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SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for all episodes of “Swarm” on Amazon Prime Video.
Rumors of a Donald Glover project on a “Beyonce-like figure” have been swirling in Hollywood for at least two years. And though no one is saying Knowles by name — though Glover has called out Beyhive and co-creator and showrunner Janine Nabers has spoken of “a certain Houston pop star” — that series is finally here.
“Swarm” stars Dominique Fishback as Dre, an emotionally stunted superfan of a singer named Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown), who is somewhat unhealthily obsessed with her own sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey). When a fight between the sisters separates them for one night, Dre steps out to celebrate the surprise release of Ni’Jah’s album (clearly inspired by “Lemonade,” in which Beyoncé sings that she was cheated on) while Marissa discovers that she is deceived by her. boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris). Unable to reach Dre for help, she dies by suicide.
After being mysteriously turned away from Marissa’s funeral by “the family”, Dre murders Khalid, both for betraying Marissa and for disrespecting Ni’Jah. (It looks like she’s starting to confuse the two.) The rest of the series sees her ranting, mourning Marissa, and killing Ni’Jah critics while desperately hoping to meet the star one day. In the finale, she finally does — sort of. After hanging up her serial killer hat and assuming a new identity, she spends thousands of dollars that should have been spent on Ni’Jah ticket rent. This upsets his girlfriend, Rashida (Kiersey Clemons), who hates Ni’Jah, and Dre has another nervous breakdown. She murders Rashida and burns the body, then realizes she burned the tickets as well, so she goes to the concert and stabs a scalper to get her tickets. Dre comes to the front row, then manages to get on stage. As security rushes to apprehend him, Ni’Jah stops them and kisses Dre – but it’s Marissa’s face that Dre sees.
Nabers spoke to Variety about how she and Glover came up with Dre and all the bodies buried along the way.
You and Donald Glover talked about where the idea of ”Swarm” came from, imagining what it would look like if the serial killer subgenre focused on a black man woman instead of a white man. What did you initially imagine when you created the character of Dre?
The terminology we used was “extraterrestrial”. This woman is an alien in her own world. If you watch the pilot, when she arrives at Khalid, there are aliens on TV. LAW. It’s a direct line to her throughout the series. We really looked to “The Piano Teacher” for inspiration. Donald introduced me to this movie and it blew me away. It centers around a woman who has a very everyday way of living her life on the surface, and then when you peel back the layers of her complicated psychology, you discover a completely different type of human who feels very alien. But me being from Houston and Donald being from Atlanta, we wanted to filter it through a Southern black female perspective. It’s kind of like an “Atlanta” sister when you look at weird family relationships.
In the penultimate episode, which feels like a true crime documentary, it is revealed that Dre had been in foster care before being adopted by Marissa’s family. and fired for his violent behavior. We have no details on how she ended up in the system or what it was like for her. Have you ever imagined more of his backstory than that?
The documentary episode, in the vein of “Atlanta”, felt a bit like an outing, where you can intellectualize what you saw – the foster system and this idea of black women falling through the cracks – d a personal point of view. Anyone who’s black and southern has some kind of experience with the foster system, whether it’s friends who’ve dealt with it, family they’ve had. It’s a very real thing. Donald grew up with a perspective on this. I grew up with a perspective on that.
But we were really focused on not sharing a lens on his trauma in a real way. You can intellectualize the trauma, but we didn’t want to dramatize what it was like before we introduced ourselves to Dre who made her become who she is. That’s what I think a lot of noir stories can tend towards, but we really wanted to let people fill in their own gaps in the story. There’s a mystery as to how she got to where she was and that’s fine. It’s normal not to know everything.
Talking about how race works in the show, I’m curious about the white characters. When Dre goes out to dance to Ni’Jah’s new album, she loses her virginity to a guy from the club. Why is it white?
I originally saw him as a black man. There’s an actor on the show (Byron Bowers) that I wanted for this role initially, and I introduced him to Donald, and Donald said, ‘We could do that, or we could put him as this other character who feels like it would lean more towards a white man, and put a white man in this role that feels like he would lean towards a black man. Our character in Episode 3 was written as a white male, and we flip that a bit too. It’s really smart and funny, because you wouldn’t see someone like her losing their virginity to a white guy. And you’ve never seen a black person talk about an eating disorder.
What about the character played by Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael Jackson? Hailey introduces herself as white but calls herself black because she has a black grandparent? Was this role written for Paris or did she come later?
Carmen Cuba, our casting director, was fantastic. She started Paris Jackson and we all love to argue. We were like, “Exactly. This is exactly what we are talking about.
Paris was great. She’s a professional. She came and asked all the right questions. I’m a Jewish woman, she identifies as Jewish, so we bonded over that. And she trusted us. She was like, “I understand what this role is, and here’s how I’m going to approach it.” She really owned it, this character of a light-passing, biracial woman who is really determined to let everyone know her darkness.
Dre killed Khalid to avenge Marissa, but they also disagreed about Ni’Jah. This makes Hailey’s abusive boyfriend, and later Hailey herself, Dre’s only murders that have nothing to do with Ni’Jah.
This show is an examination of a character and his unpredictability. We saw the pilot. She has this sister who is in an unhealthy relationship with a man. We see how it goes. We go into Episode 2, and we kind of see that too, don’t we? So you think this is the story of a black woman who defends her girlfriends and sisters at all costs. If men get in the way, they are shot. LAW?
We see her eliminate the boyfriend, but again, you flip the narrative. You see what she does to Hailey as another way to subvert that narrative a bit and keep the audience on their toes. Like, wait a minute, what is this show about?
Food plays an interesting role in the show. Dre eats a pie with her hands after killing Khalid and eats pretzels while a customer masturbates in front of her, among other bizarre moments. Where does this come from?
When you look at serial killers in history, there’s always a weird core element that they have. Dahmer worked in a chocolate factory and they are pretty sure he got rid of their bodies in chocolate. The Night Stalker would break into people’s homes and search their refrigerators. We talked a lot about food. What’s a fun way, and a weird way, and a farcical way to show your relationship to something passionate? And it could be funny. That was the food.
Dominique is such a disciplined actress in what she eats, and is so particular, so she came with a lot of thought and energy. It feels really memorable, like something that could really stick to how people talk about her as a character and her “isms.”
Dre has several weird sexual experiences throughout the series until we see her become Tony and settle into a long-term, relatively normal relationship with Rashida (Kiersey Clemons), who hates Ni’Jah. What were you trying to say about Dre’s sexuality?
We knew we wanted her to be a virgin. In many horror stories, the protagonist, if female, is a virgin. So there’s a way to subvert that, “Oh, is this the story of a girl who loses her virginity and wakes up?” We set up this story of her sexuality, and when she loses her virginity, it’s fine. It’s like that. But what awakens her sensuality, what makes her live, is this violent act.
Because this is a limited series, we see Dre go through different iterations of her character. By the time we get to the final, she’s the most confident she’s ever been. She is rooted in her own skin. And it had a lot to do with her murderous journey and her relationship with social media. When you meet her in Episode 7, she’s not on her phone. She doesn’t focus on Ni’Jah. She feels like someone who is in remission. The fact that she lives confidently as Tony — in a real, grounded way, without any labels — is part of it. This relationship with Rashida is one of them. It’s about stepping into your own sense of self. Tony is her in her truest, most human, present and grounded form.
But eventually, she loses contact again. She kills Rashida for not liking Ni’Jah, before the hallucinatory Ni’Jah concert sequence. Was the story always going to end like this?
Yeah. Because every episode except episode 4 has a real basis for his murder. We found a murder in 2018 that took place in the outskirts of Georgia with a young woman who was brutally killed and dumped in some sort of desert, wooded area. She was a white woman, but we did our own thing. All of this is based on real situations.
The ending is meant to be a bit of a full-circle moment, as emotionally shocking and upsetting as it comes off. We started here, and now we’re here, but we kind of see why she had to take this journey to get where she is. In the pilot, she says, “When we meet Ni’Jah, we’ll be taken to her house.” We will go to dinner. And episode 7 is that dinner – in his mind.