The caped Girl of Steel may be the one doing the most visible life-saving onscreen on Supergirl, but stars Chyler Leigh and Floriana Lima reveal they’ve been blown away by just how important their characters’ romance has been to viewers struggling with their own sexuality in the real world.
“We’re just really humbled by it, very proud of it,” Lima, 36, told PEOPLE at the 28th annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, where The CW series was nominated for best dramatic TV show for its story featuring Leigh’s character, Supergirl’s adoptive sister Alex Danvers, realizing her long-denied attraction when she encounters Lima’s police detective Maggie Sawyer.
“There was no way we would have known the impact that this would have had,” Leigh, 34, explained. “We definitely wanted it to be a strong representation, and that’s why we’ve thought so hard about it and wanted it to be beautifully done, so I’m just really happy with the writers of Supergirl, who have really brought this to life.”
Leigh says it’s been especially gratifying to introduce a rich LGBTQ storyline into a series set in the popular superhero genre, which has only tiptoed into the territory at times.
“People are so used to just the cut-and-dried comic book kind of storyline,” says the actress. “The great thing about Supergirl is that we’re reaching a lot of social issues [and] we’re doing it in a way that is recognized by people who love the comic book lore and that kind of stuff … For us to be able to take that on in that environment, and like kick people’s a–, and give a peck on the cheek and just say, hey, I’m finding out more about me because of you. It’s a love story, and it’s beautiful.”
The true nature of Alex’s sexuality was a surprise to Leigh, who learned of the plans a few weeks before the plot was introduced into the series when her producers’ sat her down for the big reveal.
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“They’re like, ‘So this year Alex is going to be gay,’ ” says Leigh. “I was like, ‘Wait – what?’” She quickly became very invested in telling “the story of somebody who later in life, finds somebody that literally just turns their life upside down, but in the most wonderful way. They create such a vulnerability towards each other that it’s authentic. One of the greatest compliments that we get is the fact that it’s so realistic. Here we are representing a healthy, growing lesbian relationship, which you just don’t get to see. Not very often, at least.”
Since the story began unfolding in Supergirl, fans of the series have made their heartfelt approval known to the actresses, over Twitter, at appearances and during their recent participation at the Women’s March in Vancouver. Leigh recalled a specific incident related to her by a woman who works in comic book store who encountered a teenage female customer looking very distraught. The young woman eventually admitted that, feeling heavily invested in the Alex/Maggie romance as a coping mechanism with her own sexual identity issues, she was feeling lost without the show as her anchor when it was on hiatus for a few weeks.
“This was a girl that was in desperate, desperate need of someone to just listen for a moment,” says Leigh. “So [the comic book store employee] was the real Supergirl in that moment: she sat with this girl, walked her around the store and said, ‘Take the first season DVD, just to watch and kind of keep your mind there.’ And at the same time bought her comic books that show different [gay] characters, like Batwoman, and showed her all these different stories that she could hang on to, bought her coffee, sat and just listened to this girl, and this girl just sobbed and just let it out.”
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While Alex is a creation unique to the TV series, the character of Maggie Sawyer was introduced 30 years ago in an issue of Superman, where she quickly became a trailblazer as one of the earliest openly gay characters in mainstream comic books. “I wasn’t aware of Maggie Sawyer before I even got word of this part,” says Lima. “When I read into it I was like, ‘Wow! What a cool character!’ It’s very important, this character.”
And just as important was the chemistry between the two characters, which Leigh credits to her husband’s deft casting instinct on his wife’s behalf (Leigh is married to actor Nathan West, while Lima is dating actor Casey Affleck). After the producers sent Leigh tapes of their top three choices to play Maggie to get her opinion, “My husband watched all three and he said, ‘Number two: that’s your girlfriend. You’re welcome.’ Then I met her. She walked in and I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s the girl.’”