The CBS action-adventure series Supergirl follows Kara Zor-El, now known as Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist), as she decides to finally embrace her superhuman abilities and be the hero she was always meant to be. After 12 years of keeping her powers a secret on Earth, Kara will need to find a way to manage her newfound empowerment with her very human relationships, as she takes to the skies as Supergirl to fight crime.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor David Harewood (“Hank Henshaw”) talked about how unexpected his character has been, how excited his kids are that he’s a part of the show, why it’s important to see a lead character who just wants to do good in the world, who this Hank Henshaw is, how cool it is to see Melissa Benoist walking around in her superhero costume, that he’ll be getting involved in the action, and all of the comic book research he did.
Collider: How did this come about for you and how secretive was everything? Did you even know exactly what you were getting involved with?
DAVID HAREWOOD: No, I didn’t. Most of what I said was pretty expositional, and he’s a gruff guy, so there wasn’t much for me to really get my teeth into. But when we came back to do the series, they filled me in on what they wanted to do with my character, and I thought it was just fantastic. All I can say is that my character is not what I expected, but it’s great to be a part of it and it’s great to play.
With as popular as comic book and superhero movies and TV shows are now, who in your own life is most excited that you’re a part of this series and of telling this story?
HAREWOOD: My kids. I brought my kids to the Homeland set and they just didn’t get it. But when I brought them to the Supergirl set, they finally got what daddy does. I was walking next to Supergirl, and in their head, that was a superhero. When the pilot finished, my kids were like, “Well, where’s the next episode?” They were really, really, really excited about this.
It’s really so rare these days to have a character at the center of a show that just wants to do good. Why do you think it’s an important quality for us to see on television right now?
HAREWOOD: Because there’s so much bad stuff. Most of the successful characters in popular culture right now, from Walter White to the characters in Mad Men, are deeply flawed, but they’re trying to do the best they can. What I think is wonderful about Supergirl is that you’ve got somebody who’s just born to be good. She has personal issues that she has to overcome, but essentially, her mother has told her that she will be good and she’s had that in her head from the moment that she left her planet. She knew that she was going to grow up to do extraordinary things, and to help and be heroic. She has powers, but she’s using those powers for the benefit of mankind. Those are very inspiring ideals. We should all use our humanity for the benefit of others. Great politicians and great people rise above the fray to put themselves at the feet of their enemy and say, “I’m extending a hand to put an end to this.” That’s lacking in the world today. People aren’t prepared to cross the aisle and try to do something different. When I was growing up, we had more heroic characters that got the bad guys. We’ve become less innocent and more edgy, over the years.
What can you say about who Hank Henshaw is and how he fits into this story?
HAREWOOD: I think his heart is in the right place, very much show. But, we’re playing with the notion that he could be good or he could be bad. When the pilot was over, my kids said, “Daddy, are you good or are you bad?” And I love that people can’t make up their minds. We’re going to play with that. We’re playing with the idea that we don’t know who this guy is, and I love that. It’s much more interesting to play, if people don’t know about you. It’s going to be fun to find out who this guy is, but I think his heart is in the right place.
Don’t you think it’s important that someone question what Kara’s capabilities and motives actually are?
HAREWOOD: It’s not just that. He takes on the role of tutor and teacher. She’s just getting used to her powers. What we saw in the first episode was him testing her to see how good she is, how fast she can fly, how high she can fly, and what her powers are. She’s discovering that, at the same time we’re discovering it, which I think is great. You see these superheroes turn up and they’re just super, but you don’t see how they’ve gotten to that point. We’re trying to show that she’s learning to fight. Without her powers, how tough is she? What we’re trying to teach her is that just being the strongest and fastest isn’t going to necessarily give her the advantage. It’s technique, skill and being in control of yourself. That’s what makes a true warrior. A true warrior might now be the strongest, but how he uses his skill is what makes them the best.
You talked about how cool it was for your kids to see you with Supergirl, but what was it like for you, the first time you saw Melissa Benoist in the costume, and does that ever get old?
HAREWOOD: I’ve gotta be honest, you’ve gotta catch your breath. You see a superhero walking around and you do a double-take. It’s fantastic to see what the costume people and make-up guys are doing. With every episode, you see someone else come out of the make-up truck looking extraordinary. There should be a huge round of applause for the make-up and designers because they’re just fantastic. And going back to Melissa, she just embodies it. You just believe it. You half expect her to fly off because she just looks awesome and she posses it. She has this wonderful sense of goodness about her, as a person, that it’s not too far of a leap. She’s fantastic. I think I’ve seen every Superman film. It’s something you always have to see. So, to be standing feet away from somebody wearing that S, is huge for me. It lifts the importance of the scenes and the responsibility of what we’re doing. It’s extraordinary.
Do you enjoy getting to play one of the characters who knows the secret identity?
HAREWOOD: We have extremely clever writers and creators. Ali [Adler], Greg [Berlanti], Andrew [Kreisberg] and Sarah [Schechter] are extremely bright. We’re lucky that everybody on the show has a secret. It’s not just Kara, it’s everybody. Yeah, it’s cool that he knows when not everybody else does, but what’s so great about the show is that there are so many secrets to be revealed.
With this prison world having so many villains, will you get to get in on some of the action and tangle with any of the villains?
HAREWOOD: Oh, I get very involved. You will see me getting more involved than you might have actually thought about. It’s one of the most exciting characters I’ve ever played. That didn’t necessarily come across in the pilot, but that will change. It’s so much fun to play. As the season goes on, you’re going to see me tangle with people. I won’t just be giving orders. I’ll be executing them, as well.
Did they give you comics to read to prepare for this role?
HAREWOOD: They did, yeah. They gave me comics to read, and I read some myself. After Comic-Con, I realized just how little I knew. I went back and did more research. Just about every character I could bring to mind from my youth was from Marvel. I started reading DC stuff much later in my life. You realize that there’s a huge difference between the Marvel universe and the DC universe, and the characters that own it. I educated myself on that much more, and I started to read the DC titles. The mythology behind these characters is fantastic. It’s really wonderful to do the research. I used to read comics, as a kid, and now I’m reading them for research. It’s great fun. It’s not bad homework.
You’ve done some pretty intensely serious drama on Homeland, but Supergirl takes things to a whole new heightened level. Are there specific challenges to being a part of this show that you haven’t really encountered before, as an actor?
HAREWOOD: I don’t think so. As an actor, whether I’m playing Othello on stage, or David Estes on Homeland, that ability to give into your imagination is something that I enjoy. On Supergirl, there are huge characters with huge mythologies behind them. What’s important is that you don’t lock yourself into something. Just because it says he doesn’t eat green fish or he likes to smell the roses in a particular comic book, you don’t have to play that in every scene. What I think is wonderful about these characters, just like if you do Hamlet or Macbeth, is that they’re interpretive. I’m going to bring what I am to Hank Henshaw. The challenge is that people might be like, “Hank Henshaw wasn’t like that. He’s like this.” This is my Hank Henshaw, just like it would be my King Lear or my Hamlet. I’m going to bring to it what I am. Hopefully, people feel as though I’m being true to the character.
Supergirl airs on Monday nights on CBS.