More than meets the eye: Dominique Fishback on becoming a "Transformers" star, "Swarm" serial killer

The chameleon-like actor on understanding a killer's mind and how being a Disney kid brought her to "Transformers"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 14, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Dominique Fishback (Photo illustration by Salon / Sean Zanni / WireImage / Getty Images)
Dominique Fishback (Photo illustration by Salon / Sean Zanni / WireImage / Getty Images)

The following contains spoilers for Prime Video's "Swarm."

Many artists struggle with the idea of being good enough – asking themselves why they do and don't deserve certain opportunities. When actress Dominique Fishback deserves it, she knows it. When she was approached to appear on Donald Glover's Prime Video series "Swarm," producers envisioned Fishback for a supporting role. Fishback saw herself as the lead, Dre, and stayed committed to landing it.

On "Salon Talks" Fishback explained how she convinced Glover she was right to play Dre and talked about the power of staying committed to work that truly speaks to you. "If there's something in my heart and my spirit to say and I don't say it, I'm going to be up all night tossing and turning, 'Why don't you just say it, Dom?'" she said. "If I know what it's going to take to alleviate potentially regretting not speaking up, then I have to do it in real time."

Before the wild success of "Swarm," Fishback wowed viewers in "The Deuce," playing Darlene, a young sex worker with inner beauty and complexities that challenged the stigmas associated with the industry. Fishback has brought the same intensity to "The Hate U Give," "Judas and The Black Messiah," "Project Power," and now stars as Elena in "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts," in theaters now.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Dominique Fishback here or read our conversation below to learn more about the making on "Swarm," "Transformers," her take on the WGA writers' strike and her philosophies on the love and work balance. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I've been a fan of yours since "The Deuce," so I've been watching you a long time. One thing that fascinates me is your range. I'm like, is she 15 or is she 26?

Thank you. Yes.

What comes more natural to you?

I definitely have a sweet spot for teenagers. I just feel like I understand them and I respect them a lot. I don't layer them with shortcomings or perceptions of what it means to be a teenager. I make them as wise as possible and then I just play from there. I really enjoy playing teenagers.

Watching "Judas and the Black Messiah" and then watching "Swarm," I'm like, is this the same person?

That's the best compliment you could ever get.

"Swarm" was received well. Everybody was talking about it, from people on my timeline to dudes in the barbershop. Did you know it was going to hit like that? 

"I thought she was wild enough to get people's attention."

I think Janine [Nabers] and I talked about just the idea that there's a lot of serial killer projects out, and people are really talking about it, but it's time for us to see a Black woman serial killer. We never seen that before.

It's like the Rosa Parks of serial killers.

Hilarious. Yeah. I think it was just exciting and I thought she was wild enough to get people's attention. I didn't know how long they would stay for, if they would finish the series, but I knew at least they would watch the pilot. 

Dre wasn't wild in a shock value kind of way. Dre was more just very, very cool with it.

You don't think it was shocking for her to just blow his brains out just right down the side?

From who she was, I'm not going to say it made sense, but if you think a serial killer, you think of the scene of Jeffrey Dahmer dancing in the club and you're like, "Yo, why would anybody that right frame of mind go home with him?" You know what I'm saying? When you see Dre, it's like a little different. It was beautiful though. It was very, very smooth.

Thank you.

What was your reaction to the script when you first read it?

It wasn't so much the script, it was just the idea. They told me that Donald [Glover] had a role for me, but they didn't know what it was about. He wouldn't say what it was about. He just wanted me to watch this film called "The Piano Teacher." It's a French film. I watched and I was like, "That is wild." I don't know what they want from me, but I don't know if I'm that brave to do something like what this actress did in this movie. I got in my own way and I had the meeting, and they just told me the arc of where she was going. They said they wanted me to play Marissa, [the character] Chloe Bailey is playing.

Initially you were Marissa?

Yeah, that they wanted me for her, but when they told me the concept and everything that Dre would have to do, I was like, "I want to play Dre," in my mind. After that, I told my team I want to play Dre. They said, "Read the scripts." I read the scripts and still want to play Dre. We had to have a call with Donald. It was more so where I knew that I was going to be able to go as an actor, especially with episode seven and

"I journal as all of my characters, but with this one, I couldn't journal as her because I didn't understand her psychology."

playing Tony and getting into that. I really, really enjoy acting and transforming and disappearing into a character. Any opportunity that I get to really figure out how I can do that, I'm excited for it. Tony was really like, "Oh yeah, I get to get in there."

It was brave to fight for that. I think a lot of artists, especially artists who haven't really had their break yet, would take that kind of situation and they would just back off. What do you say to them?

I'd say do whatever helps you sleep best at night. I know that for me, if there's something in my heart and my spirit to say and I don't say it, I'm going to be up all night tossing and turning, "Why don't you just say it, Dom?" I don't want to beat myself up. I been doing that a long time and I don't want to do that anymore. If I know what it's going to take to alleviate potentially regretting not speaking up, then I have to do it in real time.

I couldn't see another person playing Dre.

Thank you. There would be so many different versions of an actor coming in and doing that. Dre on the pages looked different from Dre that I brought. The most they told me was like, "Oh, she's emotionally stunted," but they didn't really say, "She's this, she's that, so come to set and be like that." It was like, "She's emotionally stunted." It was almost like I was sent off to figure out, oh my God, what does that mean? Then the first day I just came up was like, all right, this is what I got, type thing. Then it was like, all right, cool. Then give me direction from there. It was like I really had to go on my impulses and decide what she is, how she moves, how she walks, how she talks. Everything was really, they gave me the freedom to do those things.

We working on it. How does one prepare to play a serial killer? 

I think there's different ways. For me personally, I journal as all of my characters, but with this one, I couldn't journal as her because I didn't understand her psychology. I had to journal as myself.

What I did was I identified every little bit of the three scripts that I had that made me uncomfortable, made me anxious, gave me fear, made me overthink. I said, "Well, what is the truth behind it?" When I identified what the truth is, I can say, is that really a truth of mine, that I can't stand behind it or something that I think is social? If it's because of social perception, then I have to reevaluate why that matters to me.

"I had to go on my impulses and decide what she is, how she moves, how she walks, how she talks."

Then that way I can clear out any judgments that I had of Dre so that I could ultimately respect the camera because I know the camera picks up everything. I did not want the camera to see my Dominique shift because she's uncomfortable killing her girlfriend. That was the hardest scene for me. Because I had done that work of just getting rid of my own judgments of her, I feel like they was able to flow through me.

I read this book called "Auditioning on Camera" by Joseph Hacker. One of the most profound things that I feel like I got from that book is he talks about how you don't have to riddle your characters with shortcomings. If your character is a thief, he's going to steal no matter how genuine or loyal you play him. If this person's a cheater, they're going to cheat no matter how, whatever. You don't have to riddle them with shortcomings. The same way I approached Darlene in "The Deuce." I said, "OK, I don't have to have her act like a sex worker, walk like one, talk like one. I could just let her exist because she is going to be that regardless."

That's what made her real.

That's the given circumstances. Dre is going to be a serial killer regardless how normal I try to play her, or I didn't focus on any of that. That was a happenstance. Everything else was how she felt on the inside. She was very impulsive. She felt things deeply and she showed it on her face. She had opinions about everything. She's going through the world, and I feel like she wants to be left alone. Truly in the beginning. Everybody's poking. They're always poking at her, and she just, you know what I'm saying? Then she snaps and then it's over.

I think we might be past the spoiler alerts.

Oh yeah.

What I'll say is that Dre lost me when she killed her girlfriend because I'm like, I guess you tap into relationships where somebody does a kind gesture and it's selfish.

She lost you, but also devil['s] advocate, what I think was so heartbreaking about the scene, and for me even though I knew it was going to happen, I was so present that I really felt like it didn't have to happen. Even when she said, "I f**king hate Nija." Then it was like, she's saying all this stuff. "Are you dumb? Are you dumb?" You got that look on your face and went in.

I feel like it was literally almost an emotional and mental overload, overstimulation for Dre because I feel like it was all her past traumas came right before her eyes. She tried to replace Marissa with this girl. The only problem is she doesn't like Nija. All right. It's OK that she let her slide when she said she didn't like Nija. Then she just said all of this stuff that I think Dre was like, I can't trust anybody. She felt this all along, and it was like she went in. 

The hurt was talking. The hurt was like, "Do you see me?"

There is a way to say do you see me without saying, "You got that stupid look on your face, that save me look. Are you dumb?"

If we were dating, and I bought you a pair of Jordans in a size 14, like, baby, I know you're going to love me in these.

But I say, "Hey, are you dumb?"

If I had a real-life Nija, not that I have a real-life Nija, I feel like mine would be the singer H.E.R. or Stevie Wonder. How about you?

I think I was so connected to this show and to what she does that the idea of having anybody like Nija is just so I've been too engulfed in Dre's world that I'm like, "Eh, no, not even a little bit." I'm cut off that. Also even before that, I hadn't seen a concert until like 2018 was my first concert.

Oh wow. Who was it?

It was Jay-Z. It was "4:44," and I had just done "Smile," the video. It was exciting too. That was my first concert. But other than that, I don't know if when I was younger I didn't have the awareness to say, "Oh, I could see my favorite singer live." You know what I mean? It just didn't cross my mind. I don't [like] standing that much. I know at concerts you have to stand.

Now you're in "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts." Did you have a connection to the earlier movies or the cartoons when you were coming up?

Yeah, I had a connection to the first couple ones, but specifically the first one, because I was such a Disney kid and I loved "Even Stevens." When I saw Shia [LaBeouf] transition into a movie star, it was by way of "Transformers." I was like, "OK, I got to do something like that. Got it." I was putting pieces together, but I never thought that it would actually be "Transformers." That's the cherry on top of allowing yourself to believe and manifest but leaving space for God to just continue to blow your mind.

I always wonder with "Transformers," what happens when a new model comes out? If you're a Transformer and you're like a 1992 Volkswagen Beatle, the 2023 is out, so do they get upgrades? 

Yeah. They can transform into anything.

Is it like "Pimp My Ride"?

They transform. [Bumble]Bee was a Beetle before, and he's a Camaro, and they change. Honestly, I'm throwing out names of cars that I don't even know what I'm talking about because I don't know nothing about cars. I don't even know how to drive. I know he's a Camaro and I know he was a Beetle before. That's as far as my extent.

I drive all the time and I don't know how to drive. We are on the same page with that. Tell us about your character Elena. 

"I'm a very collaborative person. I love to talk about things and that's going to make me feel comfortable and more secure."

Elena is an artifacts researcher and she's working at a museum. And right now she's at a crossroads in her life because she feels like her boss is always suppressing her and taking credit for her work. She's at a standstill. I think she's often in her books, and her imagination runs wild, but I don't know that she takes adventure at face value to actually do it in the physical world. Then she meets Noah [Anthony Ramos] and she has to heed the call in her life to see if she's going to do what she's always done or try to do something greater.

As a TV writer, one thing I love about working with certain actors is when you pass in your pages as a writer, and then they come back with, "OK, I see this and this and that."

You like that?

I like that. I know some writers hate it. I read that you came back with two pages or more of notes on Elena.

I did.

What did you bring to her?

I can't even remember everything that was written. I got it in the email. Just making sure that we knew a little bit about her background, what she cared about personally, outside of the Transformers, outside of her connection to Noah or whatever it was going to be. Does she have a relationship with the Autobots? Just making sure that she had her own identity within the story as opposed to being somebody that is brought along because of Noah. That was Steven Caple Jr.'s idea beforehand. It was nice to just know that I could talk to him and say, "Hey, these are my thoughts."

I remember it was the 19th hour of shooting something, and I just felt like I wanted to try something. Anthony was like, "What you got to say? Say it." We sat there, and everybody got in the circle, and we just talking about it. I said, "Well, I feel like Elena does this. I feel like this is her moment to do X, Y and Z." It's not even about necessarily that everything that I say has to make it in the script or in the movie.

From the jump, I always tell any creative that I'm meeting with, if it's a general or if it's a specific project, that if you like the work that I've done, just know I'm a very collaborative person. I love to talk about things, and that's going to make me feel comfortable and more secure. Again, it doesn't have to be what I say, but if I have a thought about it and I want to talk about it's not like, "No, just do that because I said so."

Right now, television writers are on strike and there's talk of actors going on strike as well. Do you think this is all healthy for the industry? (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East)

I think so, yeah. Because I think that it's changing. It's time to look at things. As an actor, you work many hours, you don't always get paid a massive amount of money that people think you get paid. You have your lawyers, your publicists, all of those things that you have to pay for, including taxes, including all your bills. Then you go and you do press for months at a time, and you don't get paid for that. At least I don't get paid for that. I don't know if anybody else [does]. If you do let me know so I can get it in my contract. 

You do the work and then you get that lump sum of money for the time doing that. But what about everything after and with streaming services and things like that, do you get back in? You don't get back in. There's no syndication. It's like a lot of things. I think that it's important to have the conversation and see what's changing because actors do give a lot of their lives and times for it. I love what I do. I'm missing my best friend's wedding. I'm missing it. I'm the godmother of her daughter and I'm missing her wedding. That hurts. I love work. I missed my uncle's funeral. I missed my sister's birthday, 16th birthday, graduations. You miss a lot of things. I love what I do. So it's not to say that I wouldn't, but can the other things come in that help you feel more appreciated, that you're given your life and your time and your heart and your energy to bring in something to life?

What's next for you?

Well, definitely more of my own writing because I started acting in a company that in order to act you had to write your own stuff, and I'm writing a book of poetry right now. I really want to do an epic romance. I don't know if you are writing one, after the strike, of course, if you write one, but otherwise, I'm just working on my own. What's my concept for a really epic love story? I've always been a romantic, and now if anybody asks me what it is you want to do, it's like, a timeless rom-com like "When Harry Met Sally" or "Say Anything" or something like that or an epic romance like a "Titanic" or a "The Notebook."

"Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" is now in theaters.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Dominique Fishback Movies Salon Talks Swarm Transformers Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts