Comic book characters are a colorful bunch. But while heroes and villains come in all colors, diversity in the superhero ranks has typically lagged behind reality. Over the last couple years, comic books have started to mirror the population. Now, with comics driving a good portion of television and movies, it is time for superheroes of color to hit the screen. D.C. Comics—which has been having a good run with television programs based on its comic properties—has doubled-down with the introduction of not only a show around its flagship Black superhero, but the first Black superhero family.
Black Lightning, starring Cress Williams, will introduce us to the returning superhero and show viewers the origins of his super-powered daughters, played by China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams. We spoke to Cress Williams about his role ahead of the show’s series premiere tonight (January 16) at 9 p.m. EST.
CASSIUS: You’ve long been like the Black Steve Buscemi—a great character actor with tons of roles. How does it feel to get your first lead role?
Cress Williams: It’s overwhelming. It’s funny, ’cause when you’re younger you can’t help but plot out your career, you make plans. What’s that saying? “Man makes plans and God laughs.” It’s interesting now, ’cause you reach a point where you’re just kinda working and you feel really confident you can continue to make a living, but all those aspirations of, “I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that,” you start to go, “Well, maybe that’s just not going to happen. Maybe I’m just going to be one of those actors that works.” Just that guy that you’re like, “Hey, isn’t that [that guy who] was in that?” And you just start to resign yourself to that fact. Then all of a sudden this huge blessing comes along and it’s a dream come true. It’s just overwhelming and I’m really thankful that it came this late because I’ve learned a lot along the way. If success came along in my twenties, I probably wouldn’t have been ready for it. So I feel a little wiser and a little bit more able to handle it at this point.
CASSIUS: What drew you to the role?
C.W.: A couple of things. First off, on the surface, I’m a huge superhero comic book fan. I was so excited about the idea of playing a superhero once this genre really started thriving and with technology today it just jumped to the top of my list as something I wanted to do. And you know most superheroes are in their twenties, and so I started to feel like maybe this thing I wanted to do may not happen for me. Then I heard about this role and that they were doing it and I just wanted a shot. I didn’t know what the script looked like, I didn’t know if it was good or a whole lot about it and even on top of that once I read it I was absolutely amazed. I was like, “Wow, this is what I want in the package of being a superhero, but it’s even more than that.” So it just jumped to the top of my list. I had to have it.
CASSIUS: There’s pressure for being the lead in a show, but do you feel any added pressure from this being the first Black superhero television series?
C.W.: It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily feel what you would call traditionally pressure. Most of the time, I am just overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel so thankful and privileged to do it. I mean I feel pressure every time I’m acting, every time I have a role, the pressure is to do it right, the pressure is to do my work and to do the absolute best I can. And so that pressure doesn’t necessarily change.
But I talk with the cast a lot of times and the crew as well, that we really gotta get this right. Not for the sake of us, but for the sake of everyone else to come after us. We are aware that, historically, there has not been that many African-American dramas. Usually, they’re comedies. And on top of that, there’s the superhero aspect and everything, so we know we are making history. But for me, it’s like the pressure of knowing we have to do this right. So that if we do this right and if it’s successful, that opens the door for everyone else. It makes it that much easier to get the next show made. But if we fail, if we blow it, then that door gets shut and who knows how long before someone else gets a shot?
So I’m aware of that, but really the pressure is just the normal acting day to day, doing this right because I love the character so much. And this is a show—and I don’t watch a lot of my own stuff—but this is a show I plan on watching every single week. This is something that even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d be watching. So I’m so excited.