Obsessed With Her

In Swarm, Dominique Fishback plays a serial-killing superfan who really just wants one thing: to be loved.

Photo: Gabriel S. Lopez
Photo: Gabriel S. Lopez
Photo: Gabriel S. Lopez

It doesn’t not look like Beyoncé, except you know Beyoncé would never wear a wig this bad. It has the deep-brown eyes, the brows arched high, the arm outstretched and hip swirled right, knees cocked in frozen forever choreo—they got it past scary, just short of uncanny. The lips are closed, and they are glossy. The gaze is fixed, and it is dead, dead, dead. And we can’t really tell: Did they make Beyoncé orange? Or is it just the shit lighting at the Hollywood Madame Tussauds?

Dominique Fishback stepped back to appraise. It was early March, and we’d spent the past hour wending through the chambers of the wax museum as Fishback dashed up to various figures, mugging with wax Morgan Freeman (“I’d love to work with you one day”) and wax Jim Carrey and wax the Rock. To wax Marlene Dietrich: “I don’t know her.” To wax Vivien Leigh: “My girl!” To wax Angela Bassett, all in red and head thrown back, Fishback squealed and jumped in for a photo: “Oh my God, this looks just like her. They killed that.” She was probably the only one there who could follow it with, “I got to put it up with the real one that I have of me and her.”

The reason we’re here with the fake Beyoncé is Fishback’s lead role in the new Donald Glover–Janine Nabers series Swarm as Dre, an obsessive, damaged Houstonian fan of a pop star named Ni’Jah. The show begins in 2016 and Ni’Jah is … familiar. She drops a visual album. Her rapper husband fights her sister in an elevator. Someone bites her at a party. Her fans call themselves the Swarm. But Dre is who we follow, a lonely young woman glued to her phone and her Ni’Jah stan account. That devotion is rivaled only by her love for her sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), her sole family and friend in the world — and when Marissa dies, Dre snaps. Lost in grief, she fixates on meeting Ni’Jah and becomes convinced the star needs protection from the haters. Soon, Dre starts killing people who insult Ni’Jah. A lot of them. She heads out on a cross-country spree, where she runs up against everyone from a group of shit-talking strippers to overeager white liberals to, eventually, Ni’Jah herself.

It’s a blown-out, Twitter-brained satire, full of Easter eggs and stunt casting — catch Billie Eilish as the leader of a white-woman self-improvement cult, Rickey Thompson as a mall employee, and Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael, as a lily-white stripper insisting her dad was Black. (There was a little stunt casting in the writers’ room, too: Malia Obama worked on the show, credited as Malia Ann.) While the scenery and the characters shift from episode to episode, Dre stays the wildly unpredictable, barely verbal through-line, appearing in nearly every scene. Fishback has played other women in brutal situations, like the Black Panther Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah, who witnesses the murder of her partner, Fred Hampton, but this is both her first lead role in a series and the first time she’s inflicting the violence herself. She roots the character in gesture—the swivel of a chin, a stiff-kneed walk, eyes that dart from side to side. We learn Dre was a foster kid who met Marissa when her parents took her in for a few years. If Dre is Odysseus, Ni’Jah is Ithaca, a dream of safety she can barely articulate. Fishback plays that longing like a broken, bloody homesickness.

That the show takes so much from one standom in particular twirled its creators, and Fishback, into a waltz of evasive PR. Early interviews could sound like everyone was workshopping how to not talk about Beyoncé. Glover has collaborated with her; Fishback played Jay-Z’s mom in the video for his song “Smile”; the actress who plays Ni’Jah, Nirine S. Brown, danced with Beyoncé at Coachella. One might assume the show has Bey’s seal of approval, even if no one will confirm it. Glover told me Ni’Jah “wasn’t just Beyoncé” but that the Swarm was inspired by her fans because “they’re the most galvanized — they move the most like a hive to me.” (Not everyone agrees; after the show came out last week, Twitter was full of people arguing the show reminded them more of Nicki Minaj’s stans, the Barbz.)

As we gazed upon wax Bey, I asked Fishback the obvious. A flash of frustration crossed her face. “Oh, God. I mean, it’s not her,” she said. “It’s an alternate universe where Ni’Jah has done similar things to what Beyoncé has done.” To her, Dre’s quest was more about finding a replacement for Marissa than it was about the celebrity at its center. “I had to be present,” she said, “and let her have her one main objective.”

“That being to meet Ni’Jah?” I asked.

“To be with the one person that’s going to make her feel like she has somebody,” said Fishback.

Fishback grew up in East New York, living in a two-story, multi-apartment house her family owned with her mom and grandma and aunts and their kids. When she was tiny, her dad would sit her down on the back of one of his Rottweilers and parade her through the neighborhood. She loved hanging with the boys and playing basketball with her cousins and watching what was then called the WWF; she wanted to be like the wrestler Lita with the Hardy Boyz, the lone girl in the crew. She was crazy for Liar Liar and Sister, Sister and Aaliyah and Eminem. She still knows the whole last verse to “Stan.” “It’s like, maybe I manifested this over how hard I used to sing that.”

By the time Fishback was 8, she knew she wanted to be an actor. There was a kids’ theater group she’d heard about; maybe she could do that? She tried out once, twice, three times — nothing. When she was finishing up middle school, she decided to audition for LaGuardia, the famous arts high school. Dominique mentioned this to her school’s guidance counselor, and the woman told her she didn’t have “the ‘It’ factor.” “I walked through East New York, and I was crying my heart out. Crying my heart out. I remember walking down the block, and this guy—he passed away young; his name was Kirk — was like, ‘Who did it, Dom? I’ll handle it.’ ” That familiarity, the promise to handle it: That’s East New York to her.

The fact that she didn’t get into LaGuardia “made me the artist I am,” she said. “I’m thankful I wasn’t a child star.” She rolled her eyes to one side and grinned. “I would probably have been a little wild one, maybe.” She stayed closer to home, going to high school in Brownsville and finding a youth theater group in Manhattan. She went on to study theater at Pace, where her thesis project was a one-woman show she wrote and performed Off Broadway called Subverted. In it, she played 20 characters, all based on herself and the people she grew up around. It didn’t take long after graduation to start landing small TV parts on The Americans and The Affair. David Simon, creator of The Wire, gave her a big break in 2014 when he cast her as a rebellious teen turned exhausted single mother in his ’80s-public-housing drama Show Me a Hero, her first recurring role, followed by another in his series about ’70s porn, The Deuce.

Fishback was thrown when Glover asked her to meet to discuss Swarm and then followed up by requesting she watch Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher — the 2001 Michael Haneke film where Huppert plays a woman in twisted erotic relation to both her mother and her lover. “When it took that masochistic turn, it made me question the type of actor I thought I was and whether I was brave or not,” she said. She read the pilot and got so worked up over whether she wanted to play Dre she was taken aback when Glover said he wanted her to play Marissa instead. If Fishback was going to do this, she wanted the hard part. She insisted, and Glover agreed. Then she started “spiraling a little bit. Why did I ask for this?

It was the darkness that gave her pause. Fishback has witnessed violence in real life. Around the time she was preparing to do The Deuce, she was walking around East New York one morning, picking up a bacon-egg-and-cheese, when a man she didn’t know was shot three times in front of her. Fishback was one of the people to call the ambulance. After that, she started going to therapy. “I realize you don’t need a big reason to go,” she said. “That was a big reason — I needed to go talk about it because I feel like these things are not necessarily normal.” She sees her instinct to seek help as one of the many differences between herself and her Swarm character: “Dre is moving forward without the wherewithal to know that things are affecting her. For me, thankfully, I’m aware things I don’t even remember happening are affecting me to this day.”

Fishback also journals and has sometimes prepared for roles by writing in character. That didn’t feel right for Swarm. The script’s description of Dre was minimal: how she moves, how she does or does not emote, what’s going through her mind to make her act the way she does — Fishback had to figure all that out herself. “I couldn’t connect the threads psychologically. I thought, with how specific the show was, they were going to be very meticulous about things, and they weren’t,” she said, referring to Glover and Nabers. “When I was first reading the script, I was frustrated because I was like, Girl, I don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I kept asking them, ‘So, is she this? Is she this?’ ”

Nabers told me that one of her references for Dre was Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under the Skin, an alien that’s come to Earth to hunt men. “You see within that film that so many people are trying to project humanity onto her and she just doesn’t take it,” she said. She wanted it to be the same for Dre. “There are all these moments where you’re on the edge of your seat and you’re like, ‘Okay, this is going to be the moment where we see her really take some empathy or learn a lesson.’” But it never is.

Glover said they purposefully did not talk to Fishback about her character’s backstory. “I kept telling her, ‘You’re not regular people. You don’t have to find the humanity in your character. That’s the audience’s job,’ ” he said. He acknowledged that made it harder for her: “She really was lost a lot of the time.” He said he told Fishback, “Think of it more like an animal and less like a person.”

“Actors in general, they want to get layered performances. And I don’t think Dre is that layered,” he told me. “I wanted her performance to be brutal. It’s a raw thing. It reminds me of how I have a fear with dogs because I’m like, ‘You’re not looking at me in the eye, I don’t know what you’re capable of.’ ”

Dre eating pie after her first kill. Photo: Warrick Page/Prime Video/Warrick Page/Prime Video

We find out quick. By the end of the pilot, Dre commits her first murder: Marissa’s cocky boyfriend, Khalid, played by Damson Idris, best known for his role as a drug kingpin on the show Snowfall. “I said, ‘Congratulations, Dominique, you are the first person to ever kill me onscreen,’” Idris remembered. “I usually do the killing.”

She was nervous. It didn’t help that Glover was directing that episode and wanted the wide shot of the murder done in a single take; they did most of the show on 16-mm., and all the blood splatter involved would mean a lengthy reset if they didn’t nail it. She was nervous for other reasons, too: “The energy or the place that the character has to go to do that, I don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

She and Idris ran through the beats of the scene. She’d asked the showrunners to get a therapist on set, and they’d agreed to have someone there for kill days — an experiment in demanding what you need. She asked a close friend to join her, too. They sat together at a table for a while, talking and praying. Fishback has a photo of herself at 10 years old she especially loves; she calls it a “picture of my inner child.” The Dom in the picture is the one who wanted to perform so bad but had not yet won an audition. As she prepared for the scene, she thought about that version of herself: “I was like, ‘Okay, this is what you wanted to do. You better act.’” Then she got out there and whacked Khalid with a salt lamp.

When Fishback and I made it out of Madame Tussauds, the sun was high in the sky. We were walking west on Hollywood Boulevard, passing tourists snapping selfies with big foam Oscars, when something caught her eye. “Oh! Look at me!” she said, stopping short. “This is the first time I’m seeing me!” It was a poster for Swarm, pasted on a wall across the street.

We ran over to take a picture of her with it and found a couple of 30-ish guys hanging out in front. “That’s her,” I said to one of them. “I know,” he said and turned to Fishback. “You kill me on the show.” Fishback’s eyes widened. “That’s right—hey!” she said and turned to me. “This is the boyfriend in the second episode!” Fishback’s castmate, Casey Mills, was there with a skateboard, trying to get a video of himself doing a wall ride on the poster. (He plays a character named Sir whom Dre bludgeons with a dumbbell.) Fishback, excited, asked, “Can you teach me how to skateboard?”

As Mills stood behind her, she stepped gingerly onto the board. With one foot, she gave herself a gentle push and went “Wheee!” Too gentle: The board barely made it from one sidewalk star to another.

Fishback laughed as Mills picked up the board and carried it over to her to try again. She ran back, got into position, grabbed his hand, and got ready. “All good,” she said. “I just gotta get a little more momentum.”

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