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Producer Ava DuVernay and star Kaci Walfall discuss bringing a different kind of comic-book crusader to TV
If a superhero is only as strong as her team, teenager-turned-metahuman Naomi is about to discover she’s unstoppable. Because standing squarely behind this Black female superhero (based on the DC comic books by Brian Michael Bendis), is award-winning director Ava DuVernay (When They See Us). I was like, ‘That’s gotta be mine,’ recalls the Naomi exec producer, about coming across the series. And when I heard the origin story, I really said this must be mine, because it was different than most fully formed superheroes where we just dive in, and she’s who she is, and knows everything that’s going on. This was really the step to becoming yourself, the steps to realizing your destiny, the steps that it takes to become who you’re meant to be. And that’s something that was very interesting to me.
In developing the Atlanta-shot series, DuVernay hitched her wagon to Arrow exec producer Jill Blankenship, and together they created a show about a cool, confident, comic book-loving teenager whose coming of age takes a dramatic turn when a supernatural event shakes her hometown of Port Oswego. This is the third DC show that I’ve had the pleasure to work on, I think what’s so lovely about the world of comics and DC specifically is that there’s really something for everyone, says Blankenship. And I was personally such a big fan of the comics. The characters jump off the page. For me, to see this cast bring them to life in a way that’s beyond my wildest dreams has been really spectacular.
To play an extraordinary hero, you need an extraordinary actor. But to DuVernay, relative newcomer Kaci Walfall possessed more than just talent. Talent’s easy to find. The hard part is, do I want to be in a relationship with this person for potentially many years? says DuVernay. I was like, ‘This girl is flatout incredible, beyond good enough. I gotta meet you face to face. I need to see who you are.’ That was the incredible thing about Kaci—first of all, she has the work ethic, the professionalism, the talent, the vibrancy, the charisma, all of it. But then you sit down with her and you’re like, ‘I really like you as a person.’ When it all comes together, magic happens and she’s our magic.
While Walfall wasn’t aware of the comic books her show is based on, she has eased into her character through Naomi’s own journey of discovery. She’s finding out and I’m kind of finding out, which is really helpful as an actor, says the actress. I think that it allows me to grow and for the character to grow. After her audition, Walfall decided to do a little recon about the character but then opted against doing a deep-dive into Naomi’s trajectory. I think that, as an actor, I can tell the most truthful story when I don’t know what’s coming next, she explains. [The writers] also do keep things from me. And I think that is really helpful, because then I can just have the most truthful and authentic performance.
With COVID still raging, one of the hardest relationships to establish was an authentic best-friend bond. Portraying Naomi’s fiercely loyal pal Annabelle is Mary-Charles Jones, who came up with a very of-the-times way to bond with her co-star. I DM’d Kaci on Instagram and I was like, ‘Hey, would you wanna get on a Zoom so that when we pretend to be best friends, we actually know more than just first names?’ she recalls. After, we did a whole group Zoom with [fellow Port Oswego classmates] Daniel [Puig], Camila [Moreno], Will [Meyers] and Aidan [Gemme]. We did very teenagery icebreakers, like asking what our star signs were and what your favourite ice cream flavour was, which is very much something that they would do in English class on the first day of school.
The fate of the universe may well be on the line for Naomi, but for DuVernay, the show she’s making is very much about teenagers coming to terms with who they want to be. I love that the comics are really personal human stories about the journeys that we all take, written in with issues of heroism and magic, she says. Really, the best stories are the ones where things are happening that we can all relate to.
In that same vein, the director who is known for her civil rights activism is taking her own approach to incorporating race relations into the show. It’s called normalization, right? she says. We’re doing really muscular things as it relates to race and gender and class, but we’re doing it by playing it normal. The more that you can portray images without underlining them, highlighting them and putting a star next to them, that shows a different kind of hero. It’s in there, deep in the fabric of the quilt.
Naomi airs Tuesdays at 6 p.m. & Midnight on Showcase, and 9 p.m. on the CW