Interview: 'Black Lightning' Star Cress Williams on Inspiration, Acting, and Becoming a Superhero

Cress Williams had a dream, and it was a simple one -- if persistently hard to attain: he wanted to be an on-screen superhero.

Williams’ 20-plus year career acting in Hollywood has had its share of highlights, including regular and recurring roles on a wide variety of television series such as Beverly Hills 90210, Living Single, Veronica Mars, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break, Friday Night Lights, and a leading stint Hart of Dixie, but the actor admits he was growing frustrated when it came to his career goal.

But finally, along came The CW’s Black Lightning, in which he plays the empathetic, crusading high school principal, former Olympian, and divorced dad Jefferson Pierce, who, as his community finds itself under siege by the forces of the ruthless gangster Tobias Whale, finds himself increasingly driven to resume his long-ago activities as the electrically powered costumed vigilante Black Lightning.

And as Williams explained to a small group of reporters at the Television Critics Association, he’s thrilled that after a long wait, he found the right superhero that he could strike some serious sparks with.

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On Jefferson Pierce’s innate drive to do good, in and out of costume:

Cress Williams: Well, his drive is just simply… He's from Freeland, he's a child of Freeland. He lost his father at a very early age, and thankfully, he had Gambi come in and bridge that gap. Gambi has an activist spirit, and so he's always wanted to make a change. He spent one part of his life making that change in one way, and then he spent a chunk of life making a change in another way, and I think the series is about him discovering that it requires both.

He lives in the community, and he's in a really nice house in the community, but he lives in the community every day. It's not like he left. He's there, so he can't help but want to make a difference.

On the struggle between having retired Black Lightning and the urgent need to resurrect his superhero career:

He has to at some point make his peace with it. I think it's always a tug and a struggle, because there's a price to pay for his stepping back into it. As we pick up in the very very beginning he feels like him and Lynn might actually get back together again. They're so close. So having to put that on hold, the toll on his body, there's always a price to pay. He makes a better peace with it, if that makes sense.

On putting his superhero costume on for the first time:

We’d went through weeks of fittings, and once it was done and I put it on, I was in a little makeup studio, the effects studio, and I just wanted to go through a wall. It just made me feel like I could actually [do it]... And I was ready to fight, and you feel heroic. I felt like a child's dream coming true.

You can't help but feel bigger. You can't help but feel pretty much impervious, and you just have a swag.

On figuring out how to act out Black Lightning’s powers without feeling self conscious:

With our stunt coordinator, when we unveil a new facet of his powers, we have our own opinions about, "Oh I think it should be done this way," "We've established that this does this, so let's do this."

And then honestly for me it's just 100-percent commitment. It's going back to when you were a kid. And when you're a kid, when you're out there playing cops and robbers and superhero and this and that, you commit 100-percent to, "Pew! Pew!" You know what I mean? So it's just simply that. It's easy. It's fun because I'm a kid at heart.

On his own favorite superheroes:

I grew up in a time when we didn't have this. We didn't have a plethora of this. All I had was the “Super Friends” and Saturday morning, and they really didn't even have Spider-Man at that point, so I was always a Superman fan. And I just in my acting and everything, I go to 100, and so does Superman, you can't get any more powerful than Superman. He's the Man of Steel, you know. I was always fascinated by flight, so he was always my guy, and everybody would always fight and say, "No, I want to be Superman!" "No, I'm Superman!" And, I would win most of the time.

On the teacher who inspired him in school:

I had an English teacher, actually, when I was in high school. It was right around the latter part of junior high when I committed to the fact that I wanted to be an actor some day, and I went to a high school that didn't have a drama program at all, but I had this English teacher who looked almost exactly like Mr. Hand in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I'm serious – he almost exactly looked like him!

He was the first person to expose me to Shakespeare, and I remember him saying that the two greatest forms of writing are Shakespeare and the Bible, and he was the first person to expose me to that, and I felt somewhat encouraged. I guess he probably exposed me to the fact that I really should examine acting and theater as a whole. I don't think I ever would have fallen in love with Shakespeare and gone the route that I have if it wasn't for him… Subsequently I went on to become a theater major and play Othello and Oberon and all these different things.

On his own experience as a teacher and mentor:

Prior to this I taught acting for about nine years, and so there's a teacher in me, and there's a director in me, and initially I tried to step back from that, because I wanted people to have their own experience, but also knowing that I really care about the show and I really care about all our cast mates, and saw that on our show it was encouraged. I was allowed to step in, and feel like I can step in and give notes and help out, and it just comes very natural to me.

There's so many lessons. The biggest thing for us, we talk about staying present and just enjoying what we're doing in the moment. We really hope the show's gonna be amazing, we hope that it changes the world. We hope that people receive it in a way that we think they should receive it. But ultimately we don't know, and so all we have is this moment. All we have is when we're doing it and enjoying it, and let those come. It's really about staying in the moment.

On looking forward to meeting children who actually believe he is Black Lightning:

Actually back in Atlanta at the church that we go to, one of our friends’ little son, he's seen trailers and it was interesting: he only called me Black Lightning. He would say, "Black Lightning!" And he thought that my name was Black Lightning, and Cress was not my real name. And so it was only literally last week when I saw him and he said, "Hi, Cress!" I'm like, “Oh my God, he called me Cress!” So I'm very excited.

On what he cherry-picked from Black Lightning’s on-again, off-again publishing history:

It's a little bit of everything, you know? I read our script first, and we were already in the journey of the show when I started reading the comic books and realized that the world that we created is kind of an amalgamation of all three aspects of it. I love so many different things.

I realized that even in the ‘70s version it was socially relevant. There was one of the issues where it was all about illegal immigration and abusing these immigrants. It was a ‘70s version that could have been today, and so I took that. And there was one other version, I don't know if it was the ‘90s or the 2000s, where the idea of Tobias [Whale], there was this evil entity over all of it that really spooked me out, and I'm like, "Oh, I think we're gonna take a little bit of that," The family aspect, the Gambi aspect is prevalent through all of it, but I'm really happy that we're an amalgamation of all of them.

On the biggest challenge of the role:

Just learning the fight sequences. The fighting is probably the hardest because it's the most foreign to me, in learning. It's funny because I stepped into this so excited about playing a superhero. That's my dream, is to play a superhero. But the easiest part of it is actually playing Jefferson, because there's so many similarities between me and Jefferson. He feels like me, in how he parents and what is important to him. In education, in his family, and so the harder part is actually just learning the fight sequences, the physicality, because I'm older.

On the dangers of being an actor playing a superhero:

Yeah, I've actually got a wrist right now that's still got pain in it, and I've got wounds all over at this point. It just kind of comes with the territory. And to answer about the green screen, yeah, we've had two different moments of me being on wires with the green screen. The first moment was really uncomfortable. With the harness I was like, "Well, thank God I'm done having kids, because I don't think I can have them any more!" But the second time felt like a dream come true. The second time felt like that kid like, "Oh my God, this is what flying is like!"

On sticking to his dream of being an actor even when it felt like an uphill battle:

I was never going to quit, because I've had many nights wracking my brain to see if there was anything else I can do -- and I can't, unfortunately! I was never going to give up. This, being a superhero, has been a dream of mine. I did consider that maybe this part of my dream wasn't going to happen. Other opportunities -- there's so few of them, in this specific genre, the Luke Cages, the Black Panthers. When they didn't happen for me, then you start to look around and go, "Oh, I'm getting older, and there's not many left. Maybe this is just not my path." Fortunately, just when I thought, "Yeah, this is probably not going to happen for me," it came about.

It's interesting because it illuminates everything else before it. This project is better than I could have hoped for. It's almost like I wanted some cake, and I missed out on all these other cakes, and then when I got my cake, my cake was three-layered, with icing and a cherry and everything else on top. Everybody else can have those cakes, I'm happy with mine.

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Black Lightning premieres tonight on The CW at 9/8c. Future episodes will continue to air on Tuesdays.

Black LightningTuesday at 9 PM EST on The CW

Black Lightning

Black LightningTuesday at 9 PM EST on The CW

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