EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Black Lightning’s Jordan Calloway On Painkiller Backdoor Pilot & Spinoff

By Andy Behbakht and Nate Milton.

The CW might soon have another DC character joining their tremendous slate, this time from the world of Black Lightning through Jordan Calloway’s Khalil Payne a.k.a. Painkiller. Ever since the beginning, Khalil has been a crucial part of the Black Lightning story as he became more than just Jennifer Pierce a.k.a. Lightning’s love interest. Over the course of the past three seasons, Khalil has been through an incredibly dark journey as he fell into the claws of Tobias Whale that transformed him into a new reimagined version of the DC Comics villain Painkiller.

Khalil’s fate has constantly gotten twisted as he has died and been resurrected more than once. In Black Lightning season 3, Khalil’s Painkiller story took a darker turn as the A.S.A. got a hold of him and brainwashed him into an even more brutal figure. Through the split personality of Painkiller, Khalil has had to overcome the challenges of this other persona that is potentially going to result in his own spinoff series. After the events of Black Lightning season 3, Khalil and Painkiller are going on their own journey outside of Freeland. The seventh episode of Black Lightning season 4 will serve as an official backdoor pilot for the Painkiller spinoff that is in contention to join The CW slate next season.

DC TV Podcasts hosts Andy Behbakht (The Flash Podcast) and Nate Milton (Black Lightning Podcast) recently had the pleasure of chatting with Calloway about the potential Painkiller spinoff and its backdoor pilot that will air on Monday, April 12th. As the hosts had seen the episode in advance, Calloway spoke about getting this opportunity of starring in his own show. While the spinoff hasn’t been ordered to series yet, Calloway shared his excitement of Khalil taking off for his personal journey while also sharing the bittersweet aspect of this happening in the midst of Black Lightning’s fourth and final season.

“We still haven’t gotten the green light yet. So we’re still working there. [when talking about the status of Painkiller being picked up to series] Absolutely, man. It’s a wild ride, to be honest. It’s something that you dream of. And you just continue to work and work towards. You put your head down, tuck your ears back, and you just trudge through it. I mean, it’s really humbling more than anything. I’m excited. I’m thrilled. I’m stoked. I love working with my crew and with my cast. So there’s a lot of emotions. And you also have to add in the fact that this is the final season for Black Lightning. So it’s bittersweet as well.”

Should Painkiller go forward as a spinoff, this would be a new addition to the Arrowverse slate as this would mark the first time The CW has pursued a comic book show centered on an anti-hero. The CW is no stranger to the DC Universe, but Painkiller would add a new layer to their DC TV franchise. Calloway, who is a big DC fan and of the comic book world itself, is passionate about getting to continue the world that was created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden in 1977. But as much as this is exciting on a comic book media aspect, Calloway is aware of the big responsibility that the show has as black viewers get to connect with Khalil (and Painkiller himself) as he talks about the two personas being dependent on each other.

“So I think the fact that me being a comic book fan and me being, a fan of the whole DC world too especially growing up being a fan of Batman, I mean, all the Justice League, Young Justice as well. For me, being able to have that perspective as a fan, and then being thrown into the deep end of being able to portray a character part of the DC Universe. That’s why I said before, it’s like a dream come true. I feel like a big kid, it’s so much fun. But then on top of that, it also gives me such respect for [Black Lightning creators] Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden, because this is their baby. This is what they’ve pretty much birthed into the world way back when and now they get to see it on screen. So there is definitely a huge level of responsibility, not one that should be taken lightly. As well as the responsibility as a black man now, being able to be an example for not just black kids, but I mean kids all across the board. When we talk about Painkiller or when we talk about Khalil, both are synonymous, you can’t have one without the other. And it’s that duality that we see from the two which can be applied to all of us when we look at ourselves because there’s dark and light for everyone, I mean, we see that with our past mistakes.”

One of the big components of Painkiller is that it follows Khalil and Painkiller in a whole new setting. After they left Freeland, Khalil and Painkiller now live in Akashic Valley that has a very Afro-futuristic look to it which fans will see in the backdoor pilot. When asked about how he thinks audiences are going to respond to what they’ll get to see, Calloway shared his experience working with Black Lightning and Painkiller showrunner/director Salim Akil in establishing this unique look for Khalil and Painkiller’s new environment.

Jordan Calloway as Painkiller | Photo Credit: Kyle Kaplan/The CW

“When I was talking with Salim [Akil, Black Lightning and Painkiller showrunner/director], and he told me it was like Afro-punk meets sort of Ghost in the Shell, because I’m also an anime nerd, too. You know, Jay Vetter, our production designer, I saw some of the pictures that they had for creating, just to be able to get into the world because they did a lot of that. They built this whole world off of green screens that we have on the stages. So being able to get that visual in my head and being able to see that thing. I immediately jumped back to when I was a little kid sitting on my dad’s lap, and immediately what comes to mind is Blade Runner, right? So you’re looking at all of it, you’re seeing the beautiful neon lights, you’re getting the feel of the griminess of the streets, but also that’s the futuristic aspect of it. But then you have Salim throw his touch on it with the Afro-centric vibe as well, which I was so excited about to find because I only saw the trailer. I haven’t seen the whole episode yet. So I’m still waiting in suspense.”

Calloway also further went on to praise the hard-working cast and crew that helped put the Painkiller backdoor pilot together. Using Altered Carbon and Anthony Mackie as an inspirational example, Calloway is excited for audiences to see a new element through Khalil and Painkiller’s eyes. While it continues to draw from the tone that Black Lightning established, Calloway opened up on the additions of Alexander Hodge as Philky. James Roch as Cousin Donald, and Sibongile Mlambo as Maya who would be series regulars in the potential spinoff.

Jordan Calloway as Khalil and Alexander Hodge as Philky | Photo Credit: Kyle Kaplan/The CW

“Oh man, that goes to the crew, that goes to the cast as well, man, it takes a team to do this thing. I’m a huge fan of Altered Carbon as well, of the first and second seasons. So seeing Anthony Mackie, it’s kind of like, I get to do my own thing, step into my own type of vibe. And it’s just being able to have that and to have those visuals for kids to be able to see. And for adults as well, it kind of elevates Painkiller, as hopefully a possible show, and takes it into its own world, its own arena, outside of Black Lightning. However, also maintaining through my characters, but also the characterizations that we see through Philky, Cousin Donald, Maya, and Wo-Man. What we also get into is that we still have elements that we saw in Black Lightning with the groundedness as well.”

When it comes to the Arrowverse and its many shows, there’s always an excitement to see the characters crossover with each other. Should Painkiller go forward, Khalil would be in a world with an endless amount of superheroes and supervillains that have come to life through the other series. Due to the fact that Khalil and Painkiller are two different entities, Calloway was asked what characters the two personas would have an interesting dynamic with. While sharing his love for Jason Todd a.k.a. Red Hood, who Calloway pulled from as inspiration, the actor spoke heavily on his passion for Arrow’s David Ramsey who has played John Diggle for almost a decade as someone he’d want to work with.

David Ramsey as John Diggle/Spartan | Photo Credit: The CW

“What’s fun about playing two different characters is you get to show two varieties of responses, When you think about Painkiller and Khalil, how they might react with whoever they may be paired up with. One of my favorite characters that I also pulled from was Jason Todd. I’m a huge Jason Todd fan [laughs] I told you, I’m a nerd! I mean, I feel like Painkiller he’s on Team Red Hood all the way. Come on now. So I mean, it’s like, Yes, let’s do that. And Khalil in his mind. He’s like, ‘I mean, I understand me coming from being dealing with Tobias. I get what you’re going. But Jason, come on. I mean, Bruce taught you, son! Like you can’t kill people, bro!’ But at the same time, it’s like, he’s a little bit more lenient than Bruce would be. I also want to link with Diggle as well. Keep in mind that Mrs. Pierce, that’s her brother. So I mean, we got the whole Green Lantern Corps bound. I’m just throwing that out there. You know, we just throw stuff out there to see what happens, see where it may fall.”

While Diggle and Cress Williams’ Jefferson Pierce have had their own individual paths, Calloway opened up on how he thinks Ramsey’s character, similarly to Jefferson, would have a positive influence on Khalil. Being someone who admired Ramsey’s work in the franchise, the actor explored how Khalil and Diggle could potentially relate through the trauma and pain they have both experienced over their lives. But Calloway also made a point about that the spinoff wouldn’t only be focusing on Khalil’s trauma, but also what Painkiller has had to go through too.

David Ramsey as John Diggle/Spartan | Photo Credit: The CW

“Okay, so let’s look into it. From on a more personal level, right? You had Jefferson Pierce, who was the father figure towards Khalil. Then you also saw the influence of Tobias in Painkiller. So you see these two different influences. Now you add in John Diggle? I mean, come on now. you saw how he was in the Arrowverse or in Arrow. I love him. He was amazing. And I think to have a strong black father figure and to have him have some sort of influence on Khalil. I think that’s one of the best terms that you can put in there. Because there is PTSD. There is trauma that Khalil is dealing with, but not just Khalil, also the trauma that Painkiller is dealing with, and that I think the Painkiller trauma is moreso of manipulation. Even more so for Painkiller than it’s for Khalil. Because when you think about it, my mom, when he killed Michelle, he didn’t really have a choice. He was just following order and that is severing a part of his humanity as well, that he didn’t even have a say in. Painkiller may even hold more of a grudge towards Odell than anybody else.”

While being the lead star of a series is a huge responsibility, Calloway is pulling double-duty as he portrays both Khalil and Painkiller as two different individuals. If Painkiller gets ordered to series, Calloway would be one of the few leads on The CW that gets to play two characters every week. From a production standpoint, there’s more work to be done for Calloway as he goes into portraying these individuals who are so different from one another. Calloway discussed what kind of mind frame he as an actor goes into when shooting scenes where Khalil and Painkiller are interacting with each other.

Jordan Calloway as Khalil | Photo Credit: Kyle Kaplan/The CW

“Honestly, it all has to do with the pre-work that you do. Obviously, knowing your lines, but studying the scene. Studying not just the scene, but also the character. Who is Khalil? Who is Painkiller? What is the tone that each of them has? Where does this come from? What is it that it’s grounded and rooted in? You also have to add to the mix that for Painkiller, he’s a soldier. So he does have that military background. With Khalil you know, he’s the guy that’s worked for and earned everything that he received. I think it was [Black Lightning] season one when he was talking with Jennifer [Pierce, played by China Anne McClain] in the gym when he breaks it down to her like ‘What are you doing? Like you can’t have both worlds.’ This is a kid that saw things ahead of his time. This is a kid that put himself out there and strove for the best. He was a track athlete. He was number one. He was following in the footsteps of Mr. Pierce, who he idolized. He’s intelligent. He’s gonna be vocal about different things that he feels are right when he sees injustices being done. He’s not one that shies away. So he’s also not going to be a pushover when it came to Painkiller. So, going over the course of these four seasons, it’s been a beautiful blend of being able to find and discover the ins and outs, and the identities of these two young men.

That’s kind of what I believe Salim, Charles [Holland, writer on Black Lightning], and myself really want to do and showcase especially for young men that are black. We want them to be able to get to a place where it’s healthy to look at yourself in the mirror and to see not just your successes, but your faults, and to learn from those things as well. I think one of the things that are synonymous with Painkiller and Khalil is the very thin line of falling into depression. And that’s part of the trauma because there’s that isolation. And I think you kind of saw that in [Black Lightning] season three, where he was isolated a little bit. I mean, he was around the ASA and everything but by himself. You saw that he would be in his own cubicle isolated, you know, and that’s something that you have to be able to pull yourself out of, and with the help of others to pull yourself out. And the reason why I say that is because I think it’s extremely important, especially for the youth, when they watch this show when they see the journey between these two far spectrum, different individuals on each of their own spectrum come together in order to pull themselves out of that isolation as well. So that’s part of what the journey is going to be for Khalil and Painkiller.”

Something that is part of the Arrowverse’s overall DNA is the concept of the leading character having a team around them. While that is something that gets infused with Painkiller, the Black Lightning spinoff is approaching the team dynamic from a new refreshing angle. With Philky and Cousin Donald, Calloway looks at Khalil’s allies as a brotherhood where he uses his real-life experiences with his two older brothers as a source of inspiration. Khalil and Philky have a few issues in their relationship that Calloway talks about as he also shares the relatability dynamic he has with Cousin Donald through his military background.

James Roch as Donald | Photo Credit: Kyle Kaplan/The CW

“Well, first, I think, between the big three, here we have Philky and Cousin Donald, I think with them, it’s what we’re seeing is a brotherhood, which I think is absolutely beautiful. I have two older brothers as well. I was able to find different things that would remind me of my two brothers, and then also apply that to two of them. Because my reaction and my response, or when I listened to either of my two brothers, I would then apply that to Philky and to Cousin Donald. Because I’m gonna hear, or I’m gonna receive something different from one or the other, and it comes with that perspective that you have of each individual. That being said, it’s the brotherhood that’s grown out of the three of them, each of them seeing one another as human, and in that, I mean, with their own faults. But also taking from seeing those different faults and seeing how each one has gotten over whatever mountain it was, that was in their life, whatever issue it was that they were going through, and we talked about that in the episode. I think what’s beautiful about it is that, by the three of us, allowing ourselves to put that veil down. To just be honest with each other and know each other’s faults and failures and where we have come from. That’s where the trust gets in, that’s where it’s built. And it’s one of the foundations because you have Philky with their issues that Khalil has his reservations toward him with, as well as you have Cousin Donald, who with his military past and his understanding of what PTSD is. It’s one {of those things] where it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, we’re relatable on the same level, we’re here and I can come to you.’ When you apply that to your daily life, we all have people that are like that,”

One of the many great things that Black Lightning has added to the table as another superhero show is tackling universal themes through the lens of a comic book story. A huge component is the way that the DC drama explores different layers of black masculinity and also various elements of the black experience. As it focuses on those themes as well as the struggle that comes with PTSD and trauma, and other real-life issues in the world, Calloway stressed that it’s something that will carry over from Black Lightning into Painkiller. Because of the opportunity of starring as two characters, Calloway sees the importance of having black viewers seeing a story like this with these two men that have to find a way to co-exist.

Jordan Calloway as Painkiller | Photo Credit: The CW

“Oh, absolutely. The thing about the characters of Khalil and Painkiller is, they’re on two different spectrums. And I only say that because, one will have a more instant reaction, whereas the other one will be more cognitive, and he’ll think about it. And we see that. So they’ll take different roads. Black men that are watching this young black man, they’re seeing themselves in these different characters. So for me as the tool being used to help portray that, I have to make sure that I’m actually locked in, I have to make sure that I’m not cheating. Either one of them. Because it’s easy to say, ‘Painkiller is dark, and Khalil is light’, it’s easy to look at that from the surface. But anyone that has gone through life, anyone that has gone through their valleys, as well as their peaks, they can understand and have an understanding of “Okay, so I see and I’m understanding why you got to this point. Now, how do we move on from that? How do we progress? How do we not just stay here? But how do we progress?”

That’s why I think it’s important for Khalil, and for Painkiller to work together because they’re going to learn stuff about each other, as well as themselves. Because they are still one. They’re just two different parts of the same piece. It’s fun, man. It’s, really a beautiful blend, and fun little craft to just work on and to just dive into because you can look at different examples throughout history, or different individuals and see their walks of life. While you may not understand it, if you just watch, though, and if you just shut up and just sit back and like, ‘Okay, let me see, all right…I might not understand, I might not totally get where you’re coming from.’ But if you watch and if you ask the right questions, and if you just, instead of jumping to conclusions, just listen and hear somebody’s story, then that gives you understanding and perspective. Then with that comes compassion. I think that’s one of the things that’s heavily lacked, especially in today’s age, because what we’ll see is compassion on both individuals for one another.”

The backdoor pilot does explore newer sides of Painkiller as well as Khalil too. For Calloway, he celebrates that this is all a team effort with the writing staff, and Akil’s leadership, as it has helped the actor throughout his journey portraying both characters. Through the collaborative effort, Calloway talks about how Painkiller maintains a sense of authenticity as it relates to the black experience.

Photo Credit: Akil Productions/The CW

“Hearing you say that [when told by the interviewers that they think viewers will be surprised about the deeper layers of Painkiller], I appreciate that, because that means I executed it. (Laughs) And that also is because of the writing staff because it’s not just one person that you see on the screen, it’s also the writing that is behind the camera that has done the whole character development. They know what they want to do or where they want to see. They got their fingers on the pulse of the show. So I just had to give that shoutout, that’s Salim helping too He’s very, very, actually in the creative sense, he’s been very welcoming to discussion and to, asking and just stretching and seeing what things that I may have to contribute to the characters. It’s nice, it’s nice having that because I have lived a fortunate life where I have had my two parents. I’ve been exposed to other things as well that I’ve seen that have ravaged in the black community as well, But I know friends and other family members that have had it far worse so doing that research, asking them, and also learning and taking that when you are grounded into reality, then you begin to have a reverence for it.”

While Monday’s backdoor pilot will be the first time Calloway shows up again in Black Lightning season 4 since the season 3 finale, Khalil hasn’t been a part of the show’s current arc. With only 6 episodes remaining after the backdoor pilot, many are hoping to see Khalil back in Freeland one last time before the Pierce family’s journey comes to an end. While that is something Calloway also wants to see, the actor stressed the imperativeness of the stakes that exist if Khalil would return to his home city. Due to the Kill Order on the Pierces that Painkiller is stuck with, there’s a danger for Jefferson, Lynn, Anissa, and Jennifer if Khalil were to go back.

China Anne McClain as Jennifer and Jordan Calloway as Khalil/Painkiller | Photo Credit: Annette Brown/The CW | Black Lightning — “The Book of War: Chapter One: Homecoming”

“You know, shoot that’s what Khalil wants too, man. Come on now! Obviously, we want that, and let’s not forget, his home IS Freeland. But there’s also this thing called the Kill Order that he still has programmed. So this is the tragedy of Khalil’s situation. You know, it’s like, to want to be with the person that you love, but in order to protect them, you have to remain away. You have to keep your distance. it really is the tragedy of Khalil. It really is the sadness of what it is because, for one, Jen broke up with him because she even realized that she couldn’t have him. She can’t have the best of both worlds. And that’s what these two young kids realize, ‘Hey, life’s not fair and you have to make the tough decisions.’ So what will you do for love? I’ve always referred to Jennifer as being Khalil’s North Star. And I think it will always remain true. So will he come back to Freeland? Well, the question is what’s going to happen with the Kill Order, and that Kill Order is directly linked to Painkiller. So you see, all of the drama and the minutiae that’s in there, where it’s like, ‘Ugghhh’, but that’s what makes for good drama.”

However, while Calloway couldn’t give specifics, the actor did, fortunately, give a positive update that will make many Black Lightning fans happy. Towards the end of the interview, Calloway teased that viewers will definitely get to see Khalil in some capacity throughout the rest of the season before Black Lightning comes to an end.

“I can definitely say you will see me throughout the rest of the season. I can say that.”

DC TV Podcasts would like to thank Calloway, Warner Bros. TV publicity and The CW for getting the chance to speak with Calloway as well as having the opportunity to witness Painkiller as potentially CW’s next comic book adventure. For the video edition of DC TV Podcasts’ exclusive interview with Calloway, be sure to check out the YouTube video below and stay tuned for a bit more after the episode has aired on Monday night.

“PAINKILLER – Khalil Payne (Jordan Calloway) is a young man ridden with the guilt of his troubled past from his former life in Freeland City, where, as a super-enhanced killing machine known as Painkiller, he was both a member of Tobias Whale’s gang and a weapon of Agent Odell and the shadowy ASA. After attempting to bury the darker, devastatingly lethal Painkiller part of his persona, Khalil has distanced himself away from everyone he knows and loves in a new city, Akashic Valley, in order to find peace… but peace never comes easy for men with pasts like Khalil Payne and Painkiller. As his violent, destructive history crashes his idyllic new beginning, Khalil is thrusted back into action with a new mission – bring justice where he once gave out punishment – but to do that, he will first have to deal with and harness his darker side, Painkiller. The episode was written and directed by Salim Akil.”

Don’t miss the official backdoor pilot to the Black Lightning spinoff series Painkiller on Monday, April 12th at 9/8c on The CW. Stream the episode the following day on CWTV.com or on The CW app.