21Ninety did an awesome exclusive interview with Javicia Leslie on May 19 that you can check out at their website. I’ve also attached it below for posterity.
It’s safe to say that the imaginary world of superheroes is becoming more and more diverse as the industry starts to catch up to the reality of society. Films like Black Panther and the presence of actors like Ray Fisher, Teyonah Parris, and Adepero Oduye in the Marvel and DC universes are exciting proof of a change that is a long time coming. So, when the CW announced that actress Javicia Leslie would be donning the suit of one of the most cherished comic book characters in history as Batwoman, the pride and excitement were hard to contain. Not only did she become the first Black woman to wear the suit, but she also continued the tradition of having a queer actor step into the role originated by Ruby Rose in 2019.
Though many came to know her the moment the casting was announced, Javicia has climbed the ladder of success one rung at a time. From serving tables to working her way up to leading lady status through a string of guest star roles, she is the true representation of what hard work, perseverance, and unmatched passion can do for you. There is nothing overnight about her success; all of it has been earned.
Iman N. Milner: Who is Javicia Leslie?
Javicia Leslie: Javicia is Jackie’s daughter; that’s a huge part of me. A single mom prior soldier who raised me to be a version of a person who will take care of her family, no matter what. I’m very influenced by where I am. Being from Prince George’s County, an all-black county, really does influence my perspective of how our people are seen in the world. I didn’t come from a place where we were the minority.
So, moving into the world, it was weird to me that everyone else didn’t see us the way I was raised, but it also empowers me to show what my reality is. And I am an artist who lives and breathes to create. Everything for me is about artistic expression in any way possible; it’s almost like I fiend for it. If I’m not acting, I’m making music. If I’m not making music, I’m drawing. I am always creating in some capacity.
IM: Who is Ryan Wilder?
JL: Ryan Wilder is a young girl in the city who has been looked over all of her life. Who has had to deal with the brunt of systematic racism. The brunt of a community that doesn’t see her as worthy enough to care about. But she’s a fighter. She’s been through so much in her life. In general, being raised without her parents and going from foster home to foster home. That internal strength that she has makes her fight even if it means she may not make it through it. That’s what I love about her because it’s like she may die today, but she’s going to fight for what she believes in; she’s not afraid to die. And now, Ryan is Batwoman.
IM: You’re doing some things that we’ve never seen from Black women on TV. Has the gravity of that really hit you? And how have the fans embraced Ryan as Batwoman?
JL: When I am working, I try to keep my head down and focus on the work because everything that comes with it can come and go. You can’t get connected to any of that stuff. It’s beautiful that people feel represented by this version of Batwoman, but as an artist, it’s important for me to focus on the work. But when I do come up for air, and I’m able to hear words from people I’ve admired in this industry, and they tell me what this means to them or their children, I am reminded of how important what I’m doing is. As a child, I said I wanted to make history with my art, and to know that that’s already starting to happen, it’s a good feeling.
IM: Many people may not know your journey to this place in your career, but nothing happens overnight. Can you share some of that?
JL: After graduating from Hampton University, I worked in DC for a few years, and then I moved to LA. I knew that I would never be happy if I didn’t pursue my art. So, I moved out here in 2012, and I took every necessary step. People will call you an overnight success, but that “overnight” could be ten years. Over the time I’ve been here, I’ve done all the things.
My first lead role was in a Lifetime film called Killer Coach. My first guest star role was on Macgyver, then I landed God Friended Me, and after that was Always A Bridesmaid. Every single step mattered. As artists, we sometimes think there is a carved-out route to success, and there isn’t. This is a marathon, not a race. So, if you don’t get your mind right for that and accept that you may be serving tables for seven years like I was, you’re going to burn out.
It’s all a journey, and we all get a chance to earn our keep. If you skip any steps, I don’t know if that will create longevity because you don’t have the true support to get you through the hard times. You may have something big and then get nothing for a while, but if you’ve been in the game surviving for nine years, you can understand that. You know how to keep yourself sane during the slow times. You know how to rise in the silent times. You start to learn how to create your own work or find new outlets for your creativity. You have to constantly be in the flow.
IM: How have you prioritized your mental health in this role especially coming off a year like 2020?
JL: 2020 was hard. I was in New York finishing God Friended Me, and my character was fighting cancer. I was emotionally exhausted by March, and I got back to LA, and they’re telling us the end of the world is about to happen, you know? And then the murder of George Floyd and the world stopped again. It was getting harder and harder to see the silver lining. During my hiatus time, I started taking acting classes again, and my teacher is very vulnerable and sensitive to what’s happening in society.
She brought up everything that was going on in the world, and that’s when I remembered how important my art is to me to get through any of this. What we do matters because not only does it matter for everyone else, it matters for our own mental health to be able to express ourselves. Sometimes you just need to cry, you know? So why not cry, make some money for it, and free other people to get their emotions out. And then Batwoman happened.
It was such a beautiful moment where I wanted to be the happiest version of myself, but it came with its own struggles. I am getting this negativity from people who have never met me and for something that is out of my control. I had to take a step out of all of it and dive into my own mental safety. That’s what’s been important to me—mental protection. It doesn’t matter how many roles you get if you’re not safe in your own mind.
IM: When you hear the word ‘beauty,’ what comes to mind?
JL: I remember seeing people like Regina King and Nia Long gracing the covers of ESSENCE when I was a little girl. Beautiful Black women represented beauty for me. Always have and always will.
IM: How about ‘wellness’?
JL: I think of meditation. I do a lot of crystal work and saging. I think of water and seams—my echinacea and morning elixirs. I think of being outside and my dogs.