LOS ANGELES — As soon as she scooched into the cramped booth of a no-frills Thai restaurant in Westwood here last week, the actress Dominique Fishback did that thing she does with her eyes.
She set the tone for the rest of the dinner — warm, sincere and open — all with her eyes.
It’s a technique she wielded in the HBO series “The Deuce” (2017-19) and in the Netflix action film “Project Power” (2020), and it helped earn her critical acclaim in the 2021 film about the assassination of Fred Hampton, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” In each of those performances, she conveyed tenderness, compassion and quiet determination in the face of indignity with little more than a tearful gaze or a knowing sidelong glance.
But to take the lead in the new Amazon limited series “Swarm,” Fishback had to subvert expectations, asking her shining eyes to convey something other than their signature warmth and groundedness. This time, they needed to express bewilderment, detachment, creepiness and rage — specifically, the uncanny gaze of a serial killer.
“I’m used to being a character that’s loved or easy-to-like and, no lie, you get comfortable with that — I like that!” Fishback said between bites of crab fried rice, keeping her bouclé trench coat bundled close to keep out the chilly-for-Los Angeles night air. “But I had to get out of my own way in order to be the artist, the actor, that I came here to be.”
Created by Donald Glover and the “Atlanta” writer and playwright Janine Nabers, “Swarm,” debuting on Friday, follows a disturbed young Houston woman named Dre (Fishback) who is obsessed with the fictional pop icon Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown), fashioned after Beyoncé. After a tragic personal loss, Dre sets off on a two-year interstate spree of horrific violence, whose victims include, but aren’t limited to, Ni’Jah haters.
Glover, who had been determined to work with Fishback since seeing her play a Black Panther revolutionary in “Judas,” was as surprised as anyone when Fishback declined the initial offer to play Dre’s charismatic best friend, Marissa (which went to the singer and actress Chloe Bailey).
“I was like, ‘You want to play the murderer? Uh, really?’” Glover said by phone last week.
“She felt very sweet, like someone you wanted to take care of, but she wanted to do the opposite, which I completely understand even in my own career,” he added. “She wanted to branch out, and I was excited to allow her to do that.”
Fishback, 31, has made a life by branching out. Raised in the East New York section of Brooklyn, historically one of the poorest neighborhoods in the borough, she attended high school nearby while also taking classes at the MCC Theater in Manhattan. (A love for television seeded her interest in acting.) The drama training gave her “a taste of something other than what I grew up knowing,” she said, adding: “But I still was able to appreciate and understand my people in a certain way.”
Early on, she developed her lifelong discipline of keeping a journal, as a tool for private introspection and professional preparation. “Dom is the queen of the journal,” said Shawn Tyrell, a longtime family friend, who lived at Fishback’s home off and on throughout her childhood. “She writes everything down.” Tyrell described her as “relentlessly, fiercely inquisitive.”
“If she doesn’t understand something, she’s going to ask for that clarity,” he said. “She’s not going to just let you sidestep it, and she was always that way.”
Fishback went on to study theater arts at Pace University and landed a series of one-off TV roles in shows like “The Knick” and “The Americans.” Then David Simon cast her in his 2015 HBO mini-series, “Show Me a Hero,” in which she played a beleaguered young mother. It was Simon’s first acquaintance with the notebook.
“She prepared for the character so aggressively that I was astonished,” Simon wrote in an email. “At one point, my co-producer showed me a composition book that Dominique had filled with thoughts and questions about her character and her character’s background. I mean, this was beyond preparation.”
“It was the process of a professional, a veteran,” added Simon, who later went on to cast her in his series “The Deuce,” her first regular TV role. “She lives in the pocket of any character you write for her.”
Glover and Nabers began developing the idea for “Swarm” in 2020, while production for “Atlanta” was on pause because of the pandemic. Michael Haneke’s dark, provocative film “The Piano Teacher” had piqued Glover’s interest in creating a series that felt like an intensive character study, and he envisioned a story centering on a young female fanatic. He wanted it to “French New Wave it,” he said — shooting on film, employing long shots and encouraging improvisation — and brought the idea to Nabers, who took on the role of showrunner, writing the pilot and several subsequent episodes. Glover directed the pilot.
Nabers expanded the narrative partly by tapping into her own family history. During a phone interview last week, she explained how, at age 20, she learned of a bygone grandfather who had committed a murder, changed his identity and fled to Pennsylvania, finally dying as a wanted man. As she began writing, she pondered: “How does someone Black get away with murder? How does that even happen? How does that person then reinvent themselves?”
“And you see Dre do that in every single episode,” she said.
Dre’s obsession with Ni’Jah — and her self-assigned mission to punish all detractors — is a clear, if exaggerated, reference to the BeyHive, as Beyoncé’s most devoted fans call themselves. “This is not a work of fiction,” announce the cheeky title cards at the beginning of each episode. (It is indeed a work of fiction.) “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.”
The creators could have nodded to any number of notoriously hive-minded and aggressive fan bases — Taylor Swift’s Swifties, Nicki Minaj’s Barbz — but Glover said they picked the BeyHive because Beyoncé and her fans are so culturally pervasive.
“Garth Brooks has a gigantic fan base — might in some ways be bigger than Beyoncé’s — but you’re not wearing what Garth Brooks is wearing right now,” he said. Beyoncé’s fandom, he added, is “the most interesting and the most fun, honestly, and it has had the biggest impact.”
Fishback had long wanted to take on a character as dark as Charlize Theron’s in “Monster,” she said, though Dre’s psychology felt particularly uncharted. She had grown up loving the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill and Eminem, but never any of them to a frenzied degree. (Still, the Eminem song “Stan,” which coined the term for a super obsessive fan? “I could rap to you the whole last verse, the real crazy verse,” she said. “The whole thing, I know it by heart.”)
She admitted she didn’t feel in sync with Dre at first. “I really didn’t know who she was or what she physically was going to be like, so I just tried things,” she said. Early directives were few. “The only thing they really gave me was that she was emotionally stunted,” she added. Even her trusty journal didn’t help. She had to improvise.
“I didn’t journal as her at all,” she said of Dre. “There was no way to connect the things that she thought or said.”
That sense that she was fumbling in the dark was by design. “She would ask me questions like, “Why is she doing this?’” Glover said of directing her. “And I felt bad because I was like, ‘If I just tell you, it’s going to work a little less. I need you to be searching in the shots.’”
“She allowed herself to be afraid” of what Dre was capable of, he added, “which I was really thankful for.”
Fishback seemed surprised with what she ultimately found inside herself. “I didn’t think I was this brave, no sirree,” she said. “I’m from Brooklyn, I’m an Aries and all that stuff, but I’m very, very sensitive.”
She has yet to fully find her bearings in Los Angeles, having moved here in 2021 — her production schedule has kept her busy, and she doesn’t know how to drive. Anyway, “I like to spend my days in solitude,” she said, filling her down time with weekly guitar lessons, playing piano, writing poetry and reading (currently, the dating advice book “Calling in ‘The One’”).
“Swarm” seems bound to generate chatter, though, potentially raising her public profile. Is she worried about pushback from the stans, from the real-life BeyHive?
“I don’t manifest that,” she said, casually taking a sip of her lemonade (yes, really). “They’re going to love me.”