Lexi Alexander on Directing Supergirl and Championing Gender Equality

Director Lexi Alexander talks to us about bringing Supergirl to CBS, Arrow Season 4, and her work promoting equality.

When Supergirl returns next week, it’s bringing us yet another feminist powerhouse to contend with — director Lexi Alexander, who’s known for her work on Punisher: War Zone (Marvel’s real first R-rated superhero movie — sorry, Deadpool), her recent episode of Arrow season 4, and her activist work in championing gender equality and diversity in the film industry.

We spoke to Alexander about her experiences on the show, and how her episode, “Truth, Justice And The American Way” will change the course of Supergirl forever.

Den Of Geek: When we spoke last year you had just started work on Arrow — did that gig lead directly to this one?

Lexi Alexander: Yeah, it’s the same person who tracked me down and hired me on Arrow, Andrew Kreisberg. Arrow aired and it was apparently one of their favorite episodes, so the very next day he checked my availability on Supergirl. It was a great boost of confidence.

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I know you binged a lot of Arrow to prep for directing your episode, but if I recall correctly Supergirl hadn’t even started yet when you got this gig — what kind of prep did you do for this?

Actually it did! The first ten or so were already aired. I was literally hired a week before they got the order for the back nine. They didn’t even know if they had more episodes coming up, but they did, and I got the call and was hired and had to go to work a week later.

That’s a quick turnaround!

Yeah, and luckily for me I had already watched all the other episodes because I was legitimately a fan of the show, because obviously it means a lot for women, for girls. There’s been Buffy and Alias and stuff, but it’s been awhile since we had [a female hero] on primetime TV and I think this is really our first one in a long time. Certainly there’s no competition for it.

Right, I’m trying to think of the last female “superhero” that had her own show, and the only one I can think is Wonder Woman in the ‘70s.

Exactly, exactly. And of course we had Jessica Jones, but that’s such a different world. In terms of what can ten year old girls also watch, that they see themselves in, this is it.

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Speaking of which, your past superhero experience with Punisher: War Zone and with Arrow are sort of similar in that they both dealt with dark gritty white dudes at the helm — did Supergirl feel like a breath of fresh air or was it an adjustment to work on it?

Oh my gosh! I’m telling you, it was the best experience I’ve ever had. It was so nice! First of all, it dawned on me in the middle of the shoot as I’m preparing a fight scene — and I, thank God, was able to have a lot of input on it, much more than I usually am, because this showrunner specifically hired me for that and made it clear that he hired me for that. It was like, “you have free range. We’ll listen to you” which is very rare in TV.

And so as I was preparing it, I realized that this is the first time I’m choreographing and directing a fight scene for a female lead. I did some fight directing for a women here and there, only supporting side characters, but for a female lead? I’ve never directed a female lead in an action. […] This was a brand new thing for everybody involved, and everybody was excited that a real fighter was getting Melissa [Benoist] to the next level of fight choreography.

— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) December 19, 2015

Supergirl has a big fight scene, and originally the stunt people went with the way they had established her fighting. Then I suggested it a different way, and whatever I came up with, they liked so much that they’re now changed her fight style from my episode onward, what I brought to the table changed her fight style. So that she doesn’t need to rely on her superpowers only, and her fighting can be both grounded in reality as well as her superpowers.

Did you base her fighting style off anything in particular?

No, I mean, it was interesting with Supergirl because you deal with these super powers — the flying and her super strength and her laser eyes and all of that. They developed a fighting style based on that, because I think if they hadn’t have, the audience would have sat there and said, ‘Why doesn’t she just use her super speed or super strength?”’

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So they were right to do that, but she’s getting to the point now where she doesn’t completely rely on that. She’s actually becoming a badass fighter herself. So if there is an episode where she loses her powers or something, as it goes in the superhero world, she can still defend herself.

It seems like the cast and crew had a lot of really awesome things to say about you at the TCA earlier this year.

That’s never happened! It was so unreal. I was still working that day when they started talking about me! I was working that day and suddenly I see all these tweets about how they were raving about me on the stage. Wow, you know?

So this episode that you’ve done is bringing us a new classic comic book villain in Silver Banshee — can you tell us what we can expect from her debut?

I can’t, because they’re very secretive about that. Really, I did an interview with CBR and the PR person pulled me outside the door, and I thought for certain he would tell me not to be political about gender equality or diversity. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t say anything about certain villains and characters, which cracks me up to be honest. Like I even know the villains that are coming up!

In my episode, she hasn’t revealed herself yet as Silver Banshee. She’s just Siobhan, and she’s just so talented, that actress [Italia Ricci] is out of this world talented. So that was fun, and comedic how that plays, and that’s not usually something people hire me for. I was really pleased that I had that, because she made me look really good. She made me look like I can direct comedy.

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It seems like she’s being set up as a rival in the workplace to Kara, and that’s a really interesting dynamic. Supergirl does such a good job of not pitting women against each other, but I feel like it’s such an easy trope to fall into without realizing it. Was that something you thought about or considered when you were approaching this episode?

I did, when I first read it, but here’s the difference. Because Cat [Grant] is involved and because it’s a more professional thing, that actually makes it kind of cool. It’s not the typical two-women-fighting-about-a-guy thing, it’s work, and it’s f–king competitive, and I actually love this, because I don’t think women are often portrayed as on a board of CEOs, or as assistants wanting to be CEOs, who elbow each other and kick ass. That’s also part of us. We actually do that as well. Maybe we don’t necessarily always step over dead bodies, but I’ve also met women like that!

The whole point of gender equality is that we are as multidimensional as men are, and so [having] women against each other wasn’t a catfight thing, it was a much more professional kind of competition, and that I really liked.

That sounds awesome — I’m getting more excited for this episode just hearing you talk about it.

And also, Callista Flockhart, she’s so — I can’t tell you. I was so surprised by Peter Faccinelli [Maxwell Lord], too, he’s this really deep actor who thinks about everything, and he doesn’t do it in an annoying way, he just wants everything to be perfect. And he’s very polite about asking if he could add something, just this incredible depth came out in all of his scenes where I was like, wow! And I didn’t expect that going in. God, I was so lucky to have worked with him.

It was really one of those experiences where I would call him to do an independent movie just to have that experience again, and that I wasn’t expecting. Melissa is a former dancer, so it’s a little like being a fighter because she doesn’t complain about any physical stuff whatsoever. Overall, it was the best experience I’ve ever had working in Hollywood.

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— Lexi Alexander (@Lexialex) January 4, 2016

You talk a lot about gender and diversity in Hollywood, and I think one of the biggest concerns for many activists is that representation is getting better in front of the camera but not necessarily behind it. From working with Kreisberg on these different projects and with the Supergirl crew, do you get the sense that this is something they’re actively trying to do better than other TV shows?

Yeah, I think the Berlanti camp has made a conscious effort. He gave the order that this has got to change, and they’ve made a conscious effort, you can tell.

The show I’m on right now, Limitless, has nothing to do with Berlanti — it’s CBS, and they seem to pay attention. Apparently the episode before me was a woman, and the episode coming after me — there’s three women almost in a row, with one guy in the middle. So that’s very encouraging.

And I actually see it quite a bit now. This could be because the EOCC investigation has scared a lot of people, because in the ’80s people got scared and the numbers went up, but then they didn’t address their subconscious bias that existed so the numbers dropped back down.

I’m hoping that while these numbers are up, no matter if it’s because people just don’t want to be assholes about diversity or if they’re scared that the EOCC will do something to them — no matter why the numbers are changing, I hope that this time we, in the midst of it, can make a difference and also at least educate a little bit — educate is a tough word because nobody likes to be educated — hopefully we can get the message out that you can’t just hire people, you also have to get over a certain bias that exists against women directors.

Do you get the sense that at the very least, the conversation online and in the media about diversity has gotten louder and more pronounced over the past year?

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Yes, it definitely has gotten louder. To be honest, for some writers I feel like it’s a fashionable thing now, it’s the hip subject to write about. Not to be unfair — half of the people who write about it are doing it passionately and are educated, and were writing about it before this whole thing even started. But there’s another half who just know that it’s a hot subject right now, so they’re jumping on it and saying all kinds of crap, especially with #OscarsSoWhite.

It’s good to be loud, but I also think — first of all, let women write and let people of color write! I see a lot of white dudes jumping in on the subject. I’m glad you’re joining the battle, but how about supporting us by finding a writer around you who’s a woman or a person of color and pushing them into a situation where they get paid for writing about it? It doesn’t do us any good if you’re getting all the writing jobs!

Do you worry that because it’s becoming a hot topic, the current conversation about diversity isn’t going to enact lasting change?

I definitely think it could be that, because we’ve seen this many many times, even in other historical civil rights situation — we’ve seen it progress because people got loud and then fall back again. People have to fix whatever bias they have, and I see this bias consistently, all the time, towards women directors. They’re just not being trusted with action.

I’m a special case, I’m a former stuntwoman and former kickboxing champion, but you couldn’t be more overqualified for the job. I cannot be the base level for what women have to do to be trusted with action, because the guys don’t have that base level. It’s not like all the guys come from stunts and professional sports, so why do they get the trust just because of their gender and women are consistently, with action, just not as trusted? People don’t like to take a leap for that, and that’s something that has to be fixed. Until people look at us the same way they look at men, we still will struggle with it. 

* All photos courtesy of Lexi Alexander. *