Batwoman’s Ruby Rose Prepares to Make History as TV’s First Gay Live-Action Superhero Lead

The actress on defying naysayers and how being a role model 'saved my life'

Batwoman, starring Ruby Rose, debuts on The CW this fall. Ryan Pfluger for Adweek; Styled by Ryan Young; Coat by Ellery
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Last summer, as producers were struggling to cast Batwoman—the latest DC Comics character joining The CW’s Arrow-verse of superhero series—“we always joked, ‘We need a Ruby Rose,’” recalls Caroline Dries, Batwoman’s showrunner and writer. “And it was like, ‘That would be great, but that’s not going to happen. She’s a movie star.’”

That may be true, but Rose—a former model and MTV VJ in Australia who had her big U.S. breakout in 2015 as Stella on Orange Is the New Black, which led to films like John Wick: Chapter 2, Pitch Perfect 3 and The Meg—couldn’t pass up the chance to make history by starring in the first live-action superhero series led by an LGBTQ character, and played by an openly gay actress. Debuting on The CW this fall, Batwoman—whose trailer was one of the most enthusiastically received during last month’s upfronts week—focuses on Rose’s Kate Kane, Bruce Wayne’s cousin, who after years of training off the grid, returns home to a Gotham in which Batman has been MIA for three years, and reluctantly steps into his Bat boots.

“When people see the show, they will understand why this character is so important to me and why after reading the script, it was a no-brainer that I would happily spend as long as I’m allowed to playing this character, over trying to find new ones,” says Rose. She hadn’t yet seen the Batwoman pilot when she spoke with Adweek shortly after The CW’s upfront presentation last month, but says, “It’s very rare that something feels that special. And if it feels that special, it seems impossible that it couldn’t be special.”

Rose, a former model and MTV VJ in Australia, had her big U.S. breakout on Orange Is the New Black.
Ryan Pfluger for Adweek; Styled by Ryan Young; Suit by Versace; Cuff and ring by Jennifer Fisher

As Dries puts it, “To have the super-strong badass lead character be the base of the show, and that her love story is the love story of the show, is so groundbreaking and so important to me, as somebody who’s gay. If I’d had this show as a 15-year-old, my life would have been so different. It would’ve been so much less depressing, and it would’ve felt like I had so much more support.”

Rose actually made her debut in the role during The CW’s annual superhero crossover last December, even though she says, “I had no idea what I was doing! Because I didn’t know Kate like I know Kate now.”

That changed this spring when she filmed the Batwoman pilot, which was “exhausting and rewarding—and it’s not the kicking-butt side of things I’m talking about,” says Rose. Yes, in one scene she single-handedly takes on eight or nine assailants, but the episode also delves into Kane’s emotional backstory, filled with heartbreaking losses of family members and girlfriends. “There’s so much in it that I think friends, or me when I was younger, or fans, or anyone can watch and feel part of their story is being told,” she says.

During filming, “I would go home and I was exhausted, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, the stunts must be killing you.’” Rose says. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s from crying,’ and they’re like, ‘What? Isn’t it Batwoman?’ ‘I know. I’m as confused as you are!’” (Marvels Dries, “She can go from tough to vulnerable in the snap of your fingertips.”)

While taking on Batwoman and Kate Kane sounded like “a cool idea in theory” when producers reached out to Rose last summer, she approached the meeting with Dries and executive producer Sarah Schechter as “just an open conversation.” But once Rose heard their pitch, she was hooked.

Video by Dianna McDougall for Adweek

Their vision for the role and the season “just transformed the entire conversation,” says Rose. Yes, the opportunity to play the first out-lesbian LGBTQ superhero in a live-action series “is amazing, but [it] still [has] to be done in a way that’s authentic and right, and feel good,” she explains. “The story they’re telling me is so much more in-depth, real, grounded, heartbreaking and wild than what I anticipated.”

Dries says that prior to Rose’s involvement, as she and the producers considered other contenders for the role, she had convinced herself that casting a heterosexual actor would be fine as long as Kate Kane remained gay and “super true to the comic.” But after Rose was cast, says Dries, “I was like, ‘Thank God we hired a gay actor to do this!’ That would have been such a mistake not to.”

That’s because Rose, like Dries, understood the importance of portraying Kate Kane’s same-sex relationships in a realistic—and, more important, matter-of-fact—manner. “There’s a way that television shows and films often depict any kind of new relationship when it’s a woman and a woman. It often has a beginning, middle and end that’s always the same,” explains Rose. “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re my best friend and we’re having a slumber party in high school!’ It’s fine, because that is a way that still represents and still speaks to a legitimate way that people get together in relationships. But it also feels like we have to do more explaining than when it’s just a heterosexual couple,” where viewers are routinely introduced to an on-screen relationship with little backstory.

In the series, Kane’s romantic relationships “are never going to be that explained. It’s just going to be like anybody else,” says Rose. “And that I love, because as much as I love representation in any way, shape or form, I don’t think I’ve seen it normalized as much as this.”

Rose loves how Kate Kane’s same-sex relationships are portrayed in a realistic, matter-of-fact manner in the show, adding, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen it normalized as much as this.’
Ryan Pfluger for Adweek; Styled by Ryan Young; Jacket by 1017 Alyx 95M; Ear cuff by Lady Grey

Rose is undaunted by some of the fan backlash to the news of her casting last August (including some who claimed, erroneously, that the actress wasn’t the right fit because she’s not gay). “I can’t have that kind of noise; it doesn’t do anything for me as an actor going in,” says Rose, who promptly deleted her Twitter account, which she tells Adweek she had already planned on doing after she had finished promoting The Meg. “I just care about how I feel when I go to work. If I’m happy, I know I can do it justice and I believe in the project, then I don’t think there’s anyone that could convince me I don’t deserve to be there.”

After all, Rose has never been one to let others tell her what she can and can’t do with her career. After feeling pigeonholed as a model and TV personality in Australia, she created her own short films, like 2014’s Break Free, to help her break into acting. “I do like a bit of problem solving,” she says. “It goes back to my mom always reminding me that I had bat wings as a kid, but we made them out of cardboard. And now I have a Colleen Atwood-designed Batwoman suit, and I’m actually Batwoman! I feel like if you want something bad enough, if you have the creative juices inside of you and you need to get them out, you have to find a way.”

Break Free led directly to her getting cast in Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black, where she played a potential love interest for Taylor Schilling’s Piper. “All the girls on the show would tell me, ‘This is going to change your life,’ and I was like, ‘You guys are out of your mind. This show was already so successful; I’m going to be like a speck, a blink-and-you-missed-it role,’” recalls Rose.

But as soon as the Season 3 trailer was released, her career skyrocketed. “I didn’t even say a word in it—I think I just winked!—and everything started to snowball from there,” she says. “It did change my life. That’s what led to every film, every job. Everything.”

It was a breakout moment that every actor dreams of, but it was also “terrifying,” says Rose. “They say you never want to be an ‘it girl,’ and the level of exposure that Orange put on me, when I didn’t have anything planned after at that time, was daunting.” But she ended up working steadily in a string of sequels to films xXx, Resident Evil, John Wick and Pitch Perfect. “I thought I was going to be the queen of sequels. On my tombstone would be: ‘She came, she did sequels and she left,’” says Rose. “Then I did The Meg and I was like, ‘There’s no number after this. I’m in!’” (Her most current movies, SAS: Red Notice and The Doorman, are also not part of franchises—at least, not yet.)

Rose’s business savvy extends to her brand partnerships, which have included Urban Decay and Nike. “I’m a control freak when it comes to the business,” Rose says. “I need to have a real relationship with whoever I’m personally being an ambassador for.”

That stance has caused her to lose out on some high-profile, high-paying spokesperson gigs. “There was a brand that wanted to do a partnership, and it was a great brand and great money. But they needed me to say yes right then and there,” she says. “I was like, ‘I would love to, but I need to sit in a room and meet these people.’ They said, ‘We don’t really have time, so if you could get those [contracts] done by 5 p.m. tonight, that would be great.’ This is an international brand and a year contract. In what world do they not want to meet me?”

Instead of short-term campaigns, she prefers to invest her time­—and money—into a company, as she’s done with Rebbl herbal beverages (“I had to stalk them for a year before they took a meeting with me”) and Impossible Burger. “It’s not a vanity investment,” she says. “I’m only investing in things I believe in, and not just things I think will make money.”

For those brands that are interested in the personal relationship she craves, Rose says she’s open to new partnerships. “I haven’t done a car partnership yet, and I drive. I haven’t done a watch yet, and that’s a dream of mine,” she says, tapping her wrist and laughing. “Always need to know the time!”

As Batwoman, Rose will find herself as a role model among younger viewers, which has been familiar territory for her ever since she came out as gay in Australia at a young age, becoming one of the first celebs to do so at the time. “Which immediately led me to feel like I was a role model for the LGBTQ community back home,” says Rose, who once considered becoming a child psychologist so “I could help the kids like myself that needed that support.” Once her life went a different route, though, the opportunity to be a role model was always “a driving force” for Rose as an actor.

“Knowing I have that responsibility and taking it as seriously as I do is half the reason why I got into this industry,” she says. “It actually saved my life in many ways: It helps me navigate life and make a lot of choices. When you have two options, you’re like, ‘Which one is the role-model option, and which one isn’t?’ I’m going to take the road where my grandma will still be happy with me.”

Check out Adweek’s full list of 2019 Women Trailblazers.

This story first appeared in the June 3, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.