On ‘Swarm,’ Dominique Fishback Breaks Out As a Pop Star’s Superfan on the Edge
The new series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers looks at how one artist's music can be both healer and trigger, as Fishback's Dre transforms into a dangerous fan army of one.
Like many stans of music’s superstars, Dre’s devotion to Ni’Jah is boundless. She’ll battle internet trolls and haters. She’ll max out credit cards for stage-side concert tickets. She lives and breathes her adoration. And, as it turns out, she’ll kill for it, too.
Dre is a fictional character (Ni’Jah is as well — though the latter bears a more than passing resemblance to Beyoncé). But as portrayed by the captivating Dominique Fishback on Swarm – the much-awaited Amazon Prime series from co-creators Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, debuting March 17 on Prime Video – Dre feels all-too unsettlingly real. And the world of Swarm, like much of Glover’s distinctive creative catalog, is a just-this-side-of-reality genre-mash of eerie, unexpected, and playful thrills.
Swarm premieres mere months after the conclusion of Glover’s widely beloved Atlanta — but he and Nabers, who is the series’ showrunner, began work on it much earlier. “He called me and was like, ‘I really want this to be the first show that has my name on it with yours after Atlanta,” says Nabers, a writer, producer and collaborator of Glover’s on seasons 3 and 4 (she is also a playwright).
A character-study at its core, Swarm feels like a darker sister to Atlanta. As in all Glover’s work, every detail of Swarm is purposefully chosen — from the years in which it’s set (2016-2018, when social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram were firmly established as central to the pop culture conversation) to its tongue-in-cheek references to real world events (stripper altercations, high-profile infidelity, trespassing fans) and people (Ni’jah’s fanbase, the titular swarm, is a Beyhive by any other name).
The casting choices, too, are intentional. Actors including Chloe Bailey, Paris Jackson, and Damson Idris were selected in part because they, as Nabers puts it, “have their own swarm of people around them.” The most important casting choice of all, of course, was who would play Dre herself.
“Presence was really important,” says Fishback of her approach. “If I tried to map out Dre, I wouldn’t be able to play an authentic character because she isn’t that. It became a thing where I would do something really weird and I would try to get a reaction out of Donald. If I could get him to be like, ‘Huh, that was strange,” then I was doing something.”
That odd, off-putting otherness is key to Fishback’s performance. “We didn’t really go into the psychology of the character, Janine, Donald and I,” she continues. “It was really just trust.” Dre is unpredictable and erratic — a split moment observation in an elevator shifts her focus, sparing a would-be victim; the fluidity and speed with which she concocts false-but-believable tales is terrifying — and Fishback, who’s accustomed to psychologically delving into her characters (often through journaling), dialed into that strange.
“I really wanted to stretch myself as an actor,” says Fishback, who says she’s always been inspired by transformative performances like Charlize Theron’s in Monster. She relished the opportunity to embody a likely-to-be-misunderstood character.
Dre is crafted to be quite singular both within the show’s world and as a protagonist on television now. Nabers likens the pilot to “the origin story of a villain,” and considers Dre “very much an alien in any situation she’s put in.” Nonetheless, the show also hinges on Dre’s existence as one member of a giant whole: The Hive, Ni’Jah’s aptly named fanbase. And Dre’s relationship to music is what’s meant to most resonate most with audiences. As Nabers notes, “Every person in the world has some sort of connection to music. So that was a very strong way in which we wanted to lead the audience into this character. The language she speaks is this star’s mythology.”
That music is stitched into the show with a deft hand by Glover, who created fictional Ni’Jah songs that sounded believable as a pop star’s repertoire. Ni’Jah’s lyrics become the words through which Dre’s world is expressed. As Dre grapples with grief, following a pivotal loss in the first episode, the audience sees that world grow more and more chaotic — and is forced to confront questions about how art, and music in particular, can function as both healer and trigger, swaying our own emotional navigation.
“Music has saved my life,” says Bailey, who plays Marissa, Dre’s sister, roommate, and best friend. “If you’re going through pain and you don’t know how to articulate that or share it with anyone around you, you can find a song that articulates exactly how you’re feeling. The sonics match the frequency of what you’re feeling. Even when you’re happy, it’s the heartbeat.”
Ni’Jah’s superstar presence enraptures and haunts Dre through diegetic music, but also through trending topics and the resulting Twitter wars we see onscreen. We only get glimpses of the icon herself — another intentional choice, Nabers explains, though she stops short of calling the character a Beyoncé stand-in.
“For us, it was really about finding the feeling that someone gives to Black women in America,” she says. “If you ask [Black women] who is the representation of them in the words of music and song and unapologetic Black girl realness, everyone’s gonna have different answers. It’s really about allowing us to see that Ni’Jah is that person for Dre. We can understand that the feeling is something like” — she pauses, letting my mind fill in the blank— “who we’re familiar with. We’re putting ‘I feel that for this person’ onto that face. That’s what we’re really trying to do with this story.”
In our hyperconnected world, the breadcrumbs such a star leaves for their fans in their art — hinting at intimate details of their “real” lives — can set a superfan’s mind into overdrive, and Dre’s story is an uncanny consideration of the emotional and mental toll that can take, especially amid the hyper-aggressive realm of fan armies on the internet. “I guess in the normal world it would be considered hatred,” Glover has said of that behavior, “but on the internet it’s just talk.” In Swarm, he imagines what might happen if those armies stepped into the real world, like the packs of gangs in cult-classic The Warriors. Or even just one troubled superfan, desperate to be seen by the deified artist at whose altar she worships.
“I try to be a clear vessel,” says Fishback. “Dre really dips into her wounded masculine, her wounded feminine, her dark feminine energy.”
Fishback is known as a chameleon onscreen. In roles on shows like The Deuce and Show Me a Hero, as well as in films like Judas and the Black Messiah, her magnetic presence has long made her a standout in ensemble casts. “She’s incredible. She is vulnerable, and fierce, and willing to jump into it all,” says Amazon Studios’ head of television, Vernon Sanders. “She was the only choice.” As Dre, Fishback showcases both her range and her masterful ability to get under the audience’s skin — she’s a presence tangible beyond the screen.
“A lot of times we don’t get to express that rage or that hurt or that pain, especially on camera — and I got to express it through Dre,” Fishback says. “I got to be raging and scream. When you’re taught TV work in school they’re like, ‘Don’t move from the camera. Make sure the camera can see you.’ You get so trapped by the frame.”
Playing Dre wasn’t all dark side of the mind, Fishback allows. “There are heavy things but she’s a lot of fun too!” she says. “I learned a great deal from Dre. How to march to the beat of my own drum — period. Her drum’s got a different rhythm from mine. However, I can understand what it’s like to decide that this is me, this is how I move through the world, this is what I care about. And I’m passionate about what I care about. As an artist, she gave me even more freedom. I had to just trust my instrument and trust the process.”
As a producer on the show, Fishback (who is also a writer in her own right) was also able to advocate for both Dre’s character and the cast and crew. She requested a therapist on set, watched dailies to track the evolution of the project as a whole, and insisted on reinstating cut scenes that she felt were essential to character development. And she had present allies in both Glover and Nabers.
“I was the only Black female [executive] producer on the show,” says Nabers. “We were very much a united front in that to create a safe space. Anytime we needed Donald, or any producer, they would show up. It took a village to make this show safe and to keep it moving, and that’s what we did. I’m really proud of that.” Sanders mentions that “part of the sell for [Amazon] was having Janine’s voice with [Glover’s],” considering the explicitly Black female lens through which Swarm’s story is told.
That lens is new territory for Glover, who has been criticized before for appearing hostile to Black women’s perspectives in particular. In April of last year, he came under public scrutiny when — as part of an Interview profile in which he interviewed….himself — he asked, “Are you afraid of Black women?” and then danced around his imagined interviewer-self not to answer.
At the time, Swarm was in the midst of shooting — begging the question of whether Glover was perhaps, in some way, teeing up the subject for discussion around this project, with its two central female characters embodying powerful archetypes: Ni’Jah, an icon of ethereal, otherworldly proportion, and Dre, an outcast wielding frightful agency.
Glover and Nabers poke and prod at similarly layered questions through Swarm — including the many potential meanings the title itself can take on. Whether or not you feel empathy for Dre, her perspective is overwhelmingly the one the audience must take, and Fishback’s grounded performance — not in reality or Dre’s mind, but her heart — is all-consuming. “You can have [a] swarm in any kind of way. Swarming thoughts that get into your mind…” Fishback muses. “Yes, it’s about this girl who is part of this ‘swarm’. But we also hope that people watch it and swarm to the project, because we can dialogue. It can be about the human condition.”