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Azie Tesfai Breaks Down How ‘Supergirl’ Cast ‘Wanted to Lean Into’ Discomfort of Acknowledging Privilege

Tesfai also explains why it was important to present a ”flawed“ Supergirl and “shift” in the dymanic of Kelly’s relationship with Alex the episode she co-wrote

National City’s new Guardian has finally arrived. Kelly Olsen picked up the shield on Tuesday night’s “Supergirl”, which was co-written by the actress herself, Azie Tesfai. And for those wondering, yes, she had exactly as much control and influence over the episode as you think.

“Our showrunners lost their mind and gave me control over so much,” Tesfai joked to TheWrap. “I don’t know why. I’m forever grateful to them. Because they were like, ‘Here, you want to decide the props and the set design and location and the casting of your episode and the suit?’ and they just let me. I had a list of things I wanted. And they all happened.”

That said, making those things happen did require some honest, uncomfortable conversations at various points. “Blind Spots” dealt with the racial inequalities happening in National City, and how unfortunately, Supergirl and her friends have become a part of the problem.

Below, check out our full interview with Tesfai on what those conversations entailed, and what the episode means for the final run of the series.

NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This was a heavy episode, in a lot of ways. I’m sure it was daunting to write, daunting to film — how did you look out for yourself and your mental health in those days, as you were getting through this episode?

I had good people around me with [David] Ramsey and with J [Holtham], who I co wrote it with, I had that support. You know, feeling safe and feeling like you can be vulnerable and unpack this stuff in an environment, it’s important. And it was even like my makeup artist on set, Monica. She’s very nurturing. And so I had a good support system. Ramsey and I became really close in this process. It was like a yin and yang situation. I was texting with him earlier today, I can’t imagine having gone through this with anyone else but him.

And we really built a friendship before we started filming and made an effort to go to dinner once a week. We did every Saturday for a couple months while he was up there. And not just like becoming closer and building a trust, but understanding his experience in the world and trying to integrate that doing passes on Diggle and the overall story. So it was very helpful to have him and and there are conversations that I have had with him that I would never have with anyone else. So he was a huge support, as was J. I felt very lucky to have them both.

I want to dig in on those conversations, because I can only imagine that there were a lot of them going into this episode to make sure that it was handled correctly. Was there a conversation that you remember that really shaped this episode?

Well, there were a couple. And I have to give our showrunners credit because, before we tackled it, there were some kind of guidelines and they honored all of it.

[One was] it had to be an arc. It couldn’t be an episode, which we did. It had to be kind of told through someone else, which we brought in guest stars that were great. And once we decided to make Kelly a social worker, that felt like the perfect avenue for her to highlight these stories. Obviously, it affects her but it didn’t feel right for it to be her because I’ve been on the show for so long now and we haven’t touched on it. And then having the support, you know, Ramsey being a black man, having someone directing it that I could have a shorthand with and understood it, even though our experiences are very different, felt really important.

Also, I had three or four episodes off, because I joined the writers room for a month fully. Went back to L.A., did a 10 to 5 every single day. We did the whole arc together and I was able to be in the room for all of that. And that was huge. Because I, you know, there was a perspective that I was able to contribute that was different than everyone else’s, and it felt very heard and understood. The writers room was like my most favorite experience I had on ‘Supergirl’ as a whole.

There was a lot of time and thought put into into the story, and I felt very comfortable speaking up for the things that I felt were important. And I don’t think any of it was compromised, which is rare and they gave me a lot of say. I was telling our showrunner Robert [Rovner], I was like ‘You really gave me a lot of power.’ And he was like, ‘You were either gonna sink or swim and I knew you’d swim,’ which is wonderful. Thank God I did. But you know, they let me have a say in casting and props and location scouting — like everything, I was on an email, and got to decide. It was such a personal experience, from the very beginning to when the story was broke, till the end. I felt very lucky that I got so much control. The type A in me was like, ‘This is amazing.'”

One thing about this episode is, it’s blunt. You have Andrea Rojas outright say ‘The Heights just isn’t newsworthy.’ Was that freeing for you to just be able to get the point across?

I mean, if I’m honest, it came with a lot of conversations, right? It wasn’t just ‘Let’s go and show the worst parts of some of these characters who we love and are great people.’ It was a constant conversation in the room of like, ‘Why am I feeling protective over this certain character? What does that say about myself?’ You know, Supergirl represents the best of a lot of people. So making her flawed or not acting right, or Andrea, I think that different people had reactions to it. And so having conversations around like, ‘What part of that makes you uncomfortable? And isn’t the uncomfortableness a good thing?’ And ‘What do our private conversations actually look like?’ Because they’re usually like that.

So if we’re going to show private conversations, we have to be truthful, or not do them at all. And so it was a constant check-in. I think we did a really good job of in the writers room of owning — you know, so [the episode is] called ‘Blind Spots.’ Because everybody’s like, ‘That’s my blind spot. I haven’t been exposed to your experience.’ And it was a lot of those uncomfortable conversations in the writers room that then translated into the conversations with the characters.

And funny enough, once I got to the actors, everybody wanted to lean into being uncomfortable. It was more like the lead up to that and being like, ‘Are we going to show these sides of mainly Supergirl, that are really flawed?’ And we did.

You mentioned being protective over certain other characters. Who was it that you were feeling a little bit more protective over in this process?

Kelly first, always. I am very protective over Alex and Kelly’s relationship as a couple. And then the fans that were going to watch the show. I didn’t want it to be like — our formula of all these shows is there’s a problem, we realize it, we kick some butt, we reflect on it, and then it’s solved. And that couldn’t exist. That was another thing, to your earlier question. This cannot have a resolve and it does truly go on through the whole season.

And then there were moments, some of it didn’t make it into the episode, but Nia was somebody that I was very protective over in her experience as well. I didn’t want to package her in a situation. She has a very nuanced experience that is very similar to Nicole and I’s close friendship. A lot of the stuff that went down for me regarding, you know, joining the show, with racism and different things in fandom — I leaned heavily on Nicole, because there’s a lot of things she just got more than anyone else based on her experience. And so that was important to me. So I tried to play on real life dynamics within ourselves in the story as well, which also made it very personal.

There was a piece that that didn’t make it, just because the episode ran really long, where when Kelly storms out, Nia is the one that’s like, ‘You guys. Of course, she feels this way. I have an idea of what that feels like.’

There’s a moment in the episode where Kelly calls out the Super Friends directly, at the Tower. How was that, in the moment? Because you’re looking at these people that you clearly love and respect, that you’ve worked with for years now, and you’re calling them up to front and making them listen.

It was hard. That was a really hard day. I isolated myself that day and had my cast chair in a different room, and took a lot of space. It was really hard. It was really hard.

It’s also, you know, so much of this are things that I’ve said or have wanted to say and never felt empowered enough to say. [But] I was able to, in the comfort of my bed, write for Kelly and to say it. My plan for the scene was never to get emotional. I was never meaning to cry in that scene. But it was so emotional for me to be able to say that out loud, having felt all of those things that Kelly is saying in those scenes.

And then between takes really, it was very silent on set that day. And our A-camera operator, Rosie, who I’m really close with, he had tears in his eyes. And he was like, ‘I know all of the pieces of what you’re saying from Azie.’ And to see that, and to feel seen in that way, and have a crew that — especially certain members of the crew — that are like a family to me, and them know exactly where that’s coming from, was beautiful and vulnerable. It was a lot.

I remember, everyone gave me a lot of space and then I think when I finished my coverage, and then we went to turn around, I just got — I mean like everyone, my phone lit up. I still stayed separate. But Chyler [Leigh] was the first person and she just sent me a novel that she’s like, ‘I’ve been writing this after every take, but I didn’t want to send it to you ’til you were done’ and just how important it was. And you know, every time I looked at her she was crying. And she actually just texted me when we were in our interview saying that she’s so proud of me, and she just saw the teaser. I love Chyler very, very, very much.

But it was complicated. It was also very uncomfortable. We’re all cool, but some of us are very closer to others, just in the logistics of how we separate and we don’t all tend to work together all the time. And I think it was uncomfortable for some people to have to stand there and hear that and not be able to say anything. And so there was some real life realism to the uncomfortableness that happens when you have to listen to someone’s pain, and you have to listen to that, like you missed something. It felt very real. A lot of this felt very, very, very real. There was a lot of deep breaths after scenes. It was very cathartic for me. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. And I felt energized by all of it. It felt like a powerful, empowering release.

Speaking of Chyler, this episode is really the first bit of friction we’ve seen in the whole Dansen relationship. Where do Kelly and Alex specifically go from here? Because this was, I feel like, pivotal for them.

Yeah, and so much of their conflict has come from external circumstances. It’s never been a disconnect with them. And it was so important that it not be resolved. I think when I initially wanted to do it that way, I don’t know if everyone got it. And then when they saw the scene, I think they were like, ‘Okay, we have no resolve, but there’s beauty in the fact that there is no resolve,’ and they still have love for each other.

It’s a continuing conversation that they do have; it continues into the next episode. They tackle some big life stuff at the back half of the season, and if they hadn’t acknowledged the fact that they’re in an interracial relationship that would have felt like such a huge miss. If you’re going to commit to a life with someone, you have to acknowledge your similarities and your differences.

And I think that it’s similar to Chyler and I’s relationship of talking about different things within our industry, of being a black woman and things she will never understand and learning how to uncomfortably support me in that. And there were so many parallels within that. But what it does at the end of the day is it brings you closer together when you feel like someone has your back. So it really does add so much more depth, I think, to their relationship. And it’s not an easy fix. Like it’s a continual conversation that they have. But I even felt like, and I think Chyler would say the same thing, a shift in our dynamic post this episode.

There’s a conversation that you have with David Ramsey in the episode where he tells you to use your anger to fuel yourself. He recently had a very similar conversation with Camrus Johnson’s Luke Fox on ‘Batwoman.’ Was that an intentional mirror?

I think we went first. (laughs). But yeah, I mean, this was the benefit of Ramsey because he is very protective over Diggle. We all have our characters but he’s, you know, an OG arrowverse [character]. They created the Arrowverse and he played Diggle for such a long time that he really took it upon himself to make sure there was a through line. Initially, we were going to have a crossover story all the way through but with COVID it was too hard and everyone just broke off and did their own thing. But Ramsey really made an effort to try to at least — I think initially, our storyline was really kind of different than theirs, and he filled us in. And we did drafts to try to have him have a through line that feels cohesive.

Supergirl airs on Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.