Nicole Maines has dreamed of donning a cape since she was little. Specifically, the 20-year-old activist-turned-actor remembers admiring Storm from the iconic X-Men animated series. “Being the little queer kid who just wanted to be a girly-girl, I saw that cape and that hair and I said, ‘Oh, that’s it,’ as I’m trying to explain to my parents, ‘I wanna be a girl. This is what we’re going for!’ ” says Maines, who is transgender. And now she will finally get her chance. Maines will take flight (at least metaphorically) in Supergirl’s fourth season as Nia Nal, a passionate new reporter at CatCo who is destined to become the precognitive superhero Dreamer. This makes Maines the first transgender superhero on a live-action TV series.
“When I was younger, if there had been a trans superhero, that would’ve been a game-changer,” says the actress, whose previous credits include Royal Pains and the HBO documentary The Trans List.
But this isn’t the first time Maines has broken new ground.
She made headlines in 2014 as the plaintiff in a watershed Maine Supreme Judicial Court case that declared it was illegal to prohibit transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. The victory taught Maines that despite the struggle, there are indeed people out there who are willing to stand up for the marginalized. “Saying it now sounds obvious, but that can be really hard to remember when you’re a trans kid who feels like your world’s been turned upside down,” Maines says. “Just having someone to see in the media is so empowering and validating.”
While Maines’ experience as a “real-life hero,” to borrow executive producer Robert Rovner’s words, appealed to Supergirl’s showrunners — who set out to cast a trans actress in the part of Nia — they were primarily impressed by how she channeled the spirit of young Kara Danvers in her performance.“I can’t believe we found an actress who just magically has the same effervescence and essence [as Benoist],” says fellow EP Jessica Queller. That quality was important because Kara will mentor Nia in the same way that CatCo empress Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) guided Kara in season 1. We’ll also see Nia learn how to harness her precognitive powers and accept her superhero destiny while also fighting injustices as a reporter.
“We’re telling a lot of stories of what’ll be happening in National City as a result of things that happen in the season opener. She’ll be reporting on all that there is and kind of learning from both Kara and from James,” Rovner teases. “There are things that happen in this season opener that kind of propel the whole season forward, and the rise of the Children of Liberty and Agent Liberty [Sam Witwer], and she gets very involved with that.”
Apart from fulfilling a childhood dream, playing Nia has also inspired Maines herself. “She reaches in and she recognizes her experience, and other people’s experiences, and brings folks together,” the actress says. “She just lights my own fire to continue working for social justice; I admire her so much.”
Although there’s definitely some pressure in taking on such a high-profile role, Maines isn’t letting that hamper her excitement, especially when it comes to her supersuit. “I’ve been trying to conduct myself on set like this isn’t the only thing I’m thinking about, but it’s all I’m thinking about,” she jokes, adding that she can’t wait for people to see her in it. “That’s when it’ll really sink in that we have a trans superhero.”
Supergirl returns Sunday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m. on the CW.