‘Swarm’: Donald Glover, Dominique Fishback and Janine Nabers on Subverting Expectations With a Black Woman Serial Killer
“Beyhive, don’t kill us,” Donald Glover said, with just a hint of nerves in his voice, at the Los Angeles premiere of “Swarm,” his latest series for Amazon’s Prime Video. “It’s not that bad. It’s actually, like, pretty cool.”
The quip came at the end of Glover’s remarks on Tuesday night as he introduced the show, which is now streaming. The buzzy, immersive special screening followed the show’s debut as SXSW’s opening night TV offering on March 17.
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At this event, though, Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon and MGM Studios, and Vernon Sanders, head of global TV, introduced Glover, which was appropriate since “Swarm” marks his first project under their lucrative overall deal with the “Atlanta” creator and star.
“We’re really in the hive here,” Salke began, going on to praise the show as an “incredible, original vision.” Added Sanders: “When we heard the pitch from Donald and Janine, we were blown away. It was wildly original, it was unlike anything else.”
Glover was then joined at the microphone by his co-creator Janine Nabers and series star and producer Dominique Fishback. Fishback plays Dre, an off-kilter and obsessed fan of a Beyoncé-esque pop star named Ni’jah (Nirine Brown). Over the course of seven episodes, it becomes clear that Dre will stop at nothing in her quest to meet her favorite artist.
“You’re a killer bee. Part of the swarm,” a character named Hailey (played by Paris Jackson) jokes in an early episode. “Talk about Ni’jah, you get stung.”
Fandom is usually all in good fun, but for Dre, stanning her favorite pop star is no laughing matter.
On the carpet, Glover explained that the concept of a Black woman serial killer was born from the internet — or, more specifically, a tweet he read.
“I remember them saying like, ‘Why are we always lawyers and, like, best friends? We can be murderers, too.’ And I was like, ‘That is true,” Glover told Variety, laughing at the recollection.
Speaking of memories – the last time I interviewed Glover was in March 2022, at the Season 3 launch of “Atlanta,” where he teased he was in the early days of something new.
“I’m directing this show that I’m working on right now with Chlöe [Bailey], Damson [Idris] and Dom Fishback and yeah, we’re just working on something, but it’s in the works,” he revealed, with a slightly cagey shrug. “But it’s going well!”
Of course, that mysterious something was “Swarm.”
Donald Glover opens up about a new project he's cooking up. https://t.co/zUx2j6VdYs pic.twitter.com/x9NbzmR1nc
— Variety (@Variety) March 25, 2022
What I didn’t know then was that this clip would get repurposed for the show itself … but I won’t spoil how.
Glover and Nabers put these young stars through their paces, requesting that they watch the 2001 erotic psychodrama “The Piano Teacher” and be familiar with the “Atlanta” canon before their audition.
Asked what impressed him most about the trio to that point in production, Glover had replied: “I just like how risky they are. They’re real actors, I just love how much they like want to make something cool. It just feels great that they’re so invested in the craft.”
I also didn’t know that he’d initially approached Fishback to play Marissa, Dre’s sister (the role that ultimately went to Bailey). But after she read the script, Fishback was sure that she could play the unhinged Dre.
“The big thing I was the most proud of — and I always want to do that — is to try and give people like [Dominique] roles that she normally wouldn’t get,” Glover said Tuesday.
It was Fishback’s inherent warmth that made him think she’d be great for the sisterly role, he said, but she fought for what she wanted. “She was like ‘I can be crazy.’ And I was like ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’”
From Fishback’s perspective, “Swarm” presented an opportunity to stretch herself as an actor and present a different side of her talent, akin to Charlize Theron in “Monster” or Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
“I realized that a lot of actors hope for this in the span of their career,” Fishback said. “I got to do a lot of things in just one series, because Dre get to be so many different things, episode by episode, so I was really grateful.” And, hopefully, the role will help subvert expectations for other young Black actors. “For us as Black creatives and Black women, sometimes we end up seeming like we represent all of us. And that’s not the case.”
By putting a character like Dre into a high-concept production, that’s shot on film and inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s cinema, yet tied to the modern day culture of celebrity, she said, “Swarm” expands the landscape for what a psychological thriller can, quite literally, look like.
Fishback was also bullish on dissecting society’s relationship to social media.
“It’s a beautiful thing, because we get access to people that we never had access to before, but we also get access to people that we never had before,” she said. “Sometimes we can be so mean to one another, and we forget that is actually a human being on the other side.”
She calls Dre “the pull-up queen,” because the character is a throwback the days when you’d say something nasty about somebody and then “meet them at 3 o’clock” to fight after school. “Now, with social media, everybody’s hiding behind that, but Dre is like, ‘No, you can’t hide,’ and she pulls up.”
There’s also this: the show’s description declares that “this is not a work of fiction” and that “any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” So, as the series investigates standom, the creators drew inspiration from real events that occurred between 2016 and 2018, which does happen to include the release of the pop star’s groundbreaking 2016 visual album “Lemonade” and the #WhoBitBeyonce internet debate. So, while the show is not expressly about a fan obsessed with Beyoncé, it’s not not about her — nor the Beyhive — in a thematic sense.
Asked just how far they pushed the truth of these events — and whether they ever worried about how far Amazon would let them go – Nabers said: “Everything is legally combed through. If we pushed it, we pushed it to the very, very, very edge, but it’s legal and we’re proud of that.”
Glover also shared his perspective on the “truth” of the matter, referencing a phrase coined by his longtime collaborator and “Atlanta” director and executive producer Hiro Murai: “This is kind of like a ‘post-truth TV show.’”
Glover said: “People are like, ‘Oh, the news is ‘post-truth’ now, and we don’t know what’s real and what’s not.’ And I’m like, yeah, maybe that’s the bad part, but the good part is it makes stories feel better? I loved in the ‘Atlanta’ season, where we made the fake mockumentary. That was good, because it felt real. I’m trying to make things feel real.”
It was the more relatable aspects of the script, like its exploration of sisterhood and mental health, that hooked Bailey on the concept.
“It’s really not about the fandom. It’s about a girl who is trying so hard to cling on to her sister so desperately that she is grasping at the one thing they connected on since they were little girls,” Bailey told Variety at a press day for the show.
Self-love is something the musician-actor has been concentrating on a great deal lately, as she prepares to release her upcoming solo album “In Pieces” and set off on tour, so to be able to explore than within a character meant a great deal.
“I saw myself in her,” Bailey said of playing Marissa. “I love to smile and love sunshine and roses and I giggle a lot. And as I’ve been maturing and growing now into mid 20s — which is crazy, I’m going to be 25 in a few months — I’ve become honest with myself, and I noticed that my coping mechanism a lot of times is I’ll laugh to keep from crying. Because I never want people to think I’m weak by seeing what I’m going through.”
Her natural response is parallel to how her character dealt with her emotions. “The difference with Marissa and Dre is that Marissa would physically harm herself and Dre would physically harm other people,” she explained. “They’re both cut from the same cloth, but like weird zigzag shapes.”
At the premiere, she shared that exploring the sisterhood aspect of the show came even more naturally. “My best friend is Halle [Bailey, her sister and one half of their Grammy-nominated duo Chloe x Halle] and I got to pull a lot of inspiration from that,” Bailey said. “Dom made it so easy. She was the best scene partner and sister girl could ask for, and we’re gonna be friends for a very long time.”
With the heavy material, Fishback ensured there were therapists on set, a call she could make as a first-time producer.
“It was really important to me that everybody feel safe. I know that we’re acting, but the content is very heavy, and it is brutal,” Fishback said, sharing that the mental health professionals were available to both cast and crew. “The final episode was really hard for me, so I was glad that [our therapist] was there.”
Looking back on the experience, Fishback describes making the show as “a labor of love.”
“When we did the table read, Donald said that he just hoped that we get to try something,” Fishback recalled. “He didn’t know if it was going to work, but he just wanted to try. So he got a bunch of actors who were brave enough to try, and I’m just happy to celebrate it.”
Held at the Lighthouse ArtSpace in Hollywood, the venue was transformed into a beehive, with faux honeycombs built into the step and repeat, and the wraparound screens on the gallery walls buzzing with bee imagery before the episodes began. When it came to the bee motif, no detail was too small — as the cocktail napkins were printed with a “tweet” from one of the pop star’s “followers.” It read: “Ni’Jah is the Queen and we need to protect her at all costs.”
In attendance was a handful of the series’ cast: Fishback, Bailey, Damson Idris, Kiersey Clemons, X Mayo, Rickey Thompson, Karen Rodriguez, Leon, Cree Summer and Rory Culkin.
“She’s so fascinating to watch and to play off of,” Culkin said of Fishback. “If I could buy stock in a human, I would put all my money on her. She’s so cool.”
X Mayo agreed. “The way that we’re going to see Dominique Fishback in this series is in a manner which we’ve never seen,” she said, joking, “I am kind of nervous for her. She needs to change her name on Uber Eats. I mean, she’s already like skyrocketing, but now she’s gonna be on Mars.”
X Mayo is also hopeful that the unexpected nature of the series will create more opportunities for Black creatives to take risks.
“I feel like when we get a ‘Abbott Elementary’ — shoutout to Quinta Brunson, my fucking sister, a goddamn queen — they’re like get me an ‘Abbott Elementary’-type,” X Mayo said, mimicking the industry’s regular response to a successful show. “It’s like, no, let’s make something different. Let’s do some shit that’s like a huge risk, that’s a huge fucking swing. Let Black people take risks. I’m so happy that Black people have been given the chance to do that with this show. And I hope we continue to do that.”
Also in attendance was Billie Eilish, who makes her acting debut on the show, playing the leader of a NXIVM-inspired women’s cult. While the Grammy and Oscar-winning pop star didn’t do any interviews on the carpet, she looked gleeful throughout the event, though the crowd hadn’t yet caught a glimpse at how stellar her performance is in the show.
“So impressed and incredibly honored to be your first scene partner,” Fishback wrote on Instagram, captioning a clip of her scenes with Eilish.
For the premiere, the series’ creative team also assembled, including co-executive producer Jamal Olori, director Adamma Ebo, writer/executive producer/director Stephen Glover, supervising producer Kara Brown and staff writers Karen Joseph Adcock and Malia Ann (better known as Malia Obama) all on hand to celebrate.
Guests — including Prime Video stars Kendrick Sampson (“But I’m a Virgo”) and Jerrie Johnson (“Harlem”), as well as Jenelle James, Jeremy Pope, Dominique Thorne, KiKi Layne, Thuso Mbedu, Monique Coleman, Kelly McCreary, Amirah Vann, Frankie Shaw, Lisa Edelstein and Alma Har’el — watched the first two episodes “Stung” and “Honey.”
After the screening, as the venue was turned over into afterparty mode, Fishback changed out of her lime-green Georges Chakra gown (with a train so voluminous that Glover carried it down the black carpet at one point) and into a sequined halter jumpsuit, which made it a little easier to get in on the party.
And around 10:30pm, Beyoncé made a grand entrance.
OK, not Knowles-Carter herself, but her Grammy-winning record “Renaissance” livened the venue as “Break My Soul” began to pump through the speakers to the delight of attendees.
Because, as any good fan knows, even when Queen Bey isn’t present…. she is. So watch what you say.
Selome Hailu contributed to this report.
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