Transgender actress and activist Nicole Maines made history over the summer when The CW announced she’d be playing a superhero in the upcoming season of Supergirl.
The casting makes Maines the first-ever transgender superhero, which is a groundbreaking feat, but she’s been moving the dial forward for years now. In 2013, the 21-year-old first rose to prominence as the plaintiff in Maine’s Supreme Court case Doe v. Clenchy, concerning transgender bathroom rights, after Maines’ parents sued her school for denying her the right to use the women’s restroom. The court ruled in her favor—changing the law forever.
Now, Maines is about to change the scope of television. On Supergirl, she plays Nia Nal, a new reporter at CatCo whom Kara (Melissa Benoist) takes under her wing. We chatted with the actress shortly before Supergirl premiered about her historic casting and what viewers can expect from Nia Nal. Read on, below.
How does it feel to be playing the first transgender superhero on television?
There are a lot of emotions. I’m so happy. I’m so excited, honored. It’s a lot of responsibility because it hasn’t been done before. I don’t want to screw it up, but this character is amazing. I think people are going to love the purity of this character. She’s so pure; I want to protect her. Had I had a trans superhero growing up, it would have been so monumentally inspirational for me. I’m just really, really honored that I get to bring this character to life.
How did you find out you got the role?
My agents called me. I had had a super long night the night before [working on a movie], so I was sleeping. Running on minimal sleep. They called me and said, “Hey, they want to offer you this part.” It was a combination of disbelief and being half asleep, but I was just, like, “Oh wow!” They had to tell me, like, three times. And I went back to sleep. [Laughs.] It didn’t sink in for a couple of days. It’s still unreal.
Has there been a moment since then where it has sunk in that this is happening?
One of the first days I was filming, it sunk in. Like, “I am here. I am here in CatCo. Oh my gosh, this is happening.” It was the same thing with Comic-Con. Going into Comic-Con through the back door, into the green room. Everyone was there. I was like, “How did I get here?”
What are the biggest differences between your character, Nia Nal, and the DC Comics version of her, Nura Nal?
So Nura Nal is from the comics. The 31st century is when Nura Nal is active. Nia Nal is in present day. She’s a new reporter at CatCo. She is bubbly. She is super bright, caring, and has very similar energy to what Kara had in season one: that very wide-eyed, hopeful kind of energy. And then she takes on this kind of mentor relationship with Kara, where Kara has moved into this position mentoring Nia as a young reporter.
How much does Nia’s trans identity play into the narrative? Are there storylines devoted to trans issues?
What I really appreciate about Nia is her storyline is not exclusively a trans storyline. She has issues outside of her being trans. Of course, it’s also important with the concept of intersectionality [to know] she’s looking at everything through a trans lens. She can’t separate that part of her identity. It’s part of who she is. Everything she encounters this season is put through the lens of her being a reporter, being a woman, being a trans woman. She looks at them through all of these filters. So being trans isn’t necessarily singled out. This season, it’s really heating up tensions between humans and aliens, and Nia’s perspective as a trans woman is really important to how she deals with that.
What problems are you still seeing in the industry with representation, and what is the next step?
One of the problems I’m seeing in the industry right now is, of course, not having trans actors play trans characters, but we are seeing more and more people taking steps to cast along those lines. That’s important because it validates any trans audiences watching. It validates the character and their gender and their experience. It really brings authenticity to it, which is very important, especially in today’s climate. Another issue is we are seeing characters who are token. We see the token trans character, and it falls on them to represent the entire community as the individual, and so their storylines are often centered around their gender identity. They don’t see a lot of character growth outside their trans-ness. That’s very limiting from a writing perspective. It’s very limiting from an acting perspective. There’s not a lot of places the character can go when they’re funneled into just being the trans character. That’s what so amazing about Nia.
What do you hope Hollywood looks like in 10 years?
In 10 years, I’m hopeful it will be a given that trans actors play trans people. That it’s expected. It’s just as if you were going to have a character of color; it’s expected you’d have a person of color play that character, even though today we still see issues of whitewashing in the media. We experience the same thing with gender identity. We want to see trans actors play trans characters. I hope in the next 10 years it just becomes more of an expectation that, yes, this character will obviously have to be played by a trans actor. I’m also hoping in the next 10 years that we’re going to see more LGTBQ characters, more queer representation in the media, so that less responsibility falls on individual characters to represent their entire community. That’s kind of impossible. You’re looking at one person and saying, “OK, that’s trans people.”
What do you hope trans people watching Supergirl take away from your character?
That we as trans people can really do anything we put our minds to. We are limitless. If a trans woman can be a superhero, that’s ‘gotta be peak for anybody. When you see yourself as a superhero, that’s ‘gotta be where the goal posts are. If I’m seeing me as a superhero, I really can do whatever I want. I can be whoever I want.