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The veteran actor (Hart of Dixie, Friday Night Lights, ER) steps into his first leading role on The CW’s midseason DC Comics drama as retired superhero Jefferson Pierce — aka Black Lightning, a meta-human with the power to harness electricity. When the series begins, it has been a decade since Jefferson hung up his suit to focus on family, but he’s reluctantly pulled back into that dangerous life-or-death high-stakes world when his daughters, dealing with their own fledgling powers, get caught up with local gang the One Hundred.
What’s more, when Black Lightning launches, it will not rely on the Arrow-verse for viewers as producers wanted the series to be able to stand on its own. It’s a decision that, to hear Williams tell it, makes sense.
“Logistically, we film in Atlanta and all the other ones film in Vancouver. But I’m intrigued in establishing our story with the family dynamics, with the daughters developing their abilities, so I didn’t want to rush through those things or skip some things for the sake of a crossover,” Williams says. “At the root of it, our show is very different: It’s rooted in more day-to-day real-life things and I didn’t want to compromise that.”
Black Lightning marks the first time the 46-year-old Williams has been the lead of his own TV show — and, like Jefferson, he doesn’t take his new power lightly.
“I come from theater so I’m used to the hierarchy of an actor is just on the ladder and above that is a director, and above that is a producer, and above that is a writer. But on a television show or film, the whole call sheet thing and being No. 1 on a call sheet, people look to you and almost expect you to exercise this power for good or bad,” says Williams, who notes that it’s an adjustment to get used to being a leader on set as well.
Below, Williams opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about bringing broadcast television’s first leading African-American superhero to life, the significance of the role and how he’s also adjusting to the rabid fanboy culture of the comic book world.
Why do you think it has taken so long to see a black superhero at the top of the call sheet on a broadcast television network — or even film with Black Panther due this year?
Part of it starts at the source. Unfortunately when you look at the amount of comic book heroes out there, minority heroes are few and far between. And it’s just taken time for Hollywood and the world to catch up with society. We are a much more diverse world, we are much more connected, we are much more intrigued by other cultures now, so we’re at an amazing time for this to come about.
Why has the superhero world taken longer to be more inclusive onscreen when the comic books already have been for decades?
When I first learned about Black Lightning and I didn’t know who [creator] Tony Isabella was; I just assumed he was a black man — I found out later that he wasn’t. His motivation was simply the fact that he knew lots of African-American comic book fans, but they just weren’t reflected in the words. It just takes more people like him as well as African-American writers and Latino writers, but it also takes more white writers to see a hole missing and want to fill it. That’s really what’s needed and probably why it’s taken so long.
How much pressure do you feel to deliver because of the historical significance of a black superhero in a leading role on a broadcast TV series?
It’s not so much pressure as it is an honor. I’m a big fan of superheroes and fantasy and sci-fi. I have been since I was a child. I think back to the child me and I’m just honored to do it. I fortunately am a person who cares about the work no matter what I’m doing so that work ethic is going to come with it, but the historical significance just makes me work that much harder. The pressure hasn’t hit me, and I hope it doesn’t because that will just get in the way.
Has the fan response gotten to you yet since the trailer was released?
A little bit, yeah. I allowed myself a little bit of time to look at some of the fan responses to the trailer but I only do it in small doses. You can’t please everyone. Now I just want to focus on my job, telling the story and being as truthful about it as I can.
Were there negative responses?
Yes. Most of what I saw was positive. But I know that if I keep going, I will see some bad. The day we released the pictures of the suit, DC prepared me. This genre has fans that are very passionate and opinionated about how things should be done. They even warned me that there will be people who won’t like the boots or don’t like one shoulder [laughs].
What does it mean to you getting to work with two black showrunners on this? Does having Salim and Mara Brock Akil at the helm create an opportunity to explore race beyond the genre of it all?
It’s amazing on so many levels. I love that they’re a family and family is paramount to me. And this show is really like a family drama. They’re so passionate and knowledgeable about the show, it always feels like we’re on the same page as far as wanting to tell character-driven stories with the superhero and fantasy on top of it. It’s a match made in heaven.
So how much will race be a factor in the show?
Race is going to be a huge part of it. I don’t think it’s going to be all of it. Family is going to be a huge part of it. What’s great about the show is we’re rooted in real life and we’re in this time where race is a huge part of real life.
How much do you want the show to shine a spotlight on real-life racial issues?
A lot. That’s one of the things that really drew me to the show itself. It’s not this save-the-world story, it’s really grassroots, affect your world, your community story. It’s rooted in real-life things from the very first episode. I got tingles reading the first script because of that. When I went back and started reading the original ’70s issues, that’s the root of the heart of this comic book, it’s always about real life. There was an issue that I read back in the ’70s that was all about illegal immigrants and them being exploited. It was something that if you just take away the year, the costumes, it was like a story that would ring true right now. That’s the heart of what is amazing about Black Lightning, it has the opportunity to tell real stories, look at these things in a fantasy world but rooting it in real life.
You have a roster of credits that includes key roles on Hart of Dixie, Friday Night Lights and Prison Break, but this is the first time you’re No. 1 on the call sheet. What are you bringing from your other experiences on TV shows as you prepare to set the tone here?
I realized that being that No. 1 on the call sheet sets the tone. That knowledge, it’s important to me that everyone, not just actors, not just myself, but everyone have a workplace that they enjoy, where they feel respected, that they have creative input and that they feel is a place that they’re excited to go to work. I take that leadership role on personally to make sure it’s an environment that everyone feels comfortable in and enjoys.
What has been the biggest challenge in taking on this role?
The physical part of it [laughs]. I look at the character as two different people. There’s Jefferson Pierce and then there’s Black Lightning. Most days I feel more like Jefferson Pierce. The fights, the martial arts, that’s something I’m not familiar with. That’s a new world to me and this level of stunts is so new to me. I’m looking forward to walking away from this hopefully years down the line with a bunch of new skills under my belt.
What is most important to you to get right in playing Jefferson Pierce?
Jeff is a dual character. He’s almost like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. rolled into one. In a perfect world, he would really like for education and positivity and nonviolence to win the day. But then there’s this other part of him who has these abilities and recognizes that sometimes it has to be by any means necessary. That’s probably the biggest challenge, walking that line and making sure that both of those aspects of his character are portrayed.
How will Black Lightning distance itself from other superhero shows?
There are few, if any, that are rooted in real, present-day life issues and conflicts. I think we’re the first in that. We’re the first show that’s coming out that’s really based around a family. I’m going to be the first superhero that’s coming out of retirement. This is not an origin story. This is someone putting the suit back on after having lots of experience. But we have so many aspects, like, while I’m the experienced hero, over time you’re going to watch my daughters’ origin stories. There isn’t anything out there that is offering all of this. We are a family drama that happens to have superpowers.
Black Lightning will launch midseason on The CW.
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