Inside the ‘Naomi’-Verse With Ava DuVernay and Kaci Walfall

·6-min read

Most of the superheroes on the DC-on-The-CW dramas have a long history with each other. Their comic book counterparts have been around for decades, and even in these adaptations, the characters have crossed over into each other’s worlds to team up and take down villains more than once.

But when “Naomi” joins the lineup on Jan. 11, the show — and the titular character, played by Kaci Walfall — is on her own.

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She may be a big fan of Superman within the series — so much so that she runs one of the largest fan sites in the world about the DC hero — but she lives in a very different universe than the one in which The CW’s Superman (of “Superman & Lois”) resides.

“I want this to be an autonomous story about Naomi,” executive producer Ava DuVernay tells Variety. “One of the things I really wanted was for her to live in her own universe. We call it the ‘Naomi-verse.’ And she’s not tethered to and she does not have to speak to the other stories that are going on now. It would just be too complicated, taking on too much legacy of the other shows, and doesn’t give the character the freedom to live her own life.”

When audiences first meet Naomi, she seems like any typical high school kid. She has supportive parents (played by Barry Watson and Mouzam Makkar), a loyal group of friends (including those played by Mary-Charles Jones, Aidan Gemme, Camila Moreno and Will Meyers) and an ex (Daniel Puig) who is still in her life. She skateboards to school, does well in class and has the makings of a journalist with her Superman site.

In Naomi’s world, it appears that superheroes are just characters — but that very quickly turns out to not be the full story. In the premiere episode, there is an altercation involving Superman that everyone, Naomi included, assumes is some publicity stunt. But as she begins to dig into what happened and why, she also uncovers some dormant abilities within herself that prove “superhero” has a few meanings.

“We always joke that, even in the pilot when you see that Naomi’s in all these clubs and that she has all these friends and she’s juggling all these things and she runs the third biggest Superman fan site in the world, it’s almost like she’s a superhero before she even realizes that she’s a superhero,” Walfall tells Variety. “It’s almost superhuman that she’s able to do all these things and maintain a happy life and stay confident.”

Although Naomi will develop actual superhuman powers as the season goes on, the character’s innate confidence was what jumped out at Walfall from the very first audition sides she read. Calling herself “more of an introvert” than Naomi, Walfall admits she “was always afraid to join clubs in high school because I didn’t want the exposure of meeting too many people.” That her character is the opposite is what attracted her to the role because it gave her a chance to explore a different part of personality.

Naomi being a confident young Black woman was also important to DuVernay, who specifically recalls seeing the art for Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker and Jamal Campbell’s “Naomi” comics before reading them and being taken with the fact that “she had locs similar to mine.” The fact that the character starts out as “just as a teenage Black girl who loves comic books” was also an important piece of representation to the powerhouse producer.

“The more evolved way to think about representation is that she is treated like any other hero and that her powers are not specific to the way that anyone treats her,” DuVernay says. “And so, one of the reasons why I liked this is she literally has powers that will eventually [be] almost identical to Superman. The fact that DC has this Black, teenage girl superhero who eventually will have powers that are on par with Superman — who is the quintessential cis, white male superhero — is a thrilling proposition. And in order to really do that, you’ve got to throw away any kind of social construct and just dive into the fact that she’s a badass.”

She and longtime casting director Aisha Coley wanted to hire an actual teenager for the role but knew that would come with its own challenges.

“There’s a lot of kids out there who could act, but you’re looking for that passion for the role that goes beyond the page — the person that’s going to do the extra outside of set to really sink into it. The other thing on this is, it is their name; the whole thing is on the back of the kids — they’re in every scene, everything revolves around them, and so, you need to find a kid who has a muscularity of not just talent, but just a personhood who can carry it,” DuVernay explains.

Walfall, who was living in New York at the time, had never led a project before — except for “maybe a commercial once when I was younger,” she recalls, “but not even a school play.” She put herself on tape and then had a producer session with DuVernay, during which she admits she was nervous but tried to play it cool. She remembers thinking, “Even if I don’t get it, I just met Ava DuVernay. There’s so much positivity in that, even if you don’t book the role.”

But after flying out to L.A. to have lunch with DuVernay and doing a few chemistry reads, Walfall did book it. Now the young actor who was a fan of DC-on-The-CW series such as “Supergirl” is leading one, and she is only the second Black woman to do so. (“Batwoman’s” Javicia Leslie, who took on the titular role in Season 2, was the first.)

In making the show, the goal is, as DuVernay puts it, to “try to create a gateway that welcomes people who might be interested in it but might be intimidated by comic book stores and conventions and the fandom.”

“[I wanted to] say, ‘Hey everybody, come on in. You’re welcome. And you can learn it from scratch because this is a brand new character that’s not connected to anyone else,'” she says.

“Naomi” premieres Jan. 11 at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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