How Azie Tesfai Brought Personal Empowerment to Her Powerful ‘Supergirl’ Episode

Script's Editor Sadie Dean speaks one-on-one with 'Supergirl' actress turned scribe, Azie Tesfai about the development of her character and episode, she co-wrote with J. Holtham, pulling from personal stories and conversations and what she hopes for the future of storytelling.
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Azie Tesfai as Kelly Olsen in Supergirl. CBS/Berlanti Productions

Azie Tesfai as Kelly Olsen in Supergirl. CBS/Berlanti Productions

I had the great honor of speaking with Supergirl actress turned scribe, Azie Tesfai about the development of her character and episode, she co-wrote with J. Holtham, pulling from personal stories and conversations and what she hopes for the future of storytelling.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this episode come to be? Did you initially pitch it or did the show approach both you and J. Holtham to write this episode?

Azie Tesfai: During the pandemic, you know, waves of emotion and binge eating like everybody else. But I also during that time, started writing - I worked with this writing coach, and I didn't vibe and called a friend and asked her if she had anyone that would be interested in spending a couple of days a week in teaching me structure. And so, I did that, we were off for like a year. At the same time, I had a show idea that I wanted to do and I started working on it with the creator and showrunner of the last show was on Jane the Virgin with Jennie Urman. She's like a genius. I bow to her all the time. And I blame her because working with her, you immediately fall in love with storytelling, because she's wonderful. I spent my hiatus between doing these writing lessons and working with Jennie, and Zoom mini rooms and learning and I just fell in love with it.

And then I wrote a spec script that I wanted to present to the show about essentially a storyline for Kelly, where she examines PTSD and how we treat our veterans when they come back - a part of her past that we hadn't really looked at. So, I wrote it and sent it to them, and our showrunners loved it. And I think initially maybe there was a possibility of doing that storyline, and then you know, not only with COVID going on longer than most anticipated, but then the show getting its last year, everything got rearranged. I didn't know what was going to happen. Then they let me know that I was definitely going to still co-write an episode. And they sent my spec sample script to our producers and the studios and they liked it and approved me as a writer.

Azie Tesfai

Azie Tesfai

I had like three or four episodes off, so I joined the writer's room. I came to LA into the writer's room for a little over a month and did the 10-5 every day and we broke the episode and the whole arc together. And then I got to go off and write, so I got to really be a writer and not have to balance it with acting for most of the experience, which was a dream.

Sadie: That’s so cool that you had that opportunity to do that. Watching this episode the first word that came to my mind before the characters even say it was “exhaustion” and I can't imagine just how exhausted the Black and BIPOC community are this day and age and the way that you were able to develop that into this superhero world – it’s a very real-world thing. From a writing and acting standpoint, how were you personally approaching this story?

Azie: It was personal. A lot of the conversations were very personal, and I would voice note a lot of it, and torture myself in having those conversations. Some of it was great because it's the things everything that Kelly says is something I've felt or said, or mainly wanted to say, but didn't feel empowered or safe to do it. And so, I got to do that through this experience. It's like when if something goes down and then you're in the shower later and you're having these conversations that I always wish I had, and then getting to transcribe them. And then everyone had to listen to me say it, was like a dream, but it was emotional. And I think because it was so personal, I cried a lot, writing it more than acting it even.

[From Stage to Screen with ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ Screenwriter Tom MacRae]

J. [Holtham] and I had an interesting dynamic co-writing, we kind of talked about everything together. And then we went off and did a lot of our own because our experiences are so different and then come back together and meld it. It was good because we didn't compromise our very different perspectives. And then once we were done with that, [David] Ramsey came in, and then I would get his perspective and try to integrate that through his character Diggle. Most of the time it’s you know, one person of color in the writer’s room, one person of color on the cast and you have to streamline a whole experience of a whole group of people through one character. And it's just not ever accurate or realistic. Bringing in all these guest stars, we had all these means to tell varied stories.

For the Kelly stuff, it was all things that I felt. Like the phone call, I haven't talked about this before, the phone call with my brother, those are based on real conversations that I actually had with my brother on just things that were happening in my life. And I remember calling him and he was in Australia shooting Mortal Kombat and then I got off the phone and right away I just recorded a voice note of it. And that's what ended up being the phone call between them in the scene. And there were moments where many times, everyone that wasn't on camera was crying, or it was heavy, but also it felt on set as it feels when I think when you watch it, which is uncomfortable, but in a way, it needs to be when you have to just listen. And there's something really beautiful about that.

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Sadie: I read that you even included some personal touches from your own lineage. Why was that so important to you to include?

Azie: Being the child of immigrants, we’re given three career choices. [laughs] You're going to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. My parents literally escaped war to give me a better life. They're like, “We need you to really do better than we did.” I was lucky, my mom really was like, “You can do anything,” my whole life, and supported me in this crazy dream. I had never seen anyone from my culture do anything creative. I didn't have an example of it. And so I try to talk about being Eritrean and my mom and my family being Ethiopian, as much as I possibly can, because I want other people that are from different cultures to realize that they can act and write and produce even if, you know, there's not a lot of us, it's possible. It's such a big part of my identity and being allowed to put it in the show and like the opening scene my character is walking out of an Ethiopian restaurant, and my mom's name is the restaurant. Our set designer sent me the signs, I let my mom decide all of it, because it was her dream when she moved to this country to have a restaurant and she sacrificed it for me, so to be able to give her that felt really wonderful. And in my guardian suit, I have little Ethiopian beads in my braids, which is subtle, but it's a little nod to my culture. And I am the first person of my culture who's ever played a superhero ever. Being from a country that has had such a hard time - human rights, like education and safety, and health isn't something that all women are allotted – I felt I had power to pay tribute to that culture and where I'm from as a superhero, it's such an honor to be able to try to do

Sadie: To give power and respect to your lineage like that is really incredible. What are your hopes for the future of TV in terms of storytelling and the roles that are available?

Azie: I'm still writing and I'm in the middle of developing some stuff. I have gotten the bug in the worst way. [laughs] For me, my passion has always been representation. And I think when we tell stories, the first level of that is, unfortunately, the trauma of our experiences in any marginalized group. It's not what makes other people see you. It's in the messiness of our daily lives, which make us more similar. Like my character, in particular, she is on a pedestal, and I appreciate that so much. But the next step of that is seeing her complicated decisions and shows like Rami do that, and that makes you kind of feel like you're more on common ground. And then as a Black woman, Black joy, there's a lot of stories in which are an origin story of slavery and trauma and victimization. And I think, something that like The Cosby Show did, which there hasn't been much since then, celebrated Black excellence and Black joy and seeing us thriving, and I think so much of this representation is for others to have an understanding. I think what is missing and what I hope to be a part of bringing forward and other people as well is, is seeing us thriving and winning and not just surviving.

[Entertaining and Engaging an Audience with TV Writer and Former Showrunner of CBS' 'S.W.A.T.' Aaron Rahsaan Thomas]

Sadie: I applaud that and very much forward to what you do with your future projects. We need to see that on-screen. Azie, great episode, and congrats!

Azie: Thank you so much. 

Supergirl episode 12 Blind Spots premieres on September 21 on the CW.


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