Batwoman actor Shivaani Ghai previews Safiyah and Alice's 'game of chess' on Coryana
Queen Safiyah will see you now.
Shivaani Ghai (Dominion) makes her debut as the dangerous ruler of Coryana in this Sunday's Batwoman episode, which sees Safiyah reunite with Alice (Rachel Skarsten) on Coryana. At the end of last week's installment, Safiyah kidnapped both Alice and Sophie (Meagan Tandy) after the former exposed the Desert Rose — a mystical cure-all from Coryana that Safiyah has spent her life protecting — to the world in order to gain an audience with the queen. And it looks like she got her wish.
Safiyah's introduction has been a long time coming because she's an important figure from Alice's past who was mentioned multiple times in the CW superhero drama's first season. When showrunner Caroline Dries was casting the role, she wanted someone with "sophisticated elegance," she tells EW. "That her power radiated off of her elegance [and] she didn't need to yell or make threats. You could just sense by the way she held herself that you don't mess with her. She lets her army do her dirty work for her."
With Ghai, she got that and something else she didn't realize she wanted and needed. "There is a maternal feeling that she provided," says Dries of Ghai's performance. "We learn that she and Alice had a relationship on this island [in] the past, and their lives [were] intertwined in that Alice kind of needed somebody with a maternal instinct to groom her and guide her to a certain direction."
Below, EW chats with Ghai about Safiyah's entrance, working with Skarsten, and whether or not she'll share scenes with the show's other characters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to the role of Safiyah?
SHIVAANI GHAI: Firstly, I love characters like this. I love the bad ones. I love getting to play around with that. I also like characters who are quite powerful, but who are also quite menacing, but it's also more of an unspoken thing. I find them really interesting and exciting to play, maybe because [they're] so different from who I am as a person in real life. I'm not that cool. I definitely don't have that power. I don't have this evil streak running through me. So that was definitely a big plus.
And, I really enjoy the show. To be honest, I hadn't really watched it before this came about. Then I sat down with season 1, and I really liked it. I was really invested in the characters and the dynamic. I really wanted to know what was going to happen in season 2. Everything just came together.
Safiyah is mentioned a few times in season 1. Coming into the show, did you feel that knowing what happened before would be an important part of playing this character?
100 percent. I think it helped so much just to know what world you're going to go into and what the dynamics are and what everyone is doing, and where everything kind of has to be pitched. I felt like it was very important that I watch season 1 just to get a sense of all of that. But also, it helps so much to know the characters as well. Because a lot of my story is with Alice and because I'm someone who's supposed to know Alice so well, to then watch her and to understand her was so important. Then also as you said, Safiyah was referenced on a few occasions in season 1, so it felt really important to know what's been said about her and how she's been built up.
Did you feel pressure because Safiyah has been built up as this menacing unseen force?
There's a part of me that loved that she's been built up as this powerful, menacing presence. I love that and it's almost like, "Yes, bring that on! I want to go there!" At the same time, I really love that she's actually not quite what we might have anticipated from season 1 — especially when you first meet her. On the surface, she's quite a charming balanced person, but I also think that in itself will be quite interesting because then as an audience you're like, "Is she actually this really menacing person that we believe her to be, or is she a normal person? Or is she a bit of both?" To have an audience guessing is quite good, quite interesting.
When I spoke to Caroline, she said you brought this maternal aspect to the character that surprised her. Was that intentional on your part? If so, where did that come from?
You know what? I don't know [laughs]. It wasn't exactly something that I thought about when I did my audition. Caroline mentioned that to me as well. It's always interesting to see what someone else is taking from what you're bringing to the role. When I was auditioning, I didn't even have the real names of the characters. So I didn't actually know who I was talking to, but I was aware that there was this dynamic that I was talking to someone who was a bit damaged and who has looked up to me in the past and is maybe seeing me as a bit of a mentor. I remember thinking, "I have to talk to this person almost like they're a child, but not to be patronizing — To still be quite kind with it and maybe a little bit gentle because I have love and affection for this person and I don't want to alienate them or make them angry." That's what I had in mind when I was doing the audition. And at the same time still trying to keep my power and play someone who has the control.
Now that you've shot a few episodes. How would you describe Safiyah's dynamic with Alice?
It's really interesting actually. Sometimes you think it's one thing, but it's another thing. I know that Alice had been very afraid of Safiyah whenever she'd been mentioned in season 1. Coming into episode 3, that fear isn't dictating her. When she comes to Coryana, we don't see a scared Alice, we don't see someone who's on her back. We actually see someone who has orchestrated it so that she can meet with Safiyah and she can speak to her and figure out what's going on because Alice believes that Safiyah is behind what's happened to Kate.
But I think it's quite interesting when you do meet Safiyah. She's not Alice's big enemy. I think we also begin to see why Alice is the way she is, how she's come to be, how she transitioned from Beth to Alice. We'll start to see that through what unravels on Coryana [in episode 3].
What has it been like working with Rachel? Alice is usually the most powerful person in the room, but now the dynamic has shifted with Safiyah…
She's phenomenal. When I watched season 1, and I said this to her, I was just gobsmacked. She's such a fantastic actress. The layers to what she does and the range of emotion that she'll go through, it's really something. I met Rachel and she's such a gorgeous person, so it was very easy to connect and establish a relationship. In terms of working with her, it's been amazing. She's fantastic to work with. I'm really looking forward to doing more and seeing where we go on the next episodes.
In terms of the power dynamic: Look, I think when Alice and Safiyah are in a room together, I don't know if Alice thinks that Safiyah's the most powerful person in the room. [They're both] very convinced of their own power. I think it'll be interesting to see how it'll play out. I myself don't know how those scenes are gonna come across. I'm also interested to see what the end result is.
In the moment, how did those scenes feel?
It felt great. In some ways, I suppose it's almost like a game of chess. I will play one thing and [Rachel as Alice] will play another thing, and there will be these little maneuvers and these little shifts in the power dynamic. For me, it's gonna be interesting to see how that plays — who ends up with the upper hand? Who ends up being the one who seems to be manipulating everything? As Shivaani, I kind of feel like I know that. I know how Safiyah is manipulating things. But I suppose it's also interesting to see how Safiyah also sometimes allows Alice to take a little win or lull her into that false sense of security to get her to do what she wants her to do.
Can we expect you to share scenes with any of the other characters?
Up until reading episode 8, I wasn't sure if my character was gonna have many dealings with other characters on the show. But episode 8, which is set up, you do see I have a little meeting with Batwoman [Javicia Leslie]. Also, there's a meeting with Sophie. I was just joking to my husband about this before actually: Safiyah loves a beautiful strong woman, and I think she loves the women from Gotham. She's getting to meet them all, and I think she's very taken with them. I think that's quite, quite interesting.
Batwoman airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on The CW.