As Nia Nal, a.k.a. Dreamer, on The CW series Supergirl, actress Nicole Maines plays the first transgender superhero on television. Before her time on Supergirl, Maines had already spent years as something of a superhero in real life, fighting for trans rights, equality, and visibility from a very young age. With two Supergirl seasons under her belt, Maines has had the opportunity to highlight both the strides made toward acceptance and how far there is still to go.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Maines talked about what she loves about her character, the incredible response she’s gotten from the trans community, when she realized that she could use her own voice to fight for what’s right, how involved she is with the development of her character and keeping things as real as possible, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: How much fun is it to get to play a superhero?
NICOLE MAINES: Oh, my god, it’s a complete dream come true. I have so much fun doing it, and I still can’t fully believe it myself, two years in.
Now that you’ve been playing this character for two seasons, what have you loved about her, from day one, and what have you grown to appreciate about her, as she’s evolved?
MAINES: I love that she’s really become her own character. When she started out, her journey was very reminiscent of Kara, Season 1. Now, two seasons later, Nia and Dreamer have both become their own forces and their own characters. I just recently was looking at that first scene that I did, with Nia in the elevator with Kara, and she’s become such a different character since then. She’s grown into her own, and it’s been so amazing to get to watch that and to portray that
It’s one thing to play a superhero on TV and it’s easy to see why that would be appealing, but you’ve also become something of a superhero to other trans young people, who get to see themselves represented in you and in this way, which I would imagine is just a huge gift.
MAINES: Thank you for saying that. It’s been amazing, getting to see the response from the community and seeing how validated people are feeling. Getting to see Dreamer on their TVs every Sunday, it’s been so rewarding for me. And I get to go to conventions and meet folks who have come out of their shells and been given such confidence by this character. Seeing how people have been reaching out and saying, “Dreamer gave me the confidence to come out as trans,” is more than I could’ve ever asked for. I’m just so thankful that this character has had the impact on people that she’s had, and not just trans people. Getting to hear the response from cisgender people and hearing cisgender people saying, “Dreamer is one of my favorite superheroes now. Dreamer is one of my favorite characters on the show.” That’s been so crazy, to me, that this character has an appeal beyond the trans community, and so many people have rallied behind the superhero and appreciate her, not just as a trans character, but just as a really cool, bad-ass superhero.
You’ve taken things one step further from just being who you are. You’re also an activist, yourself, and you’re a real voice for the transgender community, which is not a requirement. When did you realize that was something that you wanted to do, and that you wanted to use your voice in that way? Is it scary to put yourself out there, like that?
MAINES: Yeah, it is. It’s terrifying. I was first shown the power that my voice has and that my story has when I was in middle school. We had a bill introduced to the Maine state legislature, called LD 1046. It was your run of the mill bathroom bill, like HB2 in North Carolina. It would have required everyone to use the bathroom that corresponded with their biological sex, and that would’ve meant that I would’ve had to use the men’s room. At the time, I was using the girl’s restroom and I was in the closet. I hadn’t told anyone in my school that I was trans, so I would have had to out myself to my school and put myself in a position of danger. And then, also, I would’ve had to be a young girl going in the men’s bathroom, and that’s dangerous, for a plethora of reasons, both physically and psychologically. So, I went with my father and the ACLU of Maine and Equality Maine and the Maine Women’s League, and we lobbied at the State House for two days. We spoke to every house member and representative and person that we could convince to stop for two minutes. I introduced myself and said, “Hello, my name is Nicole. I’m in eighth grade and I’m transgender, and this is how this bill is going to affect me.” We managed to defeat that bill. A lot of folks who had originally supported it, after talking to us and hearing my story, changed their mind and voted against this bill. That really opened my eyes to the power that someone’s voice has, and how powerful and meaningful it is to share your story and to show people who is going be affected by this. It’s much easier to marginalize a group of people when it’s just a nameless, faceless group. But when you have an eighth grader, standing in front of you and saying, “Please do not make me use the men’s bathroom at this baseball game,” you have to look that kid in the face and say, “No, I think that you are a sexual predator and you need to be kept out of the girl’s bathroom.” It’s a lot harder to do that. So, that really made me realize the power that my voice had.
Since then, I’ve been going around speaking and just sharing my story, especially with my father because his story is also so special. He was raised conservative and he was a Republican, and he really had to reassess and re-evaluate his way of thinking. He had to change a lot, to protect his family and the people that he loved, so his story is just as powerful. He and I have gone across the country, speaking at schools and colleges and community centers, sharing what it’s been like as a dad and as a young trans kid. It’s been a really amazing thing that he and I have gotten to do together, and it’s been really amazing to see the response that people have had to that.
You are truly remarkable for putting yourself out there, in that way. You clearly knew yourself better, at an age far younger than most people ever do.
MAINES: Well, I am still figuring a lot out about who I am, but stuff like gender is so instinctive. That’s nature. It was instinctual for me. It felt right and it made the most sense to me, in the world. I thought that it was very obvious to everyone else that I was a girl, and that I was going to grow up and be a woman, and it became increasingly apparent, as I got older, that it was not apparent to everybody that it was who I am. Being a young kid, it just felt obvious. I was so sure. I was like, “Yeah, totally, I’m a woman. That makes perfect sense.”
You also didn’t set out to be an actor. Was there a moment that you realized that it was really a thing that you could do and wanted to keep doing?
MAINES: I always loved playing dress-up. That was an opportunity for me, before my parents were really supportive, that I could wear clothes that I felt comfortable in and that I identified with. My parents were okay with it ‘cause it was just dress-up. They were like, “Oh, he’s just pretending. This is not indicative of a larger issue.” And I just loved it so much. I will always be the first to say that acting is dress up. We are a bunch of grown-up children, playing dress-up. Our job is so ridiculous and so stupid, and I love it. Growing up, I would watch behind the scenes videos and blooper reels from my favorite shows and movies, and I was like, “That looks like so much fun. I wanna do that.” But I was a kid from Maine. No one’s from Maine. The business is on the complete opposite side of the country. And so, I went to college for art because I’m such a fan of a steady paycheck. I was going to go into game design. It wasn’t something that I thought was going to happen, but when it did, it just felt so right. I’m so in love with it. It’s so amazing and I care about it so much. It is the most stressful thing that I’ve ever done. Having to put so much out there ‘cause you care about it so much, and you want it to be amazing and perfect, it’s so nerve wracking, but I love it so much. I’m so thankful to get to be doing what I’m doing.
You’re an actor, you play a superhero, and you’re an activist, but you also apparently enjoy video games and cosplay.
MAINES: It’s all in the same realm. It’s all make-believe.
Do you have favorite current video games that you like to play?
MAINES: I love League of Legends. I don’t love the community. It’s notoriously a toxic online community, and it’s very scary and people are mean, but I love that game. I play it with my best friend and my brother, and it’s great ‘cause none of us live near each other, so it’s been a great way to stay connected. I love Battlefront. I love Warframe. I love Grand Theft Auto. That’s really fun when I need to blow off steam. I have a pink car with gold trim. It’s really cute. I’m a big fan of it. I love the Jedi Fallen Order game. That was really fun. I finished that in a weekend and cried. It was just a beautiful touching story.
What was the first video game that you played?
MAINES: Oh, gosh. I was really little. The first game I have a memory of playing was on the PlayStation 1. I had a Sesame Street bicycle racing game that was like Mario Kart, but for kids. The first game that I really got into was Pokémon. I think my first one was Pokémon Fire Red, or maybe Pokémon Ruby.
Do you also have a favorite cosplay character that you’ve dressed up as, or a favorite costume that you’ve gotten to wear?
MAINES: I used to do it in high school, but I was terrible at it. I’m a terrible seamstress. All of my costumes were such disasters, but my two favorite ones were Ibuki Mioda, from Super Danganronpa 2, that I loved, and Pyrrha Nikos. from RWBY. It was dreadful. The armor that I made for that was just truly atrocious, but I felt so cool. I want to be so good at it, and I’m so not. I’ve gotten past the point where I feel like I need to make everything myself. I have a set of skills, and I recognize that sewing is not one of them. Other people have those skills, and I can support their art. We can support each other.
Last season’s episode, where your character came out as transgender, really helped show people it’s okay to be different; it was an important episode. It was also important in this season to have an episode showing what can happen when someone who’s different gets attacked. Is it personally important to you to not only show the strides that have been made with acceptance, but to also show that there’s still more that we can do, to really come together and support the community, in general?
MAINES: Absolutely! The most important thing that we always need to recognize is that our work is not done. With every victory that we make, we can’t ease up. We can’t get comfortable and say, “Okay, cool, the battle is over. We’ve won.” There’s still so much work left to be done, and it really made me aware of that. Leading up to the episode, we did a bunch of press and a lot of the response to that episode was, shockingly to me, that a lot of people didn’t believe that trans violence was such an issue. They were like, “No one’s being attacked because they’re trans. That’s stupid. It’s such a stupid idea for an episode. They’re just trying to make it about an agenda.” That episode was really for those people. We used all of the real statistics and talking points. The assailant Gregory Bauer is the amalgamation of the comment section come to life. That gay panic and belief that trans women are trying to trick men is who the character was. It’s a very real, scary reality for a lot of trans women, and especially trans women of color. The mortality rate we used was accurate in the United States, at the time of filming. We tried to bring as much reality as we could into that episode, to really show people what’s going on. Yes, we can celebrate, and we have made such tremendous victories, but we have people who still are not aware of what our community faces, so we have to show them and we have to be visible. Visibility is important, but we have to have well-rounded visibility, and show all sides of our struggle and our lives and say, “Okay, this is who we are. This is what we’re dealing with. This is how you can help. And this is why you should help and why you should be an ally.”
You’ve also been pretty open about the bullying that you’ve endured. Did that make an episode like “Reality Bytes” (Season 5, Episode 15) particularly emotionally difficult for you?
MAINES: Actually, not really because the support that I had on set was so tremendous and it was such a safe environment to be in. I felt comfortable and safe, exploring those emotions and exploring that story with Nia because I knew I was in a safe space to do so. I knew that everyone there supported me and everyone was so excited to be telling that story. I had people coming up to me, throughout the filming, saying how proud they were to be a part of the show that was doing this and how excited they were. It wasn’t as hard for me, as I thought it was going to be, and that was just because of how safe everybody made me feel.
How involved are you, not just with that specific episode, but overall with your character, with the storylines and with making sure that what is on screen feels real?
MAINES: Every time we deal with Nia’s trans-ness, I’m the first to know and the first to be consulted. The writers are aware that this is not their lived experience, but it is mine. So, they’ve been really great and they’ve had such great integrity about coming to me with their ideas, their pitches, and their drafts and saying, “Hey, does this look right?” And I’m not the only one. They have other resources that they check with. But I’m the actor doing this, so they’ve been really great with making sure that I’m comfortable, through the whole thing. And they did that with Roxy [Wood] too, in that episode, because it was more traumatic for Yvette than it was for Nia, and they wanted to make sure that Roxy was okay, through everything. They’ve been so great about checking in with me, anytime Nia’s trans-ness is concerned. I think we’ve done a really great job portraying it. I’m instantly over-protective of Nia, and I was insanely over-protective of that episode. Armen [Kevorkian], our director, has the patience of a saint. I had no business leaning over shoulder, as much as I did, but I was like, “What’s going on? What are we doing? What are we thinking?” I was like, “Someone needs to tell me to get outta here and go sit down.” But they were so great. It was just such an amazing experience.
Because of that and because Melissa Benoist made her directorial debut this season, even though you weren’t in that episode and didn’t get to be directed by her, does that inspire you to also want to step behind the camera and try your hand at directing?
MAINES: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ready for that, at all. I’m still trying to get the ropes of the acting thing down. I still have a lot to learn, acting wise. But, who knows? Maybe years down the road, it might be something I try. For now, I’m just very happy and thankful that they feel comfortable talking to me about this kind of stuff.
Where does Nia go from here, and what will we see from her Dreamer side, as well?
MAINES: Nia and Dreamer will dream more. She hasn’t had too many visions, this season. Heading into the finale, those are really starting to ramp up and play a bigger part. She was bottling up so much, and she was trying to contain so much trauma and emotions, and she’s finally let that out. Now, her powers are starting to play a bigger role in where we’re going. It’s just a question of whether she’s willing to let that in.
What have you enjoyed about that relationship between Nia and Kara, and having Melissa Benoist there to go through it with?
MAINES: She’s a gift. I love her so much. As amazing as she is, she’s also such a calming force. To have her there, especially for that breakdown scene, was so reassuring for me. Nia and Kara’s relationship is so special. I love it so much. I love their banter, especially when they’re in CatCo together. I love Supergirl and Dreamer’s banter, but the back and forth that Kara and Nia have when they’re in CatCo together, in the trenches, is so great. And Melissa is so fun and so funny. I love all of the scenes that I get to do with her ‘cause we have such a blast.
With so many characters on this show, each with their own interesting history, what would you still like to see explored or to learn about with Nia? Are there storylines you’d like to see her with have with other characters?
MAINES: I would love to get to see Brainiac and Nia’s relationship hopefully start to mend. I would love to see them on the upswing, and get to have some happy moments that aren’t overcast by miscommunication and potential break-ups. I would love to get to explore Nia’s Naltorian heritage a little more, and dive deeper into the lore of Naltor and see what that’s all about ‘cause we haven’t really explored that much yet. And then, as far as characters go, I have not really gotten to interact with Lena much, at all. I feel like that would be a cool duo. That’s also me being selfish because I just love Katie [McGrath] and have a great relationship with her. I’d love to have more scenes with us. And I’ve never had a scene with Andrea [Brooks]. Eve and Nia have never been in the same room. I feel like an Eve and Dreamer face-off would be crazy ‘cause that would be peak sass. They’re both so sweet, but they’re both so deadly. The question is, is Eve a good guy in this universe, or is she working with Leviathan again? So, maybe if she’s a bad guy, it’d be great to see Dreamer and Eve face off. If she’s a good guy, I feel like that would be such a fun team-up, and so quirky and bubbly and cute.
The Supergirl Season 5 finale airs on Sunday, May 17, at 9/8c on The CW.