It can be hard for a rising star to find projects that match their talent, striving to simply make a living as an actor, but Dominique Fishback has proven herself as a rare, thrilling exception. The New York-born actor broke out in David Simon’s HBO series Show Me a Hero and The Deuce, proving an immediate standout in both, while on the film side, made her big-screen debut in the gorgeous indie Night Comes On. As her profile grew, so too did the caliber of project—she scored a BAFTA nod and critics’ notices for her brilliant work as Fred Hampton’s other half in Judas and the Black Messiah, which won multiple Oscars, and last year appeared opposite Samuel L. Jackson in the well-received Apple TV+ limited series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
In all that, Fishback has quickly established herself as a force on screen. So it should come as no surprise that her latest project also marks her biggest swing yet, in Swarm, the Prime Video limited series cocreated by Atlanta’s Donald Glover and Janine Nabers. What begins as a hyperrealistic portrait of a pop-star-fan obsessive (Fishback) evolves into a discomfiting, often horrific, occasionally shockingly funny tale of a—spoiler alert!—very modern serial killer. Fishback has to play scenes of gruesome murder, not to mention the psychological descent into madness. The work is compelling, affecting, and brutal—on this week’s Little Gold Men (listen below), she told us how she pulled it off.
Vanity Fair: This role is incredibly demanding. What did you have to push through to do this?
Dominique Fishback: I think it was a level of dark versus light, and what does it mean to be light in the world or do light work. I’d always done characters that often played in light. Even if they were hard on the outside, the inside was soft—I never played the person that was engulfed by the darkness. And what does that mean? I knew I had a bunch of kids that have been looking up to me. As a Black actress, too, a lot of times we talk about how it somehow becomes that we’re responsible for the representation of all of us. And so sometimes when we pick certain roles, it’s not just about, “Oh, I want to play this. It’s going to be fun.” It’s like, “Well, what is the perception?” You end up being responsible for so many things. I just really didn’t want that responsibility. I wanted to make art. It reminded me of Charlize Theron in Monster, and Boys Don’t Cry—Hilary Swank—and Heath Ledger’s Joker. I was like, “I’m sure that there’s a lot of Black women that want to see themselves in different roles,” and that was the response that I got. So that was exciting.
You’re really careening between genres in this show and you have to play an enormous range of modes and moods, from funny to scary. Was there one particular quality of the show, that was the scariest for you—that felt like the most uncharted territory?
Definitely the last episode where she kills her girlfriend because at this point, we hadn’t seen her kill a Black woman. This was different because she loved Rashida, and you can see that she had remorse. It was the only one she mourned about after. And so it really was that the hunger or the addiction to killing actually took over her and she had no control over it. It was the first one that was [done] with her bare hands as opposed to an object, so it was really close and really intimate. That was hard for me. Then I literally left work, and I got to the apartment I was staying in, and I couldn’t stand up. My body was aching.
It may sound like a strange question, but what were the mechanics of figuring out murder scenes?
I read this book called Auditioning On Camera by Joseph Hacker, and one of the things that he said that really stuck out to me was, “You don’t have to riddle your characters with shortcomings.” If your character is a snake, he’s going to betray his best friend, no matter how loyal you play him. If your character is a thief, he’s going to steal and betray, no matter how genuine or whatever you play him. So for me, I don’t have to riddle Dre with murderous tendencies or qualities because she is that no matter what. So I really went heart-first. The thing that I connected to that I thought was universal was love. She loved Marissa and she loved Ni’Jah. I know what it’s like to love my sister. Obviously, I don’t know what it’s like to love to that extent, thank God, but I know what it’s like to love.