David Harewood on Martian Manhunter: "This is As Good as Playing MacBeth or Hamlet"

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Supergirl was just given an order for a full season. The show is the first in the DC television universe featuring a female lead focusing on Kara Zor-El, cousin of Superman, and her human alias Kara Danvers. This first season introduces Supergirl to her powerset and debuts new alien villains all over the place!

David Harewood, best known for his time on Doctor Who and Homeland, plays DEO Director Hank Henshaw, who was recently revealed to be J'Onn J'Onzz, a character known to comic book fans as the Martian Manhunter.

Harewood spoke with reporters on the set of Supergirl to chat about this latest character revelation and who his character is going to be going forward.

Do you feel free now [that you can talk about Martian Manhunter]?

I do. I feel very strange. I haven’t told anybody.

When were you told?

I was told about two weeks into the job, so I apologize for my Comic-Con answers. Didn’t know anything. They told me about two weeks into my time here [at] the star of Episode One; up until then I was still unsure. I knew something was changing, but I wasn’t absolutely sure what it was.

It was quite uncomfortable - the pilot was quite uncomfortable - because a lot of what Hank [Henshaw] said was exposition -- “This is the DEO,” “I’m this,” and “You’re here.” It was an uncomfortable experience playing Hank in the pilot, so I was really pleased, actually, because Martian Manhunter is such a huge character. It took me on a whole new, different direction and it was brilliant for me because, as much as I could, I couldn’t really find an angle to play Hank Henshaw that was interesting.

So, how did you change your approach to the character once you found out?

The whole idea of suppressing who you are was something that I could understand and pretending to be - hiding a big secret - that was, obviously, much more interesting and I was always also wonder[ing] why he was such a bitch to Kara? [Laughs] You know, all the way through the pilot I was thinking, “There’s something going on here. No one could hate aliens that much. There’s something that I don’t know.”

So, [one of the] reasons I was happy it was Martian Manhunter is because he is an alien. It gave me a direction to take other than just "I don’t like Kara Zor-El and Superman." That wasn’t really that interesting to me.

After his secret is out how does that affect his relationships with the people who know or aliens who know?

It’s a lot of fun actually because, as you’ll see in episodes to come, there’s a lot of fun to be had ‘cause he’s a shapeshifter, so he can be whoever he wants to be, so I think you’ll find me being other members of the cast at some various points in the story.

But, I think particularly with Alex [Danvers] -- Chyler [Leigh] -- that’s been a wonderful relationship to play because, as you’ll see in next week’s episode, he promised her father that he would protect her like his own child and, having lost his own child, Kara and Alex almost become his children and he loves them and, again, you’ll see that going forward. They are his children.

And, you know, I don’t know if you know much about the character of Martian Manhunter, but having lost his own children, he’s got a lot of pain. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of melancholy, which is fantastic to play; it gives you an enormous amount of stuff to play, and I think these two girls represent something that is very, very close to him.

His power set is, you know, anything - it transcends Superman and Supergirl’s - but, it has a lot of similarities, so will he be taking on that mentor role to her and using her abilities and powers? Could we see some of that?

There’s a little bit of that, yeah. There’s a wonderful flight sequence where - and, you’ve got to remember that he hasn’t used half of these powers for many years ‘cause he’s been reforming the DEO and pretending to be somebody else, so I think the revelation is as much a, kind of, weight off his shoulders than anything. It’s the fact that he can finally be himself and I think that’s also, at times, very uncomfortable for him because he realizes, you know, Kara’s beautiful, attractive and blonde and gorgeous and I’m this seven foot, Green Martian and, as much as I want to just be myself, it would terrify people to be confronted with this alien.

So, he’s still got conflicts that he has to - and he still has issues that he has to deal with. I think seeing Kara and seeing Kara enjoy - I was going to say “coming out the closet” - but, enjoy, kind of, revealing her true nature, I think there’s something perhaps a little envious. He knows he can’t quite do that.

Is the voice and the dialect that you’re doing in the episodes that we’ve seen as Hank Henshaw, is that the voice that J’onn J’onzz does in his Martian form or is it more similar to your natural dialect?

We spoke about that. I spoke about that with Greg [Berlanti] and, you know, I wondered whether I should change my voice and he decided not and the wonderful thing about J’onn J’onzz is that he spends so much time in these other aliases that he just becomes them. They become part of him, so Hank is as much a part of him as any of his pseudonyms, so hopefully, down the line we’ll see him in different guises.

What kind of interaction will Hank Henshaw have with Cameron Chase?

I’m going to put that to Greg [Berlanti and] to Andrew [Kreisberg] myself, actually. I was reading...it’s wonderful, I get to read all these comics for research, which has been fantastic! I read one just the other day and there’s a great relationship that he has with her and I think she’s a character that perhaps could get on his case a little bit, so maybe I’ll be speaking to Greg about that question.

Are we going to get to see J’onn’s backstory, like, in flashbacks or are we just going to hear about it?

There is - in Episode Eleven - we have a visitor from another planet who’s a White Martian. There are two Martian species - it feels really weird talking about this (laughs) I’ve not been able to say anything about it - there is a Green Martian species and a White Martian species and the White Martians, in our story, are responsible for the death of the whole of the Green Martians. It was a fire and they burned them and we get to see a lot of that.

It’s very emotional. It was a very emotional episode for me, just thinking about the whole idea of genocide and, you know, people being burned alive. I think it was around the same time as the Paris attacks. it was very emotional. The whole idea of it was weird for me to be playing, but I think it’s going to be a very emotional, powerful episode because you get to see a little bit - the fans are going to be, I think, really delighted to see this because I don’t think, technically, it’s been able to be done before, but I think we’re, thankfully, now living in an age where you get great people like Armen [V. Kevorkian] - our Visual Effects Director - who’s just fantastic and he’s capable of just bringing some of stuff to life and I think fans are really going to get to see a version of Martian Manhunter on the screen that they’ve just never, ever seen before.

There’s going to be something in it for the fans and something in it for just the general viewers because it’s some pretty emotional stuff to cover.

What did you know about Martian Manhunter before?

Nothing. What I’ve learnt from doing this job is that much of my boyhood comic book reading has all been Marvel. I grew up reading Stan Lee, reading The Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk - literally, week in, week out - and I really didn’t ever touch the Batman comics because, in my day, Batman was the camp version -- Adam West -- so Batman was always pretty camp.

And having started to read - having done this job - it’s made me go back to the comic book and realize the DC Universe is much darker than Marvel and it’s been wonderful to journey back, particularly through the Batman story because Batman in the comic books is very different from Batman in the movies. You know, now you think Batman you think Christian Bale or Chris Nolan, but actually, the comic book Batman is such a dark guy and so brutal and that’s been fascinating for me.

When they presented me with the comic books and the model - Andrew [Kreisberg] gave me this model of this Green Martian. At first, I have to say, I was a bit horrified because I thought, “I’m going to be playing Shrek for the next seven years.” So, I, kind of, was a little bit anxious because I just could see hours of prosthetic makeup and just something I didn’t particularly want to do, but when I started reading him I was blown away. I thought, “Wow! How did this guy ever escape my comic book knowledge?”

So, I have been reading Martian Manhunter comics now for the last three months -- four months? -- and they’re just awesome and he’s such a wonderful character.

I’m here. I’m away from my family. My family are in England, so I can really associate with that sense of loneliness and - obviously, I’m not the only one here - but, you know, he’s isolated and there’s a lot of melancholy there and I can tap into some of that myself, as I say, just from being on my own.

It’s been a really wonderful journey, as an actor, to play this comic book character, who isn’t all macho and, “I want to save the world!”. Is somebody that was brought here completely by mistake and has learnt to understand humanity and has decided to help it and, you know, he’s the center of the Justice League and that’s just awesome! I just had no idea!

I didn’t really know about the Justice League because, obviously, again, you look at Marvel you think about the Avengers. I didn’t really know about the Justice League until I started reading these comics and it’s been such a wonderful journey, so I’m really excited to see where this could go and to be a part of it. It’s just a great character to play. This is as good as playing MacBeth or Hamlet to me. This is a great character.

Is there anyone in the cast that you haven’t gotten to work with much that you’d like to work with more?

I haven’t worked at all with Mehcad [Brooks] and with Jeremy, [Jordan] so there’s a scene in the next episode where we’ll get to do that and it’s going to be quite weird having them in the DEO. i might get territorial. [Laughs] But, I can’t stress enough, we have just a wonderful cast and so lucky to work with such great actors.

You know, this is one of the shows where you just go home and watch the episode and think, “Wow! Didn’t know that she did that!” and “Didn’t know that was going to look like that!” I’m really impressed with Chyler [Leigh] and Melissa [Benoist] and their physicality is just brilliant - thought she was fantastic last night. It’s just really exciting to be a part of a company with actors that you actually want to work with. Yeah, it’s all good fun.