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When you talk to Nafessa Williams, the 28-year-old star of The CW’s Black Lightning, more than anything what you’ll hear is gratitude. Along with the excitement of joining the DC Comics Universe as Anissa Pierce, aka Thunder, Williams appreciates how groundbreaking it is to be part of network TV’s first black superhero family—and how it all came to be.
Sure, she still gets recognized as Nicole Gordon from Meek Mill’s 2011 hood noir Streets, or her stint on the defunct soap One Life to Live, but the role that has Williams poised for stardom has been a long time coming, a decade after the Philly native chucked her safe plan to be a lawyer. “Everybody thought I was crazy—What?! You’re gonna leave your good job?” the stunner tells Complex by phone. “And this is where I have some similarities with Anissa/Thunder. She’s like, this is what I believe in and I’m just gonna go for it. And here we are today, 10 years later at the premiere of Black Lightning.” How’s that for a payoff?
The Black Lightning character first joined the DC wheelhouse in 1977 as Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a principal by day, vigilante by night, joined Batman’s team of Outsiders. In the current adaptation, created by TV veteran husband-and-wife duo Salim and Mara Brock Akil, being a hero has torn Jeff’s marriage apart, so he trades crime fighting for a quiet life where he can raise his two daughters, Anissa and Jennifer (played by China Anne McClain), in peace.
Anissa is a teacher at her dad’s school, as well as a lesbian with a bent for activism. “I want young lesbians when they see Anissa to be inspired by her and walk in their truth, boldly,” Williams proudly declares. Hopefully, they’ll also be inspired by the journey Anissa goes on, as she discovers her supernatural abilities and steps into her power as Thunder. Here, Williams talks to us about why Black Lightning is more than just a superhero show, what it was like to working with iconic music video director Benny Boom, and whether a certain handsome Black Panther star gave her any advice as she prepared for Black Lightning.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about Anissa and how she discovers her powers.
NW: There’s these panic attacks that she begins to have and this supernatural strength is coming out of nowhere, and she’s struggling with that. As she’s discovering it, she’s like, What the hell is wrong with me? Where is this coming from? Am I a freak? Do I share it with anyone? Are they even gonna believe me? How do I articulate it? So you see her a go through a struggle of discovering her powers and keeping it a secret until there’s a moment where it can no longer be held in. You see her go on this journey of finding out who she is and really beginning to do some digging to find out where this is coming from. She and her sister Jennifer don’t know Black Lightning is their father, ’cause he got secrets! (Laughs)
When you saw that you’d be working with series creators Salim and Mara Brock Akil, did that give you confidence that the story of the first black superhero family would be handled well?
Listen, I have been a fan of Mara and Salim—and they know this—since the beginning of time. I watched Girlfriends, I saw The Game… I auditioned for them several times and it just wasn’t the right fit. Thank God it wasn’t because had I done some of their other projects I may not have been right for this. So, I’m a huge fan, I knew when I saw their names it was a guaranteed yes for me.
When did you first say to yourself, “I want to be an actress”?
It’s funny; they say it takes 10 years to be an overnight success, right? So here’s the story: All my life I call myself wanting to be a lawyer because of Clair Huxtable. But the real dream was to be an actress. I grew up in Philly, a lot of hardship in the inner city, so I would escape through the television. I would always see myself as being a Tatyana Ali or Lisa Turtle, because that’s who I connected with because they looked like me.
So I was always fascinated by the TV world, but honestly, coming from Philly it seemed like a hoop dream, so I was like, I'mma be a lawyer. I was working in law firms, I worked in the homicide unit of the D.A.’s office in Philly, and I just wasn’t happy! You don’t know what you really wanna do until you try it, and I hated going to work. I would cry. And I was like, 'Fesa, you can’t do this to yourself for the rest of your life. This is not what you wanna do. Go for your dreams.
I’d always done modeling here and there around the city. I’d done some TV stuff, but it wasn’t anything full time, and I went on an audition one day. [My job] told me I couldn’t have off, but I went to this audition, I get back to work the next day, and my computer wouldn’t turn on because they fired me! That was the day—literally 10 years ago, 2008—that I walked away. I felt like that was the day I became my own superhero.
Is it safe to say Streets with Meek Mill was your big break?
I cannot get away from Streets, like, no matter what I do! (Laughs) That was my very first professional job. I heard they were doing this move in the city, and I was like, Y’all are not gonna do this without me. What do I have to do to audition to get in this movie? It was my first job and no matter where I go people are like, “You are the girl from the Meek Mill movie.”
To circle back to the show, who were you envisioning as inspiration as you were getting into character to play Thunder?
Pam Grier. I went back to the Coffy days, and Jackie Brown, because she was our first black action actress. I wanted someone with some swag, and I feel like she has that. She was true to who she was, but she was beautiful and strong, so I studied her. I also looked back at your Halle Berrys and other actresses who had action roles before me. But also Beyoncé and Solange are a huge inspiration, just those last albums that they both had. When I’m driving to work I’m listening to “Freedom,” because it really gets me pumped up, especially on those days when Anissa is in her activist mode. They tease me on the show, they call me Harriet Tubman, and I can imagine her running to freedom listening to that song. Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer... I just went back into history, too, and studied the activists. I have a wall of inspiration of all of them in my trailer.
People who might not watch The CW may have the perception that it’s for tweens or teens. How do they handle some of the more mature aspects of the show, such as your character being a lesbian?
'Black Lightning' is bigger than being a superhero show. It’s about these flawed characters. It’s a show about a family
It’s no different from any other shows on The CW that are displaying heterosexual relationships. As far as the content, this show is bigger than being a superhero show. It’s about these flawed characters. It’s a show about a family. For instance, our parents are not together and we live with our father, so there’s a message that Salim and Mara are putting out there that there are good, single, black fathers out there raising their families. There’s a teenager in every household who is wanting to have fun and wanting to test the waters, and that’s who China’s character is, and she’s hilarious as hell; I can’t wait for everyone to see her in action. And then my character—we don’t get to see a young, black superhero who’s a lesbian on TV, so hopefully I’ll be an inspiration to young women who are lesbians tuning in. We also are used to seeing young superheroes. Here, we have a middle-aged man with a family, so there’s a little something for everyone.
One thing I saw on your Instagram that was really cool, is that Benny Boom directed an episode.
Listen, I’m from Philly so that meant a lot to me. Benny’s like a legend to us in Philly, so just imagine with his experience, the visuals that we would see in his music videos, how he’s gonna bring that flavor to Black Lightning. He shot one of my favorite episodes. I’m not gonna give away what happens, but it’s dope. It’s episode 6.
Also while I was doing my research, I saw that Michael B. Jordan liked quite a few of your pics on the ‘Gram. Did he give you any advice, from one superhero/action star to another?
He is a friend, for sure. He definitely has had roles before me that I was able to draw inspiration from. But Mike likes everybody’s pictures! (Laughs)
Okay, okay, I won’t start any rumors. On that note, are you as excited for Black Panther as the rest of us?
For sure, and I’m really proud of everyone involved with that, from Ryan Coogler to Lupita [Nyong’o]. It’s the year of the superhero, and I’m just really grateful to be a part of that lineup!
Black Lightning premieres tonight Tuesday, January 16 at 9 p.m. ET. on The CW.