Exclusive: Helen Slater reveals how she became the 1st Supergirl, talks CBS reboot

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Jan 22, 2015, 12:59 PM EST

Within the next few years, two female-led superhero movies will hit theaters: Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2018). The former is the first lady of the DC Universe, but not their first big-screen heroine. That honor goes to another high flyer, who debuted over 30 years ago. In the early '80s, hot on the heels of Richard Donner's Superman came the spinoff Supergirl. We had the chance to talk to the film's star, actress Helen Slater, about becoming a superhero, crossing over with Superman and CBS's upcoming Supergirl TV show. Read on for all that, and more.

The Supergirl film was based on Superman's younger cousin, Kara Zor-El, who first appeared in Action Comics #252 in May 1959. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind acquired the movie rights for both Kryptonian characters. With two Superman movies done, and a third one in production, they began developing a live-action Supergirl

In 1982, a teenage Helen Slater had just graduated from New York's High School of Performing Arts. Instead of heading to college, she opted to explore the acting scene. "I sort of asked and presented to my mom, who I lived with (my dad was in [Washington] D.C.), and just said, 'I want to take a year off before going to college,'" Slater explained. The young actress was itching to auditon for whatever she could. While in school, students weren't allowed to look for outside work. The teachers wanted them to focus on acting as an art, not a vocation. 

At the time, Slater had two agents, both of whom sent her casting notices for Supergirl -- but for different parts. "One of them sent me out for Supergirl's best friend [Lucy Lane], and the other agent, J. Michael Bloom, who became a very famous agent for a while, he sent me out for Supergirl." Slater was obviously chosen for the latter. 

What happened next is pretty rare. Slater remembers the casting process as being very swift, but also fun. "I think I graduated in June, and I auditioned for Supergirl in October and I got the part by November, early December. I screen tested in London and was on a plane in December [laughs]." It was a bit of a whirlwind, but Slater understood that she'd been given the opportunity of a lifetime. 

"It definitely was a huge deal," she said. "I don't know what to compare it to because it was the first thing I'd ever gone for. But I know that they were looking everywhere for her. It was definitely the biggest moment of my life for sure." Once Slater was hired, she spent months getting into superhero shape. 

"When I got the part, I was barely 115 pounds. I had to go through four months of just bodybuilding. ... It was [with] the same coach Chris Reeve had," she recalls. "It was a very regimented four-month program. Running and weights, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, with Tuesday and Thursday swimming. It was very intense training."

While she was hitting the gym, the producers were busy filling out the rest of the cast. Supergirl featured Oscar winners and nominees like Faye Dunaway as the villain Selena, Mia Farrow as Kara's mother and Peter O'Toole as Argo City's founder, Zaltar. Slater has pleasant memories of the late O'Toole, with whom she shared several scenes

"He was such a special, passionate, lit-up actor. He worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He had me do Shakespeare for him. He was just a very big personality. I do treasure that I got that experience at such a young age." One actor Slater didn't get to share the screen with was Christopher Reeve. There was a version of the Supergirl script featuring Superman, but unfortunately Reeve couldn't shoot it because of a scheduling conflict. But Slater did meet the actor, and describes him as very "kind-hearted," saying he treated her like a younger sister.

Both Superman and Supergirl films featured the Jimmy Olsen character, played by Marc McClure. Could there have been a Supergirl cameo in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? Slater isn't too sure. "Originally, it was supposed to be for three [Supergirl] movies. That was what my contract was for, but they only made one, because it didn't take off like they had hoped."  

Supergirl may not have been as successful as its predecessor, but it found its second wind through television and home video. When it was initially released in 1984, comic-book movies weren't exactly thriving. Now they're at the center of a billion-dollar genreSlater's aware of its expanding presence and has an idea for a superhero show of her own.

"I want to do a [show about a] middle-aged superhero that has to get back into the world of being a superhero ... just the comedy of you putting this costume on, and your underwear doesn't quite fit with the tights anymore. And maybe there's a sisterhood of young women training that she could somehow end up being part of in some world. Who knows? Maybe next time I talk to you it will be on air--on the Syfy Channel [laughs]!"

Slater hasn't forgotten her roots. Like most of us, she's been following the news surrounding CBS's Supergirl reboot. The actress has never shied away from paying homage to the character. She previously appeared on Smallville opposite Laura Vandervoort's version of Supergirl. If producer Greg Berlanti (ArrowThe Flash) comes knocking, Slater will answer. 

"I think that would be such a thrill," she exclaimed. "Having been on Smallville and being at these conventions, the fans just love it so much. They love when there's any kind of crossover, or 'Oh my gosh, she was in the original, or he was.' I think the writing has gotten a lot smarter now ... somehow they've cracked the code or something to have a really great sense of humor, but have it still be smart and not pandering to a younger audience. It seems like something has changed." 

Slater believes the new show could reignite Supergirl's legacy. "I just have great faith that they'll figure it out in this CBS world ... they just sound super talented, so fingers crossed." 

Supergirl debuted in U.S. theaters Nov. 21, 1984.