“Peacemaker” stars John Cena as Christopher Smith, the titular costumed vigilante so committed to fighting for America that he doesn’t care who he must kill to save it. Writer-director James Gunn created the HBO Max show as a spinoff his DC Comics feature, “The Suicide Squad,” which premiered in August. As in the movie, Cena’s superhuman physique is on ample display in the show, and several other characters — including the special agent Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and the costumed assassin Vigilante (Freddie Stroma) — look like they were lifted straight from the pages of a DC comic book.
Danielle Brooks will be the first to tell you that her character on the show, Leota Adebayo, does not resemble a typical comic book character. As the newest addition to the black ops team tasked with babysitting Peacemaker, Adebayo is the kind of role the Emmy and Tony–nominated Brooks never expected to play. As she explained to Variety, however, Gunn specifically thought of Brooks to be the show’s second lead.
How did “Peacemaker” first come to you?
So, crazy enough, James Gunn watched “Orange Is the New Black.” He was a fan. And he wrote this part with me in mind. I was really excited because first of all, I just had a child. Working was very important, because now we have a new mouth to feed. But also we had just come into the pandemic, and it’s like, when will I work again — especially after having a kid. It’s also this kind of nerve-racking experience, because you really want to fit in their world. When you audition and you get the part, you know that you were the right choice, but when you didn’t audition, you’re like, “I hope they don’t feel like they made a terrible mistake.”
So we ended up having a meeting, and we just hit it off. I explained to him [that] I’ve never seen anyone like myself in this world. It was really exciting for James to say, “I like you the way you are. I don’t want you to get all this training and try to lose 100 pounds” or all this stuff. He didn’t try to make me fit into his world. He said, “You already fit.” I really appreciated that.
So what did he tell you about your character?
She’s trying to provide for a family. And in providing for her family, she is stepping into new territory and taking on a job that she might not necessarily be right for. (Pause) I don’t want to spoil it. I’m trying to be very careful with my words. She’s coming at a crossroad of, is the job worth it? She has a decision about which team she’s going to play for. James pitched her to me saying she is basically the eyes and ears for the audience. It’s almost like taking a normal person, putting them into this new realm, and how would they respond to it? That’s basically who Adebayo is: She’s this used-to-be-veterinarian, lesbian lady who is thrown into this job and is not really equipped to do this, but has actually everything that she needs to be a part of this team.
How much of a comics person were you before this?
I don’t know much about comics. We didn’t have comics in the house — not for any particular reason, we just didn’t. As an adult, I think they’re becoming more interesting because of directors and writers like James Gunn who are diversifying the world, so you can see yourself in someone on screen now. Like, I loved watching Viola Davis play Amanda Waller in “Suicide Squad.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, there’s somebody with an afro! What?! This is cool. She’s a badass.” That’s exciting.
Do you think that one of the reasons you weren’t into comics as a kid was that you weren’t really seeing yourself reflected in them?
Yeah. I used to have a list. I started doing research before getting this part of, like, if I were to ever be asked which [comic book] characters I could play, who do I actually look like? There are a few that look like me, actually, but when they’re reflected on TV or film, they change them completely. Their look does not reflect what you see in the comics. I’ve always tried to manifest doing an action project, because I do feel like a big part of my driving force in this industry is changing the narrative of what leading ladies look like and what plus-size women are capable of doing. Part of that was getting out of my own way. When I had my daughter, I ended up gaining 60 pounds, so I didn’t feel confident. Before, I was doing Spartan races. Like I was out here over 200 pounds, doing Spartan races, and now I’ve gained 60 pounds on top of that, and I just felt like, “Can I do this [show]?” But I knew in the back of my head I could because I had the support of James Gunn, and not someone saying that you need to change any parts of yourself.
What was it like working as a new mother?
Oh, it was the hardest thing ever. [My daughter’s] father, my fiancé, was not able to come because of COVID. He was working in the States. We shot in Vancouver. I was in Canada for a little less than 10 months, away from my fiancé. I had taken my daughter [with me] and she’d just turned one. I had a nanny with me, but it was very hard, because we would do night shoots and just long, long days. Whenever the nanny was off, I was on. Say I get home at two in the morning or six in the morning, the nanny has to be released and then I have to pick up and she is up at seven. So it just never stops.
So long story short, we chose to send her back to New York. The first time I was without my daughter was [for] three months. It almost felt like I couldn’t do it, you know, like I couldn’t balance both motherhood and working. It just felt very overwhelming for me. I’m just glad that I have a partner that could take the reins. I think as a mom you just kind of forget, oh yeah, she has a dad. He can take her, too! You really do need a village and your crew to help you raise a child when you have demanding hours like that. Yeah, it was really tough, but we made the most of it.
James has more than proven himself as an enormously talented writer, but in your character’s case, he’s also a straight white guy writing a Black lesbian. Did you have any conversations with him about storylines or even turns a phrase that you thought your character would be, or would not be, saying?
No. James is really good at writing the humanity of a person. I’ve watched three episodes as of now, and I’m very much in awe at how he’s able to just show the richness of each of these characters without making it about race or sexuality. She just happens to love a woman and a few jokes are made here and there, you know? But I also think he pays attention to the landscape of the world we’re living in right now. I think the contrast between Adebayo and Peacemaker [was] the biggest conversations that James and I were having. We’re coming out of a Trump era and all of the hate that spewed from him unfortunately running the country — where does that play in our story?
The first episode makes clear how much “Peacemaker” is about a certain kind of white man who is coming to terms with how certain elements of his life have been toxic for him.
When you continue to watch, you’ll see the parallels that [Adebayo and Peacemaker] both have with the struggle with people in their lives that have had such huge influences on them — breaking that cycle, getting out of what they’ve been taught, and relearning. They’re so different, but yet that’s what connects them. They get each other because they’re experiencing the same things.
Does your character see much action?
Come on! It’s a James Gunn TV show! Of course! I kept telling James I want to do all my stunts; please let me do everything. And I did a lot: [I] jumped over stuff and I got harnessed up in some things. They still use my stunt woman, who was wonderful, but I was able to at least attempt them first. I remember James Gunn saying, “Yo, Danielle, you’re finally an action hero!” It really just lit me up inside. It really did. I would love to do more. I love being able to surprise people with my capabilities, and just showing that, yeah, I can back-roll, too! Just retrain me, but I can do it!
This interview has been edited and condensed.