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The Expanse’s Dominique Tipper on Naomi Nagata’s Hard Time in ‘Hard Vacuum’

Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Global Citizen

If the politics of our current world feel violent and chaotic, just wait to see what we get up to in the far-flung future of Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse. One of the breakout stars of the show’s main cast of characters is Dominique Tipper’s Naomi Nagata, a former terrorist with a dark past — she was a freedom fighter for the beleaguered underclass living and working in the asteroid belt (known as Belters), sabotaging Earther ships with her lover Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) until her conscience got the better of her and she left her old life behind.

But season five sees her drawn back toward Marco, who’s since built himself up as a populist leader of a new, radical faction of the Belt that successfully devastates Earth early in the season by throwing three giant asteroids into it, killing millions. However, Naomi’s not there to save Marco’s soul, but that of their son, Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), who’s joined his father’s crusade. Failing that, Naomi escapes her captors via a perilous ship-to-ship jump (without a space suit, mind you) to an abandoned cargo vessel, only to find herself on a ship that’s rigged to explode when her friends come looking for her. What follows is virtuoso work by Tipper, fighting a space-damaged body as she tries to use her engineering expertise to save her friends.

Tipper hopped on the phone with Vulture to talk about what these Naomi-centric episodes mean for her character, and the eerie parallels between the show’s exploration of radicalization and what we saw at the Capitol just two weeks past. (Oh, and we also talk about our favorite silly space words.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Season five is a bit different from previous seasons in that the Roci crew isn’t together; you’re all split up into your respective journeys. How did that feel not being with the rest of your crewmates and being the lead of your specific story?
I think that’s the nature of what Naomi goes off to do. In the first episode, she says that this is something she needs to do alone. And the actors I got to do that with — Keon, who plays Marco, and Jasai, who plays Filip — were incredible. It was a bit of a dream, really, from an outside, actor-y point of view, to tell this part of Naomi’s story by myself.

Although I didn’t see the guys [Steven Strait, Wes Chatham, and Cas Anvar], it was like, “I’ve done four seasons with you!” [Laughs.] So it’s nice to go off and tell this story.

Episode seven (“Oyedeng”) digs into aspects of Naomi’s past that we’ve seen hinted at in previous seasons and that we’re only dredging up now. Like the story about Naomi trying to commit suicide by air lock, for instance. Did this story feel like a culmination of these aspects of Naomi you’ve only had to imagine?
When I first started, I was given her backstory, so I always knew that she had a son and was hiding that from everyone. But I don’t think I knew about her attempted suicide until maybe season three or four. I read some of the books, but I didn’t want to go too heavily into them.

Coming into season five, I’d actually written down a lot of memories and key moments I imagined for Naomi. One of them was the air lock situation, and the time around when Filip was taken from me. Then I got [the script for] episode seven, where I talk to Filip about what happened, and it turned out to be almost literally what I’d written. So I was more aligned with the writers than I even realized.

What do you think Naomi’s objectives were when she’s talking to Filip and trying to appeal to his better nature?
There’s a deep shame on many levels; firstly, of what she’s done when she was with Marco, and also leaving Filip. Her objective is always to save him — she wanted to go to him and bring him on board with the fact that she went through exactly the same thing he’s going through. And she hopes that will be enough to have him break free from it.

I think it was very naïve of her, frankly. But I think Naomi’s always represented hope, and I went into those scenes with that perspective, thinking that her reasoning would be enough.

Do you think she actually thought there was a chance that could happen? Or how much of it was a sense that she knew she had to try, even for her own sake?
I think it’s a combination of both, really. I think she thought she would be able to convince him, for sure. It’s probably the most illogical we’ve ever seen Naomi; it’s kind of a heart-led, “fuck it and see” situation, which is so unlike her.

She has really good intentions, but I don’t think she quite understood what she was going to do and how difficult a task it would be. She doesn’t really know who Filip is, what his feelings and hopes and dreams are, and how much Marco has put into his head about her.

It’s depressingly relevant that these episodes are coming out now, too — I feel like a lot of us have understood this frustration the last few years, the despair that comes in when you see close family members succumb to radicalism. 
It always astounds me how timely this show is, every time it comes out. I think it’s because, unfortunately, humans repeat the same mistakes, and we seem to never learn from them as a collective. We’ve always looked at radicalization as this Eastern, faraway thing. But no, it’s enraging when you’re oppressed, when things are happening to your people that you can’t fix, and you have no control.

You look at the structure of things and see the whole system is rigged against you, and that’s Marco’s point of view. But you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing; you see why Belters would side with him. I would actually lean more toward Marco, honestly.

Well, the OPA probably has some more legitimate grievances than, say, the Capitol rioters.
Yeah, it’s that rage — when I see another person shot by a cop or watch people storming the Capitol and cops just standing by or even assisting, none of this is imagined or overblown. And how do we change it? Is violence the only answer? Even knowing these are conversations that people are having with their families is huge. What’s going on in the house, in the family, plays out in bigger world events.

In episode eight (“Hard Vacuum”) you go through such a journey — you’re truly on your own, without even dialogue to lean on in your performance. What was it like preparing for the physicality of playing a Naomi suffering the effects of hard vacuum? 
Well, a lot of the emotional prep happened in episode seven, so once we get to episode eight and she realizes what they’ve done to the ship to lure her family toward her to kill them, she’s just in survival mode — I have to be alive to fix this thing to stop everybody I love from dying. 

How did you prepare physically for those scenes, between the prosthetics and getting into the exhaustion and the pain Naomi goes through?
Physically, I was given a lot of information on what would happen during the space jump and the aftermath of it. Her entire body goes through a version of the bends. You know, when divers get these whole-body aches from the pressure change? Every single inch of her body is aching. So I just imagined what that would be like and had to keep every single bit of it in mind. I had lists of what would ache when she did X physical thing: This point is when her sight starts to return; this point is where the swelling goes down. But when the swelling goes down, her radiation burns get worse, because it’s like a sunburn. That kind of thing.

I asked a lot of questions, I sat with [showrunner] Naren [Shankar] and [writer-producer] Ty [Franck] and asked, “So at this point, what’s the pain level between zero and ten?” I had these pain charts, and I just had to think about every single ounce of it, then throw it all away, take what I knew, and perform it.

I was just looking through the notebooks I used to prep, and it’s just lists and lists and graphs of what was going on in this episode from a technical standpoint. When I first read it on the page, I was like, “What is she doing? I have no idea what any of this is!” They had to explain to me all the MacGyvering she was doing to the ship. I had to note every little thing, like how she would prepare her breath to go in between the hull without oxygen. She has to take two deep breaths and hyperventilate before she clicks on the mask. It’s like choreography in a way.

How many takes did you have to do in that montage of taking off that mask and gasping for air? Did you want to pass out?
Oh my God, literally a hundred times. It was a nightmare! [Laughs.] It was honestly a very unenjoyable experience. “Okay, now we spray sweat on you because you’re sweating at this point, and remember you have to get your carbon dioxide out of your suit.”

There was so much to remember, there was almost no acting required. I was sick of it by the seventh, eighth, ninth time I’d done it. I was like, I’m done, this is fine, I’ll fall on the floor because I feel like doing it anyway.

We’re approaching the end of the show, knowing that we’re only going in for a sixth and final season. How does it feel to be nearing the end of Naomi’s journey, at least for now?
It feels very bittersweet. It feels like graduating from school because I very much got this job at the beginning of my acting career. I’d only been acting for a year at that point — I’d transitioned from a dancer to an actress — and I very much felt like I didn’t know what I was doing when I joined the show.

But I feel like I’ve really grown as not only an actress but as a person, and these people are like my family. I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m very excited to get out into the world and do other things, since this has been the core of my acting experience for seven years now.

If you had to pick one, what’s your favorite Belter word?
Ohhhh, that’s really hard. I quite enjoy felota, which I love — “when the felota hits the fan” — because it’s basically like floating shit.

The Expanse: Dominique Tipper on Naomi’s Time in Hard Vacuum