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‘Swarm’ Star Dominique Fishback Leaned on Faith, Friends and a Therapist to Manifest Her Serial Killer Role

On a bright sunny morning in Los Angeles via a Zoom video call, Dominique Fishback was sporting a Romeo and Juliet-inspired sweatshirt (“I’m a romanticist at heart,” she says) and a 100-watt smile to match the light coming into her room.

Fishback’s warm demeanor matches most of the characters she’s played previously; more recently she had a BAFTA-nominated role in Judas and the Black Messiah and scene-stealing parts in HBO’s The Deuce and Show Me a Hero. But Swarm is her big departure. In the Amazon limited series from co-creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, Fishback delivers a frightening performance as an unassuming and introverted bloody serial killer.

Fishback giggles and nods her head at the mention of the dichotomy. She’s nothing like the character she portrays in Swarm, but it’s easily one of the roles she’s most proud of in her career. With a strong spiritual base and great knowledge of self, Fishback says she decided to take on the challenge of playing Dre, a character that initially gave her pause. “We are living in a world of duality. You can’t have light if there is no dark,” she says.

Below, the star chats with The Hollywood Reporter about why she felt this was the right time to show a never-before-seen side of her acting chops, what it took to climb into (and out of) the darkness, and she also shares her interpretation of the ending.

How were you initially introduced to the character of Dre? And, did anything on those script pages give you pause?

[Donald Glover and Janine Nabers] told me about the role and they wanted me to play Marissa [who is played by Chloe Bailey]. But when I read the script, I knew that I wanted to play Dre. And then I told Donald and he said, “Well, if that is the role you want, that is the role you get!”  And then I said to myself, “Now, why did I choose to do this?” Anything that gave me fear or made me anxious, I then had to journal about it. And, I prayed. I asked God, if this is not in alignment for what you see for me, please remove it easily; otherwise, I am going to go full force and be the actor that I think you created me to be.

So, I was struggling and I was toying with the idea of, what does it mean to be light in the world? I was used to playing characters who were deemed “light,” and, what does that mean to go “dark”? I had to remind myself, as well as other artists who I know and have as friends, that in order to be light you also have to go the dark side, or to the darkness. I mean, If I’m going to know to the fullest extent of what it means to be that, then I must take it to where it’s necessary. I also believe we are living in a world of duality. You can’t have light if there is no dark, or good without evil. I’m an artist and I always want the opportunity to show just what I know I can do.

So, I journaled and looked to see if there was anything that gave me pause. If it was something I felt strongly about, then I could address it to see where it was coming from. If was from the fear of perception — how I was going to look, what people were going to think or how they were going to interpret the project, that was beyond my control. And I couldn’t be limited by a fear of what people were going to think.

There is a comical side of Dre among all that dreariness and death. Was that a new discovery of a talent within yourself, or have you always had comedic timing, and this was just your first project bringing that out to an audience?

I always wanted to do the comedy thing. I love comedy! You know, I love Jim Carey. So when I’m at the premiere watching [Swarm and] I’m hearing people say, “Oh, the walk! The walk!” or “Dominique makes her face just like putty!” I love that. Also, I loved the performances of someone like Charlize Theron in Monster, Boys Don’t Cry [starring Hilary Swank] and Heath Ledger as the Joker [in The Dark Knight].

Did you study the constructs of fandom or parasocial relationships? Did you look at social media interactions and exchanges, and think about it being the reality for some people in society today?

People have asked me if I studied fandom and went down that rabbit hole. I really didn’t, because it wasn’t necessary. Dre, she stems from love! She loves Ni’Jah, as she loves Marissa. And her love just gets convoluted in a dark way. But, it’s love. And I don’t need to study anything to know what it feels like to love somebody.

But I did ask for a therapist to be on set. Not just for me, but for the other actors who could potentially be triggered, as well as for the crew.

You mentioned your spiritual beliefs earlier and how that helped ground you in playing such a troubled character (who loves). Is that something you carry with you in all your acting roles?

Yes, I do. Because as an actor, you do go places. I mean, it is play pretend, but depending on the type of artist you are, your mind is the most powerful human tool in the world. I literally manifested my dreams from East New York. I saw it and said, “I don’t know how I am going to get it, but I need and I want that.” And now I see it happening right before my eyes! So, the mind is extremely powerful.

Just to be honest, the day before we had to do the scene [in Judas and the Black Messiah] where I’m over Daniel [Kaluuya]’s body and the bullets are coming in, I was so emotional all night. I had so much anxiety, and I was like, what is wrong with me? And then I thought, your body can’t differentiate what your mind made you believe. I came into that scene feeling like, when the audience sees me look at Daniel, I want them to see Deborah [Johnson, Fred Hampton’s fiancée] looking at Chairman Fred Hampton and see that she loved him. And I wanted the audience to believe that this nine-month pregnant woman would cover his body [after he is assassinated]. So, I would be around looking at pics and say, “Hmm, Chairman Fred Hampton had a dimple.” Then I would say to myself, “Oh wow, Daniel has a dimple.”  But when it came time when we had to do that scene, I had to keep reminding myself that nothing bad is going to happen to Daniel.

So, I knew the power of allowing yourself to believe the circumstances of a character and I wanted to be well prepared. So, for example, with the first kill scene involving Damson Idris [in Swarm, episode one], I had my friend Monique Coleman come and sit on set that day. She and I were in High School Musical and a bunch of different things, and she’s like my big sister; we’ve been friends going on 10 to 12 years. I needed her, someone who knew me, to be on set and say, “You’re good, you’re okay,” and just be there with me during those quiet moments.

Dominique Fishback as Dre in Swarm.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Which episode or scene in Swarm was the most difficult, or the toughest to break out of character from? And, how did you recover?

Episode seven was very disturbing for me. And specifically, the scene where Dre kills her girlfriend, Rashida [portrayed by Kiersey Clemons]. Why? Well, for one, Dre loved her. Dre didn’t love those other people she killed. And the killing was more intimate; she literally killed her with her bare hands. With other killings, there was an object between them, but not with Rashida. And her killing was the only one you see Dre having remorse or emotion about.

And after that scene, when I went home, I was so emotionally and mentally drained, I could not stay awake. It was so hard to stay awake. The therapist was on set on that day. I definitely cried after that scene, and I took some time to talk to her.

Were there any difficulties with episode four and shooting the deep therapy scenes with Billie Eilish?

It was Billie’s first time [acting] and she was just brilliant! I was just watching her and it was brilliant to see the moments that she took. Because for me, with Janine and Don [Glover], I got to see why Dre believes these women. I don’t care that she’s tired; I need to understand why her mind is that easy to be almost manipulated. And not talking to Billie about it, she just did the scenes naturally when she said, “Ni’Jah is a goddess, but so are you, and strong too.” Or when Eva [Eilish’s character] says to Dre that they have a connection with all these names that end in “A,” and says Marissa’s name. Or when she and the other girls tell Dre she’s so pretty, or Eva tells Dre that when she speaks to Ni’Jah, “she’s going to forgive you.” [Editor’s note: In the previous episode, Dre slips into a VIP afterparty where Ni’Jah is having fun, gets close to her idol and bites her after losing grip of reality momentarily. Dre manages to flee the party and avoid being captured by security.]

It’s like they are leaning into Dre’s story and making her believe that they believe her, and are not judging her. Dre’s scenes with Eva were some of the most profound for me. That’s where we got to hear the story about Dre and her grandmother, and the issue about “spilling the milk” [to show how Dre’s bloodlust started when she was a child]. Up until this point, you only see Dre being very, very quiet, or talking about Ni’Jah. Now, she gets to talk about her own personal experiences.

But also, the way Eva talked to Dre is probably the reason why Eva got annihilated. The audience probably doesn’t remember this, but if you go back to episode one, Marissa says, “You’re my Day One, Dre!” In Dre’s eyes, that’s probably the best thing anyone could ever say to her if she loves them, and it was Marissa. But now, we’re in a scene where Dre is tired, she’s in her car, she wants to leave and she wants her phone [stolen by Eva’s cult to keep her from leaving], and Eva says something about, we have been whatever to each other from Day One. It’s a wrap! It’s over for Eva and the rest of them at that moment. [Dre hits Eva with her car and rolls over her multiple times; she kills several other cult members with her vehicle before escaping and driving away].


Dre and Eva, played by Billie Eilish.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

Episode four was difficult from the standpoint that there were entirely new actors coming in. And we’re shooting like 17 hours days with this emotional content. I wanted to make sure that my new cast members felt the energy of us being excited that they were there, and feeling loved, and not feel my energy then of being exhausted. Don [Glover] definitely wanted to make sure that everyone on the set always felt wanted, cared about and loved. There are a lot of sets where you don’t necessarily feel that.

What do you remember most about the comical, highly sexual and intimate food addiction scene in episode three with the George Clemons [played by Byron Bowers]?

Oh, it was so disgusting! I was like, I am going to be sick! I don’t even eat that much junk food, but to do that mixed with the intimacy they were sharing, it was a lot for me. But I thought that Byron was so funny and his dry sense of humor is incredible. So, it was fun!

I always wanted to do comedy. Even though this is not comedy, or more like a dark comedy, I did get the chance to work with some comedic freaking geniuses. I mean, I think [Bowers] is so funny. And X Mayo, who plays one of the strippers named Cheeks, she is hilarious. And lot of those scenes were ad-libs. So, I got to play off of them and add comedy as a part of my repertoire now.

Dre is a cold-blooded murderer, there’s no mistaking that part of her persona. But what do you think of Dre as a person? Do you see any humanity in her?

As an actor, you learn that you cannot judge the character. That’s like 101 in acting and studying the craft. Because when you do that, you don’t allow the audience to see the humanity. Someone told me that they were scared of Dre, but that they also felt a lot of empathy for her. That was really important for me as an actor to hear. Because if you don’t feel those things about the character, then it’s like, who cares! Someone even told me that episode one was like a villain origin story for Dre. I get that.

You know, the world kind of happened to Dre. She wasn’t asking to hurt anyone. She wanted to be with Marissa and listen to Ni’Jah. But Khalid [Damson Idris] was always picking at her, all the time. That’s no excuse for what she did, but as an actress, it gave me a way in. I mean, calling her weird and all of that. Dre wasn’t trying to bother anyone.

What was it like working with Paris Jackson?

With the Paris Jackson character [in episode two], let me say first that I really love Paris! And I kind of wished that Dre and Hailey [Jackson’s character] could have taken a road trip together, but that isn’t who Dre is. It’s just her and Marissa, but now that Marissa is gone, it’s just her getting to Ni’Jah. If there is any disruption, they have to go. But Dre didn’t have to do Hailey that way. [Dre shoots and kills Hailey because she wouldn’t stop talking about how much the two of them are alike.]


Dre (Fishback) in Swarm.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

The ending is very ambiguous and we don’t know if Dre meets Ni’Jah at end of the final episode, or if she’s lost in a surreal fantasy in her head. Which is it?

I believe it was meant to end that way, and it’s up to you, the audience to decide. I liked the ending that way. But remember, when Dre finally jumps on stage and meets Ni’Jah, it’s Marissa whose face she sees, not Ni’Jah’s.

Will we see Dre pop up in another season or in another series by Donald and Janine?

No, this was a limited series. This is it for that character.

Any additional thoughts about what you will take with you after giving what some are saying is a brilliantly scary performance?

There are always projects that I do that somehow connect to my own personal life and what I have learned in my own personal spiritual journey. And one of the things that I came into contact with right before filming this show was the idea of repressive memories. And how you can have experiences that are so traumatic, that you don’t remember that they ever happened at all. I can believe that Dre doesn’t remember the trauma that she had. I believe that she was so abused in her life that I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of her memories are repressed. And that she only has the memories of when Marissa came around, and how Marissa gave her so much love. I’m so glad that I didn’t try to map out everything about who Dre is, or who she was, but instead I trusted my instincts as an actor. And I trusted God to let my instrument be whatever it needed to be to service the story.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Swarm is now streaming on Prime Video.

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