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Performers Of The Month - February Winner: Outstanding Actress - Katie McGrath

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February’s Most Outstanding Actress of the Month is Supergirl’s Katie McGrath who brings to life the complicated Lena Luthor. Anytime a character in the Superman or Supergirl universe has the surname Luthor there is an automatic stigma placed on them that they are evil. It is a perception held by the characters and fans alike. That makes casting a character that will almost instantaneously be mistrusted a tricky job. The performer they cast had to be capable of walking a very fine moral line without tipping to either side, so the performer had to be the embodiment of kindness with a little extra edge and just a hint of vulnerability hiding under the surface. The casting of Katie McGrath to play Lena was an inspired choice because she easily ticked off all of those things. She has perfectly tapped into what makes Lena a compelling character to watch. It is no surprise that Luthors (2x12) the episode that almost exclusively revolved around Lena was what propelled McGrath to this fan-given title.

Luthors was an intense episode that tested Lena and Kara’s (Melissa Benoist) understanding of their friendship. Because make no mistake, they are friends, and Kara, as well as Supergirl, made that very clear to everyone around her. Kara needs a friend that doesn’t know she’s Supergirl and therefore doesn’t have such high expectations for her. This isn’t a bad thing, her friends push her to be the incredible hero she is, but Kara needs that neutral friend in her life that she can be just normal ole Kara Danvers with. This season, that person is Lena, whom she’s gone to bat for many times so far. That has set some very high stakes should Lena indeed prove to not be able to break the cycle of the Luthor name and turn on Supergirl and effectively Kara.

Kara has a lot of amazing people in her life from her extraordinary sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) to her pseudo-father J’onn (David Harewood) and all of her friends like Winn (Jeremy Jordan) and James (Mehcad Brooks). But, she also needs friends outside of the Superfriends who don’t know who she really is and with whom she can just be normal. No matter what Lena’s ultimate affiliation may prove to be, for the moment she fulfills an important part in Kara’s human life. They are friends who can rely on each other when they are each in a tight spot and have each called upon this friendship multiple times when they have found themselves in a tough spot. It’s nice to see Kara have someone new introduced into her inner circle that is just a friend. What matters in all this is that McGrath and Melissa Benoist have a great ease when they work together. They have masterfully crafted a beautiful friendship between Lena and Kara that perfectly serves to up the stakes as Lena’s loyalties continually come into question.

This episode was a perfect example of that. McGrath made the all powerful Lena seem so little and down when she was locked in that cell, but when she was being arrested she tried to remain strong and stoic around Kara. That’s the beauty in McGrath’s acting is that she has such a strong fundamental understanding of her character that she can easily move around all these conflicting emotions with such incredible ease. It was such a massive switch when the episode took Lena from looking so broken in that cell to so heroic when challenging her mom and fighting to try and help Supergirl. Fundamentally Supergirl represents everything her family despises yet when it came right down to it Lena sided against her family in favor of her friend. It could all be one big huge elaborate act, but there was a huge amount of concern in her eyes and sincerity in her voice when Supergirl was in danger. McGrath’s ability to maneuver around all those varying levels of emotions is quite fascinating to watch. She’s one of those actresses that can just nail everything thrown her way and make it look so easy despite nothing about acting actually being easy. It’s a quality she shares with the entire Supergirl cast because they all have this magical ability to just make everything they do in this fantastical world seem so honest and real.

McGrath just seems to naturally fit in with this group of performers. You can easily tell when a performer isn’t meshing well with others because nine times out of ten it will seep through into their performances. As a guest performer, it’s always unknown how well that performer will be accepted, but it would appear that not only the fans have fully embraced this exceptional performer, but so has the cast. Even when McGrath was working opposite Floriana Lima (Maggie Sawyer), as Maggie arrested Lena, the way they exchanged lines showed an at ease familiarity between the performers.

No one would expect any less from a cast that in almost every interview refers to each other as a family. It is quite evident that they are a family whose arms remain wide open to embrace all that join their ranks. They are protective of each other and it’s refreshing to see a cast who so regularly stands up for each other and speaks out in support of one another. They do come across as seeming like a very large and loving cast and McGrath certainly seems to have found a place in their family.

She joined Season Two as a recurring guest star making many high-profile appearances throughout the season. Each appearance has served to add another layer to the already complex Lena. Any character with the last name Luthor isn’t going to be fully trusted on any show about a Super. That means that to play Lena Luthor the performer tasked with the job had to be able to walk that ambiguous moral line. McGrath not only did it perfectly, but she made Lena Luthor her own character full of fun little quirks.

Lena is a character who has spent her entire life feeling like she didn’t belong and struggling to find her place in a world that doesn’t seem to understand her. That isn’t much different from Kara, perhaps one of the things that drew them to each other. They each needed someone that truly understood what they were dealing with. Both on a personal and professional level these characters can relate to each other in ways that no one else can.

They each even have similar feelings of abandonment by their parents. In fact, they each even have to deal with the sins of their parents on a pretty regular basis. Even if Kara can’t talk freely about her parents it’s still a powerful connection they share. They’ve both felt as though they didn’t deserve to be a part of the family business. Kara always felt she was in Clark’s shadow and Lena always in Lex’s. There are so many parallels between these two women that make this friendship both necessary and wrought with potential pitfalls.

The complexities of this unique friendship make acting through it a minefield. One wrong step and either actress could throw off the delicate balance that keeps these characters locked into this complicated friendship. McGrath and Benoist thankfully have figured out how to tackle this challenge together and do so in such a graceful way that everyone is rooting for Lena to be good simply to ensure that this friendship between Kara and Lena can sustain in ways that Lex and Clark’s friendship failed.

It is lovely to see a relationship on television that is this powerful, no strings attached, female friendship between two women who regularly lift each other up and fight for the other just because that’s what friends do. There is no fighting over boys, Mon-El (Chris Wood) doesn’t seem like he’d be Lena’s type anyway, or even any real discussion of typical girly things that tend to quickly cause a show to fail the Bechdel test. This is about showing who they each are as people and friends who have way more important things to worry about. Their discussions have great depth, and clearly indicate how well they understand each other. In some ways, it sometimes appears that they each wish that, for just a day, they could trade places with the other. It’s quite amazing that McGrath has been able to do so much with Lena in so few episodes.

She has amassed an impressive resume with many of her biggest parts being characters with questionable moral standing, just like Lena. It could be that she intentionally seeks out these kind of characters, but whatever leads her to them she’s always the perfect pick. She can make even the most abhorrent characters relatable and worthy of sympathy. McGrath has such a likable and kind energy that some part of that always slightly seeps into her characters. While some of her characters are ones that everyone should hate they almost always become fan favorites. That’s no coincidence given how gifted she is as a performer at capturing the little nuanced moments in her character.

As was revealed in Luthors, young Lena had a very close bond with Lex. Chief among their bonding was the game of chess. It is a game all about cunning moves made at the exact right moment to have the maximum impact on the outcome of the game. It’s a very appropriate game for the Luthor children to be taught at a young age. What is important about this is that it taught Lena, from a very young age, to always try to stay a couple steps ahead of her opponents. McGrath has used this angle to further advance the ambiguity of the character by showing, through some very subtle actions, that Lena is always constantly thinking steps ahead of everyone else. The end of the episode showed Lena’s still drawn to the game and definitely left things very open-ended with her. Is she working to stay ahead of Supergirl to actually help her mom or is Lena working to stay a step ahead of her mom to help Supergirl? It certainly seems to be the latter, but one can’t be certain about that because Katie McGrath has the best poker face in the business and it’s next to impossible to garner anything from her performance that she doesn’t want the audience to know. She leaves very little room for interpretation of her work and is a very calculated performer. Much like Lena, McGrath seems to always plot out every aspect of her performance well in advance. With most performers, it’s easy to discern things that are coming from their performances, but McGrath holds things very close to the vest forcing the audience to really work hard to figure out what is going on with her character. McGrath is an exceptionally smart actress which is another of the many reasons she was perfectly cast to play Lena Luthor.

Katie McGrath, who is originally from Ireland, came into Supergirl with an already immense international fan following which has only exponentially grown since she joined the show. And, in this age of social media, she has smartly found a way, much like Lena, to be circumspect and avoid the limelight and has avoided getting sucked into what can sometimes be quite a hostile environment. That has added to the air of mystery around her and has made fans even more intrigued by her. Still, even with that in mind, it’s her immense talent that speaks for itself drawing more people in with every character she takes on.

One thing is for certain, the Supergirl writers will make it next to impossible for viewers to fully discern where Lena’s loyalties lie until the absolute moment they want everyone to know. Even then the door will still likely be left a little bit ajar. One can’t really blame them for trying to keep Lena’s true loyalties under wraps when they have such an exceptional actress like McGrath at their disposal. She won’t let anything slip that the writers don’t want to be known. That fine line, that was mentioned earlier, is one that McGrath has to walk every single time she is on screen. It is imposed by the writers, but it also appears to be a line that McGrath gladly walks. The evolution of her career really has been leading her on a journey to this part. It’s a part that has great potential for her to really delve deep, especially with the recent news that she’ll be a regular on the show in Season Three. It’s news that wasn’t all that surprising, given how hard they’ve worked to develop Lena this season, but it was also very welcomed news to her fans.

If it wasn’t already evident how well the performer and character had been accepted this news solidified it. She will be a very welcomed addition to the cast as this will give her a chance to really delve into who Lena Luthor is on a much grander scale. It’s almost a given fact that Lena and Kara will have many adventures ahead as they try to determine if a Super and a Luthor really can be legitimate friends.

What is remarkable about her recurring guest star status in Season Two is that rarely do performers not in a regular part get a whole episode surrounding their character. A recurring character might sometimes be used as a catalyst for a big event in the lives of the regular characters, but rarely do those performers get to basically headline an entire episode. Luthors was an episode with Lena front and center putting a lot of weight directly on McGrath’s shoulders. For this episode to work she had to nail every morally complicated moment, which she did with great ease.

McGrath shared some incredible moments with Brenda Strong (Lillian Luthor) who plays Lena’s adoptive mother. That contentious relationship also serves to further all the unknowns about Lena. At times she seems to side with her mom then quickly pulls the rug out from under her. Lena has consistently foiled her mom’s dastardly plans all season. Still, she is exceptionally good at making Lillian think she’s on her side, which further leads viewers to question if she could, would, or has been doing the same thing to Kara and Supergirl.

The truth is that everyone expects Lena to turn evil based off of nothing more than her name. It would be very predictable for the writers to go that route with her. Instead, it’s more than likely that they’ll keep playing up the possibility that she could turn evil only to eventually have her land firmly on the side of the heroes. If she becomes a big bad it would be a very big disappointment in the writing, but they appear to have much bigger plans for her than being relegated to nothing more than just a standard bad guy. She may dabble in the possibility of doing something immoral only to be saved from herself by Supergirl in the eleventh hour. Now that would be a fun scenario to watch and would fit in line with whom Lena is as a character in all of her prior incarnations in the comics and other DC projects that she has appeared in. What everyone can be confident in is that whatever route the writers take, Katie McGrath will deliver these words in such a poignant way that fans will have no choice but to keep cheering on this complicated character.

This episode took Lena on an intense rollercoaster ride where she had to rely heavily on her own moral compass and on her friendship with Kara. It was an episode where Lena was quite literally stuck at the center of everything thanks to her diabolical mom. McGrath handled this story with incredible grace and brilliant cunning acting choices. Through one stunning performance after another she brought Lena front and center setting the stage for what is sure to be some very intersting times ahead as the writers unravel what is going on and which side Lena is really on.

There were so many great moments in this episode that this one article just couldn’t cover. Please use the comments section to discuss them all.

PLEASE READ: Please keep comments on topic and just discussing the performances of the winner.

Special thanks to Donna Cromeans, freelance editor/proofreader (@DJRiter on Twitter) for editing this article.

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