Skip to main content

'Supergirl' star Azie Tesfai talks stepping into the writer's room, Kelly's power, and paying homage to her mother

Azie Tesfai as Kelly Olsen in Supergirl.
(Image credit: The CW)

This post contains spoilers for Supergirl. 

Supergirl has always been a show about social justice. From the "heavy handed" comments of its CBS days, to the "twee" commentary on its more hopeful episodes, the series has never balked from being exactly what it is: a heartfelt feminist action joint that doesn't care if folks think hope is lame. It often does a great job tackling the issues it presents, even if they are often wrapped up in the series' standard format. Still, though, sometimes there are issues that the Girl of Steel and the Super Friends aren't equipped to tackle. And that's why we need Guardian.

"Blind Spots" features Kelly Olsen (Azie Tesfai) stepping into her brother's former mantle of Guardian and making it her own. In a network first, Tesfai also had the opportunity to co-write the episode alongside J. Holthman. While we've seen the series tackle race before, this week's episode feels wholly different. The arc we see isn't contained to one episode, because the issue it acknowledges can't simply be "won" and tossed away for later conflict. Tesfai, Holthman, and Arrowverse alumn David Paul Ramsey created a new standard for the Arrowverse this week. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to sit down with Tesfai to discuss the episode.

Forty minutes isn’t a ton of time to tackle a complex subject. “Blind Spots” is one of the best episodes of its kind — and of Supergirl as a whole — but is there anything you wish you could have squeezed into the episode?

No, because we really told it as an arc. We started at episode nine and kind of wrote it all together. 12 almost felt like a cumulation of 9 and 10 and then it continues after. It doesn’t just end with us [at the end of 11]. The conversation continues the next morning with Kelly and Alex, so that felt good. It felt like there was really a through-line to the end of the season, which is good!

If IMDb is to be trusted, this is your first official writing credit. Does this mean we’ll be seeing more writing from you in the future?

Yeah! I’m developing a couple shows right now. I started over the summer. What kind of sparked this passion is that I was working on something with the showrunner of my last show, Jane the Virgin. So there are things that I’ve been working on and I think doing this show and being in the writer's room, cowriting the episode, and then acting in it really solidified that this is what I want to do. I don’t know how you go back. 

In that respect, this is an episode near and dear to you and your co-writer J. Holtham’s hearts for obvious reasons. What was it like tag-teaming such an important subject? 

I think it was important because we’re so different and have such different experiences. There were a lot of really personal conversations that we had before we even started. I think there’s an issue when there’s only one of something or someone in a writer's room. You’re getting a perspective that you’re trying to piece together from different people and it’s so nuanced being a Black woman or man or person of color. I think it was just like “hey, how do you relate this? What have you been through? What are some personal stories?” David Ramsey and I went to dinner a bunch before we started filming and while we were doing passes and I was just like “what is your perspective?” and trying to integrate that as well. Bringing guest stars meant that we were also able to tell different stories, too. It really felt like there was (hopefully) a range of perspectives and it wasn’t just through Kelly.

As writers, we often have to separate ourselves from our work as someone else brings it to life. How was it getting to play on both sides of the proverbial pen?

It was great for me because I got like three or four episodes that I wasn’t in where I got to join the writer’s room. I got to be a full writer in our writer's room and not act, so I came back to LA which was great because I didn’t have to balance both. I could just develop the story and enjoy that part of it. Then I did go back when we did our studio and network notes. There were days where I was on floor in the closet getting my notes trying to integrate them in script, and I was like “I can’t do that again.” It wasn’t really an effective way of doing a notes call. But it felt very separate, which was surprising for me. The writing portion felt like it was for a character that I love and respect so much but weirdly didn’t associate in my brain that I was going to have to do this later, which is weird! Then I did it and I was like “I wouldn’t have written this many lines if I had realized that I was going to have to memorize them and perform them.” It doesn’t really work when you forget your line and everyone is like “you cowrote this! How do you not remember that line?!” But it was really beautiful and emotional and I think as an actor I was more emotional writing it than I was performing it. A lot of it I voice recorded and then would transcribe after and then I would add it into the scenes. That was very therapeutic. I have a lot of voice notes of me crying. Which sounds not healthy but is very cathartic!

Do you have any worries going into a more traditional writer's room after this experience?

Yeah, totally! I’m very close with a lot of our writers. Many of them are lifelong friends, so I’ve already had the bond and felt safe in our room particularly. I’m looking at freelancing on something else right now and that’s going to really feel like the first day of school. You’re an actor so you’re trying to find your space in the room. But the gift of this experience was that it really highlighted for me that it’s a passion of mine. I love telling stories. I love being in a room with a group of people with very different perspectives, and I like writing in my bed in pajamas!

We share a quiet moment with Kelly at the end of the episode where she’s simply allowed to exist a Black woman before her conversation with Alex. The wrapping of her bonnet and taking a moment for herself is such a personal, intimate, moment that we rarely see from the character. Can you share a bit about why this was so important to include?

That scene was pretty much untouched from the first draft. All of our [other] scenes had notes, and every time we do notes call they never touched that scene. That meant so much to me. There was a conversation in the beginning about the format of our show. There’s an issue, we realize it, we kick the bad guy’s butt, we reflect on it, and then everyone’s happy. But that couldn’t exist with this subject matter. So what does that look like? We had to leave it open ended. Also, I’m very protective of Kelly but I’m also protective of Alex and Kelly, so how is this an example of a healthy relationship and moving that forward in this new uncomfortable dynamic? They’ve never really had conflict, you know? All of that was a very mindful perspective. I reached out to one of my really good guy friends who is a same sex interracial relationship. I watched them navigate the summer and Black Lives Matter and I look up to them so much, so I sent the scene to him and got his co-sign which was really important to me. Then it was really important to the three of us — Ramsey, me and J — that the scene not be cut. 

These superhero shows are all action so we never have scenes with no dialogue. There’s always something happening. Ramsey and I in particular wrote a little note about why it was important to keep that piece. For people to feel seen as she wraps her hair, or the people who feel uncomfortable. All those feelings are an important point of what we’re trying to convey without saying it. It was hugely important. I was the most nervous about how that scene was going to come together, but Ramsey really protected it. Even the shirt that Kelly’s wearing is something that I designed with Kelly in wardrobe. Every piece of that we made ourselves. It was beautiful. There were conversations on set where people would ask me if I wrap my hair like that every night, and I do! But they’d never been exposed to that. And I’m sure there will be conversations in our audience, too. That is representation to me. Understanding people in new ways. Also, we’re coming off a scene where Kelly steps into her power as a superhero and I didn’t want people to think “she’s good now!” because those quiet moments at home are where we put down the mask that we walk into the world with, there’s still so many complicated moments there. It’s never resolved, even if you’re a superhero.

Supergirl — who means all the well in the world — has been called to task about not understanding the struggles Black people face in earlier seasons. But this time it feels deeper. What inspired how you handled Kelly’s conversation with Kara and differentiated it from J’onn’s in earlier episodes?

For me, because I chose to not have a conversation with every super friend — because that would have just been exhausting — for the most part it was the conversation you have because you think change can happen in real life. You push past whatever pain you have because you want to make real change. For Kelly, Supergirl is someone who can actually enact said change and be an ally and help the situation. I think Kelly identifies that and makes the decision to have the conversation. Whereas with Alex it’s just for the benefit of Alex understanding her partner more. So it’s the opposite of that [the conversation with Kara] where she’s like “I’m actually not going to push through this because it’s not comfortable for me.” They’re two very different decisions that she makes, and both are complicated and hard. I think it’s my true self of wanting to make a change while also having good boundaries for my mental health. 

Even the conversation with J’onn and Alex, they’re just different moments of intimacy with your friendships and your partners. J and I really wanted to show the differences with people who have different levels of comfort. Kelly and Kara are close, but they haven’t had a lot of time together. They’re very much starting to work together. Even though she’s her partner’s sister, there’s very much a coworker dynamic in how this all falls. We tried to hit all the nuances of that. And it was uncomfortable! Those scenes were uncomfortable to shoot and thank goodness the actors wanted that and leaned into it and felt protective of the story first, even over their characters. Luckily for us, we filmed that after the summer and everyone knew exactly what this felt like on both sides.

No spoilers, obviously, but can you tease anything about Kelly’s journey for the rest of the season? Will we see more strong moments of accountability from her?

Less of that and more that once she figures out her purpose, she leans into it so deeply. She gets to work. We see her as a social worker a lot more. It’s not just being a hero as Guardian, but as this incredible social worker. Her relationship with these kids grows, and they’re so lovely to work with and they’re such brilliant little actors. And what does a hero really look like in our society? It’s social workers and people of service. You kind of see her step more into that dynamic. There’s less of a focus on her and the super friends. There is still a conversation between her and Alex, which I think is nice and important. There are checkins with all of them, [the super friends] too. Things get really real, and there are nods with the super friends that show you that there is an understanding or looks that are shared. It’s very subtle.

You walk out of an Ethiopian restaurant in the beginning of the episode. It’s clear — thanks to your social — that Selamawit and the stories of immigrants mean a lot to you. What was it like getting to create that small moment for your mother?

It was so emotional! The first time I saw it I cried. They told me the set was ready while we were filming in an alley and Ramsey and I walked over. There’s actually a really nice picture he took over my shoulder of me seeing it for the first time. As the first generation child of an immigrant a career in arts in general is not something that’s understood. You’re supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. That’s the sacrifice of your parents. But my mom has always been very supportive of me pursuing what I wanted. She sacrificed a lot for me to be able to do that, and she always talks about this restaurant she wished she opened. Getting to do that for her in a moment that was my biggest dream of writing felt very full circle. I was like a kid in a candy store. I have like 400 photos of it. Our set designers are brilliant. Even the layouts of the signage my mom got to pick. They sent me five options and I let her pick, so she really did have a say in designing the store. I was sent it and I would ask her and whatever she wanted I would do. It was very personal! Just having it be an Ethiopian restaurant and having my culture featured, even subtly [was an emotional experience]. It’s such a big part of who I am even though the character isn’t East African. I was so happy to have those little nuggets. I have more throughout the episode — things that are personal to me that I feature. They’re like little hidden gems, and it means a lot. I don’t think my mom even believes it until she sees it. But I made sure it was still in the episode.

Amelia Emberwing

Amelia Emberwing is the Entertainment Editor and lead critic here at What to Watch. She survives on a steady IV of caffeine, rants, pixie dust and fangirling, and will probably sass you. You can find her on Rotten Tomatoes as an individually approved critic. She's also a member of the Television Critics Association and GALECA.