American network The CW has found a great deal of success with its DC Comics adaptation. Starting with Arrow in 2012, that series went on to spawn The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, and the latest addition to their impressive roster is Black Lightning. Starring Cress Williams as the electrifying superhero, it’s been met with critical acclaim and premiered to big ratings last week before arriving on Netflix in the UK from today onwards.
We recently had the chance to catch up with Cress about his role in Black Lightning and covered a range of topics from diversity in superhero adaptations to the future of the series, what it was like suiting up as the character, and the possibility of DC crossovers.
All that and more is covered below and we obviously want to thank Cress for taking the time out of a busy shooting schedule to take us behind the scenes of the series and what it’s like to be transformed into a superhero. The show revolves around the vigilante turned principal (turned vigilante again) and his family and promises to be unlike any DC show we’ve seen before. It sounds like fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about this one…
Black Lightning Episode 1 launches on Netflix today. Further episodes follow weekly.
I heard about it pretty much like everybody else. It was maybe a little over a year ago that I came across a little announcement that Salim and Mara Brock Akil were slated to write this story of Black Lightning. It didn’t really go into detail as far as describing the character other than he was a DC superhero but I’m a huge superhero fan; I have been since I was a child. Once they started making superhero films and TV shows, I was like, ‘I need to play one before I die. I want to play one before I die!’ I was excited just by the idea of it and it was about a year ago that I was going through pilot season and I was enjoying it and it was going well but in the back of my mind, I was hoping I would get a shot at this show. Finally, the script came and I had an audition. The script was phenomenal and I didn’t expect it to be this character, who is my age, to have daughters, an ex-wife, and for it to be a story rooted in real life and dealing with real issues. When I saw that, I was even more excited and wanted it even more. Fortunately, I went through the audition process and got it! I just really identified with it. It was kind of spooky. It felt like it was written for me and I was extremely fortunate they saw that.
Now you are Black Lightning, how excited are you to get your first action figure?
[Laughs] I am immensely excited! I have a wonderful place on my bookshelf to put it and I’ve told everybody that I want every bit of merchandise. If I have to create a Black Lightning room, I will. This is a childhood dream for me and particularly at my age, it’s one I was starting to doubt would ever come about and the for it to not only come about but for it to come about in this fashion, it’s even better than I could have hoped for. Every aspect of this excites me.
With Black Lightning now on TV and Black Panther hitting cinemas next month, do you feel like the tide is beginning to turn when it comes to more diversity being shown on screen in these types of roles?
I do but I feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done. I feel like it’s a positive movement in that direction but as much as I’m excited for our show and Black Panther, I think I’ll feel like the tide has really turned when we start to see also an Asian superhero, a Hispanic superhero, and when those things start to come to the forefront and we can look around and say that everyone is truly represented. Then I’ll feel like the tide has turned but I do feel like we’re moving in the right direction.
After watching the first episode, it’s clear Black Lightning is every bit the hero when he’s out of costume and is a high school principal. Was it important for you to show those two sides of the character?
It’s such a positive message and I’m a father of two and one on the way and I can’t help but notice that there are a lot of negative messages about black men out there and the sense that they’re absentee fathers and not active. There’s also a lot of negative messages about black men who aren’t educated or aren’t pursuing higher education but he’s a father whose family is split and he’s the one who has custody and is actively involved. He sees education as a way out and actively pursues that. He lived in this community that is struggling and rather than just leaving, he came back to try and improve it and pull it up. Every aspect of that is positive beyond just the superhero side which will hopefully also inspire people. Obviously, we don’t all have superpowers but the human aspect of who Jefferson Pierce is will, I hope, inspire people to go out and make changes in their own community and not feel like they’re obsolete and feel like they can actually make a difference.
The show kicks off with a very uncomfortable scene as Jefferson Pierce is pulled over by the police for no other reason than being black. Can you tell us what that was like to shoot and what you thought of the scene?
It was amazing reading it. When I read it and, you know as a reader he has these powers, I kept waiting: ‘What’s going to happen? Is he going to use his powers on these cops? What does that mean?’ It was like a page turner for me but doing it…well, it was extremely cold out and there was all this movie rain! When they make that, it’s never just a little drizzle, it’s a downpour. If you watch the scene, my daughters are warm in the car, the police officers are in rain gear, and I’m the only one out there standing around in a suit. We did so many takes and so many angles, I was just getting wet time and time again. It was extremely uncomfortable but that made it so easy to play. I was angry, I was exhausted, and I felt like I was channelling some of the real frustrations of that situation.
Are there any characters from the DC TV Universe you’d like Black Lightning to cross paths with or are you quite happy with the show remaining standalone for now?
I’m quite happy because Black Lightning is not like Batman or even The Flash and Arrow to a certain degree who the world knows of. There are a lot of people who don’t know Black Lightning so we’re starting fresh and I’m excited about introducing a new character to the audience. Then, there are his daughters who you can tell are eventually going to develop abilities so I’m excited about seeing that too. I feel like once our show is really up and running, we’ll be a superhero family team in our own right. I’m really excited about seeing that stuff develop and happen at a really good pace before we start introducing crossovers.
What was it like for you to suit up as Black Lightning for his introductory scene in the first episode?
It was a really long process. Even the first day when I went in to start the process of fitting, they showed me a picture of what the suit would look like and I actually screamed out loud like a little child…like a little girl! The picture just looked so amazing. Then, you start weeks of fittings and measurements so it took a while. When we finally put it all together and I could see myself in the mirror, all I wanted to do was run through a wall. I was ready to go and felt ten feet tall like I could do anything. It was pretty exciting!
Talking of success, the show debuted to big ratings; how did it feel to see it do such great numbers?
It was such a relief and I was just ecstatic. We’ve all been with this show for almost a year now and so we knew what we had and we felt extremely proud and excited about what we’re doing. It’s like having a child. At some point, you’re ready for that child to go off to school and see how it goes so it was exciting. My wife and I were watching and tuning in on Twitter and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, people are just going crazy!’ We then realised we were trending on Twitter and it just kept going and going. It’s like something we always believed became a reality and then I was actually sick in bed the next day, so it wasn’t until much later in the afternoon that I turned on my phone to see what the ratings were and I was just amazed. It was a sense of relief in the respect that what I thought, that this is a good show people will want to see it and be excited about it, was true. It was great.
Looking ahead, what can you tell fans about what they should expect from the rest of the season?
There are some really exciting surprises coming up for every character and they’re also going to get to know some of the backstories for everyone. They’re going to learn some of the mysterious backstory of Gambi, Tobias, and mine and how that connects to Tobias. The daughters are going to develop as well and in the midst of that, there’s always going to be some awesome action.
You mentioned that you were a big comic book fan as a child; if you could pluck anyone from those to team up with Black Lightning, who would it be?
I would pick Superman! I was always a huge Superman fans and it’s actually kind of rooted in the comic books in the original 1970s series when Black Lightning and Superman meet and there’s a big misunderstanding between the two of them and they actually fight. Black Lightning obviously doesn’t win but he lives! [Laughs] Then, they become friends so that would be pretty awesome.
Luke Cage was praised by critics in 2016 for featuring a bulletproof black man in a very relevant time in America. What do you hope people will take away from this character?
I’m excited about the fact he’s older and most of the time we see superheroes, they’re in their twenties in most of these origin stories. Comic book fans go back so much farther than that and the bulk of them aren’t in their twenties so I’m excited we get to tell the story of someone who’s older and show that they’re not obsolete and that they’re very active and affecting change by being heroic. I hope fans take that and from that, it increases everybody’s taste for more diverse stories and not just the run of the mill things.
You were at Comic-Con last year but are you now excited to return to those sorts of events to meet fans once people have seen the show?
Yeah, I’m very excited. It was cool to go the first time and it was almost like we got a little bit of a taste. People were excited and I was actually really surprised when we didn’t have a whole lot to show yet. At the same time, I could see when we did our autograph session and people seemed excited, the cast of The Flash did theirs right after and you could see even more excitement so we got a taste that that’s what it will be like next year. It’s also one of the few moments when, as an actor, you get to see the direct result of your work. We do this thing and put it out and there are ratings and things like that but it’s not like doing a live play when you get the response and find out instantly how audiences feel so to get a chance to go to a Comic-Con and see your fans live, you get a firsthand response to your work live, so I’m excited.