What's in a name? Just ask Brenda Strong, the actor brining Lillian Luthor, the mother of Superman's classic foe, to life on "Supergirl."
As soon as "Desperate Housewives"/"Dallas" alum joined The CW series' second season as an enigmatic Cadmus scientist with an axe to grind with the Girl of Steel, she engineered Metallo and sicced him on Superman and Supergirl. It wasn't until a couple of episodes into the season, however, that Strong's character was revealed to be the mother of Lena and Lex Luthor.
That bombshell certainly explained Lillian's vendetta against the Kryptonian cousins and she's been a major threat ever since. In last night's episode, "The Darkest Place," Lillian released the Cyborg Superman – and as Strong told CBR in a recent interview, that's only the tip of the iceberg.
CBR: There wasn't a lot known about your character Lillian Luthor from her first few appearances -- not even her real name. She was simply a Cadmus scientist. What were some of the key points or characteristics that you wanted to establish with her?
Brenda Strong: The main thing for me, because I rarely play a character interpreted as a villain, was to find the through line commitment for her. Nobody ever thinks they are a villain. They are just super-committed to their goal. For me, it was trying to establish what her value system was and what she was willing to do to achieve the outcome. That really gave me a single-minded purpose. With that in mind, whatever you learn as an audience – obviously we now know she's Lillian Luthor – it starts to add layers to whatever there was underneath that we sensed, but didn't know the specifics of.
How do you feel having the surname Luthor added another dimension to the character?
Just from a historical context - even the fact that I was playing Sue Ellen on "Seinfeld" against Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character Elaine - we called her Elaine's Lex Luthor. In the consciousness of anyone who has grown up with the mythology of Superman, Lex Luthor is the epitome of evil. So to be the mother of evil is quite a daunting and exciting undertaking.
What is Lillian's beef with Supergirl and other alien visitors?
Mostly, it's out of protection and vengeance for what she sees as the inequity of what Lex got in his multi-year sentence. She feels that was not a fair shake because Lex was a real Superman, as you heard her say. I think Lillian is trying to right the wrongs against her family, but I also think there is an underlying message about anything that is an "other" as a threat. We all project something that we don't understand as a threat to us. Obviously the audience sees Superman and Supergirl as the heroic characters that they are. To her, they are a threat because they represent a power she doesn't personally have. That's where that vengeance streak comes in, which is to want to eradicate anything else from happening to her family. It's like Mama Bear.
Lillian has proclaimed she wants to "save the world." It sounds very altruistic.
Right. Like I said, nobody believes they are a villain. Lillian actually thinks she is eradicating the world from a threat. She is trying to save the world -- or, the world that she knows.
In last night's episode, Lillian poisoned Mon-El, blackmailed Supergirl and let the Cyborg Superman loose. What were your thoughts on the lengths that she's willing to go to accomplish her goals?
Lillian's really committed, no pun intended. She's definitely a fierce adversary, and I do think she has a little bit of a blind spot in that single-minded purpose. Ultimately, like any good villain, she's not going to stop until she gets what she wants.
You jokingly used the word "committed," and Lillian does come across as a bit of a mad scientist. When does obsession become too dangerous or do the means justify the end?
That is such a great moral question. Everybody could ask themselves that and come up with a whole slew of different answers. It just goes back to the question of, when is it right to do the wrong thing? That opens up a whole can of worms about good and evil, black and white. Where's the gray?
Ultimately, she isn't crazy, but she's definitely committed to the end. It does justify the means for her. Obviously, she's been willing to sacrifice any kind of personal relationships with this single-minded focus. There are costs for this character to achieve her commitment.
How will that mentality clash with her daughter Lena's way of thinking?
First of all, I love the character and what they've done with her. I love playing with this relationship. It's a very tricky relationship in a lot of respects, as a lot of mother/daughter relationships are. But, when you include the added twist that Lena is adopted, it creates a lot of tension of belonging and "am I really a Luthor or not? And what is my role in this family?"
There is a lot of psychology that needs to be worked out between these two. I don't think it's going to be wrapped up easily in one or two episodes. This is good ground to cover over many, many episodes because it's a very complex relationship. I don't think we know a lot about what Lena is thinking. That's part of the enigmatic nature of the character. It's pretty clear what Mama Luthor is thinking, so we are going to have to wait and see.
How much are we going to learn about Lillian's past and her ties to Jeremiah Danvers?
I don't know if you've been following the postulations on the Internet, but that is definitely something that has raised a lot of questions for a lot of people. I have to say, I'm unfortunately not in the know. I only get scripts that concern me, so I only know what I am supposed to know, I'm really curious to see that unfold as well. I can't wait. I guess the two words are "stay tuned."
This happened on "Twin Peaks" as well. Writers know a certain amount about a character they've established. There's a certain amount known in the comic book. Then there's this gray matter that's out there for definition, that actually hasn't been defined yet. In a lot of ways, how we play things is leading the minds of the writers. There are certain futures they have in their minds that they could play out, but are waiting to see, in some respects, how we play with each other.
In what ways will Lillian continue to cause trouble for Supergirl and company?
In every way possible that she sees fit. She has a lot of different enemies at her fingertips that she can throw at Supergirl. I think you are going to see a plethora of Cadmus characters come out in order to defeat Supergirl.
Even in next week's episode, "Medusa," Lillian unleashes something that could have devastating consequences.
Absolutely and that's her intention. Her intention is to wipe out all alien existence on Earth. The Medusa Virus is the thing to do that.
Starring Melissa Benoist as the Girl of Steel, "Supergirl" airs Mondays at 8 pm ET/PT on The CW. The series also stars David Harewood as Martian Manhunter, Mehcad Brooks as Jimmy Olsen, Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers and Jeremy Jordan as Winn Schott and features appearances by Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant as well as Tyler Hoechlin's Superman.