Cress Williams – Black Lightning
By: Jamie Steinberg
Q) Congrats on the success of “Black Lightning!”
A) Everyone on our show is extremely proud of what we’re doing. We’ve been living with it for a year now. At some point, you’re like, “I hope the audience sees what we’re seeing and enjoys it. Fortunately, with the reviews and responses that has been true. We had our second episode air so now we have that moment of anxiously awaiting what the ratings are and things like that.
Q) You have been a part of so many great shows. Were they finally like, “Okay, this guy deserves his own show!”
A) [laughs] That might have happened behind closed doors. For my perspective, it was kind of another audition. It wasn’t just another audition though because playing a superhero has been really close to my heart and something I’ve wanted to do. I was just blown away because it was ticking that box to play a superhero, but the character and the dimensions and the world that we created were so exciting. It became more than just an audition for me because I just really wanted it badly. I was told behind closed doors that when they were kind of tossing things around that Mark Pedowitz of The CW mentioned my name right away. So, I think I had a leg up, but I still had to go through the paces like everyone else.
Q) What kind of research did you do in order to get into character?
A) Well, the original script was so clear and, honestly, especially the specific parts that make Jefferson who he is were some of the things that I really, really identified with right away. Being a college graduate and a father, education and family are two of the most important things to him and they are very important to me. Him being a little farther in age…All of these things I could easily tap into. After that, I went through and read virtually every version of the comic. That was a lot of fun. I’m a fan of superheroes so it wasn’t hard work to do. I kind of saw that we were kind of making something that was an amalgamation of all of them. Fortunately, I’ve been kind of a workout buff since I was thirty-nine years old. That’s when I really started to get into it. So, I have a home gym and it’s something that even prior to this job that I was even doing Monday through Friday a couple of hours at the gym. So, I was used to that. With this show, I just had to really make it like, “Okay, this is really my job now.” So, I had to really just kick it up a little bit more and start learning fight choreography, which was a new thing. So, that’s kind of the new path or craft that I’ve had to learn. I’m getting better at it, but it’s taking time. Fortunately, I have a great stunt double in Eric [Mbanda] who makes me look awesome. [laughs]
Q) Were you familiar with any of your costars before working with them on “Black Lightning?”
A) Some. I was familiar with China [Anne McClain]. It was funny because I got my role and then they called me in to read with the potential daughters. Then, I saw China and I was familiar with her because I have a daughter who is twelve years old and she grew up watching “Ant Farm.” So, I was like, “You’re on my daughter’s television show!” A lot of the other actors – no. They were new to me. I’ve known James [Remar] though since 48 Hrs. and The Warriors. Those were things I grew up watching him in. So, when I saw him it was kind of exciting. Fortunately, we all are really excited about what we’re doing and really proud of what we’re doing so that just brings everybody almost like a family. It brings everybody together. I have to credit casting because when I look at us as a family, it’s like, “Wow! We really look like a family.” And everyone on set just gets along.
Q) What has been the most challenging part of portraying Jefferson?
A) Really the most challenging thing is playing Jefferson more than Black Lightning. The superhero suit itself is heavy. It’s a little bulky. We have to do a lot of movement so that’s always a challenge being in it and trying to be as mobile as possible. And just the physicality of learning a new fight every week and then having to make that work…Then, there is a new wrinkle. Because it is Winter time in Atlanta…They call it “Hotlanta,” but I don’t know where that comes from because it’s extremely cold right now. The suit works well outside at night. So, filming outside at night in the Winter…it’s cold. The suit doesn’t keep you warm. In some weird way the cold kind of makes it right to your bones. So, that’s a new challenge that I didn’t anticipate.
Q) You mentioned to me that you didn’t have much of a role in shaping this character as you trusted Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil’s vision. It must be very satisfying to see so many people appreciating the series.
A) Honestly, as everyone else, I heard they were making a show about a superhero and what it was going to entail. Then, when I read the script…The script was so clear. It was very clear about who Jefferson is and it was clear we were telling a story rooted in real life. I was moved by the same things that people are who are watching it. The first time Jefferson gets pulled over and the moment that Lawanda gets shot – these things really struck me. I just started to breathe life into it. I’ve talked to Salim after the fact and he’s mentioned (and this inevitably happens) when an actor comes on board that the writers then start to see what the actor is doing and bringing so they start to slowly shape it to them. I think that’s happening, but initially it was just me kind of trying to bring to life what they have put on paper.
Q) In today’s political climate, why do you think it is so important to have a person of color as a superhero and someone for viewers to look up to?
A) I think it’s something that has been a long time coming. I think in any climate, it’s important for everybody to be represented. If we’re going to have this medium of film and television, people should see themselves. Everybody should be able to look around and see themselves. It’s important to kids for their confidence and spirit. It’s important to adults. We’ve had a lot of adult comic book fans who are like kids right now saying, “I didn’t think this day would come for this show.” We were watching the show and there was a commercial for Black Panther in the midst of the show and people immediately started tweeting out, “Watching ‘Black Lightning’ and there is a commercial for Black Panther. WOW! What an incredible time!” I think it’s something that should have been here a long time ago, but I think in our climate today, fortunately, we’re moving in a direction where people want diversity and it’s kind of a wonderful backlash of what is going on politically. I hope it continues to move forward so people can see representations of themselves – that film and television represent what the world actually looks like.
Q) You are a part of social media. Have you been enjoying the fan feedback you receive to episodes?
A) It’s really cool. It’s different for me. I’m a little older. [laughs] I started in this business before there were really cellphones for that matter. You had to manually drive to go get a script or sides. To have that and now move into this time of social media, it’s a journey. It’s kind of cool. I generally will watch the show and as soon as there is a commercial break I start to see what some of the responses are. I actually want to watch the show. It’s cool because you get to instantly see what I think is really funny or what I think is really funny or what I think is going to land…may not land.
Q) What can you tease is in store this initial season of “Black Lightning?”
A) I would just say a lot more development. From a very superficial standpoint, I think it even starts in the third episode where we start to see Jefferson’s powers expanded upon. He works with Gambi, who is a bit of a technical genius. So, Gambi starts to help him find new ways and kind of new versions of his powers to use. So, people are going to see some new tricks. Then, they are obviously going to learn more about Anissa’s character (Nafessa Williams) and what is going on with her physically and what she can do. You’re going to learn some really cool backstory on Gambi and you are going to learn how he got to Freeland. You’re also going to learn about Tobias (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III) and what makes him tick. There is an interesting backstory between me and Tobias and why it’s personal – why we have history.
Q) I think fans also appreciate that Jefferson is supportive of his daughter Anissa’s sexuality. It’s nice to see an LGBTQ character portrayed as being supported by their family – and an LGBTQ character of color. Was that something you took notice of and appreciated when you first read about the series?
A) Initially it didn’t come up. I didn’t know. And what I really liked and what I hoped for…A lot of people may think that we’re doing a portrayal or a character for the sake of ratings or things like that. I didn’t know, but I later on looked back and saw it was rooted in the comic book history. Anissa’s character is a comic book hero in her own right known as Thunder and if you read the comic book lore on her she has always been LGBT. We’re not trying to be flashy or the flavor of the month. We’re just being really true to the comic. So, I hope people see that and appreciate that. But when I learned that extra dimension, it just filled out the fact that we’re telling a real story and a story that is relevant today. We’re not just telling a story about saving aliens and aliens in the world. We’re taking the superhero-action genre and putting it into real life and dealing with real issues. I think the evolution of the genre has to go that way. I think as an actor and as a human being, that is way more exciting to me than fighting aliens. So, I’m extremely happy that we’re doing that and proud that we’re doing that. And it goes back to my original thought of wanting people to look around and when they are watching film and television to see themselves and not feel that they are being excluded.
Q) What would you like to say to everyone who is a fan and supporter of you and your work?
A) I just want to say thank you so much. Thank you for being a fan all of these years and I’m so excited and appreciative when I hear people saying wonderful things like I’m perfect for this part or I’m doing so well…That’s one of the things about having that access and social media is to get that response where back in the day we wouldn’t get it at all. I’m just really appreciative and I’m going to continue to do the best I can to do things right and tell the truth. I hope they continue watching.