Chyler Leigh on the Journey to Supergirl

TV Features Supergirl
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Of course, the gal with an “S” on her chest has been the focal point of CBS’s new hit show, Supergirl. But when you watch the show for yourself, you’ll quickly find out that the heart of the program lies in the relationship between two adopted sisters: one from Krypton, the other a human, but just as capable in her own right. From teen stardom to blockbuster horizons as super sister Alex Danvers, Chyler Leigh is representing girl power in a whole new way.

Paste Magazine: You became comfortable in front of cameras when you started modeling back in the eighth grade. Was that your first foray into entertainment?
Chyler Leigh: Yeah it was. I was in Miami at the time. Of course it was always, right in the middle of summer, and we’re modeling winter clothes in Miami—and vice versa—so it was not very fun. But that’s how everything started.

It wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do. It was something that I fell into, in a sense. My mom really wanted and pushed me into it, to get into the whole scene. It’s a very hard thing to be in, as far as all the casting calls. I think sometimes it can just be really, really hard… particularly on young girls.

When you’re young and you’re standing next to say, ten girls, [there are the] people that are accepting the girls for the catalog, they’re in a line in front of you. They’re saying, “No, this one isn’t skinny enough,” or “This one isn’t pretty enough.” You just hear a lot negative things, and you’re supposed to just take it with a grain of salt. But when you’re twelve, thirteen-years-old, that’s not the easiest thing to accept, so I felt a little frustrated by the whole process. I worked a lot, because I had a good attitude about it as much as I could, and just wanted to make everybody happy.

Paste: Many fans remember you well from Not Another Teen Movie, a parody film that targeted teen comedies from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Is that a role that still comes up a lot to this day?
Leigh: Yeah, it does, I get asked about it because it did—and I guess still does—have a pretty good cult following. It was a fun experience and it was the biggest thing that I had done at that point. It was a lot of work—a lot, a lot of work. But I’m glad that I did it. At that time, it was definitely the catapult for me, especially to be seen by people outside of the television realm. I had done so much TV already, so it was kind of nice to segue into films.

Paste: With Supergirl’s newfound success, I know that you are just getting to know the comic book fanbase. That being said, somewhere in the world, do you think that someone is watching Not Another Teen Movie and dreaming up some retro-active fan fiction about how Supergirl’s sister and Captain America dated in high school?
Leigh: Wait, Supergirl’s sister and Captain America?

Paste:Wasn’t your boyfriend in Not Another Teen Movie Chris Evans?
Leigh: Yes.

Paste: Okay, so you’re Supergirl’s sister on TV, he plays Captain America in the movies. You’re retroactively merging the Marvel and DC Universes!
Leigh: Wow, I didn’t know I had that kind of pull (laughs). That’s really funny, that’s the first time I’m actually hearing that. I think that’s pretty significant in the fan fiction world, if my character gets to bridge that gap between DC and Marvel. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity and imagination from those in the fan fiction world, and I think they come up with a lot of really cool stuff. There was fan fiction all over, even when I was on Grey’s Anatomy, and you’d hear all sorts of stuff and just watch people create these side stories. I think that’s really cool.

Paste: That’s the perfect segue to your time on Grey’s Anatomy, where you played Meredith’s sister for many years. Did you have occasion to feel the wrath of the Grey’s superfans over the years?
Leigh: When I started, my very first episode had my character hitting on McDreamy. I mean, good Lord! You want to talk about criticism? Pretty much I got nicknamed “McBar hussy,” “McBar slut,”—all those things where obviously we know the story behind it and at that point it was the second-to-last episode of Season Three. Anybody trying to get in between Dreamy and Meredith was deadly. When I came in, people flipped out, and then in the season finale it was revealed that I was her sister.

So, coming in, yes, there was more criticism than there were positive responses. It probably wasn’t until the end of Season Four, where people were like, “Oh, okay, we don’t mind her so much.” Once they started to understand the back story, and why my character was there and what the intentions were, it started to ease up a bit.

And then of course when everything happened with Mark Sloan, it was pretty funny too, because that ignited these other questions. “It’s almost like pedophilia, he’s so much older than her!” So there was criticism when that first started, but I think people really saw the nature of their relationship and obviously the ups and downs that come with that. There were a lot of people that were really, really all for it as well, when that story line developed.

Paste: For those who haven’t jumped on board Supergirl yet, what would you say makes the show unique from so many other superhero TV shows and movies?
Leigh: The obvious thing would be the message that we’re sending to women and girls—the message of empowerment. The very big reason as to why I actually took this job and pursued it is because I have little girls. I have a nine-year-old and a six-year-old. This is a time where positive influences can be very few and far between—a lot of girls are watching the downfall of many well-known young women in the industry. On the one hand, that’s a natural process in life—where girls are just trying to figure out who they are and if they grow up in[the industry] when they’re younger, they switch over to more of that shock factor. The negative side of it can have more of an affect than the positive side of it.

I’m trying to be vague, because I don’t want people to think that I’m pointing people out, it’s just coming from a mom’s standpoint. My passion is to share the message. A lot of Kara’s story, but also Alex’s story, revolves around the fact that it’s okay to have flaws, it’s okay to struggle with things. Finding the inner strength in yourself, and finding the inner worth and significance of who you really are is so incredibly important. There are a lot of differences between Kara’s journey and Alex’s journey, and you come to find more of an understanding of what that route is. Throughout the season you really hear more of Alex’s side of it. My character is always being pinpointed as, “You have to be her guardian, you have to watch over her, you have to take of her.” A lot of responsibility fell on Alex at a young age.

Paste: What else about Alex drew you to this role?
Leigh: She’s very intelligent and she’s very, very passionate and driven towards establishing herself as somebody who has worked extremely hard for what she has. Kara naturally had all these incredible powers, but was never allowed to actually expose any of it. Alex, as siblings do, felt that she had to prove herself to be just as powerful and become, in her mind, as significant as Kara.

You hear a little bit of that in the pilot, where she’s saying “When you came into the picture, I was the star of the family. It was just me, and my parents, and everything I did was praised and was great—and when you came in it rocked my world. Because I suddenly wasn’t a focus anymore and I just kind of got you handed to me. It felt like what I did wasn’t as important.”

As with any relationship, siblings have ups and down. But what I appreciate so much about the show—and why I think it was big draw for me—was the relationship between Kara and Alex as they’ve gotten older. I think it’s such a positive spin on family. There are a lot of shows out there where you always see a lot of strife between siblings. These two love each other tremendously. Alex has matured a lot in that sense. You get to see a really powerful, deep connection between the two of them, where they would do anything for each other.

We have an incredible opportunity right now to launch the idea of girl power, without needing to hit it so hard on the head—to make it known that girls are just as equally impactful and powerful as guys might be in a world, especially a comic book world, where so much of it can be male dominated.

Paste: Your character is an original, with no history in the comic books. Is there a freedom to the fact that the show gets to reinterpret and play around with the origin story?
Leigh: Absolutely. It just gives us so much room for creativity, and for bringing an outside influence into a very known realm. A lot of these characters are true to who they were in the comics, but some of them have some pretty cool, surprising twists. You see more and more of that as we move along. It gives us such a great platform to represent a different side to the story. For me, it’s really fun. I know it’s true for the writers too—like you’re saying it does give a lot of freedom to color the story a little bit more.

Paste: Even though you’re on a superhero show right now, you are obviously not playing a character with actual powers. Regardless, are you looking to be a bigger part of upcoming action scenes in the future?
Leigh: As the audience is going to see, Alex might not have super powers per se, but she’s just as passionate about saving the world as any good super hero. She just has different methods that she relies on. When you put Kara and Alex together, fighting the same fight, you can actually see that the power is equal between the two of them—which has been really fun for me because Alex isn’t relying on supernatural abilities. She’s using her experience.

She’s busted her butt to get to the level she’s at, and she’s respected for it. It’s really cool because there’s just as much action from my side of the story, as there is from any of the heroes that come into the picture. It ties into that greater message that you don’t have to have super powers to be super powerful. We’re having a lot of fun with that.

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