Based on the characters from DC Comics, the CW Seed animated series Freedom Fighters: The Ray tells the superhero origin story of Ray Terrill (voiced by Russell Tovey, who also played the character in live-action form in The CW Arrow-verse Earth-X crossover), who dreams of making a difference like his older brother, a Marine who was killed in Afghanistan. When Ray unexpectedly finds himself with superpowers, he quickly realizes that being a superhero isn’t easy, as the evil Nazi New Reichsmen of Earth-X, led by Overgirl (voiced by Melissa Benoist), close in and he must learn how he can help save the world.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer Marc Guggenheim talked about what they learned from making Vixen that changed their approach to The Ray, how they came to be focusing on this character, why we ended up meeting the character first in live-action form, what made Russell Tovey the perfect actor to bring The Ray to life, whether we might ever get to see more from the romance between Citizen Cold and The Ray, but in animated form, and what Melissa Benoist brings to the evil Overgirl.
Collider: What did you learn from making Vixen that changed the way you wanted to approach Freedom Fighters: The Ray?
MARC GUGGENHEIM: Great question. When we did Vixen, we basically broke it out into a series of episodes. This time, I went back to The CW and I said, “In light of what we learned on Vixen, and in light of the fact that it ultimately was going to be released as a single cohesive thing on DVD and then it turned out to be on broadcast, let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s actually conceive and write this as one cohesive story, and then find natural episode breaks, in the process.” Really, the whole structure of The Ray is the opposite of the way we went about structuring Vixen. Vixen was very episodic, and this is a cohesive whole that will happen to be released episodically. And truth be told, it was very easy to find those episode breaks. I always feel like, if you’re telling a compelling enough story with enough ups and downs and twists and turns, finding act breaks or episode breaks isn’t that hard.
How did you come to decide on The Ray as the focus for an animated CW Seed series? When you did Vixen and it was well received, did you start coming up with a list of other possibilities?
GUGGENHEIM: No, actually, The CW came to me and said, “Vixen was such a success that we’d love to do something else,” and they pitched The Ray. The Ray has such a long history and there have been so many incarnations of The Ray that it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that I wanted to do The Ray. It really was a process of picking the right version of The Ray that I thought was interesting enough to spend time on. I sat down with Geoff Johns and we were talking about Grant Morrison’s Multiversity storyline, and how the iteration of The Ray that he came up with was that of a gay superhero who also happened to be the member of a team, made up of various different minorities, fighting for freedom on a parallel Earth that was ruled by Nazis. That was really, really interesting to me. We’ve had a superpowered villain on The Flash who’s gay, we have a non-powered hero on Arrow who’s gay, but in the whole Arrow-verse, what we hadn’t done yet was a superpowered superhero who’s gay. One of the things that made Vixen special was that we hadn’t, at the time, had a female superhero of color. If we’re gonna do these animated series and expand the universe, I personally like to gravitate towards new territory and characters that we haven’t seen represented in the universe before. The Ray checked off a lot of boxes for me.
We first got to meet The Ray in live-action form before the debut of this series, which was the reverse of what happened with Vixen. Was that intentional?
GUGGENHEIM: That was accidental. That was not planned. The truth of the matter is, the animated series was actually supposed to come out before the crossover, but then, as we were working toward the crossover and we had the idea to introduce The Ray, that necessitated changes in the animated series, in order to alter the design of the character to better reflect Russell [Tovey] and to give Russell the opportunity to voice the character. It was one of those situations where, by deciding to do the live-action version, we ended up going back in and changing things in the animated version to line up, but that, of course, delayed the animated version. It was a choice between, do we delay the animated series or do we have the animated series better reflect what we’re doing in live-action, and clearly we chose the latter?
What made Russell Tovey who you wanted for The Ray?
GUGGENHEIM: So many things, quite frankly. First and foremost, he’s a fantastic actor. No matter what role we’re casting – superhero, not superhero, hero, villain, powered, not powered, supporting character – we really just want the best actor possible. Russell is just perfect. Russell is this character. He’s got The Ray’s innocence, idealistic nature, and inner heroism. The story of The Ray is a superhero origin story, and it’s about a guy who has always wanted to do good and who has always had that impulse, but he’s not a fighter. He doesn’t start out as a fighter. He actually starts out working for a public interest charity. This is a guy who basically has to discover, within himself, the inner strength to become a fighter. Contrasting that with Stephen Amell, who comes on and you know he’s tough and a killer, Russell is able to convey a heroism without being an obvious fighter. Both in live-action and in the animated series, what makes The Ray a hero is his ideals, and Russell has the heart to portray a character who you can just tell is a good person and has those ideals, and who is willing to walk the way and not just talk the talk. Russell was on the top of the list [for casting], and it really was a no-brainer. I did a Skype call with Russell, and in the first 10 seconds, I was like, “Oh, my god, I’ve gotta get him to say yes! He has to do this!” He was always game. We sent him what we call a care package of all the relevant comic book stories and told him to please pull out the Multiversity volume, so he read that and saw what we were doing. It’s great that The Ray has such a long and storied history, as a comic book character. There have been so many different iterations of him that it really speaks to the deep, rich history that the character has.