Philadelphia native Nafessa Williams, 28, stars in The CW's newest comic-book-turned-television-series drama "Black Lightning." Williams takes on the role of Anissa Pierce, aka Thunder, a medical student and high school teacher who is also a black, lesbian superhero. Currently, Williams' character is still discovering her powers and hasn't suited up just yet, but fans got a sneak peek of Thunder in full kick-butt gear on Williams' Instagram.
The CW's "Black Lightning," which airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET, features DC Comics' first African-American superhero and the first black DC Comics hero to lead a series. The show follows school principal Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams, no relation to Nafessa in real life), Anissa's father, who is forced to morph back into Black Lightning after nine years when a local gang causes disturbances in the community.
Prior to "Black Lightning," Nafessa juggled a burgeoning modeling career while attending West Chester University in Pennsylvania. After graduating, she intended to pursue a law degree. But after working in the homicide department for the district attorney's office, she realized law was not her path and started taking acting classes. Her on-screen credits include "Survivor's Remorse," "Real Husbands of Hollywood" and the reboot of "Twin Peaks."
espnW caught up with Nafessa to discuss how she physically prepared to play the role and the significance of suiting up as Thunder.
espnW: Describe your character Anissa Pierce/Thunder.
Nafessa Williams: She's strong, powerful, bold and walks in who she is unapologetically. I respect that about her so much, and it's helped me find inner strength of my own. Before Anissa walked into who Thunder is [as a superhero], she still had those underlying characteristics of being overprotective of family and friends.
espnW: How does it feel to play TV's first black, lesbian superhero?
NW: It's a tremendous honor. And hopefully I'm the first of many more to come. Representation is necessary, and we all want to turn on the TV and see characters who look like us and represent us in some way. I want people to be inspired by Anissa to walk boldly in their skin and feel confident in doing so.
espnW: This role is very physical. How did you prepare?
NW: Ironically, a few years ago I shared with my friends that I wanted to play an action role. Soon after, I found a trainer to take my workouts to another level and we worked out five times a week. Then I added stunt-work training [once I got the part of Thunder] to sharpen my skills and get me equipped for fight scenes.
I switch up between going to the gym or exercising outside to run around a track and the stairs of a stadium. My workouts always start with doing some cardio. I love to run; that's usually my go-to. I prefer running on the track because, for me, the treadmill can get a little boring. Then I'll do toning exercises like squats and planks, and finish up with ab work, where I usually do crunches and planks.
espnW: How did you feel when you first suited up as Thunder?
Williams: It was so emotional for me. I cried. I didn't have a superhero that looked like me growing up, so knowing that I'm about to be that for young black girls really touched me. I'm just so grateful for this dream come true.
espnW: Your character quotes many civil rights leaders in the series. Which was your favorite?
Williams: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," by Fannie Lou Hamer [who was a voting rights activist and community organizer]. I love that quote because it's about not complaining about wanting to see change and also being so sick of it that you want to become part of the change.
Gianina Thompson is ESPN's senior publicist for NBA and MLB shows and on-air personalities. She's sports all day, every day, and lives for OT games unless it's on Thursday nights, when she's locked onto "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder."