SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for all episodes of “Swarm” on Amazon Prime Video.
Rumors of a Donald Glover project about a “Beyoncé-like figure” have been swirling in Hollywood for at least two years. And while no one involved will say Knowles’ name — though Glover has called out the Beyhive and co-creator and showrunner Janine Nabers has spoken about “a certain pop star from Houston” — 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 a bit unhealthily obsessed with her own sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey). When a fight between the sisters separates them for a night, Dre goes out to celebrate Ni’Jah’s surprise album drop (clearly inspired by “Lemonade,” in which Beyoncé sings about being cheated on) while Marissa discovers that she’s being cheated on by her boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris). Unable to reach Dre for support, she dies by suicide.
After mysteriously being turned away from Marissa’s funeral by “the family,” Dre murders Khalid, both for betraying Marissa and for not respecting Ni’Jah. (It seems she’s beginning to conflate the two.) The rest of the series sees her on a rampage, of mourning Marissa and killing Ni’Jah detractors while desperately hoping to meet the star one day. In the finale, she finally does — sort of. After hanging up her serial killer’s hat and taking on a new identity, she spends thousands of dollars that should have gone toward rent on Ni’Jah tickets. This upsets her girlfriend, Rashida (Kiersey Clemons), who hates Ni’Jah, and Dre has another mental breakdown. She murders Rashida and burns the body, then realizes she’s burned the tickets too, so she goes to the concert and stabs a scalper to get his tickets. Dre makes it to the front row, then manages to hop onto the stage. As security rushes in to apprehend her, Ni’Jah stops them and embraces Dre — but it’s Marissa’s face that Dre sees.
Nabers spoke to Variety about how she and Glover invented Dre and all the bodies buried along the way.
Donald Glover and you have spoken about how the idea “Swarm” came from, imagining what it would look like if the serial killer subgenre focused on a Black woman instead of a white man. What were you initially envisioning as you created the character of Dre?
The terminology we used was “alien.” This woman is an alien in her own world. If you look at the pilot, when she gets to Khalid’s house, there’s aliens on TV. Right. That’s a through line with her throughout the series. We really looked to “The Piano Teacher” for inspiration. Donald introduced that movie to me, and it blew my mind. 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 unearth a completely different type of human that is very alien-feeling. But me being from Houston and Donald being from Atlanta, we wanted to filter it through a Southern, Black female perspective. It is a little bit like a sister “Atlanta” when you look at the weird family relationships.
In the second to last episode, which is styled like a true crime documentary, it’s revealed that Dre had been in foster care before getting adopted into Marissa’s family and sent back again for her violent behavior. We don’t get any detail about how she ended up in the system or what it was like for her. Did you ever imagine more of her backstory than that?
The documentary episode, in the vein of “Atlanta,” felt a little bit like a step out, where you can intellectualize what you’ve seen — the foster system and this idea of Black women falling through the cracks– from a personal perspective. Anyone who’s Black and from the South has some sort of experience with the foster system, whether it be friends that have dealt with it, family they’ve had. It’s a very real thing. Donald grew up with a perspective on that. I grew up with a perspective on that.
But we were really focused on not sharing a lens into her trauma in a real way. You can intellectualize trauma, but we didn’t want to dramatize what it was like before we are introduced to Dre that led her to become who she is. That’s what I think a lot of Black storytelling can lean toward, but we really just wanted to let people fill in their own gaps to the story. There’s a mystery as to how she got to where she was and that’s okay. It’s okay to not know everything.
Speaking of how race functions in the show, I’m curious about the white characters. When Dre goes out to dance to the new Ni’Jah album, she loses her virginity to a guy at the club. Why is he white?
I originally saw him as a Black guy. There’s an actor in the show [Byron Bowers] that I wanted for that role initially, and I pitched that to Donald, and Donald was like, “We could do that, or we could put him as this other character that feels like it would lean more towards a white guy, and let’s put a white guy in this role that feels like it would lean towards a Black guy.” Our character in Episode 3 was written as a white guy, and we subvert that a little bit too. It’s really smart and funny, because you wouldn’t see someone like her losing her virginity to a white guy. And you’ve never seen a Black guy talk about an eating disorder.
What about the the character played by Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael Jackson? Hailey presents as white but calls herself Black because she has one Black grandparent? Was that role written for Paris, or did she come in later?
Carmen Cuba, our casting director, was fantastic. She pitched Paris Jackson and we all like fell out. We were like, “Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re talking about.”
Paris was great. She’s a professional. She came in and asked all the right questions. I’m a Jewish woman, she’s identifies as Jewish, so we bonded about that. And she trusted us. She was like, “I understand what this role is, and here’s how I’m gonna approach it.” She really just owned it this character of a light-passing biracial woman who is really intent on letting everyone know about her Blackness.
Dre killed Khalid to avenge Marissa, but they had also disagreed about Ni’Jah. That 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 her unpredictability. We’ve seen the pilot. She has this sister who’s in an unhealthy relationship with a man. We see how that plays out. We enter Episode 2, and we see a little bit of that also, right? So you think this is a story about a Black woman who defends her girlfriends and sisters at all costs. If men get in the way, they’re taken down. Right?
We see her take down the boyfriend, but again, you subvert the narrative. You see what she does to Hailey as another way to kind of subvert that narrative a little bit and to keep the audience on their toes. Like, wait a minute, what’s 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 client masturbates in front of her, among other bizarre moments. Where did that come from?
When you look at serial killers in history, there’s always some weird staple that they have. Dahmer worked at a chocolate factory and they’re pretty certain he disposed of their bodies in the chocolate. The Night Stalker would break into people’s homes and go through their refrigerators. We talked a lot about food. What’s a fun way, and a weird way, and a grotesque way to show her relationship to something that’s passionate? And it could be funny. Food was it.
Dominique is such a disciplined actress in what she eats, and is just so particular, so she came at it with a lot of thought and energy. It really feels meme-able, like something that could really stick in terms of the way people talk about her as a character, and her “isms.”
Dre has several strange sexual experiences throughout the show until we see her become Tony and settle into a long-term and relatively normal relationship with Rashida (Kiersey Clemons), who hates Ni’Jah. What were you trying to say about Dre’s sexuality?
We knew that we wanted to start her off as a virgin. In a lot of horror stories, the protagonist, if she’s a female, is a virgin. So there’s a way of subverting that: “Oh, is this the story of a girl who loses her virginity and becomes awakened?” We’re setting up this story of her sexuality, and when she loses her virginity, it’s fine. It is what it is. But the thing that actually sparks her sensuality, the thing that actually makes her come alive, 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 finale, she is the most confident that she’s been. She’s grounded in her own skin. And that had a lot to do with her journey as a murderer and her relationship with social media. When you meet her in Episode 7, she’s not on her phone. She’s not focused on Ni’Jah. She feels like someone who’s in remission. The fact that she is living very confidently as Tony — in a grounded, real way without any labels — is part of that. This relationship with Rashida is part of that. It’s about coming into your own sense of self. Tony is her at her truest, most humane, present, grounded form.
But ultimately, she loses touch again. She kills Rashida for not liking Ni’Jah, before the hallucinatory sequence at the Ni’Jah concert. Was the story always going to end this way?
Yeah. Because every episode, with the exception of Episode 4, has a true foundation for its murder. We found a murder in 2018 that took place in the outskirts of Georgia with a young woman that was brutally killed and discarded in some sort of kind of like desert, woodsy area. That was a white woman, but we did our own thing. All of that is based on real situations.
The ending is supposed to be a little bit of a full circle moment, as emotionally jarring and upsetting as it comes off. We started here, and now we’re here, but we kind see why she had to take this journey to get to where she is. In the pilot, she says, “When we meet Ni’Jah, we’ll be driven to her house. We’ll go have dinner.” And Episode 7 is that dinner — in her mind.