Kaci Walfall, Ava DuVernay, and Jill Blankenship talk Naomi

by W. Andrew Powell

Naomi is the origin story of DC’s newest hero, and the new CW drama is a journey of discovery for one young woman as she finds herself, what she’s capable of, and what it means to be a hero.

Starring Kaci Walfall as Naomi, the series is bright and lively, with an electric mood, and that’s thanks in a big way to executive producers Ava DuVernay and showrunner Jill Blankenship.

There’s also a lot to say about the show’s incredible cast, including Mary-Charles Jones, Barry Watson, Mouzam Makkar, Alexander Wraith, Daniel Puig, Aidan Gemme, Will Meyes, and Camila Moreno.

The cast, DuVernay, and Blankenship sat down to talk all things Naomi recently, and it was an eye-opening dive into what makes this series so fresh. Read highlights from the conversation below, including details on how DuVernay and Blankenship got hooked on making the series, Walfall’s casting, the vision for the show, and so much more.

Naomi premieres Tuesday, January 11 at 9:00 PM (ET) on Showcase in Canada, and on The CW in the U.S.

Kaci Walfall in Naomi

Where in the DC universe does this show fit? And is there a chance that we might have some crossovers in the future?

Jill Blankenship: “I think what’s so lovely about the DC family–and this personally is the third DC show that I’ve had the pleasure to work on–I think what’s so lovely about the world of comics and DC specifically is that there’s really something for everyone. And in it you get to touch on all these different places and all these exciting characters. And I think, when it comes to crossovers and that kind of thing, I think nothing is ever off the table.”

Kaci, were you a fan of this comic book or of comic books in general before you got this role?

Kaci Walfall: “I hadn’t. I’m an avid reader, but I hadn’t read comic books before the show. I, however, was a big fan of the DC shows. I watched Supergirl religiously in middle school all the time and I’ve watched The Flash. So I was a fan of the film world a bit, but I hadn’t read comics before.”

Can you talk a little about where this idea to develop the series came from and your experiences with the comics before you actually took on this project?

Ava DuVernay: “I had heard about it because at ARRAY, my company’s deal is at Warner Bros., and so I’m always just trying to see what’s going on with DC. I was attached to a film called New Gods, so I was already kind of in the DC universe working on that. And then we have another show called DMZ that comes out on HBO Max later in the spring, so I was looking for just more in the DC world when I heard about, it was a new book that was about to drop and it was a Black girl superhero.”

“So I was like, well, you gotta tell me more. That’s gotta be mine. So when I heard the origin story, I really said, ‘well, this must be mine because it was different than most fully-formed superheroes where we just dive into the comic and she’s who she is, and she knows everything that’s going on.’ This was really the steps to becoming yourself, the steps to realizing your destiny, the steps that it takes to become who you’re meant to be. And that’s something that was very interesting to me.”

“So I grabbed Jill Blankenship who has to be like top two best writing partners I’ve ever, ever had–I love this woman–and she and I together started working on it. She gathered an amazing room, beautiful crew, and this cast. I mean, look at these faces; they’re just good spirits. So we’ve been having a good time making it.”

What was the audition process for this like?

Kaci Walfall: “I got the audition by an email, and as I kept reading, it kept getting better. I saw miss Ava’s name and then I saw The CW and then I saw DC, but when I really saw the character and read the description and read the sides, I really felt connected, and I loved her sense of confidence. So I sent in a self-tape and I tried my best and I didn’t hear anything for like two weeks. And then I got an email that Miss Ava wanted to do a Zoom with me, and we did it with Miss Taisha Coley and Vanessa Toll.”

“And we did, I think five scenes, and we did all the scenes there. Wasn’t a guarantee that we were gonna do all the scenes… and Miss Ava asked me some questions after I finished the audition, and then I found out that night that she wanted to fly me to LA. So I went to LA with my mom and I did some Zoom chemistry reads there. Then we sat down and had lunch at a vegan restaurant and talked about the show and talked about the character, and she got to know more about me and how I started acting. I went back home and my mom handed me the phone, I think like a week later, and it was Miss Ava on the phone and she says, ‘I want to invite you to the ARRAY family to play Naomi.'”

Since Naomi is just discovering her powers, does that give you a chance to sort of ease into it with the training and everything and how extensive is that as you develop the physical side of Naomi?

Kaci Walfall: “I think, yes, it does allow me to ease into it. As she’s finding out, I’m kind of finding out, which is really helpful as an actor. ‘Cause I don’t know yet; I think how I embody the powers in episode 2 is gonna be how I am, different than how I embody the powers in, let’s say episode 11.”

“I think that it allows me to grow and I think that it allows the character to grow, and our stunt coordinator, Elizabeth [Davidovich], often says I’m at the right place where the character is. So, you know, I work out so that I can stay fit, but also maintain energy. And then it’s really helpful because as the series goes on, she’s figuring out things and she gets better and better every episode.”

This is a show that both has sci-fi elements and it’s a coming of age story. When you talk about it, do you think of the sci-fi elements first or the coming of age stuff first? Also, what are the pitfalls and the pluses of adapting a popular book into a project?

Ava DuVernay: “I think of it as a coming-of-age story first, and those are things that I really love most about it. I mean, I love that all comics are really personal human stories about the journeys that we all take, written in with issues of heroism and magic. But, really, the best stories are the ones where things are happening that we can all relate to.”

“Let me just tell you some of my favourite scenes. Just today, just this morning, I was editing a scene with Cranston, who plays Zumbado, and Kaci, who is our Naomi, at a very pivotal moment… that brought a tear to my eye. And I was like, I am literally editing a young adult drama and I’m here emotional…”

“There’s a scene where Cranston talks about love. I’m not gonna give it away, but it’s in a classroom; Cranston and Kaci in the classroom talking about a great love that he’s dealing with. Anyway, [it] brought me to tears.”

“And then one of the relationships that I love so much is Barry and Mouzam; the parents, right? They’re not just regular–no disrespect to regular CW parents–but they’re not your everyday parents, right? There’s an edge to them. There’s a mystery to them, and there’s so much more to unfold with them. And so these little configurations, as well as this group of friends, this kind of tribe of and love interests. I mean, Naomi, doesn’t just have one love interest, she’s got three.”

“It’s pretty sensational. And last but not least, my favourite couple of the show is Jacob and Annabelle. You know, these two might have a spinoff one day in my own mind and… and it’s just a beautiful cast. So I think about all those elements more than I think about the superhero stuff.”

“The superhero stuff to me is a cherry on top knowing that the best superhero journeys are human stories. Jill, do you wanna talk just briefly about the adaptation part?”

Jill Blankenship: “Yeah, I mean, I was personally such a big fan of the comic, like [it’s] so beautiful, [and] characters jump off the page, and I think what’s been really exciting is to kind of move forward in the storytelling and really honour the lineage of the comic while sort of expanding the world even beyond the comic. And for me personally, I like to see this cast bring them to life in such a way that it’s like beyond my wildest dreams. It’s been like really spectacular.”

You’re known for dealing in subject matter about race and civil rights. Are those issues going to be dealt with on Naomi, or are they just going to be dealt with metaphorically?

Ava DuVernay: “Yes, they’re going to be dealt with through a new innovation that we’re working with. It’s called normalization, right? It’s not about representation, it’s about normalization. So we’re doing really muscular things as it relates to race and gender and class, but we’re doing it by playing it normal.”

“It’s just a part of the everyday, and I say it kiddingly, but it is real. The more that you can portray images without underlining them, highlighting them and putting a star next to them, that show a different kind of hero, right? That center on a black girl, that centers different kinds of folks, right? We start to make that normal and that’s a radical revolutionary thing. So yes, it’s in there deep in the fabric of the quilt.”

Do you play Naomi as the “wow, I’ve got superpowers,” or do you have any kind of metaphor?

Kaci Walfall: “The show’s so grounded in reality… so I do genuinely ask myself, what would I do if I found out I had powers? Would I be, maybe not joyful, and I think that I bring that into the character because, as the show goes on, you see that maybe you finding you’re a superhero is not something that you’re completely enthusiastic for. Maybe it makes you different, and you already feel different.”

“So I think that I metaphorically, I don’t know if I necessarily have anything crazy like that, but I think I just genuinely ask myself because I see similarities between myself and Naomi, and differences of course, but I ask myself, ‘what would I do? And how would I feel?'”

Do you feel particularly responsible? As Naomi grows into her powers, this may be spoilery, but does she feel more responsible for protecting the community?

Kaci Walfall: “I think anyone with power feels responsibilities. So I think that, yes, Naomi does feel responsible, and that may be a great thing, and that may not be a good thing. You know, she’s only 16, so I think that she grapples with that. But you definitely see her grappling with that responsibility throughout the series.”

I love that Naomi is flirting with everybody, which is great. Can you talk about that as far as the story goes in the first season? Like, does she talk about that? Does it become a story point? I feel like there would be viewers that are maybe still trying to figure that out and might wanna see that represented on TV.

Jill Blankenship: “I think, as Ava mentioned–actually, I’m gonna steal her words–but I think [it] speaks to this idea of normalization and this idea of kids these days, ’cause I’m significantly older than many of the teens here [and] I find their attitude towards sexuality and toward this sort of aversion to labels so inspiring. And I think that’s something that’s rooted in reality and that we really wanted to bring to the show in a real grounded way, and we do continue to sort of have that running through the season.”

What made Kaci exactly right for this role?

Ava DuVernay: “When I’m casting, I am thinking, ‘look, there’s a lot of talented people that do this work.’ I’m really looking for the people outside of the talent. The talent’s easy to find. The hard part is, do I wanna be in a relationship with this person for potentially many years? And so that’s why, after the audition, when I was like, ‘this girl is flat out incredible, beyond good enough. You gotta fly out here. I gotta meet you face to face.'”

“We have to have a meal and I need to see who you are. Right? And so that was the incredible thing about Kaci. First of all, she was 16 at the time, has that theatre experience, the work ethic, the professionalism, the talent, the vibrancy, the charisma; all of it. But then you sit down with her and you’re like, ‘oh, I really like you as a person, you’re a great person.'”

“And you are gonna take the responsibility of having a television show where you are the title character, and you’re gonna put that on your shoulders and you’re gonna take it seriously and you’re gonna care about it every single second. And so that is something that was apparent very early on in the process with her. And I felt lucky. You know, it’s the way I felt when I found Storm Reed in Wrinkle in Time, the way I felt [with] Jaden Michael for Colin in Black & White, the way I felt about All the Boys and When They See Us. When it all comes together, the talent and the personhood–who they are, you get lucky and magic happens and she’s our magic.”

Jill Blankenship: “Well, we’re on a clock here, so I won’t go on for too long, but I would just add [that] in addition to sort of everything Ava said about finding Kaci, what I would love to speak to personally is just how impressed I’ve been with Kaci throughout the season and working with her throughout the season.”

“I’ve worked in television for a while and sometimes I say I forget that she’s 17, because she’s so thoughtful. She’s so mature. She’s so considerate and such a great leader, as Ava said that, again, she’s exceeded my wildest expectations, personally.”

Ava DuVernay: “I’ll just add… it’s the whole cast around her too. It really is about that. These people on this call, they genuinely like each other, which is not always the case with these shows. We get on these Zooms or we get on the panel and such and such has an attitude and such and such is mad at her, and she doesn’t like him and he doesn’t like her, and it happens.”

“But this has been just the loveliest thing because each and every person is just into it. They’re happy to be there. We’re making something fun. We’re making something different. For some of them it’s their first experiences. For others, I mean, I have to tell you every time I see Cranston walking out in those suits, I had the idea, it was like, he needs to wear suits. Okay? He needs to wear suits.”

“So I’m looking through like all his work, and I’m like, has this brother ever had roles where he’s just been suited and booted every day? No. So he walks out and he’s doing something that I haven’t seen him do.”

“Alexander, you see him and you think, ‘oh, this guy’s gonna be a badass, hardcore.’ And he’s just (softer) talking like this to Naomi, and he found this place in the character, which is very serene and no ripples. He created it; these folks have created these characters from what we’ve written on paper, brought them to life. I mean, my biggest fear was having a boring mom and dad.”

“I was just watching a scene with you, Barry, where you were talking about making pineapple pizza. I was like, ‘you’re still bringing a little something into it.’ And then you have the “Scooby gang” and their chemistry, and it’s Kaci and it’s everything around Kaci that I think is really making this show rise to a place that, it’s going beyond what I had even hoped.”

Cranston Johnson: “By the way, Ava, thank you for inspiring a wardrobe overhaul, because after wearing those clothes, I can no longer look at my closet anymore. So thank you very much for that.”

Is there a plan for crossovers with any other CW, DCEU characters?

Ava DuVernay: “We will see what happens, but we are really just focused [on Naomi], no crossover. You won’t see any crossover [in] season 1; that’s a little spoiler. That’s a little breaking news I’ll share. Season 1, that’s not there. She is firmly in her story and we are singularly focused on that journey.”

You introduced us to a lot of newcomers here. Why was that so important to you?

Ava DuVernay: “‘Cause look at my babies, they’re just so fresh and beautiful. This story had a lot of interest, to be honest with you. When we first sent down the breakdowns–breakdowns are the announcements to the industry that the different parts are available–there was a lot of interest from a lot of names you know to play these kids. And I just said, ‘look, I just wanna get in there and find the freshest, most interesting faces and people, not just talent, but also who they are.'”

At the end of the conversation, DuVerynay gave Kaci Walfall the last word at the event. “Kaci’s gonna be like, ‘oh my God, why are you doing this?'”

Kaci Walfall: “…I’m very grateful that people, reporters, and journalists want a response to our show. I’m grateful for that, and I’m especially grateful for people to hear their words. Naomi is a show and I play the lead character and I’m so grateful for that. But as Ms. Ava said, the show is so uplifted by my cast members and the crew members and Ms. Ava and Jill. I’m just really grateful to be in this space, to be able to be in this space at this age. I’m grateful for everyone here, grateful for your answers. So, gratitude of course, but yeah, I would just say thank you for your questions. I really appreciated them.”

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