1990s, and with nothing to do on this classically muggy summer day in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, a young Leslie is dressed up as Xena, with her homemade weapon in hand, waiting to face her next opponent (read: friend or family member). "It's imagination at its finest," says the now 33-year-old actress, recalling those childhood years spent masquerading as righteous fighters, like Lucy Lawless' iconic Warrior Princess or WWE-style wrestlers with names she and her friends created. Like many of us when we were in elementary school, she dreamed of one day becoming a hero — maybe even Storm from the X-Men — and those joyful, cosplay-filled backyard games were her way of manifesting that. However, unlike the rest of us, it actually paid off: Over two decades later, she spends her nights (and most days) prowling the streets of Gotham City in a cape and red-accented wig, and fighting batty villains with a scarlet symbol emblazoned on her chest and a bo staff in her hand.
"This is something I've wanted my entire life," says Leslie, whose vocal pitch rises as she recounts how often she gets to put her martial arts skills, especially the bo staff, to use on the show. "Every single time, I'm just like, 'How could this be work? This is so freaking cool. For real, this is my life?' I get to just keep flying around and beating people's butts. It's just so much fun!"
When the Greg Berlanti-produced series premiered in 2019, it starred Ruby Rose (Orange Is the New Black) as Bruce Wayne's equally wealthy gay cousin Kate Kane, the modern incarnation of Batwoman originally introduced in DC Comics 52 series 15 years ago — and the first out superhero to headline a television series. Season 1 followed Kate as she threw on the cape and red flowy wig to protect Batman's perennially beleaguered city from a host of bad guys, including her villainous twin sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten).
Despite its heroine's impenetrable suit, Batwoman couldn't avoid being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Production on the first season shut down in March 2020 with two episodes left to film. Thus, the show's 20th episode became its season finale. But that wasn't the only season-ending surprise — two days after the May 17 finale aired, the unthinkable happened: Rose left the show, partially due to a back injury and the pandemic. Instead of simply recasting Kate, Batwoman showrunner Caroline Dries decided to create an entirely new character to pick up the Crimson Knight's mantle. Thus, Leslie's Ryan Wilder was born.
Ryan is a street-smart lesbian and martial arts expert who grew up in Gotham City group homes until a woman adopted her. They didn't have money, but they had each other, which is all Ryan ever needed. But, this is a superhero story after all, so tragedy eventually struck, thwarting Ryan's happiness. Sometime later, Ryan got arrested for a drug crime she didn't commit. In a typical Batman story, she's the type of youngster Bruce would take under his wing as Robin (á la Dick Grayson or Jason Todd) because of her hard knocks background and fighting skills. But Batwoman pushes the Bat mythos forward by making Ryan the Bat hero; she's not playing second fiddle to anyone.
"At the end of the day, the character of Kate Kane is important. That's always going to be the first Batwoman and it should be. But I think that it's really dope that we're getting this chance to show another side of not only Batwoman, but Gotham City," says Leslie, comparing Ryan's working class background to Bruce's privileged upbringing at Wayne Manor. "I think we've done such an amazing job of introducing Ryan in a way where it's like this is a part of Gotham that doesn't get seen."
Taking on the role of Ryan means that Leslie, who identifies as bisexual, is the first Black woman to ever portray Batwoman in a live-action project, a landmark moment of representation in the genre that isn't lost on the actress. "Every day, I feel that pressure — and I don't look at it as pressure. I look at it as a responsibility," says Leslie, who says she has always been inspired by artist-activists like Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, and Eartha Kitt (who herself made superhero history as Catwoman opposite Adam West's Batman). "When I did my research on these women, [I was] like, 'Oh my God, at one point in my life, I want to be in the history books for doing what I love and that it made a difference.' And so this happens and it makes a difference."
She's also thrilled to be part of a surging wave of representation in the DC Universe as a whole, which includes Anna Diop, who plays Starfire on HBO Max's Titans, and Black Lightning's Nafessa Williams, who portrays the lesbian superhero Thunder, among others. "It's really dope that there are going to be so many little kids that are going to grow up seeing that as a representation and know that they have the ability to be whatever they want," Leslie says.
When Ryan first becomes Batwoman on the show, Kate's allies — tech-genius Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) and Kate's savvy stepsister Mary Hamilton (Nicole Kang) — aren't completely sure if Ryan will be up to the task. But nobody has those doubts about Leslie herself, who has been preparing to play a superhero for a long time. Like Bruce, she's devoted many hours to training her mind and body — albeit without his emotional trauma and bank account.
A military brat, Leslie was born in Germany but grew up right outside of Washington, D.C., in Upper Marlboro, Md. As a kid, in addition to running around outside dressed up as her favorite heroes, she would stage plays with her cousins. She took her first major steps into the performing arts in high school when she read a Nikki Giovanni poem in a Black history play and also appeared in the school's production of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
At Hampton University, she majored in business instead of acting and channeled her dramatic self into beauty pageants and was crowned Miss Hampton in 2007. "For me, it was an opportunity to be on stage and perform," says Leslie, who also played Lady in Red in another production of For Colored Girls in college. "That play changed my life because it made me realize that I needed acting. I needed it because it gave me a reason to cry, to laugh, to dance."
After graduating in 2009, Leslie returned to Washington and took a job with the U.S. Army. By day, she paid soldiers in Afghanistan whose service was involuntarily extended beyond their end date, and at night, she took acting classes and hosted a live competition show called Love From the Soundstage. After two years, though, she realized it wasn't enough to simply perform as a hobby. "What really put the nail in the coffin for me was watching TV and seeing people do what I love and fearlessly go after what I wanted to go after," she says. So when her government contract ended in 2012, she took her severance and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream.
Working for the Army — and being raised by a mother in the military — instilled discipline in her in more ways than one. Her experience with the military chain of command affects how she approaches acting, too. "I tend to say 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir' a lot. And people will say, 'Don't do that.' And I'm like, 'I'm sorry, I'm a military brat. This is how I know how to communicate with people.' It's my way of respecting people." When she moved to L.A., she skipped nights out with friends to save money for her acting classes. "If you show up for the work, the work will show up for you," she says, repeating the advice she gives hopeful L.A. newcomers. And it eventually did. In 2014, she was cast in Swim at Your Own Risk, a Lifetime TV romantic thriller and her first leading role. Then, four years later, she landed her first series regular gig on God Friended Me, an earnest drama that ran for two seasons on CBS. Leslie played Ali, a cheery churchgoing psychology student whose atheist brother Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) was investigating God's mysterious Facebook account.
"[Hall] showed me how to lead a project [through] his integrity, the way he fought for people, and the way he always stood up for what was right," says Leslie. "His work ethic. His consistency. That's something that I take with me as a lead of my show."
For his part, Hall was equally impressed by Leslie well-roundedness. "She's constantly learning or reading books, or trying to figure out new ways to improve herself as a human being," he says. "She keeps herself in balance."
Like your typical superhero, Leslie has experience juggling dueling identities. While working on the New York-based God Friended Me, she frequently flew back to Los Angeles because she was simultaneously playing a ferocious spoiled brat and femme fatale on BET+'s dark crime drama The Family Business.
"There's nothing she can't do," says Yvette Nicole Brown, who pushed to cast Leslie as the lead of the 2019 romantic comedy Always a Bridesmaid, which Brown wrote. "I call her little Chaka Khan because she's every woman."
Reflecting on the many different kinds of Black women she's already played in the last three years, Leslie says: "I think it was important for me to have those roles before this, because it's just a constant reminder of how dynamic we are, how necessary we are, and how important it is to see us on screen."
During Leslie's free time (what little she has), she cooks, meditates, maintains an intense workout regimen, and studies various forms of martial arts, including Muay Thai and kickboxing. "There are healthy people that just like to move, but Javicia goes beyond. She trains as if she's training for something," says Brown. "I think about all those videos she had up [on Instagram] a year or so ago of her flipping tires and jumping ropes and sprints, [and realize] she was preparing to be Batwoman. She didn't even know it. When the opportunity came, she was already in peak shape to step in."
When it became clear Rose wasn't returning, showrunner Dries knew she had to find a way forward. She was committed to keeping Batwoman queer and casting an actress from the LGBTQ community, but she was unsure whether to simply recast Kate Kane, who is traditionally Batwoman in the comics, or create a new character to pick up the mantle. Ultimately, she chose the latter, in part because there wasn't a story-based reason for Kate's appearance to change. More importantly, though, she saw an opportunity to bring something new to the Batman mythology: Kate and her missing Dark Knight cousin come from wealthy backgrounds, but what would someone from a less privileged upbringing do with the Bat symbol? That question ultimately led to the creation of the passionate and defiant Ryan.
"While Bruce and Kate were interested in fighting [Gotham City's corrupt] system and social injustice, Ryan actually has experience being stuck in that system firsthand," says Dries, "and I think that's actually what her superpower is."
Creating a new character isn't unheard of — it's something that fans of comics are used to, in fact. Heroic monikers like the Flash, Green Lantern, or even Batman are shared by multiple people or passed down generations because what these heroes represent is far more important than the person underneath the mask. For example, former Robin Dick Grayson became Batman after Bruce Wayne appeared to die in Final Crisis; Future State, DC's ongoing line-wide event, features a Black Batman in the near future; and Wally West went from Kid Flash to the Flash when Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths. In Batwoman season 1, Kate became Batwoman because the city was suffering in Batman's five-year absence and the Bat symbol gave people hope.
"The idea of legacy certainly gave me confidence this was possible," says Dries. "It's all about making sure the person underneath it is worthy and can step up to the challenge to represent the symbol."
Dries found that person in Leslie, whose immediate connection to Ryan Wilder blew her away in the audition. "It was like the character was oozing out of her so naturally. She nailed the comedic timing, which we purposefully put in the audition [sides]. You could just tell she was Ryan," says Dries. Leslie's work ethic also impressed Dries when they sat down to discuss the expectations of being No. 1 on the call sheet of a superhero show — from contending with the chilly conditions in Vancouver where the show films, to the stunt requirements, long work days, and frequent night shoots. "Her response was, 'Oh yeah, I never had a day off in the last five years. I'm working on two different shows at once. I'm always working.' Or working out, or taking care of her body or meditating," says Dries. "I was like, 'Okay, she has the work ethic of a number one. She can do this role. But also she can relate to somebody like Ryan, who's needing to be two people at once."
In the season 2 premiere, a homeless and jobless Ryan stumbles upon the Batsuit after Kate disappears (no, she's not dead). At first, Ryan views the suit as a way of reclaiming her power after years of feeling powerless. As the season progresses, she eventually joins Luke and Mary on the Bat team full time because the city needs a defender, and develops her own personal rivalry with Alice. Her full transformation — with a new suit of her own — becomes her way of standing up for the people Gotham often overlooks.
In the beginning, Leslie was surprised by how similar she and Ryan are, both in terms of their shared love of plants and their natural "rawness." "[She has a] she is who she is type of personality…. No matter where she is, she shows up as herself — and [doesn't hide] what she believes in." When the cameras started rolling, Leslie infused Ryan with some of her own goofiness and lightness. "As actors, we do like to separate ourselves so that we can play different roles and you see differences in our characters. But it really felt like I needed to bring a little bit of who I am to this."
While playing Ryan came very naturally to Leslie, she did face some uncertainty when she put on the Batsuit for the first time. "I completely related to Ryan when it came to defining who Batwoman is to her, and who she is to Batwoman," she says. Having the iconic Bat symbol on her chest made her question simple things like posture. "I did have a moment where I felt like, 'Is this how a superhero's supposed to pose?'" she recalls, adding that figuring out how Batwoman would land when she jumped into a scene took some time (you can see the imposing end result on her Instagram). "As time has gone on, I realize, when you become a superhero, it's going to be your energy and your version of the superhero for that project…. I wouldn't say it was a bit of a learning curve. I think it was a bit of a trusting curve. It's a bit of trusting that you're enough."
To further immerse herself in playing Batwoman, Leslie is also performing the majority of her own stunts. She beams as she gushes about grapple-hooking in and out of scenes or using the bo staff, animatedly pantomiming each action. According to Camrus Johnson, that glee was palpable when she zipped up, up, and away for the first time after meeting Luke and Mary.
"She was shooting up and she just had this big smile and started laughing. And they didn't say cut yet. [It] was like, 'Javicia, you're still Batwoman!'" says Johnson. "But you could just [see] this little Black girl joy in her. She's just like, 'Wow, I am in the Batsuit. I'm using the Bat tools. This is really happening!'"
Leslie adds with a laugh: "I felt like I was on a roller coaster, or that I was Superman... actually Batwoman! I still can't do a stunt without smiling hard, so they usually let me go at least twice so that I can get all of my giggles out."
But it's not just about the adrenaline rush for her. The stunts are an integral part of the storytelling and Ryan and Batwoman's character development. For example: While shooting episode 4, there's a moment when Ryan, rocking her new Batsuit, launches out of a scene after meeting a young kid. The episode's director assumed Ryan's stuntwoman would do the act, which would've required changing the camera angle. But Leslie insisted on executing it herself to serve the story, which explores Gotham's apathy about missing Black children.
"I didn't want the camera angle to change, because this was a moment that you needed to see her connect with this kid and exit the scene in one shot," says Leslie. "We cannot turn [the camera] and make it someone else. It has to be me."
She's looking forward to pushing the action even further. "Right now, I fly out of scenes, but I can only go so high. And so we're going to get higher," she says. "Very high. I'm just really excited because we figured out a way to get the camera above me. Now when I fly out, you're going to see me go out for a while." Hopefully for many seasons to come.
Motion and still photography by Nino Muñoz for EW. Production by Kendra Voth/In The City Entertainment for EW.
Hair: Janice Workman; Make-Up: Corey Roberts; Wardrobe: Maya Mani; Props: Paxton Downrd; Stunt Coordinator: Marshall Virtue. Boots: B2; Dress: For Love & Lemons.