In 2015, with the influx of so many versions of comic book stories in film and television, a little reinvention can either bring viewers in or turn them away. One new fall series, CBS’s “Supergirl” is taking a story we know and shaking things up a little bit.
When the series bows in October on CBS with Melissa Benoist in the titular role, fans won’t be seeing Supergirl’s famous cousin, Superman, in the series but we’ll be getting his influence in the likes of the iconic character Jimmy Olsen. Though in this version he goes by James Olsen. And he’s not the nerdy white dude with a camera and a bow tie hanging around his neck. In “Supergirl,” James Olsen is played by none other than Mehcad Brooks.
As Brooks told me last week at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, when he went into casting for the role he saw that the producers—Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg of “Arrow” and “The Flash” fame as well as Ali Adler and Sarah Schechter—were clearly thinking outside the box when casting the familiar role of Olsen. And, according to Brooks, it’s about time!
Let’s see what else he had to say about the show and if there will be anything in there for the LGBT audience…well, besides former model Brooks, who has a solid gay fan base from roles on “True Blood” and “Necessary Roughness” where his clothes were frequently off.
I loved this news when I first heard it and this was unexpected because we all have an idea of who Jimmy Olson is and he’s not this big, hunky man!
Mehcad Brooks: Right! He’s not a redhead. Not this time, right?
Not anymore! But how did you come to get this role?
MB: I went in to the pre-read when everyone and their mom was reading. It was multi-ethnic and I saw some friends of mine, some younger guys, older guys, the whole town. To Greg Berlanti’s credit and Andrew Kreisberg’s and Sarah’s and Ali’s credit, I’ll just call them ‘The Superteam’ from now on, but to the Superteam’s credit, they were looking at everybody and because they have so much power, I know it’s a mandate from them. The fact that they’ve re-imagined other characters and it’s a new generation that’s in charge. They were born after the Civil Rights movement so they see it a little differently.
As time went on, I realized that this wasn't just some sanctimonious thing and they were actually thinking about changing the aesthetic appeal of Jimmy Olson, which I thought was actually brilliant. Why would you take essentially the romantic male lead of the show and have an opportunity to make him into something, but just go back to the dorky 1940s/50s version of him carrying his camera and wearing a bow tie.
Here's the thing: I'm actually a dork. I'm a nerd myself! I got really good grades, I love my Mom and Dad, I love comic books, I loved video games as a kid, I'd sleep outside to see the Batman movies if I had to when I was a kid. I enjoyed Comic Con for a multitude of reasons…I'm a nerd! I read quantum physics for fun.
See? That makes the whole package hotter. I like a guy who can read!
MB: Thank you! I do, too! I have authors come by my house to talk about books. I have cool shame. I’m one of you! I just look different and I go to the gym. I think there’s a certain aspect where we’re not changing the DNA of the character…things weren’t the same back then. You can’t blame anybody for it but I like to think we’re righting a lot of the social inequities that really persisted throughout our history.
It's really cool to have that representation in television especially Monday nights at 8 o'clock because when I was growing up, I didn't have any representation of people who looked like me that I could say, 'Hey, I'm a hero." In fact, I had the antithesis.
What did you watch when you were a kid?
Will Smith. “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” But he still was being laughed at, ya know? And he was a good actor and he was really good at what he did, but the reason the show worked is because he was a buffoon and there’s nothing wrong with that because he was really funny and it worked, but that’s what it was. You had “Martin” and that kind of thing, and we almost had to do that rather than just be looked at as an American. And I did it with T.K. (on “Necessary Roughness”). Everybody has to play the stereotype of how people see them first and then you’re allowed to be yourself. Let’s say if you come off as a very hard woman like a Michelle Rodriguez, so she’s going to have to play that until she can play something else, it’s typecasting. I like that they went typecasting. I like that there’s no mention of athletics; I’m not dribbling a basketball around the office. I am just an American.
The producers told me that James also gets in some scrapes and Cara is the one to get him out of it, which is a fun image given you’re so much bigger than Melissa!
MB: I don’t mind it! I play the dude in distress, as well. That’s kind of interesting in the fact that women have been superheroes for a long time in this country. My Mom is one of them, one hundred percent. Now we’re just getting to the place where America is OK with accepting that.
It's not that they weren't ready before this, it's just that we haven't actually taken into consideration that that woman is a hero. That woman can save the world. That woman can be President. That woman can be CEO. We haven't had that mentality for a while and because of that I really like the fact that this is such a strong female lead. And Melissa, God bless her she is the perfect Supergirl! You could not find a better representation to spread the message that if you work hard, you can do anything.
Since James is our connection to the Superman lore, is he going to help her figure some things out?
MB: James comes in as a mentoring role because he’s close proximity to Superman. He’s like a God and I’m his best friend so I have a rock star status, but at the same time I have a very particular view that I can give her and help her come out of her shell and let her know what being a superhero is all about. That’s what’s cool about this origin story is that she doesn’t always make the right choice. She saves people all the time, but she doesn’t always save the city or the building or whatever it is. And she’s finding her footing as a superhero.
I’ve only seen the pilot episode, but is there anything in the show for the gay audience?
MB: I’m in there! [laughs] Greg [Berlanti] is openly gay and I feel like we’re getting to a point now where…I hope that there’s a story line that happens with that. It’s 2015. We all just need to grow up and just accept everybody for who they are and love one another and that’s what Supergirl is about. It’s about a person being the best they can be and accepting who they are. That’s really it. That’s all these characters are trying to do.
“Supergirl” premieres October 26 on CBS.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.