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‘Black Lightning’ Star Cress Williams on the ‘Humanity’ Behind His Superhero

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Equinox: The Book of Fate,” the seventh episode of the first season of “Black Lightning.”

The hits keep on coming for Jefferson Pierce aka “Black Lightning.”

After learning his firstborn Anissa (Nafessa Williams) was developing powers of her own, Jefferson (Cress Williams) is now tasked with keeping her safe if she wasn’t going to be dissuaded from going into the family vigilante business.

But he couldn’t focus on training her, as he recently learned Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) was not only still alive but unaging. Haunted by memories of Tobias attacking his father when he was still a boy, Jefferson converged on a turf war and accidentally shot Tobias’ sister, Tori (Edwina Findley).

And since some of the players in the turf war were using weapons that mimicked Black Lightning’s powers, when Lady Eve (Jill Scott) was killed by one such weapon, it looked like the vigilante had moved from saving people to striking them down.

Here, Williams talks with Variety about the ever-evolving complications for Jefferson, how he handles working alongside his daughter, and what’s to come after Lady Eve’s public demise.

How does Anissa knowing her father’s secret change their relationship?

It’s bring your work home, and it will quickly be bring your daughter to work day in a fun day. My wife always says, “Secrets are no fun, secrets hurt everyone.” I think it alleviates a lot of sneaking around, and there’s a shorthand now that someone in the household knows. Before that it was Lynn and Gambi — they were the only ones who knew — but neither one of them live, day to day, in the house. It opens up a can of worms, obviously, because of the personality Anissa is. She’s such an activist, a live wire, and she’s ready to go.

What will training look like for the two of them?

It looks very much like father-daughter and an extension of their relationship already. She is a spitfire who kind of acts and thinks later. He, through time and some wisdom, has learned that way is very, very dangerous. If anything, he’s a tough dad — tough love — and it also has some surprising effects. Of course she’s going to learn a lot because she’s new, but he’s also going to learn a lot.

Is he seeing an earlier version of himself in her as she stumbles through her origin story?

[His wife] Lynn has told him that Anissa’s like him when he was younger. That’s kind of a natural parenting thing that we forget. I have a 12-year-old, and my wife and I talk about it all the time — I didn’t grow up with social media or cellphones or the ability to tape yourself, so sometimes I forget but when I look at my daughter I realize, “Oh if I had all these things I would have done the same things she’s doing.” You run it through that filter. [Anissa’s] like him. He’s now older and he’s learned and trying to shield her from the hard things he learned from.

Jefferson has struggled with getting back into the superhero life. What is most important to you about showing that inner conflict?

As an actor I’m always trying to get into the behavior and the humanity of everything. Adding those extra dimensions of humanity to our show, I think, helps you see that this is not your typical superhero show. We’re much more layered. Even going back to the first episode, there was a moment where I’m holding the kid above his car and I let him go — many of the takes were like what made it in where it’s just “Boom,” and I let him go, but then in my closeup, I said I wanted to do one more, and it was just letting the weight of what just happened sink in. “I just wrecked this place with a bunch of human beings, I just hurled this kid — because he’s still a kid. I didn’t necessarily want to put this suit back on, and look what happened.” They didn’t use it at that time, but I’m always moving in that direction.

They did use a version of that conflict on Jefferson’s face after he realized he shot Tori, though.

The actress that plays Tori was great — she gave me a bunch of different things. She didn’t just die, she was so layered in it. There were a couple of takes where she was dying and looking at me like I was the devil — just “I want nothing to do with you” as I’m trying to keep her alive. So all I had to do was be open and play that moment.

The show is also moving very fast in positioning Black Lightning as a potential villain in the eyes of the community so early after his return. How does that affect the show, going forward?

When we were just a pilot that had been picked up and people had just seen a trailer, I think their expectations were just that they were going to see a black version of “The Flash” or a black version of “Arrow.” But look at our show, it’s a totally different show. We’re different [but] neither one is better. It’s almost like an evolution. We couldn’t be doing what we do without those other shows coming first. The genre now exists and where can the genre go? We knew already what we were doing — the style of the show we were doing — and I think now the audience is seeing, “Oh this is the style.” I think they expect more than just the two-dimensional good guy-bad guy. They’re along for the ride now. Anytime there’s death and there’s violence, I want to tap into “What’s the repercussions of that?” It has to have some kind of emotional connection, otherwise what’s the purpose of that?

“Black Lightning” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.

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