Nicole Maines, Real-Life Superhero, on ‘Supergirl’ and Trans Representation

On July 21, 2018, history was made in Ballroom 20 at San Diego Comic-Con. The cast of Supergirl announced that TV’s first-ever transgender superhero would be joining their ranks in the fall. The announcement was met with much press and excitement as Nicole Maines was introduced as Nia Nal (also known as Dreamer), an alien who would fight evil alongside Kara Danvers’ crew in the upcoming fourth season. Maines immediately became a fan favorite, and as she nears the end of her second season as a series regular, she still shows no signs of slowing down. TV Wasteland talked with Maines about her acting career, the world of DC Comics, and the importance of LGBTQ+ representation.

(Skip to about 20:40 to see the announcement about Maines)

Maines recalls the origin of her love of acting coming from simple games of dress-up when she was a child. Her mother would hot-glue costumes together as she inhabited the characters from her favorite movies, acting out scenes as if she were the one on screen. As she went through high school and college, she did various community theater projects before getting the opportunity to guest star in a 2015 performance of Royal Pains. She described the experience as “so incredible and transformative” and remembered thinking to herself: “This is just dress-up for grown-up people… I want to do this forever.”

But Maines’ childhood wasn’t entirely dress-up games and fun. Nicole was assigned male at birth but identified as female from a very young age. At her elementary school, administrators received a complaint about her using the girls’ bathroom and decided to ban her from those facilities. Her family then decided to sue the school district. The young Nicole became the anonymous plaintiff in the court case known as Doe v. Regional School Unit 26. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided in June 2014 that the school’s decision was in violation of the Human Rights Act. This became a landmark case, as schools in that district were then banned from forbidding transgender students from using the bathrooms that matched their gender identity. This decision was made when Maines was only sixteen years old.

The biggest thing that Maines took away from all of that? “It really taught me that everyone’s story matters… that everyone’s voice and everyone’s experiences carry weight.” One of the biggest things that people love to tell young transgender people is the ever-maddening “you’re too young,” too young to know yourself or your identity or your story. Maines believes that her experiences disprove that notion, that “if you’re young and you use your voice, you are very capable of making a difference.” Maines spoke up because she knew herself and knew what was right, and she changed the lives of so many others like her forever.

So, years later, it’s June of 2018, and Maines has just found out that she has gotten the role of Dreamer on CW’s Supergirl. The announcement was made in late July, and she is so relieved that she only had to wait a month before revealing the news because “I am so bad at keeping a secret.” However, the announcement also made Nicole nervous. The Internet can be an extremely harsh place, especially on members of minority communities, and she remembers “expecting the comments section to not be something I could ever read.” But then she was comforted by the amount of tremendous support that poured out of the fan community for her. It dawned on her that “so many people are ready for this, and so many people are excited for this.” Ever since then, some of the most significant memories she’s had have been of all the cisgender people who have told her that Dreamer is their favorite character. It made her realize that she was also just playing a layered and interesting character that people of all gender expressions could identify with, that “her transness is not turning folks away.”

Going onto set, Nicole definitely felt like the “new kid at school.” Most of the other cast members had been there for three years, with rapports and systems already formed that she had to adapt to. She was “not expecting to form such meaningful relationships” with everyone else on set as she did, but she had nothing but praise and love for her fellow cast members, who are “such a privilege” to work with. Maines specifically recalled her “rivalry” with Farley, Melissa Benoist’s dog who attempted to steal her lunch whenever he could and an incident where Benoist’s other dog accidentally launched a ball right into her face while she was getting into costume. She did admit: “Most of my stories are about dogs.”

Maines particularly picked out Benoist (who plays Supergirl/Kara Danvers) as “incredible” and one of the most talented actors she’s ever met. “She sets the tone for the rest of the show,” always coming to work with a good attitude and being a constantly pleasant person to work around. “Everyone is happy to be here, and everyone is a joy to work with,” and Benoist is largely to thank for that environment. “She’s also a laugh riot,” she joked.

So even in the eye of this exponential growth of content, with Disney to Netflix to Hulu all producing shows and movies about costumed crime fighters, it’s still pretty rare for an actor to say that they played a superhero. There are endless interviews about comics and stunt work, but you always wonder: what don’t they tell you about playing a superhero?

Maines says the biggest surprise for her about portraying Dreamer was the suits. “They don’t keep heat or keep out cold… If it’s in the summertime, you’re going to be roasting alive, and in the wintertime… it’s like you’re not wearing clothes at all.” While the flashy costumes may look epic on screen, know that the actors wearing them are probably always going to be uncomfortable. However, the other big part of heroic acting, stunts, did not turn out to be a problem for Maines. Dreamer doesn’t fly, so her work was mostly around fight scenes, but doing dance in high school “helped me pick up choreography quicker,” allowing her to learn things on the fly. Though she still gives a lot of credit to the stunt team as well.

When she first got the role, she visited the DC offices and remembered just being awed by the lobby where the costumes for Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman are all displayed in glass cases. Nia Nal is just one character in this vast world of titanic household names, and Maines recalled the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover episodes as especially impactful because she was “watching Dreamer fit into that universe.” If you asked Nicole a few years ago if she’d expect to see herself as a superhero standing alongside heavy hitters like Supergirl, Batwoman, and the Flash? “You can’t predict that,” she said.

The episode “Reality Bytes” in season five focused specifically on violence against trans people (trans women of color in particular). Leading up to this episode, Maines had always been shocked by “how many people didn’t believe that this was as big of an issue as it is,” thinking that trans people are “searching for ghosts” and trying to make themselves look more vulnerable. Even after the episode aired, many thought that the statistics and trans mortality rates discussed in the episode were made up for views. Nicole feels that “Reality Bytes” was made for those skeptics, as “all of the facts in that episode were accurate at the time of filming.” She even pointed out that those numbers are likely an underestimation, due to underreporting and misgendering in reports and the downplaying of this kind of targeted violence by authorities. That episode became “an opportunity to make people aware of that” so that they can create a safer world for the community. She highlighted the importance of how the simple discussion of trans issues can create a better well-being for trans people by giving everybody the eyes to look out for this kind of thing.

Obviously, the biggest topic sweeping through Hollywood right now is the coronavirus, which has sent virtually every film and television production grinding to a halt. It will be a while before everything returns to normal, but Maines noted that this would be important for the industry in the future, prompting people to have backup plans and better ideas of how to be prepared for this kind of event in the future. She hopes that this makes people more aware of their own health, because “if one person in the hair and makeup trailer gets it, we’re all getting it,” and it’s no different in the world outside the set. “It’s taking care of everyone else by taking care of yourself.” She called out world leaders and politicians to make contingency plans to prevent and contain outbreaks in the future. “In Hollywood, we’re all playing dress-up. It shouldn’t be our job.” She also strongly advises everyone to do their part and stay home.

On the topic of the sheer groundbreaking nature of her casting, Maines brought it all back to experiences with fans. She described “this phenomenon… of not being able to find the words for each other” with transgender fans that she meets in press rooms and at conventions, forcing them to just “hug it out” because their words can’t express it. Dreamer’s presence has become so monumental for so many young people in the LGBTQ+ community, who have been elevated and given more of a spotlight and an awareness through the simple inclusion that Nia Nal provides.

To young LGBTQ+ readers, Maines admits the cheesiness of this statement, but she wants them to know that: “It does get better.” She believes that it’s really important to remember this especially right now, where many are trapped in households that may not be entirely accepting. “You never know what is around the corner… [and] you never really know where life is going to take you.”

Two years ago, she nearly quit acting because of the lack of results she was seeing. Obviously things changed, because she strongly sticks to the fact that you need to “stick to your guns, find what you love, and do that.” Despite all of this forced physical isolation, she wants to remind all young people that they can’t isolate themselves emotionally. With all of this modern technology, “we have to lean into our online communities” and stay connected with people who can support us when no one else will. “We’re all still connected.”

In the future, Nicole hopes to “see trans bodies and trans identities in spaces and environments where we haven’t previously existed,” like blockbuster movies and red carpet events and talk shows, where they can be more of a “consistent staple in everyday conversation and everyday spaces.”

Once the entertainment industry is allowed to be back up and running again, Maines will be hard at work on season six of Supergirl. She also stars in the upcoming Bit, an indie horror film about a trans girl who moves to Los Angeles and falls into a group of female vampires after she is turned into one herself. She describes it as “so amazing, so cool and smart and witty and a little cheeky and a little campy… and so much fun.” The movie will be released as soon as circumstances allow, and you can view the just-released trailer below. “Who doesn’t love blood orgies, right?” she joked.

Joining the ranks of shows like Star Trek, Dawson’s Creek, and Ellen, Supergirl has had a profound impact on the landscape of television, and the name Nicole Maines is synonymous with that change. We’re sure that she will continue to make waves in the future, and we’ll be honored to watch this real-life superhero do so.

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