‘Supergirl’ Premiere: Melissa Benoist, Producers on Empowering Women, On-Screen and Off

Supergirl” took flight on CBS Monday night, and for executive producers Greg Berlanti, Ali Adler, Andrew Kreisberg and Sarah Schechter, one of the most thrilling aspects of the premiere is the opportunity to introduce the world to a super-powered side of “Glee” star Melissa Benoist, who carries the show with effortless charisma even when her alter-ego, Kara, is hiding her abilities as a mild-mannered assistant to media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).

“When we first saw her, she was exactly who we saw in our heads and our hearts … and then we had to go through this extensive process of seeing other people and being in love with someone already,” Adler recalls. “You start knowing her in your head and you start writing to her, and she’s just a tremendous soul and we’re so excited to bring her to everyone.”

“She’s incredibly likable and we talk a lot about Annie Hall as a reference, but when she puts on Colleen Atwood’s costume… it’s the way she holds herself,” Schechter says of their star. “It’s really something to behold to see her become that hero, and the way people respond to her, and to see her with kids whenever she meets them. She has that heroic quality and I think it comes from a really positive place. I think she takes the responsibility very seriously, just like Kara does.”

Kreisberg, who has plenty of experience with seeing actors realize their heroic potential given his work on The CW’s “Arrow” and “The Flash,” compares Benoist’s effortless ascent to that of one of his other stars, “Flash” leading man Grant Gustin. “It reminds me of Grant — we’ll talk a lot about what Grant was going through as an actor: becoming the lead of his own show and dealing with the workload and the press was in some ways analogous to what [his character] Barry was going through, and Melissa feels the same way. It’s the middle of the night and it’s dark and it’s wet and everybody’s upset and then you’ll hear these gales of laughter from somewhere and you’ll turn and it’s her and she’s laughing with somebody in the crew. She really is that hope and that brightness – she makes you want to be better.”

Benoist — who worked with Gustin on “Glee” — admits that she hasn’t had much of a chance to ask “The Flash” star for any heroic wisdom, since their paths rarely cross outside conventions. “I think every time we see each other we’re just like ‘this is crazy!’ It’s hard not to be in awe of it, especially when our generation grew up with these incredible movies that were action movies with a lot of heart and this wonderful acting in it, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Star Wars'” she notes. “It still feels surreal. There are days I walk around on set and I’m just like ‘this is magic moviemaking; this is what I dreamed about doing.'”

Benoist has had the opportunity to meet many fans since securing the role, and her experience surprising a group of moms and daughters at a preview screening still stands out for her. “That was kind of astounding — it was a really strange, wonderful feeling,” she recalls. “It made me step back and assess the weight of this project and how young girls are going to [respond]… they did exactly what I wanted them to do. I was so nervous, like, ‘what if they’re all bored, what if this is just a dud?’ And they were so into it, it was overwhelming, the response. If someone like Carrie Fisher had shown up at my house when I was a kid, or any of the ‘Indiana Jones’ girls… I would’ve freaked out.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of the series for Benoist and the producers is the level of female empowerment both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.

“We have the most gender-balanced room I’ve had the privilege of being in,” Adler says. “It’s ethnically diverse; it’s a really lovely, talented room.”

Schechter agrees, “When you have people of different backgrounds, they have a different perspective on life and characters and drama, and all of that makes for much richer scripts and makes them much more real.”

Supergirl” has also hired a number of female directors, including Karen Gaviola and Jamie Babbit, and Benoist says she can feel the difference when a woman is at the helm. “There’s definitely a different energy and I feel it even when I’m learning stunts. I think women talk to each other differently; we understand each other in a way that men don’t, and there’s a patience and a communication that’s different.”

Berlanti admits equality and diversity are a company-wide goal for every show that emerges from his production shingle. “Across all the shows, we just try to do better with that every year — and the more female directors we hire for this kind of stuff, the more experience they have, the more hirable they are for this kind of show elsewhere, too, so it’s ultimately beneficial to us.”

On-screen, Kara is defined not by her romantic relationships, but by her own journey of self-discovery and her connections with other women, from demanding boss Cat Grant — who teaches Kara “how to wear power well, how to handle it in a graceful way and in a way that people will actually take seriously,” per Benoist — to her adopted sister Alex (Chyler Leigh).

“There’s always an emotional truth to these things that feels like the best stuff; on ‘Flash’ it’s those scenes between Barry and Joe [Jesse L. Martin] that are so great, and on this show, there are these great sisterly scenes where they’re being two normal sisters, two girls sitting in their apartment eating Chinese food and talking about their day and their frustrations and their hopes, and it doesn’t matter that it’s about superheroes,” Kreisberg says. “Finding that stuff is always great, because all of us can write people flying around and fighting giant robots all day long. That stuff is always hard to come up with, that creativity, but the real truth of the show and many of the shows we work on is about the emotional truth, and what these characters are going through and how the people in their lives impact them.”

Benoist agrees, “I think [the relationship between Kara and Alex] is what the show is about. These girls have a lot of history, they have a lot of love, they have a lot of… I don’t know what the right word is, because it’s not as negative as ‘animosity.’ There’s just competition and tension, but it’s a sisterhood, and it’s women helping each other, and making each other better.”

The series will also introduce Jenna Dewan Tatum as Lucy Lane, who has a history with James “Jimmy” Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) — CatCo’s new art director who also has undeniable and simmering chemistry with Kara. “One of the things Jenna really responded to – she has a daughter, so the idea of the diversity and positivity and complexity of the female characters on the show is really attractive to her,” says Schechter. “And the other thing she was happy to hear was something we all feel strongly about, which is that we’re not creating a love triangle where she’s mean to Kara. It’s too easy, that’s sort of a cheat — she wants to be friends with Kara too, and I think that’s part of what’s so interesting about this world, is how multidimensional all the characters are.”

“There is feminine support – there’s not a lot of girls pitted against each other,” Benoist concurs. “They challenge each other, especially with Cat Grant … Kara’s very subservient to her and Cat’s not always the nicest to her, but it’s for a reason — she knows she’s capable of more.”

While many fans are fixated on whether the super-powered series could ever cross over with the other DC Comics shows that are also executive produced by Berlanti and Kreisberg (The CW’s “Arrow,” “The Flash” and upcoming “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”), for the producers, it doesn’t make much sense.

“[Fox’s] ‘Gotham’ exists in its own universe separate from what we call the ‘Arrow’-verse, and ‘Supergirl’ is separate from those too,” Kreisberg confirms. “It would be weird to suddenly make ‘Supergirl’ part of the ‘Arrow’-verse because in ‘Supergirl’ we state that there’s been a Superman for a long time. It’s also important that ‘Supergirl’ be its own show, because it deserves it and it’s not a spinoff. ‘Supergirl’ should be a show that other shows get spun off from.”

There are other aspects of the series that don’t necessarily fit with the more grounded heroics of “Arrow” or the metahuman threats of “The Flash,” Kreisberg points out. “We’ve never really gotten to do aliens before, and this show has opened us up to aliens, not just who are associated with Superman, but across the DC Comics board.”

Ultimately, the show is about the search for identity, and allowing Kara to grow into herself as a person, as well as a superhero. According to Benoist, “I’ve realized recently that she’s constantly questioning herself, constantly questioning the kind of hero she wants to be and what she wants to do, the kind of mark she wants to make on the world. I think she really overestimates her abilities at this point because they’re not sharp; she’s a very dull blade right now. But I love that about her – I love that she’s running into walls now and then and charging at things like a rhino and being like ‘wait a second, I’ve got to take a step back and maybe do things a little differently.’ That’s what I’m figuring out right now.”

That voyage of self discovery is part of the reason why Kara’s famous cousin will remain largely offscreen, says Kreisberg. “One of the central tenets is that we all compare ourselves to somebody — there’s always somebody out there, whether it’s a boss or a friend or sibling, who is doing better than you — and this desire, ‘if I only had their life, things would be better.’ And the show is really sprung from that notion. Greg has cited Ginger Rogers having to dance backwards and in heels. I remember Greg saying early on, before I was even involved, the show is about him being out there and how is she finding her own way.”

“Supergirl” premieres Monday, Oct. 26 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS, before shifting to its permanent timeslot of Mondays at 8 p.m. beginning Nov. 2.

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