Black Lightning may have just had its season finale, but Nafessa Williams, who plays Anissa Pierce aka “Thunder,” TV’s first black lesbian superhero, doesn't stop. The Philadelphia native will resume filming the show later this year for its third season, and she just finished Sony’s new thriller Black and Blue with Naomie Harris. And talk about full circle: Williams recently was able to see fellow Philly hometown hero Meek Mill pack out the Hollywood Palladium in the City of Angels. Flashback to roughly a decade ago, when she landed her first paid acting gig in Mill's movie Streets. Both have come a long way.
In June 2011, Williams moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting dreams, and she has turned them into a reality. Aside from being a role model for aspiring females in entertainment, she represents for the LGBT community, providing inspiration and motivation to conquer fears and go after everything. She spoke about this in a recent L.A. Weekly interview.
L.A. WEEKLY: How does being from Philly play into your life and career?
NAFESSA WILLIAMS: Being from Philly has made me all that I am. I call it the Philadelphia hustle — we just have a way of getting shit done. We’ve been instilled with a certain drive. There’s a lot of challenges coming up in an inner city like Philly. The goal is to be the best that you can for that city. To be inspiring for the people who come behind you.
Speaking of Philly, you and Meek Mill go way back, right?
I’m really, really, really proud of Meek and how he has used his platform. How he’s used his voice to speak and represent those who don’t have a voice, especially those in the criminal justice system. What he’s doing with the criminal justice reform right now is brilliant. We are really, really good friends. We did our first movie together. Me and Meek are almost like family; we came up together in the game. Ten years ago we had next, and now we have now. It feels really good to see someone else from my hometown who I came up with, living out their dreams and fulfilling their purpose.
What’s the best memory you share with him?
Filming our first movie Streets, for sure. I’m always just really inspired by Meek because he has a drive like no other. He also has that same drive that Kevin Hart has, that Will Smith has, that I have — so many great people were bred from our city. [Meek] was hot throughout the city. He was on his way up. He got cast as a rapper. It was about a rapper and a young artist who played piano, which was my character. She came from a different side of town and was more naive.
Can you talk about playing piano?
Oh, that was just for the character! [laughs] I’m so inspired by the pianist Chloe; she played for Cardi B’s “Money” at the Grammys. She’s so bomb. She inspired me to want to take piano lessons, so I’m definitely looking into that. She’s the shit.
What has your journey to the West Coast been like?
I moved to L.A. in June 2011, so It’ll be eight years. I always knew I was coming to L.A. I told my mom when I was 11 I was moving to Beverly Hills. Going back to Philly, wanting to get out of the environment and seeing the challenges you face coming up in that environment, I just always wanted to come here. I split my time between here and Atlanta. We film the show in Atlanta so I get the best of both worlds. Because I’m an East Coast girl. We got the vibe! [laughs] Atlanta is fly. Especially for my show, I’m around the culture, which is very important because that’s who we’re speaking to. We’re speaking to our culture. Being in Atlanta really helps and inspires that.
Tell us about your role on Black Lightning.
I play the first black lesbian superhero, who’s bold and fearless. She’s unapologetic with who she is. She’s also an activist, which is my most passionate characteristic about her. She fights for what’s right, she stands up [to] the injustice. The social injustices we’re seeing within our country, we’re literally mirroring those in the show. It’s really cool. We got some dope music. The show is just fly, it really is. I’m having a fun-ass time doing it.
How would you describe the show for someone who’s never seen it?
A positive, authentic show about a family in the ’hood who’s trying to make better not just of themselves but their community. You don’t realize it’s a superhero show until you see us in our costumes. It’s about a family just like all other families navigating through life, having issues and overcoming them.
What sets it apart from other superhero shows?
You see most superheroes in their prime, in their early 20s. Jefferson Pierce is a middle-aged man with two daughters who he brought along for the ride, who also inherited these superpowers. It’s a family show first, portraying the image of a black man taking care of his family, and being the more dominant parent as well.
The words “TV’s first black lesbian superhero” are so powerful.
It’s so powerful! Sometimes when I say it, it still trips me out. That’s legendary. That’s historic. I’m really honored that I’ve been chosen to give voice to that.
Did you find the role and think, “This is me”?
I knew it as soon as I read the script. I’m also a huge fan of Mara and Salim Akil. I knew when I read the script how powerful and authentic the show was gonna be. If you look at their previous work and the caliber of what they do, it was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t even know she was a lesbian superhero at first! I just saw the activist in her in the first episode, in the script of the pilot. As I played the character more, I absolutely fell in love with it. There was absolutely no way that … “This is mine!” That was my mindset. [chuckles]
What’s been the best part of filming overall?
Showing the culture a mirror of themselves, because we’ve never seen that. When I was a little girl, I didn’t have a brown superhero with cornrows coming to the ’hood to try to save people — that’s huge! Representation is everything. To know that I’m being that for a generation of women coming up after me? That’s the purpose. That’s the reward. Knowing that black lesbians are seeing themselves for the first time, and feel normal after seeing Thunder.
Why is it important for you to represent the LGBT community?
I know what it’s like to be under-represented in the film industry as a black woman and how far we’ve come as a culture in this country in general, so I could only imagine what it’s like for the LGBTQ to feel left out or feel like they aren’t seeing themselves. If you’re going to rep representation on one side, then you’re going to have to be understanding and have compassion for everybody.
Did you ever face the pressures of Hollywood?
What it is, don’t let anybody put you in a box and be completely who you are. Be authentic to that — I believe that’s your power. Because nobody else can be me. I can’t be anybody else. Nobody can be me better than me. We all win when we’re authentically who we are. You gotta come out here with that mindset and not fall into the box of who you think Hollywood wants you to be. Remain true.
Who’s someone in the industry you look up to?
Will Smith is that for me. We come from the same area in West Philly and he showed me the blueprint. If he can do it, so can I. I didn’t have anyone in my family who’s in the arts, I’m first-generation. I had to look up to the people around me and who I can relate to. I literally watched his journey. He showed me it was possible. I moved here and started studying with his acting coach, who’s a really good friend and mentor. I would always say my goal is to be the female Will Smith. We don’t have that in Philly. Will got that title but we don’t have a female! Will is an inspiration, Kevin Hart is an inspiration, they’re literally killing it and showing me that I can do everything that they’re doing.
What is your favorite part about the West Coast?
Palm trees and the weather! For the most part, it’s warmer here. I’m from Philly, I don’t like being cold. I always knew I wanted to be in a warmer climate. The scenery, the mountains, it’s just beautiful here.
Talk about feeding the homeless at Skid Row through the Beatrice Foundation.
I’m most high when I’m giving back. That’s my highest purpose. I believe that that’s really our duty. We go down to Skid Row, we pray, feed them, give out clothes. Most of the time, they just need a listening ear. It’s a positive experience trying to make a difference. If we’re gonna say we want to make a difference, we gotta know what’s happening in the communities around us. Use our voice and use our platform to do our part in changing the world.
Stream Black Lightning on the CWTV.com and the CW app.