It’s fitting that Karolina Dean, the first lesbian superhero to appear in Marvel’s television universe, has skin that glows with a rainbow-esque light, which she can shoot at enemies like lasers. The character, from the new Hulu series Runaways, first discovers her Technicolor powers at a frat party after unlocking a medical alert bracelet affixed to her by her cult-leader parents.
Actress Virginia Gardner approached the role with some firsthand knowledge of cult-like devotion, having left an all-girls Catholic school in her hometown at the age of 15. “Some of my friends there were depressed, and I think Karolina has a similar experience of disillusionment,” says the 22-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native. “Although in her case the church is literally killing teenagers.”
Gardner knows that portraying Karolina is a big responsibility, and she hopes to surpass the expectations of not only comic-book purists, but also queer teens who don’t see themselves reflected in the current slate of superhero shows. “I’ve always wanted to do projects that represent people who need representation,” says Gardner, whose last big project, the 2016 frat boy–hazing drama Goat, also happened to contain some homoerotic tension.
Future episodes of Runaways will feature Karolina flying and firing off those beams of light with increasing ease. And if the series’ producers stay faithful to the comics, she might also find herself falling for the gender-nonbinary hero Xavin. “If Xavin is ever part of the show, we want to find a gender-nonconforming person to perform that role,” she says. “Having a superhero you can relate to is invaluable.”