On the other side of a partition, an audience watches a particularly tense scene from the show’s fourth episode, titled “Running Scared,” when Fishback’s Dre — a murderous super fan of Ni’jah, a Beyoncé-esque pop star — faces down a group of women who stand between her and attending the singer’s concert.
Fishback playfully re-enacts the scene, gripping an imaginary steering wheel and pressing her high-heeled foot down onto a pretend gas pedal that sends her speeding ahead and crashing into Dre’s latest victims. She pulls a funny face and hams it up for a rep’s cellphone camera, unknowingly demonstrating the type of darkly comedic energy that makes “Swarm” so buzzworthy.
“There’s a lot of physical comedy that [Dre] gets to do, and it wasn’t premeditated,” Fishback says, once she gets in front of the crowd for the Q&A, sharing that her love for Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey helped her prepare to play aspects of the offbeat serial killer character’s personality.
But creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers didn’t originally picture her as Dre. They offered her the role of Marissa, the character’s sensitive sister. “I told my team, ‘Listen, tell them that I’m thankful. But I’ve got to play Dre,’” Fishback recalls.
From the moment she read the script, the character called to her. After playing charming characters in “The Deuce,” “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and in the upcoming “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” Fishback saw Dre as her chance to make a transformation like Charlize Theron did in “Monster” or Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
“I just felt that in my spirit that I could,” Fishback says. “We don’t get that opportunity a lot — as Black artists, as Black women — to stretch beyond what we’ve been given the opportunity to do.”
So, she stood firm.
“I don’t want to catch up to myself as an actor,” Fishback told Glover. “What could I do next that excites me? I’m thinking about that kid that watched all these movies and said, ‘I want to do that’ and didn’t think about a box or limitations or one genre. She wanted to do everything.” His response: “If that’s the role you want, that’s the role you get. … I know you can do it.”
There was no fight, no re-auditioning. Fishback simply signed on for the part (with Marissa played by Chlöe Bailey), and then the real work began. “I’ll be honest, it was nerve-wracking. I was like, ‘Man, what’d I do? Why did I want to do this?’” Fishback says.
Playing Dre was physically and emotionally challenging. The actor usually prepares by journaling in character, but this time she wrote as herself. “I didn’t understand her psychologically,” Fishback explains. “So, I had to journal as myself to remove any fear and any judgment, because I didn’t want the camera to pick up Dom’s war with herself about playing Dre.”
She also worked with Audrey LeCrone, the dialect coach who guided Fishback’s “Judas” co-star Daniel Kaluuya to an Academy Award. Together, they transformed Fishback’s Brooklyn accent into Dre’s southern drawl, which borrowed some of its softness from “The Queen” (a.k.a. Houston-native Beyoncé).
“Everything is really slow and pretty,” Fishback says, slipping into the character’s Texan accent, then reverting to her natural speech pattern. “Every character that I play, I’m trying to eliminate the Brooklyn, just for now.”
As for the character’s arc, Fishback unpacked Dre’s journey in real time because the writers delivered scripts for future episodes while the show was in production. She realized that she didn’t “have to know Dre’s backstory specifically, because she repressed it so much that she probably repressed it for me, too.”
The seven-episode limited series chronicles a period of two years, as Dre hits the road in pursuit of her dream to meet Ni’jah. Fishback is in nearly every scene and, in most episodes, surrounded by a new cast of characters, with co-stars including Bailey, Damson Idris, Kiersey Clemons, Rory Culkin, X Mayo, Paris Jackson and Billie Eilish, in her acting debut.
“It was bittersweet sometimes, because you’d get used to Chlöe, then you get used to Paris, and get used to Billie, then everybody’s leaving. But I just decided to look at it as a gift,” she says. Getting exposed to their different energy and talents “felt almost like an actor’s bootcamp.”
Of Eilish in particular, Fishback says that the popstar is a “natural” actor. “There was no air about her. She really cared about the character. That was important to me because I’ve been giving months of this, and new actors come in and you hope everybody cares as much as you care. She really did.”
Eilish had a big job, too. Her character, Eva — the leader of a women’s cult who Dre meets on her way to a Ni’jah concert — is critical to the story. “You have to believe that Dre can fall in the influence of these women,” Fishback explains. “Billie was very intentional with her lines. It helped me be able to sell that Dre could get caught up and not just kill everybody on sight.”
Because there is quite a lot of killing on the show, Fishback, who is also a producer, requested to have a therapist on set for those intense scenes.
“You don’t know how people are going to be affected,” she says. “A lot of actors really give themselves over to their roles, and then you finish the show, and you go home and you’re by yourself. You don’t want to be left in pieces for giving yourself to a role.”
The actor’s most challenging murder came in the finale. “This was the first kill that she did with her bare hands and not an object,” Fishback notes. “It was very up close and personal, so, for me, that was really hard.”
In fact, after the scene ended, she couldn’t stop crying. “Am I portraying something bad?” Fishback says she wondered. “I had been used to playing characters that are considered likable, or easy to love, or wrap your arm around. And I wanted the challenge to play a villain or an antihero, but when I was faced with what she had to do, it was hard. But I had a really good support system.”
For as much as “Swarm” pushed Fishback’s limits as a performer, she’s hopeful that audiences’ behaviors will evolve in kind. Back in the day, she explains, if you chose to talk trash about someone, you’d have to meet at 3 o’clock in the schoolyard or parking lot to handle it. In the current social media era, people can be so cold to one another, without considering that there’s a person on the other end of that dig.
“I call [Dre] the ‘pull up queen,’” Fishback says, giggling as she makes her point. “Dre is kind of like, ‘Talk is cheap, man,’ and she pulls up to the house. I wonder if people who watch are gonna be like, “You know that thing I was gonna say on social media, I ain’t gonna say it no more.”