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Javicia Leslie On Playing Batwoman, Preparing For Fight Scenes, And More - Exclusive Interview

It's not very often that you see a series reinvent itself after just one season, but that's what happened with the CW's Batwoman when the show's writers and producers realized they had to cast a new actor in the title role. In the summer of 2020, Batwoman found its new hero in Javicia Leslie, who was called upon not just to inhabit the Batwoman costume but to bring an entirely new character, Ryan Wilder, to life on the hit series. 

For Leslie, it was an opportunity to draw on her own experiences, inherent personality quirks, and emotional connections to play a woman who in many ways has fallen through the cracks of Gotham City. When the show introduces Ryan, she's a product of the foster care system and a victim of tragedy who's living out of her van and searching for a new purpose. When that new purpose falls almost literally at her feet in the form of a Batwoman costume, Ryan has to call upon all of her strength and determination to decide what she's going to fight for: Herself or Gotham. 

Ahead of Batwoman's season 2 premiere in January, Looper chatted with Leslie about what it was like to bring Ryan Wilder to life, joining a pre-existing cast, and much more.

Meeting Ryan Wilder

This is obviously a really interesting situation for you, stepping into a preexisting show and getting to take on a new version of the title role. What was your first impression of Ryan when she sort of first came on your radar as a character?

It's funny because when I first saw the sides and I sat with my best friend, she looked at me and said, "Oh my gosh, this is you." I definitely have a very strong connection with Ryan. I think we're very similar in the ability of, one, playing two different people, but two, being maybe not the smoothest person in the game. You know, she's kind of goofy. I think she's different than what you're used to seeing in Gotham. And something that I can completely connect with.

With that in mind, as you got into working on the show and sort of building this character with the writers and with the rest of the cast, what were you able to add to her once you stepped into the role?

From the moment that I was cast to the moment that we started playing, which was almost two months, I was able to spend time building on the world of Ryan and using the ingredients from the script to build that world, sitting in the world of foster care, sitting in the world of not having any parents, sitting in the world of... when I finally do get a parent, she's killed in front of me. What that feels like.

And then also being in a city where no one cares about us and it's not just about race, it's about class. Gotham is a city all about class and the ones that are lower class, they're not cared about, and to have to sit in that world so that it can be believable and it can be supported and I can be supportive when it was time to play. That's really what I was able to bring to Ryan. Just through the depth of everything that happens before we even start rolling.

So speaking in terms of the physical preparation there's a really interesting dynamic where she has a certain background that allows her to have that martial arts background. But of course, you also have to play her as someone who's not really sure how being Batwoman works yet. So what was the physical preparation and the training like be able to play both sides of that?

I already trained with Muay Thai and bo staff, this is way before Batwoman. So when it was time to start comprising our choreography for the stunts, the stunt team and I were really on the same page and they taught me everything I needed to know in order to be able to do what we needed, because the difference between my training and in the choreography is I can't actually hit anyone. So to really learn how to sell hits without hitting someone was really what we had to work on. And once I felt confident about that, once I felt confident about understanding what it needed to look like onscreen, we really started to speak the same language and it made it seamless from there.

Which do you think came more naturally to you, the comedy part of it or the action part of it?

It's pretty tied with that because like I said, the goofiness of Ryan, I completely understand. I'm like that I'm the elephant in the china shop, like a bull in a china shop. It takes me a second to get the movement of things. And then the action is something that I love. I'm obsessed with action. That's why I practiced martial arts before the show, before I even, you know obviously [learned it] for the show. So I wouldn't say either of them was more difficult than the other. I felt like they both kind of played hand in hand, which is what makes this role so much fun to me.

Joining the Batwoman family

There's a really interesting moment in the premiere when you get to kind of sit down and learn a little bit about who Kate Kane was or is. And there's this interesting kinship that Ryan kind of sees in who Kate is. Just from your perspective, even from a distance, if you felt a similar kinship with [outgoing Batwoman star Ruby Rose] in stepping in and taking over this show, what would that relationship feels like for you?

I respect the character of Kate Kane. I think Kate Kane is our original Batwoman. And so when Ryan comes in and she has to come in under the shadow, honestly, of Kate Kane, she can't but help respect the legacy of Kate Kane because that's the only Batwoman Gotham knows. And they both have a connection that you'll see later on too. It's almost, without actually physically doing it, Kate Kane passed the torch. And so I completely respect the journey that the actress that played Kate Kane had to go through and it feels like a blessing to be able to take my turn at this journey.

You also got to step into a show that already had an ensemble cast in place. And a lot of the premiere is finding ways for Ryan to become a part of that ensemble. What was it like for you kind of getting into the rhythm of the chemistry of the rest of the cast?

It's so dope. Honestly, I already knew some of [the cast], so it made it easier. Camrus [Johnson, who plays Luke Fox] and I literally just became brother and sister, the moment we met. And then Nicole [Kang, who plays Mary Hamilton] was like a little sister to me. Meagan [Tandy, who plays Sophie Moore] and I have already worked in a project together before. So we already had our connection. And Rachel [Skarsten, who plays Alice] and Dougray [Scott, who plays Jacob Kane] I mean, goodness, they're so much fun to be around that it just makes work fun. There's never a dull moment.

It's always exciting. And then everyone's always so dope offscreen and onscreen, everyone's so committed. It makes the work just so much fun. And then the crew itself, they're so dedicated to the story and making sure that we have the best quality version of that one we can have. And all of it makes coming to work a joy. I get to do what I love. I get to do stunts all day. I get to have fun with my friends. I'm in heaven when I'm here. It's a lot of fun.

What was your experience like the first day that you stepped on set in costume? Because in the show it's a very emotional, very kind of badass moment when you first put the costume on, did it feel like that on the day?

Yeah, definitely. The moment I put the costume on you do start to feel like "Oh shoot, I'm very powerful." I think it could probably be any superhero suit, but definitely with Batwoman, the moment I put the suit on, I felt powerful.

This show kind of had a built-in audience and now you're coming in and taking over this character. What has the experience of seeing fans online, reacting to you been like for you so far?

It's been really amazing, like connecting me to people that I probably would've never had a chance to connect to. It's really connecting me to a world that I wouldn't have had a chance to connect to. I'm somewhat of a comic book nerd myself as far as the movies go. So to be able to be a part of that world is a lot of fun. Those comic book fans go hard, and to be on the good side of them is always good. And to be able to really look at the fan art and have fun with the fan art and just really just connect. And I think that the fans of Batwoman, the whole legacy thing, they're so dope. They're so epic. They're so down. They go hard, they go really hard and you feel like you already have a family with them.

Looking ahead

Obviously you already have your hands full on the show right out of the gate with villain and different threats to contend with, but just from your own personal fandom, if you could bring in a Gotham villain to be on the show with you, do you have a preference? Who would you like to see show up in Batwoman?

I can't pick just one, but I can definitely pick at least two. In maybe based off of how the actors portrayed these characters, but I love the Riddler, probably because of how Jim Carrey played the character. And you know what, I would love to see a femme fatale like a Catwoman on our show.

Ryan faces a dilemma in the season premiere where she's kind of torn between her personal quest and perhaps feeling like she can't be the same kind of hero Kate Kane was. Where do you see that going forward? What can we kind of expect in terms of where she's at emotionally?

I think that's a journey in general. I think it's going to be a journey for anyone. So my journey for her and everyone watching, and it's very understandable why she starts off where she starts and as her journey goes on, it's just about being able to put her own feelings aside for the greater good. And there are going to be obstacles that are going to force her to put her own feelings aside because innately she is a hero. Innately, she wants to help people. It's very natural for her. So because of that, there are going to be times where she'll have her opportunity to get her revenge, but she's going to have to put it aside to help the citizens of Gotham.

And that's a journey emotionally for her every single time she has to put that aside. But I think she constantly knows that there's a bigger picture in that because she's the one wearing that suit until Kate Kane comes back. She has to do what she has to do.

What was your reaction to learning that you were going to get hit with a Kryptonite bullet at the end of the premiere?

I mean, my reaction is yes, we need the drama. Look, I'm here for it. I want the drama. I want the darkness. I don't want this to be easy. Easy isn't fun. And I can't tell you anything about the journey of the Kryptonite bullet. I have been sworn to secrecy. I have literally received an email that told me I can not talk about it, and I am not losing my job to talk about this thing. You're just going to have to pay attention and watch, but I will tell you when I first read it, I was excited.

Batwoman airs Sundays on the CW.