Batwoman is making history as the first television series with a gay superhero. Star Ruby Rose made her own hero’s journey to get there.
Amid the action and drama of the Batwoman pilot, a moment of jarring beauty arrives.
Kate Kane — no stranger to trauma and danger — enters a cave (okay, that cave) and is suddenly engulfed by a swarm of bats. Instead of reacting with shock or terror, she looks on with awe as they fly around her.
The scene looks much like a page from a graphic novel come to life. Which is altogether right, as the series itself has finally come to television life from the pages of DC Comics, landing on The CW October 6.
Showrunner Caroline Dries has had the swirling image in her mind since she started writing the pilot. "Over a year and a half ago, I thought, 'At the end of act three, Kate discovers that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and she's surrounded by bats.'" It's as if the winged creatures are expressing their approval of the soon-to-be Batwoman.
"That was my touchstone for the show, and sure enough, it's still the end of act three. It was supposed to be surreal and hauntingly beautiful," she adds, crediting director Marcos Siega for making it so.
And even though the bats in the scene are CGI, the performer playing Kate Kane — the equally alliterative Ruby Rose — would have been happy if they were real, because she loves bats.
"My mum used to have them," the Australian actress explains. "When I was growing up, she used to rescue them, and we'd have them in the bathroom."
In an empty restaurant in Studio City, California, Rose sits down to talk about the show. Her features are angular yet delicate, her huge eyes such a light blue they look gray. She wears a black T-shirt that reveals some of her many tattoos.
Wait a minute — they had bats in the bathroom?
She nods. "We had an outdoor bathroom. That's quite a common thing in the country in Australia. My mum would rescue injured bats and bring them into this outdoor bathroom, and they would shit everywhere. She loved them. She's had a little Batman tattoo since she was in her 20s. And I used to have batwings that she made out of cardboard."
By coincidence, one of Rose's tattoos is the same as one worn by the comic book character Kate Kane. The actress was literally marked for the role.
But first she had a long, circuitous journey from life in rural, southeastern Australia to starring in the show touted as the first superhero series led by an openly lesbian character.
Her own jarring beauty played a part from the beginning. Discovered as a child, she modeled from age seven. "I don't know if you even call it modeling," she demurs. "Playing the daughter in a Target commercial or something. Things like that helped us pay rent and get by."
At one point, she and her mother lived in a church parish house for reduced rent.
"The deal was, I'd have to sing in the church choir, my mum would make the scones, and my grandma would do the flower arrangements every Sunday." The choir sparked her interest in performing and nurtured her in other ways. "It was a very liberal, free, not 'churchy' kind of church. We had a lot of pride parties; the church was very open, very accepting. I came out as gay when I was at that church," at age 12.
Eventually dropping choir, Rose got into sports and drama in high school. She decided to go on to college, to study either child psychology or acting. "I didn't get good enough grades for psychology, so I thought, 'Okay, I'll do acting school for a year and see where that lands me.'"
She juggled five jobs to pay for the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne: band booker, bar doorperson, model, waitress and customer service rep at a cellphone company. "That last one was very fun. I made my way up to manager of a 10-person team."
Halfway through her first year, the students had to go out and audition for parts as a class assignment. Rose saw a newspaper ad for a tryout with MTV.
"I had no idea what that was," she says. "I knew about it as a music television show, but I didn't have cable — I couldn't afford to watch it."
That didn't stop her from getting the job as a VJ at MTV Australia, prompting a move to Sydney and a huge upheaval in her lifestyle. She still had about five jobs, but now they included radio DJ, clothing designer and singer. "It was still my goal to get back to acting, but it took this windy road of other really amazing opportunities."
But those opportunities turned into roadblocks when people couldn't see past her hosting persona.
"It was like being the Ryan Seacrest of Australia," she notes. If she was going to seriously pursue acting, she would have to make a drastic change. "I packed up everything and came to the States with, like, two suitcases. And I didn't get anything for two years. Couldn't get a manager, couldn't get an agent, could not get an audition."
Instead, she was offered more work as a host. "It's a great job, but I knew that that would be the cancellation of acting. Those two things couldn't be any more opposite. One's not being vulnerable at all, and the other one is being entirely vulnerable and real. I think that's why people find it hard if you try to cross over."
So, she did the crossing on her own. Scraping together $3,000, she took an idea for a music video she'd had in drama school and turned it into a short called Break Free, shot in one day and edited the next.
In the five-minute film, Rose's character starts out dressed to the nines. She proceeds to discard all of her feminine accoutrements, cutting off her long blonde hair and removing makeup that hides her tattoos. She then assumes another identity, and with bound breasts and a strap-on under masculine clothes, she mugs for the camera in homage to one of Rose's favorite films, Taxi Driver.
Throughout her career, Rose was urged to look more traditionally female. Shaving her head at 15 didn't help her modeling career. She briefly grew out her hair before landing the MTV job, then cut it off again, to the consternation of those around her.
"It was such a personal thing for them, that I had this option in their mind to be really beautiful, have really long hair, be very feminine and attractive, and I was choosing some harder life — choosing to be less attractive, to look like a butch lesbian or a dyke or whatever it was, choosing to look like a boy. I just think short hair suits me. It wasn't a big political move or a statement."
Break Free was an effort to explain herself creatively: "This is how I looked, and this was the freedom I felt when I changed that to suit how I felt on the inside, and what made me feel confident, what made me feel strong and what make me feel like myself. In my mind, it was me representing the spectrum [of gender], and I sit somewhere on that spectrum at any given time."
She posted the video on Facebook in 2014. "I think I had 150,000 followers on Facebook, which was 10 years of working in entertainment in Australia in the making, and yet it got viewed by 30 million people after a couple of weeks," she recalls, still amazed.
The number kept going up. Jennifer Euston, casting director for Orange Is the New Black, was one viewer; she and Orange showrunner Jenji Kohan asked Rose to audition for a role on the landmark Netflix series as Stella, a love interest for Piper (Taylor Schilling).
"That was my favorite show of all time," Rose enthuses. "To get a role in that was crazy, because I'd hoped that maybe I would get a guest spot on a web series." Instead she has a 2016 SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.
"Orange opened up everything." Movie roles followed, including John Wick: Chapter 2, Pitch Perfect 3 and The Meg. Dries didn't think they had a chance to get Rose to commit to a TV series, but she couldn't stop thinking of her for Batwoman. Meanwhile, Rose had seen her name associated with the project so often that when they finally called her in, she thought, "Well, yeah, I would hope so."
She met with Dries and Sarah Schechter, president of Berlanti Productions and an executive producer of Batwoman along with Dries, Berlanti and Geoff Johns. (Batwoman is produced by Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.)
As Rose remembers, "Sarah and Caroline would finish each other's sentences" talking about Kate's journey. "It's this ping-pong match, and I'm like, 'These guys are so excited — now I'm so excited!' The story was really interesting and way more intense than I expected it to be." She also believed the subject matter was safe in their hands.
"We were discussing how desperately the world needs something like this right now," Rose says of the series — particularly the LGBTQ community. "
You have Sarah, and Caroline, who's a gay woman, and Greg Berlanti, who always handled these situations so well in the past, and is a beautiful gay man, and they were explaining to me this wasn't going to be a project that was just directed and written by men."
Says Schechter: "Moving past the male gaze is very important to me personally. I don't want to say that men can't write women — we have incredible male writers on Batwoman. I just think that there is something to the uniqueness of the female experience, that it's an added bonus to have a woman writing it."
Dries had convinced herself that it would be fine to cast someone who wasn't gay in the historic role. "And then after we cast Ruby, I was like, 'Thank God we got a lesbian.' Her being out and so comfortable is part of what makes her pop in general, and what makes her pop as an actor. That has helped skyrocket her career in the best of ways, and that's obviously what put her on our radar."
What's more, Schechter adds, "Ruby's got a lot of swagger and a lot of style; she's very cool. She was born for the role."
Which is why it was so shocking that, once Rose's casting was announced, a backlash came from an unexpected corner. Not from die-hard Bat-fans or homophobes, but from some members of the queer community who questioned Rose's ability to play a lesbian.
"I've confused people by saying that I fit on a genderless spectrum," Rose says. "I didn't know it was going to be quite as big a statement at the time. It kind of clashes with the idea of me being a lesbian if I don't identify as a woman all the time, which I do — I identify as a woman.
"But I don't like any of the labels, to be perfectly honest. I don't even like the letters [of the acronym LGBTQ] so much. I just want everyone to be human, be accepted for being human. I think eventually that will happen. But until then, I entirely understand, and stand behind, why each letter is important to each different part of the community."
As the online outrage died down, the work began, and Dries made a few tweaks to the character. Kate Kane became a vegan, like Rose.
"We're going to have scenes of her eating or drinking, so I'm not going to put Ruby in a scene where she's eating a steak," Dries explains. And most of Rose's tattoos remain visible. The role already required hours of makeup, so only tattoos with copyright issues are covered up. "We make those little things part of her character."
Rose soon found herself on set in Vancouver, working through Kate's myriad traumas as the pilot traced the character's backstory. Most of Rose's roles to date have involved action, displaying her ability to believably kick ass. She'd never had to display so much emotion on camera, so she didn't realize the toll it would take playing a woman who's lost so much — family, love, career.
"I'd rather do 20 hours of stunts, because that's a different kind of exhaustion," she says. Despite being wrung out at the end of the day, she was grateful. "I said to Caroline, 'Thank you for giving me a character that has so much depth and vulnerability, and for giving me these emotional scenes.'"
And as for the superhero being openly gay, "It's not any different than any other show I've worked on," says Dries, whose credits include Smallville and Vampire Diaries. "You have a lead character; she has a love story; she has wistful, angsty feelings toward someone, and those feelings are not being returned in the way she wants them returned. It feels very normal."
There was a moment of doubt, however.
"We all looked at each other one day," Dries recalls, "and we were like, 'Is this show gay enough?' We're not really talking about the gayness of it as much as we're talking about a girl who loves people. I feel like that was refreshing, and at the same time I was also like, 'We need to add an extra layer of gay just to make the show feel like it's delivering on its promise.'"
And ironically, while Kate Kane is indeed out and proud, the caped crusader can't be quite as open as her alter ego. "By putting on this suit, she's now becoming a person who has to lie," Dries points out. Batwoman must be in the Bat-closet.
In direct contrast to Batman and Bruce Wayne, Rose estimates that she's performing as Kate about 80 percent of the time.
"Kate's been looking for a purpose her whole life and finds that in being Batwoman. But when she gets home at night, she is Kate Kane. So, I play more to the Kate Kane side of things because that's who she is in essence. With Batman, it really is the opposite. He created Bruce, whereas Kate Kane has created Batwoman."
The pilot upends a range of assumptions, the first of which is that the superhero saving Gotham must be Batman. "It's such a leap to imagine that it is actually a woman doing it, and a gay woman at that," Schechter says. "What's fun about television is, you can take people's expectations and turn them on their head. For the citizens of Gotham it's important, this learning process."
For audiences as well.
Go behind the scenes of emmy 's cover shoot with Ruby Rose at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019
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