For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
Actress Savannah Welch is feeling the pressure that comes with playing Barbara Gordon, the DC Comics character (also known as Batgirl or Oracle) who, since becoming paralyzed by the Joker in the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, has also become an important figure in the disability community. For the third season of HBO Max’s Titans, Welch, who had her leg amputated after an accident in 2016, drew from her own experience and collaborated with writers to ensure that the portrayal of this beloved character would be authentic and respectful.
Welch, 37, also draws comparisons between her Titans character and the equally iconic—but for quite different reasons—Mare Sheehan, the cantankerous detective investigating the murder of a young mother on HBO’s Mare of Easttown. Both women are in positions of power, yet face personal and professional challenges despite their ranks. Welch spoke to W via Zoom from her home in Austin, Texas, about playing a historic comic book icon, and about the modern icon that is Mare Sheehan.
For a long time, Barbara Gordon has been a symbol of empowerment for both feminists and the disability community. What was it like playing such an iconic character?
It’s an honor. I guess there’s a bit of intimidation with the responsibility to get it right. There are so many people who, like you said, love this character and have looked up to her, and she’s been a symbol for the disability community in media, and one of the very few. So it was really important to me to honor what existed out there already with the history of this character and all of the evolutions and incarnations that she’s had in the DC Universe. We also had freedom to embellish that or fill it in with our own storylines and create a real person who has thoughts and feelings and needs and all of those things.
What do you think separates this version of Barbara Gordon from others?
One choice that the writers and the showrunners made was that they really wanted to show this character in a position of power as commissioner of Gotham, and how she took over that role after her father passed away. Being in a position of power as a woman, as a woman who has a disability, in her hometown, there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on her. Probably quite a bit of criticism coming her way about the way that she’s doing that job and how she’s doing it differently than her dad. I’d like to think that there was quite a bit of commentary about modern-day obstacles that women have in industries that are typically male-driven.
Did you collaborate with the writers on anything about the character based on your own experience with a disability?
I did. It was really important to Warner Bros. to find somebody for the role who is in the disability community. I had done a little bit of research, it is something like 90% or 95% of characters who have disabilities are played by able-bodied actors. It’s not necessary. I’m not [using a wheelchair], so that was a part of this character that I really wanted to portray as accurately and honestly as I possibly could. I drew from my own experience of having limitations, having to rely on other people for help here and there, but also being very independent and deciding this is not going to limit my ability to do the things that I want to do in my life. Barbara Gordon certainly hasn’t let it slow her down.
Let’s pivot to Mare of Easttown. Did you watch week to week?
No, I binged the shit out of it. My brother, my fiancé, and I started it at a totally reasonable hour, 8:30 or 9 p.m. And I think it was like 2 a.m. when my fiancé was the voice of reason who said, “We can finish this tomorrow.” It was just so fully immersive and captivating for so many reasons.
Were you surprised by the ending?
Oh, of course; I definitely didn’t see that coming. And we were all going, “Okay, who do you think it is?”
Besides Mare, which other character from the show would you like to play?
The young mother [Erin]—although she had a very small role, she stole the show for me in those episodes. Even though I was 27 when I had my son, I could relate to that kind of loneliness and the desperation and feeling a bit…I don’t want to say ostracized, but just because of the new reality, friend groups that weren’t really there yet or didn’t have children yet and couldn’t relate to them anymore. There were just aspects of her character that I really connected with and loved.
I haven’t really discussed the show with anyone who is a mother, so it’s an interesting new perspective to get on it.
Everybody’s talking about just the realism of their performances and how dedicated Kate [Winslet] was to playing this woman. Her character wasn’t a pretty version of a detective. I think I was watching an interview with her, and she said something about that. Of course, I immediately flashed to Titans, playing a commissioner who is dolled up. I was fighting an uphill battle, trying to play her down, but I don’t know. I don’t think [Barbara Gordon] would give a shit so much about what she looks like. It’s a different world, and it’s a totally different genre of show.
That’s a really interesting comparison between Barbara and Mare.
Yeah. And not to throw anybody from Titans under the bus at all, but I was going, “Less curls, less jewelry; she might be sloppy some days.” But it’s a comic book. I understand the need to portray a certain image, as well as in a different genre, but I think my intuition and instincts lend to something that’s a bit more in line with what Kate did with her character in [Mare of Easttown].