If this year has proven anything, it is that not all heroes wear capes. Actress Nicole Kang of The CW’s Batwoman has to agree.
The show Batwoman premiered on The CW in October 2019 starring model and actress Ruby Rose as Kate Kane. Set after Batman mysteriously disappears, Kate takes up the Bat mantel to protect the streets of Gotham and fight for justice as Batwoman. Actress Nicole Kang plays Mary Hamilton, Kate’s stepsister and influencer-in-the-making who secretly runs an underground clinic for the marginalized of Gotham. While Kang also starred as Lynn Lieser in Netflix original series, You, and had reoccuring roles on The Code, The Feels, and Orange Is the New Black, Batwoman is the 26-year-old’s first leading role and she feels a genuine connection with her role. Batman has always been a source of connection for Kang’s family. Her father, an immigrant from Korea, learned English by reading DC Comics. Kang declared Mary as the “heartbeat” of the show and that she represents not only an Asian American and Millennial voice, but that she shows that being a vigilante isn’t the only way to help people.
After a successful first season, the second season renewal and the loss of main actress Ruby Rose, Kang talked with BUST over the phone about what we can learn from Batwoman today.
What have you been doing during quarantine? Have you picked up any new habits or anything?
I moved during this pandemic from New York City to Los Angeles and that was sort of an ordeal. It sort of consumed me for a while. I’ve been really enjoying art therapy, so I’ve been painting a lot. Music was really helpful. I was inspired during this time because I lived in New York for eight years and four of those years I lived in Chinatown. A lot of the anti-Asian sentiment and the growing rates of hate crimes I was seeing in a neighborhood that I really feel like raised me was sort of a call to action. I became really invested in connecting with the Asian community and now the Asian community at large. I’ve been really blessed to be connected. I’m still working out what I want to do, with all these amazing conversations I’ve had with people. I’ve just used this time to connect you know, which is ironic because it’s a time of isolation, and I found that outreach has been my way of combating it a bit.
When did you decide that you wanted to be an actress?
I would say that I admitted to it when I moved to New York to go to Tisch at NYU on my own. But I was really an accounting major in a five year MBA program. I really found it later on. I never actually knew that it was an option. I think that’s a privilege that I earned now in the last few years. But to say, how did I know I wanted to be an actor? I grew up in Virginia as a Korean-American girl, first generation, and a lot of the skills I used [were], empathy and looking and learning behavior. I was always in this game of cultural catch up, right? So, from an early age I became really good at absorbing, learning, reading, listening, writing, and just excavating, the American culture and then vibing with stuff, you know, in particular, which became my love and my preference for music. But because I’ve always been doing that work to the idea of empathizing with a character, empathizing with stories, loving to tell stories, all of that stuff came pretty naturally. To be honest, I wasn’t three-years-old being like, “I’m gonna end up on the big screen” or, those kinds of dreams.
Can you describe your character in Batwoman and what do you think are some of her best traits?
Batwoman is really a show about sisters. I feel like Mary became the heartbeat of this show. She is the ultimate ally which is amazing. She is such an educator on culture and she’s so in tune with other people’s experiences and she runs this underground clinic [for] those who can’t afford healthcare. Her mask isn’t the Batman mask, it isn’t the Batwoman cape, but her cover is this millennial influencer. People usually underestimate her intelligence and underestimate her at a first glance. What’s awesome and what’s the most powerful part for me to play her is the fact that I get to represent and stand up for this millennial generation, who a lot of people love to make assumptions about. But, in reality, there’s so much more to her and that’s what’s really special. So, not only is she the heartbeat, but she’s the 2020 part of the show.
We’ve seen Gotham so many times. But how is our Gotham going to be different? Mary Hamilton, in my opinion, is the key. She’s the missing part. She’s the part that not only is this Asian American or Asian face in this city that we haven’t seen represented, she also represents this current generation. She’s able to be the source of current culture.
I know that Mary is based off of Mary Elizabeth Kane in the DC Universe, and she has the superhero alter ego Flamebird. Do you think that we’ll get to see Mary Hamilton get into her own vigilante shenanigans in season two?
I never know where things wind up and how things fall. But, I do think her path—she’s definitely sidekick material. She’s definitely gearing up to be sort of the Robin to Batwoman’s Batman, if you will. That’s definitely in her future. But you know, rushing to the suit right isn’t always the answer…
Can you describe the relationship between Mary and Kate Kane?
Oh my gosh, their relationship is I hope really recognizable. It’s like a big sister and a little sister. Not only is this little sister Mary, a stepsister, but she desperately wants her big sister’s attention, her big sister’s approval. So much of this season was Mary chasing after Kate for her love and approval and her support; she helped Kate open her gay bar, The Holdup.She loves Kate so, so much. In Episode 17, Mary’s the one empowering Kate. The world needs Batwoman and she empowers her at her lowest and is like I’m not asking you to be a hero, I’m just asking you to keep going. She really sees Kate, you know, in the way that sometimes our loved ones can see us clearer than we can see ourselves. Kate is dealing with a lot of pain [and] a lot of loss all the time, and Mary is like, I see you. I hear you. I believe in you.
How about the relationship between Mary and Luke?
Mary and Luke? It’s so awesome. I love their friendship. I love their relationship. They definitely go back and forth. It’s such a source of comedy and levity for me to play and for the audience to receive, which is why I think their relationship a lot of people have responded so well to. But I think what’s really iconic about them, right is that you’re seeing them break sort of stereotypes of these characters that we’ve seen before. You see, Mary, an Asian American woman, be outspoken, confident, and sort of like a normal citizen of Gotham. [She] sort of pushes Luke, and [makes] him sort of neurotic and nervous. This comedy ensues and I hope we continue in season two.
A storyline that stood out to me in the show was Mary’s illegal clinic. Do you think that this is an effective way to address the inequities in healthcare today?
Absolutely. The thing that this show does best is that it doesn’t have an agenda, right? It just has honest people playing honest characters and an amazing sort of result of that is us revealing real problems in real cities. That’s sort of what’s happened. And, I see that in the healthcare system, it’s where a lot of disparity in socioeconomic status is revealed. And I think it’s an amazing contribution that Mary gives not only to the show but to Gotham, that she’s able to have boots on the ground. She puts her actions where her words are, where her heart is, more importantly. She is finding purpose in helping people who need help from giving out free flu shots to fixing gunshot wounds and stab wounds and really rescuing people. A bomb goes off in her clinic and she stays behind to protect the people who can’t move themselves. You know what I always say about Mary? Not all heroes wear capes. And if that is not more relevant today than it is, you know, always. It is so nuts how the world made that so, so clear.
Were you a big DC fan before you started the show? Did you read the comic books or anything?
Oh my goodness. So, I would say I’m a huge Batman fan. Me and my dad grew up watching Batman. We’ve watched The Dark Knight so many times. Again, him as an immigrant, stories of heroism stories of like, the Batman lore is so iconic. It’s such a backdrop of my childhood. Comic books [are] the way that my father learned how to speak English, because it was action-based and exciting and it was really good stories [of] good and evil. And there was also beautiful art that went along with it, you know, it’s a little simpler than a novel to ingest. I owe a lot to comic books in general, because he sort of used that to teach me life lessons. But, Batman in particular and that movie, I remember running in the background of my childhood.
What do you think we can learn from Batwoman and what do you hope people get out of the show?
I hope we learn from Batwoman a lot of the same things that we’ve learned from Batman: a hero’s journey, and to watch someone we haven’t watched go through this hero’s journey before. This gay woman, who is a vigilante superhero by night and is a hero, just by maintaining her identity by day. I think it’s a really great way to pass the gauntlet of this batsuit on. I think there’s so much for an audience to learn and for me to learn. I think our audience today is ready for it.
How did you react to the news that Ruby Rose would not be coming back for season two?
I’m devastated of course you know. I wish her the best. It happens. But you know, she’s leaving room for somebody else to take up this gauntlet. Which again, is sort of this real world meta symbolism of the suit. I hope one day somebody else is able to take up Mary Hamilton and interpret it themselves and the world will be so much richer for it, right?
So, I’m really, really excited to see season two. I hope that our fans are receptive to them. We really welcome them with open arms. But I’m on the ride so I’m really excited. I’m proud of our show for even continuing on and saying yes to Season One, but [how is] Season Two going to be different? How can we raise the bar more for Season Three? What are we doing to make sure we’re shaking things up enough where we’re challenging ourselves enough andchallenging our audiences?
In the past, sci-fi and superhero shows have always managed to address social and political issues of the time. Do you think that Batwoman is like this? And is there anything that you hope the show will address in the future?
I sort of hope that all shows [and] movies reflect real things that we deal with. It’s a reflection of the human condition. So, discussing politics, revealing broken social contracts and things we see in our cities is a byproduct of speaking honestly about the human condition. Caroline Dries, our showrunner, Sarah Schechter, and Greg Berlanti, set off and created a show that was really honest about a lot of different people’s identities and their life experiences all within this imaginary city of Gotham. It ends up being an allegory for cities that we’ve seen before in life. But it’s not an easy task to do. In the sort of one hour blocks that we have to tell an episode every week, we have a lot of people identifying very specifically in their own cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and identities and how comfortable they are within the circumstances that [they were] brought up into. It creates their interaction and their friendships that are so specific—I don’t want to make any big sweeping statements about it, but because they have their own particular experiences, I know, politics and social issues will just come up.
And similarly, I saw on your social media platforms that you’re an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you tell me more about why you support such a crucial movement and the ways that people can help?
Yes, I am a huge supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m so happy that that’s clear on my platform. I do want to make clear that this narrative has nothing to do with me. But I continue to speak on it because I am a member of the Asian American community. We also have our own intricate experience in history, forgotten or not, in America. And the Black community has been fighting for not only equal rights, but a just human experience in this country for 400 years. I believe in solidarity and not only that, I believe that our reaction to the country wide outcry of support for Black Lives Matter can be different [and] can be new this time. We can uphold our mayors, governors, congressmen and women and our president, to a standard by which we want to live. I want to see, in my community, a change and that’s why I’ll continue to do the work and I commit to that. I also am committing to raising voices that need to be heard and doing my part of learning.
Dave Chappelle just came out with an amazing special, 8:46. I have been a huge fan of his. But I never learned more from him than I did from that special. So, I highly recommend it. I posted it to my main page. I think it’s a beautiful thing that we’re able to learn from one another, that we’re able to look inwards and make direct change outwardly and really affect and potentially save people’s lives. That’s all in our control and power collectively. So, that’s what makes solidarity, especially among the BIPOC community so imperative, so essential and that’s really what I’m in the fight for.
What are your aspirations as an actress for the future?
I just aspire to continue to challenge myself to tell stories that I know and that I have to learn about and that I can continue to bring stories that have not been told to light; to add my body and my identity to the landscape of American cinema. I believe in representation, and I believe representation matters. I feel honored and blessed to be a part of filling that landscape out of this beautiful mosaic that we have. There are so many more pieces to fill it and I feel really lucky to be able to be one of those pieces. I believe my presence in TV and in cinema is, it’s political, is boundary-pushing and is important. That’s what makes me excited. It makes me sort of connected to my purpose, which is just really, really incredible.
Batwoman is streaming now on The CW. Check out the trailer for season one below:
Header image via Nicole Kang courtesy of Nathan Johnson.
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