Supergirl will finally take flight on CBS this fall under much scrutiny: the premiere of the trailer earned both cheers and jeers on social media. But star Melissa Benoist is ready for whatever may come: The former Glee and Whiplash actor cites Gloria Steinem and Susan Sontag among the powerful women who have inspired her in her performance and says playing Kara Zor-El has taught her that strong women don’t have to be “b-tches” as they are often portrayed on TV.
TIME spoke with the actor at her first Comic-Con about the advice her Whiplash co-star Miles Teller gave her about green screens, her “musical Tourette’s” and overcoming her issues with confrontation.
This is your first time at Comic-Con. What do you think of all the cosplay?
I actually think the costumes and the dressing up is really cool. I was a kid who would dress up for showings at movie theaters. I was Hermione a couple times for Harry Potter. I dressed up for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Star Wars—when Revenge of the Sith came out I wore an Obi Wan hood.
A lot of people, especially here at Comic-Con, have been waiting for a female superhero to return to the screen for a long time. Do you feel that pressure?
I think that comic book movies are at this place now that they’re so humongous. I think of Iron Man as the movie that kind of started this whole thing, and it’s just been too long: We’ve had some female characters who are badasses, but I think it’s just time for a female-centered heroic story.
Of course I feel pressure because of that. It feels big. I’m accountable for the message we’re trying to spread and what Supergirl does—whether she defeats a bad guy, how she defeats him, how she deals with her problems. But I think there’s this climate now where women are really speaking up and women aren’t afraid anymore. I know that this is not Gloria Steinem, but I think it’s important.
You mention Gloria Steinem. When you walk onto set and want to channel a powerful woman, who do you think about?
Her! Totally. And Susan Sontag, I’ve read a lot of her books. I love her. Anais Nin. In terms of women on television and in movies: Everyone says Meryl Streep but there’s a reason. She’s so strong and confident and independent. I grew up loving Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney and just wanting to be the woman that affected people and made them feel something, made them feel more powerful.
You want to portray this empowered character, but when the Supergirl trailer first came out, a lot of people criticized it. They compared it to the SNL Black Widow rom-com spoof.
I expected that. I kind of knew when that skit came out, I was like, “Oh gosh. That looks familiar.” What I think is different is our show is a discovery. She’s never used her powers before. Black Widow was trained to be an assassin so putting her in that position she was in in the skit is ridiculous. But with Supergirl, we have room to grow. She doesn’t know how to be that badass quite yet. She’s learning how to be a woman.
Whenever you play a superhero you’re bound to be picked apart. Did you seek out any advice from your Whiplash co-star Miles Teller who is playing Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four this summer?
At the time I hadn’t booked Supergirl yet. But he had done Divergent, and he did talk to me about how difficult it was to act in front of a green screen and just like the sheer magnitude of how much money goes into these things and the special effects and how that creates a lot of pressure and how it will affect you.
So how is your first time in front of a green screen?
It’s flexing different acting muscles. I was raised in a musical theater sphere of this business, and playing a superhero in front of a green screen is a beast compared to that. You have to keep a grounded humanity even though you don’t have anything around you and you’re saying these one-liners. Finding the humanity to that is important to me, but it’s very difficult.
How do you manage that?
I try to imagine—say there’s a situation where they’re having me fly, and something is really dire and I have to go save someone and fight someone. I’m flying as if someone is mugging my mom, and I’m going to save her. I don’t know, you just have to root it in real situations.
But a musical theater background must help with that somewhat. In reality, not everyone sings everything that they feel.
True. Though I felt more normal doing that.
Are you a singing in the shower type person?
Oh, totally. Maybe it’s because I break out into song into my day-to-day life.
Do you walk onto the Supergirl set and just start singing?
All the time. There was one day where all I could think about when I was up in the wire flying was, “I got the power.” I couldn’t keep that inside. I have, like, musical Tourette’s.
They showed a preview of the pilot here. What has it been like watching yourself transform into a superhero on screen?
I usually don’t like to watch myself. I’m very critical. I don’t like looking at my face, and I’ll judge the tiniest twitch in my face. In this show, it’s different because when I’m in a suit, I don’t recognize myself. In the action fight scenes I don’t see Melissa, I don’t see her. I guess it’s easier to watch this.
What does your family think of you being Supergirl?
I think all of us think it’s funny. My mom was on set one day with my little sister, and we were up in the desert. There was fire everywhere. I was dirty and punching people. And I sat down next to my mom on a break, and she looked at me and laughed. She said, “I just never, ever pictured you doing something like this.”
If you came from this musical theater background and never pictured yourself doing action, what do you think it was about your audition that got you cast?
I’ve said this before, but it really rang true to me when it happened, [executive producer] Greg Berlanti said to me in one of my auditions, “You’re like the Annie Hall of superheroes.” I automatically felt that awkwardness and [how] weird she is. She’s just not figured herself out. She’s not comfortable in her own skin yet. I’m going through that as a woman myself. I’m 27, but I still feel like I have so much to learn about being a woman and having confidence and really using my strength and my femininity. Maybe it’s just the right place and the right time, but I’m glad it’s happening.
Is there anything that the character has taught you about being a woman?
Totally. Not to take any crap. I take no sh-t off of nobody. I’m a person that is really afraid of confrontation. I always have been. That’s slowly but surely fading in a way that’s graceful. I try to confront with grace and strength. I think part of it is when you see a lot of powerful women in movies and TV, they come across as b-tches or snarky or someone you don’t want to be friends with. I think a lot of what playing Kara has taught me is really doing it with positivity and hope and being a good influence.
People assume if a woman is powerful, she’s going to walk all over you or stab you in the back or something. It doesn’t have to be that way.
When Melissa Benoist, whose most prominent role until now has been Glee wallflower Marley Rose, stands up in front of thousands of cheering fans at Comic-Con, it will finally hit her: She’s now Supergirl.
After a rigorous audition process that spanned more than three months, Benoist was tapped as Kara Zor-El, and she has the cape and tights to prove it. “It’s impossible not to feel empowered when you put it on,” the 26-year-old Colorado native says of the costume, explaining that her first encounter with the suit came in the aftermath of an eye injury. “Simultaneously, I’m feeling all these feelings of empowerment, positivity, femininity and strength, and I have this pirate patch on. It was a little goofy.”
But it’s the quirky side of Kara that drew Benoist to the heroine. “I want to do right by women,” she says. “I want to portray someone they can relate to and look up to. I want her to be complicated and flawed.” Well, flawed and bulletproof, of course.
In Entertainment Weekly’s Comic-Con issue, viewers get a first look at a pivotal script page annotated by Supergirl executive producer Ali Adler, as well as an introduction to Benoist, which you can read in full below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What would you say was the first moment you knew you wanted to be an actor?
MELISSA BENOIST: I was at a very early age. My parents were always really good about letting me and my siblings decide what we wanted to do and try things out for ourselves. I just never really wanted to do anything else. I started dance class when I was 3 years old. The moment I probably knew this is what I wanted for a career path at 3 years old was we had to sing a song at the end of a ballet recital. I think we say, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and I was singing louder than anyone else. I wanted to be center stage. I think that was the moment that I realized, “I like this.”
Let’s go back to your time on Glee. How did you feel when you were told Marley wouldn’t be coming back? Was there some nervousness before you landed Whiplash?
I don’t think I ever was. Obviously, I was sad. I loved working on the show and it was such an amazing experience. There’s a part of me that has had to really embrace uncertainty and embrace the in-between. You learn how to be a better actor from those times of unemployment. I’ve always believed that. I don’t think I was nervous, I think I was more excited to see what was coming. I’ve never given myself any other choice to do anything else, so I’ve always made myself assume that something was around the corner.
What was the audition process for Supergirl like?
I never thought that I would say it, but it was even more intense than Glee. I had a pretty rigorous audition process for Glee, but this one, rightfully so, they really wanted to be sure that they found the right person for Kara. It was a long, drawn-out, three-month process. I auditioned around Halloween 2014 and then didn’t land the part until February 2015. I went through multiple screen-tests, multiple auditions with the producing team. There was a lot.
How did you feel when you first landed the role of Supergirl?
When I learned that I got the part there were a mixture of many emotions that rushed through me — elation, relief, immense joy and then, there was also a huge sense of responsibility that came immediately. I definitely thought to myself, “Oh man, you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Were you a big comic book fan growing up or have you had to play catch up now that you have this role?
Strangely, I was a DC fan, not so much the comics. I loved Michael Keaton’s Batman. I grew up with those movies. One of my closest friends is a huge comic book reader and has been since he was very, very little. He really turned me onto them in college — more graphic novels than comic books. I have had to play some catch up specifically with the Supergirl books. I’ve been reading the new 52 series and more of the newly published Supergirl comics.
How did you feel the first time you put on the Supergirl costume?
The first time I put the costume on, it was a mixture of a lot of emotions. It’s impossible not to feel empowered when you put it on. You would think, “Oh, it’s silly. I’m putting on tights. I’m putting on a leotard and a skirt. There’s muscles built into the suit. There’s a cape. I’m going to feel like it’s Halloween.” But something changes internally. I feel like a different person almost. It really is an alter ego, where I feel inspired, hopeful and empowered. I tried the suit for the first time on at the costume designer’s house. I had just had an injury to my eye, so I had an eye patch on. [Laughs] So simultaneously, I’m feeling all these feelings of empowerment and positivity and femininity and strength, and I have this pirate patch on essentially. It was a little goofy. There was two things going on at once — two opposing factors of trying the suit on.
What pressure do you feel not just playing a superhero on TV, but being one of the very few female superheroes being portrayed right now?
I do think there’s a lot of pressure. I want to do right. Of course this is a broad statement, but I want to do right by women. I want to portray someone they can relate to and look up to that’s not a trite or a shallow depiction. I want her to be complicated and flawed. I guess I just want all women to feel like they could be Kara and Superwoman as well. I don’t want it to be campy. I want it to be grounded and human. That goes for anybody. It doesn’t matter what sex. It doesn’t matter if it’s women or men I inspire, I just want to inspire people in general to realize their strengths and their potential, and that you can do the things that you feel like are impossible to accomplish.
How do they make Kara relatable even though she’s an alien?
What I love about Kara is that unlike Kal-El, Superman, he came from Krypton when he was a baby, so he has not much recollection of where he comes from and his planet, but Kara was 12 or 13, she was an adolescent and grew up on Krypton, so she knows what she’s missing. When she gets to Earth, she’s not used any of her powers for years. There’s a lot of room for mistakes. She’s got a lot to learn when we meet her in the show. That’s what makes her so relatable. She has so much power that’s locked up inside of her. She is really figuring out how to break free and get to know who she is.
What has been the hardest part of playing Kara? And what has been the easiest?
The easiest part of all is the dorky stuff. All of Kara Danvers and the silly, dweeby parts of her, that comes easily to me because that’s how I feel. That’s who I am as a human being, I’m awkward and I’m weird. The hardest parts are tapping into that strength and that confidence.
You’re following in the footsteps of Helen Slater, who appears in the Supergirl pilot. What advice did she give you?
The advice I did get made me so jealous. We started talking about it and she asked me what kind of training they had me doing. At that point, I was just doing some boxing, strength training and a lot of core work. She gave me this look, and I was like, “Why, what did they have you do?” “Oh, I went horseback riding, and fencing and doing some archery and I was swimming.” She went through this whole gamut of awesome outdoor activities that I would love to do to train. Also, she’s just so kind and such a sweet, sweet woman. That’s really what I’ve learned from her. She really is a super girl. I’m so honored that I’m following in her footsteps.
Did you get any advice from Arrow’s Stephen Amell or The Flash’s Grant Gustin?
I’ve not met Stephen. Grant, I know from Glee. They’re in Vancouver, so I didn’t really get much advice, but all that I’ve gotten has been support and excitement to be a part of the Berlanti team. Just overwhelming positivity.
The bar for superhero series has been set pretty high with The Flash and Arrow. How are you dealing with that?
The bar is set so high with those shows for a reason, because it has someone like Greg Berlanti, our executive producer, and Andrew Kreisberg, who are also behind those shows with us. They are responsible for so much of the success. They’ve found a really good formula and a really good way of portraying heroes with heart. I don’t think we’re lacking any of that in our show.
The first Supergirl trailer had some mixed reactions. There were some comparisons to the Black Widow Saturday Night Live spoof, but you also have Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) pointing out why she should be Supergirl not Superwoman. Do you think Supergirl sends a message of female empowerment?
I do. Of course, I do. We don’t really take ourselves too seriously in that respect. The camp is going to be there. It’s a superhero show. But I don’t think that takes away from the female empowerment. Obviously you see Kara in her work atmosphere, it resembles the Black Widow parody, but what you don’t see is Kara kicking butt. There’s so much more in the pilot that I think people are really going to be surprised by. Also, it’s a girl. Supergirl, that whole discussion, it’s a girl figuring out how to become a woman. [The SNL spoof] came out and all of us thought it was so hilarious. I don’t think any of us expected people to compare them or put them side-by-side.
Everyone looks up to superheroes. How much do you think this role is going to change your life?
I have no idea. I know it will. I love my privacy and I love anonymity. I know some of that’s going to be going away. But honestly, it’s a small price to pay for the kind of influence I’m going to be able to have with this platform that I’ll be able to do such amazing things with. I think it’s much more of a positive thing. Obviously, I’m scared. That kind of attention is overwhelming. I think it would be for everyone. I’m so happy that it’s this. I’m so grateful that I get to be in this position, playing someone people will look up to. Hopefully I’ll help people escape from things they’re afraid of or be able to face the things they’re afraid of.
Has it hit you yet?
No, it’s coming in waves. I got really overwhelmed at upfronts. I’m sure Comic-Con will be an animal of its own.
Coming from Glee, we know you have a voice. So have the producers talked about having an episode where Supergirl sings?
They haven’t, but it’s kind of a running joke though because I’m not the only one on the show that does. Jeremy Jordan is an amazing singer. Mehcad Brooks is a rapper. Chyler Leigh is a singer. I think David Harewood sings as well. We’ve all joked that it would be funny. I don’t know if the producers have seriously thought about it.
What’s one thing we don’t know about you yet?
In honor of Comic-Con, a small tidbit about me is that I still am, and have been since the age of 6, a padawan learner in the Star WarsInsider fan club. And I was Obi-Wan Kenobi for three or four Halloweens in a row before the age of 10. That’s something maybe people don’t know.
Supergirl premieres Monday, Oct. 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
Thanks to Haylie, I’ve added two HQ stills of Melissa in the pilot episode of Supergirl!
19 HQ photos of Melissa attending the premiere screening of Band of Robbers at the Los Angeles Film Festival have been added!
Similar to last year’s Saturday during the fan confab, Warner Bros. Television and DC Entertainment are hosting another three-hour superhero night on July 11 with screenings and special appearances from returning series Arrow, The Flash and Gotham, as well as upcoming shows Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and their new digital series Vixen.
WBTVG’s schedule in San Diego is as follows:
Wednesday, July 8
WBTVG has traditionally carved out a spot on preview night with sneak peeks at their upcoming pilots. Comic-Con goers will get to see Supergirl before it premieres on CBS on Oct. 26 at 8:30PM. The series follows the earth life of Kara who was born on the doomed planet of Krypton, and escaped at the same time as the infant Kal-El aka Superman. She’s 24, living in National City and has a calling to defend the earth in between her day job as an assistant for Catco Worldwide Media.
— Supergirl (@supergirlcbs) June 9, 2015
Learning to fly isn’t easy; Melissa Benoist knows. For her role as the preternaturally gifted title character on CBS’s forthcoming Supergirl, Benoist, 26, spent long hours training to (pretend to) do just that. “You have to hold your entire body weight up with just your abs, sometimes while suspended 30 feet in the air,” she says. Training meant lots of planks and exercises that “work the muscles you really don’t want to work.” But it all paid off. “I am now the only human who knows how to fly,” she jokes. Even without superpowers, Benoist has already proven her talent on the small screen as Marley Rose on Glee, as well as on the big screen in indie darling Whiplash. After performing in the community theater circuit throughout her childhood and teenage years in Colorado, Benoist moved to New York to study acting at Marymount Manhattan College. “I didn’t know anyone but I just plunged right in. I thrived there even though the city kicked my ass a few times.” For instance, Benoist says she was so broke she couldn’t afford to take the subway and rode her bike instead, once getting hit by a car. Incidentally, it’s mishaps like these that she’ll be drawing on to play Supergirl. “I wanted her to be someone who is eccentric and messed up and makes a lot of mistakes,” says Benoist of her spin on the storied character. “She’s more human than alien.”