Supergirl is not known for its subtlety. Aliens in the show are a thinly veiled metaphor for immigrants, LGBTQ people, and "others." The current story arc is coming to a head with the Agent Liberty storyline, in which a TV personality rises through the ranks of government thanks to his anti-alien rhetoric — which sounds familiar, even his real-world equivalent doesn't have Lex Luthor providing him with fancy gear.
That said, the show is remarkably subtle about a milestone it reached last year: Supergirl features TV's first openly transgender superhero, Dreamer. Rather than make Nia/Dreamer's trans-ness a huge deal, after she came out as transgender, the other characters matter-of-factly accepted her, and it never became an issue.
Nia's trans-ness wasn't an issue with her family, either. Nia's problems with her family came from her dream powers. Nia's sister, Maeve, assumed that the dream powers would pass to her when their mother died, as the powers were passed down among the women in the family. When Nia got the dream powers, Maeve felt she lost out on a birthright, not realizing that it was further evidence that her belief that her sister wasn’t a “real woman" was intolerant and close-minded.
SYFY WIRE spoke to Nicole Maines, the trans actress who deftly portrays Dreamer, about the joy that comes with playing a transgender superhero, making the character respectful of the trans experience, and what is in store for Nia for the rest of the season.
Let's talk about Nia's powers, and the new iteration she discovered recently.
Back in Season 4, when Nia was first training with Brainiac, she was getting frustrated with her progress — or lack thereof. She was frustrated with what Brainiac couldn't — or wouldn't — tell her about the future, about [her mother] Nura, or about the full extent of her powers. She decided to take matters into her own hands. She started trying to practice different aspects of the dreaming on her own. She was trying to do astral projection, which of course jumped months of training. She lost control of it and it blasted her backwards.
So, Brainiac had this idea to construct these gauntlets for her that harness the dream energy and channel it forward. She can make her lasso, she can do dream blasts, she has a couple new manifestations of it coming up. We just learned in Episode 11 that she can kind of cast a net over things, when Winn used the dream powers to stun a tiger. So she's started to use her powers a little more creatively, and started to manifest the dream energy, into being a jack-of-all-trades power, making it do whatever she needs it to do, now that she has these gauntlets. Sky's the limit; whatever she can dream of, she can make happen. And now she has these little bracelets she wears when she is out of the Dreamer suit, that lets her use the dream energy powers as Nia.
Will we see Nia and Brainy get back together before the end of the season?
I don't know! I really hope so! Right now what we're seeing with Nia as we go through the back half of Season 5, we're really going to watch her struggle and start to spiral a little bit. She's lost a lot. She lost her mom, she lost her sister, she lost Brainiac... so she doesn't have a lot going for her right now. We're going to watch her struggle and wrestle with a lot of her own guilt.
Is that how Dreamer's arc is going to play out for the rest of the season? Kind of spiraling?
Yeah! It all kind of comes to a fruition in one episode that is really fun. I don't know how much I can reveal about that. But there is this one episode where it all comes to fruition and I had a lot of fun shooting it. I think people are going to love that episode. You don't have to wait too long for it!
Talk a little bit about the big Arrowverse crossover. That was your first crossover, right?
Season 4's crossover was right before Nia became Dreamer, so I wasn't in that one. This one, I did get to be a part of, and it was a lot of fun. I was a fan of the Arrowverse before I came on to the show, so it was really fun getting to fight alongside Spartan and Mad Dog. Of course, having Dreamer fight alongside big names like The Flash and Batwoman, and always Supergirl, was really cool for me, and it was really awesome to see Dreamer keeping up with the boys. We've seen Nia's powers grow. When she really comes into her own, I think they all better watch out! She's becoming quite the little threat herself!
Which could be nerve-wracking, as she starts to spiral...
Shifting topics a little bit, did you have any say in how Nia's arc as a trans character was portrayed in the show?
Yeah. The writers have been really fantastic. Robert [Rovner] and Jessica [Queller] have so much heart and integrity around it. Their top priority has always been telling it respectfully and truthfully and authentically. I'm always a part of that conversation. Nia's trans-ness, or Dreamer's trans-ness, doesn't come up too often. I was like, "I don't want every Nia storyline to be a trans storyline." So she's not the "trans character," which has been really good. I've been able to play Dreamer as Dreamer. But when it does come up, I've always been part of that conversation. I'm always the first to get those scripts and I'm working with the writers in advance.
It was especially important with Episode 11 last year, "Blood Memory." I was sitting in my trailer with Jessica, and we were going over the fight Nia had with her sister. We were on the phone many times before that, but we went over every word. "How can we have this falling out between them and not make it seem like we are using the trans experience as a writing tool or a plot point?" We wanted to show the hurt and the struggle and the reality of that, and how it hurts to have a family member turn on you like that. A lot of credit has to be given to Hannah James, who played Maeve. She played it with such depth and talent. Immediately after you see Maeve tell Nia she's not a real woman, you see her be like, "Oh, what did I just say?" Now, going into Season 5, those two still haven't spoken. How do you even begin to open that line of communication again after that?
The dream powers pass down through the females in the family, which is a really nice metaphor for Nia's womanhood.
Absolutely! When they first told me that was part of the Naltorian lore and part of Nia's history, I was a little emotional. That's such a lovely and beautiful way to affirm her gender identity and to affirm that she is a woman — to say that she has gotten these powers and that she is worthy of them, that she deserves them, just as much as her sister would have.
How do you feel about being cast as a trans character as opposed to just a female character? Are you hoping that will change at all, that you will just be seen as an actress instead of a trans actress?
I have started reading some roles for cisgender women also. So I'm looking forward to branching out and doing that as well. Trans women are kind of slated to play trans characters. While there are more trans characters than ever, there's still not a whole lot, so that kind of limits the job opportunity pool significantly if we're all going up for the same five roles. I'm really excited to portray anyone.
When I first got to Los Angeles, I would meet with executives and they would ask me that question: "Is it okay to have a trans woman play a cis woman?" Because, of course, having a cis woman play a trans woman is not okay, and it's particularly not okay to have a cis man play a trans woman. What I've always said is, when you cast someone, in any role, there's something that happens beyond the fourth wall. When you cast a trans woman as a woman, it's the same narrative that happened when Nia got the maternal powers. It's affirming that trans women are women. When you're seeing a trans woman playing any woman, that is reinforcing the truth that we are women, period. So when people watch those shows and they say, "Oh, I love this character," and they go to Google who plays her, they will go, "Oh, she's played by a trans actress? But this character isn't trans." Then a light bulb goes off: trans women are women, and we can play women.
One of the things that I find very interesting is that the idea that Nia being trans isn't really "played up." In the show, Nia says, "Oh, I'm transgendered," and that's it. Have you found that a lot of fans are accepting of that? Have you had any trouble with that?
My experience has actually been so overwhelmingly positive and so fantastic. It's been amazing to see how many fans have loved Nia — not just trans fans, but cisgender fans. Nia has become their favorite character. Every time I see that, I think of how far we have come. That we have an openly trans superhero who has massive appeal to everybody. When I first came on the show, I felt like I was going to get a lot of messages like, "You're a man!" [Laughs.] Of course, there is some of that, but they're not telling me anything the local church wasn't telling me since fifth grade. I have received so much love and support for both me as an actor, and Nia and Dreamer as a character, as a superhero. It's been so heartwarming to see. It's a little cheesy but it makes me hopeful.
As a cis woman, I find it very hopeful that it wasn't played up as a big plot point. It was just, "I'm transgendered." "Okay." And you go on with your powers and stuff.
Totally! Especially because Nia has a lot going on. Since the back half of Season 4, she has had a lot going on. That brings me back to this big episode that brings it all to fruition. But since, like, Episode 8 of last season, when she went with Brainiac and Kara to hunt down Agent Liberty, she's been on a whole journey! Nia's been dealing with a lot, and it's really awesome to see her have that storyline outside her trans-ness.
And you play it so well. Nia has just been a joy to watch.
Thank you so much. I have such a wonderful time playing her, and I have such a fantastic time on set. Every time I get a new script, I don't care where I am, I read it immediately. I get so excited. I'm waiting on the season finale script and I'm so excited.