Geoff Johns has told the story of how he came up with Stargirl enough times that he isn’t worried about repeating it again. For those who haven’t heard the origin of the character before, here’s what you need to know: Courtney Whitmore was the first hero that Johns created for DC Comics and was based on and named after his late sister. This personal connection means that Johns has a lot riding on the Stargirl TV show which he created, developed, and executive produced. When we spoke with Johns and Brec Bassinger–who brings Stargirl to life–the pair were both eager to talk about the hopeful new addition to DC’s sprawling world of on-screen superheroes.
For Johns, Stargirl has been a long time coming and it stands apart from his other work. “I’ve worked on a lot of comics and TV shows and films but this one was really special to me,” he says. “I wanted to just dedicate myself completely to it. So I created the pitch and DC Universe was looking for a series that was different from everything else they’ve done. And what I wanted to see was something that was more for families and all ages and that was different than Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, or Titans. I pitched it and it came together really fast.”
Though the Stargirl series became a reality in a relatively short period of time, there was something that took the creative team longer. Finding the girl who would become a hero.
“I just felt like, who’s gonna play Courtney?” Johns recalls. “Who’s gonna be Stargirl? Who’s gonna have that energy, that warmth, that humor, and still be dramatic? We saw hundreds of really talented actors. But it took a very specific person–it’s one in billions–to play Courtney Whitmore. When Brec came in she blew everybody away, and I knew right away.”
Despite how sure Johns was that Bassinger was their Stargirl, for the actress it was a wholly different experience.
“It’s so interesting hearing the other side of things because as an actor our experience is so different,” she says. “I feel like we’re always so hungry for the next role, so a lot of times we don’t get the pleasure to pick and choose what we want to do. When I got the audition for Stargirl I was at such an interesting point in my career. I was kind of in a negative headspace due to some things that hadn’t worked out, I was considering quitting acting.”
Bassinger continues. “Even when I got the audition for Stargirl, I didn’t let myself get excited because things hadn’t panned out in the past and it hurts so bad. This was such a cool role and in my head it wasn’t gonna work out, so I didn’t want to get too sold on it. Then Geoff called me, I was on my way to vacation after the screen test, which was like the last stage. And he told me ‘you’re our Stargirl,’ and I broke down in tears. I let myself feel those emotions and get excited.”
When it came to crafting her vision of the character, having Courtney’s creator by her side–Johns relocated to Atlanta for the whole shoot–was a massive help.
“I feel like Geoff Johns is right there all the time, he was always on set,” she says. “It was so great, because if I had any question whether it was comics related or Courtney related, he was right there. He had all the answers. I feel like throughout the season we kind of found her, I have to say our writing team is so amazing and I feel like they built her character so well from the beginning. So then it was just finding little nuances that I could add.”
Bassinger brings a hope and light to the heroine which blazes a trail for the rest of the show. Though Stargirl begins with a tragedy, it’s a show about overcoming that, about love, friendship, family, and the power of new beginnings. Building that started with looking back at what had come before and how to harness it.
“It was all about tone, because it has a very specific feel,” Johns says. “When you’re working with Stargirl and the JSA, they touch all the way back to the 1940s to the very first superheroes. So there’s nostalgia there, there’s a legacy that you’re picking up and you’re doing it with reverence and love and passion and respect. I really wanted to infuse a sense of nostalgia into the show even though it’s very forward looking.”
Straddling the line between the old and the new is key to what makes Stargirl feel so special. It’s infused with the kind of familiar Hollywood Americana that we’ve come to expect from superheroes but it’s sprinkled with subversion and surprise. For Johns, it was his vision for a better world.
“I think generationally there’s a lot of people who just want to get in fights,” he says. “It’s like people want to push back instead of reaching across the canyon with an olive branch. This is about respect for the old generation, but challenging the old generation. It’s about a frustration with the new generation but ultimately embracing the new generation. They have to work at it, it’s not easy but in the end they come together and that’s what Stargirl is all about.”
That inclusive new generation of heroes plays a vital part in the world of Stargirl as Courtney won’t be the only legacy character appearing in the series. The new vision for the Justice Society was something Bassinger thought was vital.
“I feel like in today’s world it’s so important for people to see things they can relate to,” she tells me. “With this new JSA there’s such a diversity there. I just feel like anyone who watches it, whether it’s in the older generation or the newer JSA, they’ll be able to see themselves in someone. And that’s such a beautiful thing. As an artist, that’s kind of what I strive for, so I am really glad we’re able to do that.”
If you come to your superhero stories for astonishing action then Stargirl has you covered too. I had to ask Johns about the opening of the series which features one of the best looking and biggest action sequences to ever hit the DC TV universe.
“I have to give so much credit to our collaborators, Glenn Winner, our director, Walter Garcia, our stunt coordinator and second unit director, our visual effects team and Andrew Orlof,” he says. “They destroyed it. I love to talk about them! I said, ‘We have a big challenge here because we have digital characters and I wanted to make it cinematic. I want to use drones, wide establishing shots, and big camera movements.'”
To create the finished sequence the team needed one more piece that Johns tells me helped solidify the stunning set piece and also shaped how the rest of the first season was made.
“We brought in a company called Third Floor that does previs on movies and big TV shows like Game of Thrones,” Johns says. “Because we had a digital character and so many superpowered characters, they created this animatic from the script and we were able to watch the entire sequence before we shot. Then Walter would come in and add the stunts and cut it together. That way we were able to budget it so we knew what we could afford, and then we could schedule it because we knew exactly what shots we needed. And we ended up doing that throughout the season.”
Stargirl arrives at a time when we all need something positive to focus on. The sweet optimism and action-packed escapism of the show feels like it could be a fitting distraction. Bassinger is hopeful that it will be exactly that.
“This is such a difficult tragic time and everyone’s dealing with it differently,” she says. “I’m looking for a positive distraction. I don’t need any more negativity in my life. We’re in such a dark place that we don’t need it. So I really hope with Stargirl coming out right now–even though it’s definitely not how I expected it–I hope it can be a positive distraction for someone. Even if it just makes one person smile, then I’m happy.”
Johns agrees. “I think it’s cool that it’s coming out weekly, so through all these weeks people have something to look forward to. When I had a bad day at school as long as I knew that Wednesday was coming around the corner for new comics, I could make it. It gave me this goalpost to get to and it got me through some pretty tough times. I hope people find it enjoyable and get excited about watching it. I hope families watch it together. I hope that kids get inspired by Courtney and her can-do-no-matter-what attitude.”
With such deeply personal beginnings it’s no surprise that Johns’ family is equally as invested in the Stargirl series as its creator.
“I’ve taken everything I’ve learned in my life professionally and personally put it into the show,” he says. “My parents pay attention to what I do, but they’re really paying attention to this. So they’re super excited and it means more to them than anything else, and the same with my brother. So all of that makes me even more dedicated to it.” So did Johns’ family like what they’ve seen of the series so far? “They’ve seen the first two and they’re very happy. They’re really excited about it and that’s awesome.”
You can watch Stargirl every Monday on DC Universe and every Tuesday on The CW.