NAOMI is the latest entry in The CW’s adaptations of DC Comics. The series, based on the comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Jamal Campbell and David F. Walker, is now in its first season Tuesday nights on The CW. However, unlike other current and recent DC-based shows, NAOMI has been adapted for television by executive producers/writers Ava DuVernay and Jill Blankenship.
In NAOMI, the title character, played by Kaci Walfall, is a comic book-obsessed but popular teen living with her adoptive parents in the (fictional) military base town of Port Oswego, Oregon. One day, a flying figure looking very much like Superman (who until now Naomi has always supposed is a fantasy creation) gets into a super-fight above the town square.
Naomi begins having fainting spells, hearing strange noises, and having radical improvements in her vision. When she and her friends try to investigate what’s going on, she learns some facts about her own identity that send her on a hero’s journey.
In a Zoom session set up by The CW for the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, DuVernay and Blankenship join with Walfall and other NAOMI cast members Cranston Johnson (enigmatic used car salesman Zumbado), Alexander Wraith (supernaturally-charged tattoo artist Dee), Mary-Charles Jones (Naomi’s best friend Annabelle), Barry Watson (Naomi’s military officer dad Greg McDuffie), Mouzam Makar (Naomi’s linguistics teacher mom Jennifer McDuffie), Daniel Puig (Naomi’s ex-boyfriend Nathan), Camila Moreno (Naomi’s fellow comics fan Lourdes), Will Meyers (Annabelle’s boyfriend Anthony), and Aidan Gemme (Naomi’s townie buddy Jacob) to discuss all things NAOMI.
How did DuVernay and Blankenship become involved with NAOMI? DuVernay explains, “I had heard about it because my company Array’s deal is at Warner Brothers [which is partnered with DC]. And so, I’m always just trying to see what’s going on with DC. I was attached to a film called NEW GODS, so I was already in the DC universe working on that. And then we have another show called DMZ that comes out on HBO Max later in the spring. So, I was looking for just more in the DC world when I heard about a new book that was about to drop and [the lead] was a Black girl superhero.”
DuVernay continues, “So, when I heard the origin story, I really said, ‘Well, this must be mine,’ because it was different than most fully-formed superheroes where we just dive into the comic and she’s who she is, and she knows everything that’s going on. This was really the step to becoming yourself, the steps to realizing your destiny, the steps that it takes to become who you’re meant to be. And that’s something that was very interesting to me. So, I grabbed Jill Blankenship who has to be like top two best writing partners I’ve ever, ever had. I love this woman, and she and I together started working on it. She gathered an [writers] amazing room, beautiful crew. And this cast, I mean, look at these faces, they’re just good spirits. So, we’ve been having a good time making it.”
Much of DuVernay’s previous work, both scripted and documentary, has dealt with issues of racism, sexism, and civil rights. Will NAOMI follow suit? DuVernay says, “Yes, they’re going to be dealt with through a new innovation that we’re working with. It’s called normalization, right? It’s not about representation, it’s about normalization. So, we’re doing really muscular things as it relates to race and gender and class, but we’re doing it by playing it normal. Like it’s just a part of the everyday. I say it kiddingly, but it is real. The more that you can portray images without underlining them, highlighting them and putting a star next to them, that show a different kind of hero, that center on a Black girl, that centers different kinds of folks, we start to make that normal and that’s a radical revolutionary thing. So yes, that is, it’s in there deep in the fabric of the quilt.”
How does Walfall play Naomi’s gradual embrace of her abilities? “To a certain extent,” Walfall replies, “I think the show’s so grounded in reality … So, I do genuinely ask myself, what would I do if I found out I had powers? Would I be maybe not joyful? And I think that I bring that into the character because, as the show goes on, you see that maybe you finding you’re a superhero is not something that you’re completely enthusiastic for. Maybe it makes you different, and you already feel different … I see similarities between myself and Naomi, and differences of course, but I genuinely ask myself, what would I do? And how would I feel?”
Does Naomi feel a growing sense of responsibility along with her powers? “I think anyone with power feels responsibilities,” Walfall says, “so I think that, yes, Naomi does feel responsible, and that may be a great thing, and that may not be a good thing. She’s only sixteen, so I think that she grapples with that.”
Playing a character who is newly discovering her powers, says Walfall, makes it easier than starting out as a full-fledged hero. “As she’s finding out, I’m finding out, which is really helpful as an actor … I think how I embody the powers in Episode 2 is going to be different than how I embody the powers in, let’s say, Episode 11. I think that it allows me to grow and it allows the character to grow. Our stunt coordinator, Elizabeth [Davidovich], often says I’m at the right place where the character is.”
Wraith’s character Dee is already familiar with his own abilities. To embody Dee’s physicality, Wraith relates, “It was honestly a reawakening. I’ve always been pretty athletic, and into martial arts and whatnot. But I kind of gave it up for a while, like four or five years. And when, when I found out about this and realized I had to start training, it took some time to get back and get the motor going again. So, it was nice. It feels good. Now I’m back on track, I feel.”
Dee and Zumbado clearly know about each other as powerful entities, but what do the characters think of each other? Johnson opines, “As far as the backstory, what had been communicated [about Dee] was that generally this is a person that I don’t feel [I hold in] high regard. He’s someone that I do know from the past, without going into too much detail, but he’s someone that I don’t particularly care for, for reasons that we’ll find out later. And I think the feeling is mutual. However, we will come to a point where we realize that maybe we’re going have to put some of these things to the side in order to work for a common good.”
Wraith adds, “As adamant as Zumbado is, or let’s just say Cranston saying about Zumbado not liking Dee, I don’t think Dee dislikes Zumbado, I think he tries to keep to himself and stay secluded and isolated and avoid confrontation and drama, because he’s been through a lot of that in his past before. But I think that the whole point is just to keep the pond serene, to not create any ripples, because those ripples are going to create situations and then situations have to be dealt with. And he knows that Zumbado will be there at the forefront if anything does go awry.”
When the younger actors are asked to talk about their experiences bonding offscreen to convincingly portray their friendships onscreen, Jones replies, “I would say the main thing for Kaci and I was, before we had done the table read, I think we had rehearsed one scene over Zoom for the pilot. I think I DM’d Kaci on Instagram because I didn’t have her number at this point. I was like, “Hey, would you wanna get on a Zoom so that when we pretend to be best friends for the next three weeks, we actually know more than just first names?” So that was one of the first things that we did. After that, we did a whole group Zoom with Daniel and Camila and Will and Aidan, and did very teenagery icebreakers. We asked what our star signs were and like what your favorite ice cream flavor was, which is very much something that they would do in like your English class on the first day of school. So, I think we nailed the high school friendship with that.”
Moreno adds, “I remember that very well. I remember just really liking this amazing group of people. Honestly, I was like, this is going to be easy to build this relationship that’s so strong between them. I think they’re just a very, very likable group of people. And I feel blessed to be a part of this.”
Nathan is Puig’s first television role. He recalls the cast coming together as “awesome. “I feel like everyone here reminds me of my high school friends, which is already amazing. And I’m just so fortunate to act along like a cast that is around my age. I’m so humbled to be a part of this. It’s so cool getting to know everyone. And I’ll know them for the rest of my life.”
Meyers opines, “Getting together was a wonderful idea. I think at the beginning, when we first arrived, we were just waiting to get started, and working on our stuff, and working on our characters, but it was a little wakeup call when they were like, “Hey, we should probably all get to know each other a little bit. It just made me even more excited because, getting to know all of these wonderful people on a personal level in addition to on set has been such a joy. Like Daniel said, I really feel a connection with every single one of you, and it’s been nothing but fun.”
Gemme agrees. “I would say even when we did the table read, just opening up the screen, there was maybe a minute or two of that awkward Zoom silence. And then when we like started, it just felt like everybody wanted to be there, and I think that that has continued to grow as we went to set and did that first Zoom call and extended to when the show got picked up, so it just feels like everything is like building upon itself and everybody’s open and engaging, it’s not just on the surface level.”
Praising her actors, DuVernay adds, “I think all of your support of Kaci has been so extraordinary. Folks really wanted to see her win and push her to the forefront … This is called NAOMI. Kaci’s our girl. We’re about to all make this work and rally around her. And she’s just an incredible leader of our cast. She’s seventeen, she’s the youngest one out of all of us. But she’s done it all with such grace.”
DuVernay states that, although NAOMI is certainly a superhero tale, “I think of it as a coming-of-age story first. And those are things that I really love most about it. I mean, I love that all comics are really personal human stories about the the journeys that we all take, written with issues of heroism and magic, but the best stories are the ones where things are happening that we can all relate to.”
DuVernay goes on to describe a few of her favorite scenes in the series. “I was editing a scene with Cranston, who plays Zumbado, and Kaci, who is our Naomi, at a very pivotal moment on the stairwell that brought a tear to my eye … There’s a scene where Cranston talks about love. I’m not gonna give it away, but it’s in a classroom that brought me to tears. And then one of the relationships that I love so much is Barry and Mouzam, the parents … They’re not your everyday parents, right? There’s an edge to them, there’s a mystery to them, and there’s so much more to unfold with them.
“And so, these little configurations, as well as this group of friends, this tribe, and love interests. It’s pretty sensational. And last but not least, my favorite couple of the show is Jacob and Annabelle. These two might have a spinoff one day in my own mind. It’s just a beautiful cast. And so, I think about all those elements more than I think about the superhero stuff. The superhero stuff to me is a cherry on top knowing that the best superhero journeys are human stories. Jill, do you want to talk just briefly about the adaptation part?”
“Sure,” Blankenship responds. “I was personally such a big fan of the comic, [it’s] so beautiful, so characters jump off the page. And I think what’s been really exciting is to move forward in the storytelling and, and really honor the lineage of the comic while expanding the world even beyond the comic. For me personally, to see this cast, bring them to life in such a way that’s beyond my wildest dreams. It’s been spectacular.”
Walfall acknowledges that, prior to being cast, not only did she not know the NAOMI source material, she was unfamiliar with comic books in general. “I’m an avid reader, but I hadn’t read comic books before the show. However, I was a big fan of the DC shows. I watched SUPERGIRL religiously in middle school all the time, and I’ve watched THE FLASH.”
Since Superman turns up, albeit at a distance, in the NAOMI premiere, might there be crossovers with other DC-universe shows in the future? Blankenship takes this one. “This personally is the third DC show that I’ve had the pleasure to work on [the others are ARROW and SWEET TOOTH]. I think what’s so lovely about the world of comics and DC specifically is that there’s really something for everyone. You get to touch on all these different places and all these exciting characters. I think when it comes to crossovers … nothing is ever off the table.”
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Article: Interview with NAOMI creators and cast on Season 1 of the CW comic book series