Javicia Leslie told herself in middle school she was going to make history one day. At the time, she didn't know exactly how, but she knew she was destined to do something great.
That dream became a reality in 2020 when she took over the title role in the CW series “Batwoman,” making her the first Black person to ever play the character in the DC Universe.
In celebration of Black history, TODAY had the opportunity to sit down with the 34-year-old actor to discuss her ascendance into the role and what real, authentic inclusion looks like to her.
Landing the role of Batwoman
"Batwoman" recently resumed its third season, but it's only Leslie's second turn in the female caped crusader's suit. The series first debuted in 2019 with actor Ruby Rose — who is white — playing the lead, but she left after one season.
“I’m the first Black Batwoman after there was an actress playing Batwoman,” Leslie said in a Zoom interview with TODAY. “So this beautiful blessing kind of came from a need for a new actress to play the character.”
"The amazing part about Ryan, there’s so many different communities that she represents just in her existence. She’s gay. She’s Black. She’s a woman. She's also a foster kid.
“Before I was offered the role, when I first just auditioned, I said, ‘This is cool, but it’s probably a waste of my time because I don’t see them casting a Black woman to be Batwoman,'" she explained. "That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Leslie still gave a top-tier audition and later found out she landed the role. After finding out, she was thrilled for just herself, unaware of the indelible impact her casting would have. But that personal joy soon pivoted when she first started seeing her casting being covered by the media, beginning to understand what she represented for a larger community.
She explained, "Once the trades went out and they titled it ‘First Black Batwoman,’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is bigger than just me being excited to become a superhero, or me being excited to even have a role.”
Playing Batwoman demands layered storytelling and season three pulled no punches when it resumed in January 2022. The character’s real identity is Ryan Wilder: a young, gay Black woman who grew up in foster care who recently became CEO of Bruce Wayne's multi-million dollar company. This season shows her tracking down villainous weapons Batman previously collected that ordinary Gotham citizens are now using to become super villains. Plus, she is also busy tending to personal matters such as her brother becoming her “own personal Joker" and connecting with her birth mother for the first time since she entered the foster care system.
“It’s a lot of different layers to this and it definitely has a huge climax at the end that really targets everything that has happened this season,” Leslie said.
Leslie loves her character not only for the visibility she's giving to Black people in the superhero world, but also to all the other groups her character represents as well.
"The amazing part about Ryan, there's so many different communities that she represents just in her existence," Leslie, who is bisexual, said. "She's gay. Yeah, she's Black. She's a woman. She's also a foster kid. I've met so many people that will come to me and say, 'This part of Ryan is just like me and my life,' and to me, that right there is just an honor and it makes everything that can seem hard or challenging worth it."
Representation and diversity doesn't just happen in front of the camera. Behind the scenes, Leslie said the team works to make sure everyone is included and seen. She said a key way she's felt supported on set is when her wardrobe is adjusted to changes in her body.
"I went back for my second season, I was talking to the wardrobe stylist and I said to her, 'Girl, I've gained a little bit of thickness. I don't know what we have to do to make sure I fit the suit ... She said, 'You stay exactly how you are and no matter what I will make the suit fit you," Leslie explained.
This moment of personal inclusion showed her the difference she is making in confirming for others that real representation is possible. It’s feasible for her to show up exactly as who she is without being forced to change, and this can even be rewarded.
"It was such a honor," she said. "One: That's the most amazing part about working with women. Two: It was just so dope because then I could say well, you know what? You're right. Batwoman has thighs, Batwoman has a butt and it's OK."
Why Leslie cares about representation and activism
Playing Batwoman is a career milestone for Leslie. Growing up with strong ties to her racial identity grounds her and helps her bring this character to life.
Leslie graduated from Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia, and said her experience there confirmed and reinforced what she already knew: community success exists detached from trauma. Growing up in Prince George’s County in Maryland — a predominantly Black area — her teachers, government leaders and classmates were usually Black, so attending an HBCU was just continued exposure to what was possible for her.
“The whole point of going to an HBCU for a lot of people in America is to show those kids that may not have had access, or may not have been able to see such success in their community, to be able to come to a place where it’s (common to see) what they could have and what they can do," she said. "I had already seen that. So coming there, it was kind of like a norm for me. It made sense to me.”
Leslie is one of several Black actors currently playing heroes adapted from comic books or historically white superheroes. Other actors include Camrus Johnson (Batwing), Cress Williams (Black Lightning) and Kaci Walfall (Powerhouse). Then there's a host of Marvel superheroes that are finally getting their moment, especially after the success of "Black Panther" in 2018. A sequel to "Black Panther" is also slated to come out later this year, with Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Lupito Nyong'o all set to star.
Leslie said it's an honor to be a part of this trend and she hopes it lasts, for representation’s sake.
“Everybody has their version of how they want to fight the good fight.”
"It’s amazing because I know that those kids aren’t yet able to explain what this means to them," she said. "They’re just living and they’re just seeing it and they think it’s normal. I love that they think seeing Black superheroes are normal, because it wasn’t for me. … And what I hope is that it’s not just one Black superhero show existing at a time. We can have several of the Black superhero shows just like we have several of other superhero shows existing at one time. There’s room for more than just one of us.”
This requires activism and reaching back while climbing ahead in her career to unlock and keep doors open for her peers and others coming behind her. Leslie said in doing that, among other things, Black history is lived everyday for anyone who commits to the same action.
“My Black history is paying homage to the people that have literally forged the way for me to be here and finding a way to honor them every single day,” she said, adding that she intentionally credits Black people for unrecognized work towards more representation not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well.
But above all else for her, playing Batwoman exemplifies how acting is a form of her activism.
“Everybody has their version of how they want to fight the good fight. Obviously, acting isn’t the only place that I want to fight and be able to stand up for what I believe in, but it's one of the places," she said.
"It starts with just existing as a Black woman. When you get cast, that is your activism because now you’re telling the story of our people. And hopefully, you’re able to tell a story of us winning.”