How ‘Supergirl’ Melissa Benoist channeled a Boston Marathon bomber’s widow
It’s a Monday evening, when Melissa Benoist has just finished shooting for the day as the star of “Supergirl” on the CW. She’s heading back to her place in the town of Langley, just outside Vancouver proper, where the show films nine months out of the year. Her husband of almost two years, actor Blake Jenner, 24, visits her there, says Benoist, but “it’s a long time to be away from home” — plus, “it’s freezing!” Then again, she can take it. She was raised with Colorado blood.
Benoist, 28, grew up in Denver from the age of 2. And despite the fact that she’s lived in Los Angeles for four years now, “I’m not an ocean person,” she explains. “I like being landlocked. I constantly daydream about a ranch in the mountains in Colorado or Montana…I think mountains are the most beautiful things in the world.”
A self-described “musical-theater nerd,” Benoist grew up with two sisters. “I’m the evil middle sister, the drama queen,” she says, laughing. And she sees in her childhood so many seeds of the adult she’s become. “I could be very outgoing, very hyper and energetic and imaginative and crazy and weird,” she says of her early years, “but at the same time I was really introverted, and didn’t mind spending many hours alone . . . playing make-believe by myself.” She says she feels the same way today: “I love solitude, and I’m not afraid of it.” With her alone time Benoist cooks, and she also is an avid reader and collects records. When in LA, she plays with her two dogs and makes pottery with the wheel she has in her house. “I love sitting at a [pottery] wheel, even if I mess up every piece I’m trying to throw. It’s such a meditating and calming feeling; it kind of grounds me.”
Her childhood also prepared her for her first big role, in 2012, as Marley Rose on “Glee” — because “I was a glee kid,” Benoist says of the part, which went past its planned six-episode arc and through Seasons 4 and 5. “That was the moment professionally when I was like, ‘Wow, I’m doing this for a living now,’ ” she says. It’s also when she met her husband, Blake, who played one of her love interests on the show; they married in a small, secret ceremony in the spring of 2015.
Benoist followed up her work on “Glee” with roles in films like 2014’s “Whiplash” (“I had never read anything like [that script]; I mean, he has entire pages that are stage direction”) and 2015’s “Danny Collins” with Al Pacino (“I [had] such a small role in that movie, yet every single person in that movie went to Al’s house to rehearse”). Then she auditioned for “Supergirl.” A lot. “It took three months of auditioning and dyeing my hair blond before I actually got the part!” she says. Still, Benoist didn’t expect to get the role. “I don’t think of myself as that tough, kick-ass, badass woman,” she admits. “I’ve always been a pacifist, for one, and I was [always] weirder and quirkier and dorkier.” That seems to have been just the formula to earn her the part as Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El from Krypton. Playing Supergirl in such a historically male universe has given her a true appreciation for what makes female superheroes stand apart. “[Kara’s] not afraid to feel hurt and confused and sad and lonely — that’s not something I have seen in a lot of male superheroes. I think that’s what makes her stronger,” says Benoist, “acknowledging her vulnerability. That’s how she touches so many people.”
This month, Melissa will play a key part in “Patriots Day,” the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. She plays Katherine Russell — wife and now widow of terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev — who was born Christian but later devoted herself to the Muslim faith. And while Melissa says the majority of other actors in the film got to meet their real-life counterparts, “that wasn’t an option for me because of the nature of her involvement,” she says. But that’s precisely why she felt drawn to play such an enigmatic character, because of “how many Americans are confused by the choices she made, to convert to radical Islamism.” Ultimately, Melissa knew she had to be a part of it. “I think it’s an important story right now for Americans particularly,” she says. “It’s so relevant that it’s happening in our country right now.”
One of the biggest surprises for the actress was the impact that wearing her character’s hijab had on how she felt — “in the way I walked, the way I conducted myself, the way people talked to me,” she explains. “A lot of people didn’t recognize me when I would come on set afterward; having changed out of it, they didn’t know it was me, even though they’d spent all day with me.” She learned something else in that traditional garb. “Immediately your vanity just vanishes,” she says. “That felt like a valuable lesson to me: You can put on a garment and be a body that exists for your mind, and not externally.”
When she’s not in a serious costume Benoist’s personal style is minimal. “I’m definitely a jeans-and-T-shirt person,” she says. Her current uniform: a pair of Levi’s 501s from the ’70s that she got on Etsy, with one of the “way too many James Perse white T-shirts” she owns. In LA, she pairs the outfit with black mules; in Vancouver, it’s rain boots and her new oversize, boxy black wool Sessun coat. “It’s the handsomest coat I’ve ever bought!” she says.
Such minimalism is a big shift from what Benoist used to wear after moving to New York at age 18 to attend Marymount Manhattan College on the Upper East Side, when bright colors and Williamsburg hipsters were the rage. “I had a pair of teal tights that I had no business wearing,” she remembers, laughing. But that freedom is what she loved most about those years. “I found myself there,” she says of New York City, “and every time I go back, I feel like I’m my best self.” She also makes sure to hit everything on her must-do list when she visits: the pork buns from Momofuku, the birthday-cake truffles from Milk Bar bakery, meals at Barbuto, and wandering the West Village to visit her old college-bar haunts. New York, Benoist says, is “my favorite place in the world.”
When she moved to LA at age 24, her style evolved toward more classic lines. “There’ll be the off chance that I’ll gravitate toward something I think is cool, but I am by no means hip to the times,” she says with a laugh. But she does look up to those women who are, citing close friend Jenna Dewan Tatum (“She always looks incredible”), Alexa Chung (“She’s not trying too hard”) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (“a French cool girl with je ne sais quoi.”)
But if Benoist were ever to take a leap for fashion, it’s now. “I think holiday party outfits are so fun,” she says, citing the sequins and tulle that only suit three short weeks every December: “You can’t wear [them] all year round — that’s why it feels so special.” And just as “Supergirl” changes into her crime-fighting costume, Benoist is also eager to swap outfits when she joins her family for Christmas. “My family hunkers down,” she says. “We get into pajamas and do puzzles and play board games and have movie marathons. It’s something I’m looking forward to.”
If there’s anything else she wants going forward, it’s that her role on “Supergirl” inspires some super girls — “especially in the climate we’re in right now in this country,” says Melissa. “Whatever fire is inside of them — whether they want to become an astrophysicist, or solve a math proof, or dance in the New York City Ballet — we can make huge differences,” she says. “That’s what I want to see more of.”
Fashion photos by Don Flood
Crew Credits: Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Hair Stylist: David Gardner at GRID; Makeup Artist: Mai Quynh at Starworks Artists
Fashion credits for second photo: Diane von Furstenberg dress, $898 at DVF.com; 18-k white-gold earrings with diamonds, $3,470 at Borgionis. com; 14-k white-gold ring with diamonds, $3,397 at LeVian.com
Fashion credits for fourth and fifth photos: (Left) Dress, $8,990 at
Carolina Herrera, 954 Madison Ave.; Pumps, $1,050 at Roger Vivier, 750 Madison Ave.; 18-k white gold earrings with diamonds, $3,470 at Borgionis.com; (Right) Dress, $5,995 at Dolce & Gabbana, 717 Fifth Ave.; 18-k yellow-gold earrings with diamonds, $4,200 at Borgionis. com; Ring, $225 at Oscar de la Renta, 772 Madison Ave.
Fashion credits for sixth photo: Jonathan Simkhai top, $795 at Net-a-porter.com; Skirt, $625 at JonathanSimkhai.com; Pumps, $2,050 at Roger Vivier, 750 Madison Ave.; 18-k white-gold earrings with diamonds, $3,470 at Borgionis. com
Fashion credits for seventh photo: “Survivors” dress, $1,898 at PINKO, 414-416 West Broadway; Sandals, $795 at MoniqueLhuillier.com; “Apollo” earrings, $250 at EddieBorgo.com; “Trillion” earring (worn as a ring), $1,215 at DelfinaDelettrez.com