On March 15, 2020, an episode of Supergirl titled “Reality Bytes” aired on The CW, focused on the harrowing topic of violence against trans women. Actress Nicole Maines, a trans woman who portrays Nia Nal (aka Dreamer) on the series, led the way in the episode with an emotional and raw performance and with contributions in the writer’s room. On March 31st’s Trans Day of Visibility, The Beat got to sit down with Maines to discuss bringing trans issues to primetime television.
The Beat: Happy Trans Day of Visibility.
Nicole Maines: Happy Trans Day of Visibility to you too! Thank you very much.
The Beat: As one of the most prominent trans voices out there today, what does today mean to you?
Nicole Maines: Well it kinda feels like a double-edged sword for me. I feel like, on the one hand, it’s a victory lap for all of us because we’ve made so much progress. You know, we have reached all these milestones but then at the same time you know we have to take a moment and recognize, why our visibility is so radical and you have to remember everyone else who we’ve lost along the way and you have to keep in mind all the new legislation that’s being introduced amidst all this so there’s a lot of emotions, but I think it should first and foremost, be a happy day for us to celebrate that we can even be visible.
The Beat: Yeah. As someone who also has a history of activism in the trans community, I feel that very close to my heart. I’m from South Dakota, which has made news in recent years for all of the really vile anti-trans legislation that they have tried to pass. And I feel a little guilty because it all started coming out after I won a court case in South Dakota.
Maines: Well first of all, congratulations. Second of all, you know, I think we shouldn’t feel guilty about that because it’s kind of like, you know, how a “hit dog will holler,” that old saying? It’s kind of like that. I feel like that’s kind of the final thrashing for that kind of bigotry and way of thinking, they feel they feel threatened, which, you know, they should.
The Beat: So I know we’re all cooped up right now. Do you have any plans to celebrate today online at all with friends?
Maines: Yeah! So I did my social media posts and I did a really, I thought, cool video of like me transitioning from me when I was younger and I was still rocking a bowl cut to now as Dreamer to kind of show, you know, it gets better and look how again just looking how far we’ve come. And then also, I took a moment to kind of give a shout out to, there’s a lot of us who can’t post selfies for trans day of visibility, because you know we’re living at home with parents who aren’t supportive or we’re not in a safe school environment, we’d be facing harassment online from peers. So, I wanted to take a moment, also and kind of recognize, hey, y’all are just as much a part of this community and even if you can’t participate in Trans Day of Visibility, you’re still valid.
The Beat: Speaking of being stuck at home, what are you doing to pass all of your free time now?
Maines: Well, I finally broke down and I got Disney Plus. So lots of that. I binged the Mandalorian and now I’m doing an entire rewatch of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I’m starting at season one, then I’m going to go right into the new season that just got released so I’m really excited about that. Lots of Disney movies. I tried to teach myself how to sew. Turns out that’s not in my skill set. And then lots of video games. Just yesterday I ate Ritz crackers, in the dark.
The Beat: I too ate Ritz crackers in the dark yesterday, so solidarity. What video games are you playing right now?
Maines: Right now my main one has been Warframe on Xbox. I have some friends who’ve been playing, so I’ve been playing that and then also League of Legends Teamfight Tactics because of course, they released a new mobile version, so I can sit in the dark, eat Ritz crackers and play that on my phone, so that’s great.
The Beat: All right, so let’s get to the matter at hand. You’re on your second season of playing Nia Nal on Supergirl. How has this season been different from your first?
Maines: This season feels a lot more of Dreamer, as she’s become her own force, I think. I mean, for the most part, season four was really kind of showing us who Nia Nal was and kind of showing us her growth and her transformation into Dreamer. And so season five has been more, you know, we’ve had Dreamer, from the season premiere, and so now we’ve kind of gotten to see Dreamer’s struggle as opposed to Nia’s struggle, I think. And we’ve gotten to see her come even more into her powers. And then, of course, also struggle with her relationship with Brainiac so it’s been, I think, it’s been a lot heavier of a season for Nia than season four, I think. Season four was kind of like her really coming into her own. and then season five has just been her getting like hit after hit after hit.
The Beat: Yeah, although it wasn’t all roses in season four either. You had the really impactful episode of the show, “Blood Memory”, that talked about the rejection of trans people by their family, which is an issue that affects so many of us. How involved were you in the planning of that episode? I know you were heavily involved in “Reality Bytes,” but how heavily were you involved in that one?
Maines: Yeah. I was still really involved. A little less so than in “Reality Bytes”, because of course “Reality Bytes” was kind of all about transness, whereas “Blood Memory” it was just a blip, it was much more about her relationship with her powers and with her family rather than about her transness. But as far as that conversation between Maive and Nia went, I sat in my trailer with the writer and with Jessica and we just talked kind of about what language should Maeve be using, what feels appropriate to say, and feels like it is accurate how that conversation would go but also not so overindulgent in transphobic verbiage that it would become triggering you know what I mean?
The Beat: Yeah.
Maines: Yeah, so we didn’t want to like lean too heavily into it but we also didn’t want to like, totally pull the punches, because that’s not really, you know, how those conversations go. So, when we eventually settled on just having Maeve say what, to her, made the most sense, which was “How did Nia get these powers if she’s not even a real woman?”
The Beat: Yeah, it was so important, and likewise this year’s “Reality Bytes” got to tackle violence against trans people and especially violence against trans women of color. How did it feel knowing that you’d be so involved in something so monumentally groundbreaking on network television?
Maines: It was really exciting, and also a little nerve-wracking. I have to give credit to our director Armen (Kevorkian) for his Saint-like patience with me. Looking back now, I’m like, oh my gosh, I was so overbearing. But I felt so protective of this episode. Just because they’d given me so much involvement in the writing of it and I knew how important this episode was to me, and how important it would be to everybody else watching it, so I wanted to have my hands in everything. I wanted to know what was going on, what we were doing. And I didn’t need to do that, they knew what they were doing and they were so fantastic. And so incredible and everyone on set just got it and they just knew what we were doing and they knew how important this episode was. And everyone was so excited and so proud to be part of it.
So getting to be involved in the writing process was really great. And then finally seeing it on television was so so rewarding because of course part of the conversation we’ve had leading up to that was that so much ends up on the cutting room floor. “What do we absolutely need to keep?” And seeing that a lot of it was actually kept. Because talking about it is one thing, and then going on and turning on the television and seeing them talk about the trans mortality rate. Giving accurate, statistics, having Yvette talk about her situation as a trans woman of color, addressing that very often trans violence is swept under the rug by law enforcement. Seeing all that talked about was so affirming.
The Beat: Yeah, it absolutely was, and you talked about how you worked hard to keep triggering language, out of “Blood Memory” and that’s something that I felt happened in “Reality Bytes” too, like it would have been perfectly in character for the villain of the episode use the T slur, but the fact that that didn’t come out of his mouth felt so important to me because that is such a triggering word.
Maines: I feel like using those kinds of slurs might have been a crutch, because that’s not what we were trying to do we didn’t want to have this character just throwing out hurtful words just for the sake of it, and realistically, that’s probably what he would have done, but we kind of wanted to show more of what his thought process was. And we wanted to see more, you know where this dude is. What is his motivation in trying to take down a superhero? And so we really want to use that screen time to more highlight this idea of “gay panic”. It’s just so much easier to just have someone come up, tell a slur, and then have a superhero beat him up. I think it’s much more important and impactful to show why that kind of thinking is dangerous. And to highlight those arguments that are being made, because a lot of people really didn’t believe that trans violence was an issue and they didn’t understand why people would attack trans people.
The Beat: So you talked about the statistics that you brought up in the episode, and a big point of debate online after the episode was the choice of having William being more knowledgeable about these issues than Kara, what drove that decision?
Maines: I saw those too. And I saw people talking, “Kara doesn’t need that explained to her, she doesn’t need that.” And I think it was good that William was the one to say and show her because one: he was a reporter, he was reporting that so it would make sense that he kind of had those statistics and he had those numbers, because he would have looked them up. And a lot of people thought that, because Kara was Nia’s friend, that she would have researched trans stuff and she would have… And I think no, you could go up to my best friend in the world, we’ve been inseparable since high school. If you asked him what the trans mortality rate is off the top of his head he wouldn’t know! Cis people, regardless of how supportive they are, I can ask my mother in the other room right now, she wouldn’t know. Because it’s not something that’s talked about, it’s not something that a lot of people think about and really if you’re not in the trenches, doing this kind of work. I think most trans people are unaware of exactly what the mortality rate is at any given time.
And so I think, for Kara, it was important to show that you can be very very supportive and not have all the answers and you can still learn. It was never a question of whether or not Kara was supportive of Nia. We’ve known that from the beginning and we really saw that in “Blood Memory”. We know how important Kara is to Nia and we know how important Nia is to Kara. But that doesn’t mean that Kara has magically become a trans activist and that she has all of this information that she would just know off the top of her head, because why would she? Why is it something she would have looked up? She just wanted Nia to know that she was supportive and that she had somebody. And that’s where that support was coming from it wasn’t coming from a place of “let me look up all these statistics and let’s go lobby together” that’s not what it was about.
The Beat: How did it feel to act out the anger and powerlessness that so many of us feel in the face of this violence. It was so cathartic watching you take action against the bigot. I can only imagine how it felt to portray it.
Maines: Part of it was, of course, exciting, because we’ve never really gotten to see Nia or Dreamer angry. You’ve never really got to see her vengeful. So that was exciting just from a character point of view. And then, acting it out. I really really wanted to show just how deep-rooted a lot of this frustration and anger is. And so, I don’t know if it read, I don’t know if it really played, but while we were actually fighting, we adjusted the choreography of the fight a little bit. Because Dreamer, of course, has been trained by Brainiac and by Supergirl and she knows, and she’s technical, she knows what to do with her hands and with her body when she fights. I wanted to kind of strip that away and I kind of wanted to give it this schoolyard fight feel where she’s not really throwing right hook, left hook, jab, jab, and it’s more just like she’s just going to slug him, like one punch just thrown after the other and really kind of physically show all of that frustration. And then when Supergirl arrives she kind of has this moment where she looks, and she kind of recognizes “What am I really doing?” Because she got so caught up in it that she just completely lost track of her situation. But it was really, it was really exciting to get to show that side of Nia. And it was really I mean cathartic for me to kind of, as he was, you know, listing off all his talking points, to just say like, “Oh yeah your fragile ego was shattered wasn’t it?” That felt really good and I was like “Yes, Nia, read him! Drag him!”.
The Beat: So I’ve got one last question. And that’s about the future of the show. Melissa recently announced her pregnancy and I’m so happy for her. Any idea if we’re going to see more of Dreamer to kind of fill that role to give her more time off?
Maines: I really have no idea what the plan is moving into it, because we kind of had a little bit of a plan. And then it was just kind of, you know, everything was thrown up in the air with the virus. Now we’re kind of unsure what’s gonna happen and when. I mean, I’m on call. Whenever they call me, beep me, I’ll be there. I don’t really know what is in store for season six, I just, I know kind of what we’re going to be doing but I’m not sure of any of the details.
Supergirl is currently on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New episodes will return on April 26 starring Melissa Benoist, Nicole Maines, and the rest of the team.