'Swarm': How the Beyhive and Real Crimes Inspired Donald Glover's New Series (Exclusive)
Co-created by Donald Glover and showrunner Janine Nabers, Swarm follows Andrea Green (Dominique Fishback), a young woman whose obsession with one of the world's biggest pop stars, a Houston, Texas-born singer named Ni’jah, and an unexpected trauma in her life sets her on a dark, twisted journey across the country.
Inspired by the Beyhive and fans' relationships with the likes of Beyoncé, the Prime Video series is a captivating (and at times, disturbing) character study that parallels The Piano Teacher and The King of Comedy as it tells the origin story of an anti-hero, who is unlike ones previously seen on TV.
While speaking to ET, Nabers addresses whether Swarm is a critique of stans, what it was like getting to create a new kind of character for TV, and what Fishback, who is known for Judas and the Black Messiah and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, brought to the role that surely will leave people screaming at their screens.
ET: I wanted to start with the disclaimer that appears in front of each episode that reads, "This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional." Can you tell me about why you wanted to include that and how that sets the tone for what audiences are going to watch?
Janine Nabers: This story is 100 percent taken from real events and real internet rumors and real other things, true crimes that have happened between the years of 2016 and 2018. That is why we see that disclaimer, "This is not a work of fiction." Because after you see the show and you go to the internet, you will see that a lot of it holds up in terms of just the stories that you will see and this character of Andrea Green.
[Editor's note: One such internet rumor is about a woman named Marissa Jackson who supposedly killed herself after watching Lemonade because she thought Jay-Z was cheating on Beyoncé the same way her boyfriend was cheating on her. Other rumors and real incidents that Nabers is referring to here are spoilers peppered throughout the series.]
When it comes to the series, there's no denying the parallels to Beyonce. With that in mind, is this show a critique of fandoms or stans in general? Or is there more to it than that?
JN: I think you can intellectualize it and say that it's a critique of fandom, of course. I created it with someone who is a music superstar, and I've seen people take ownership of him in real time, in real life, in front of my face. I think when you step outside, and you look at the story, is it a critique? Sure.
But at the end of the day, I think it's also just really the story of a woman, who by any means necessary, is trying to get to the one thing that she understands in her life and the one thing that completes her after we see her go through this incredible journey in the pilot. I think, for us, it was always the story of Dre.
The pilot has always been the origin story of a villain in a lot of ways for us. The title of the pilot is called "Stung." This is a reaction to that. The journey that she takes throughout the pilot and what we see her become released at the end of the pilot propels us into the rest of the story.
In terms of the internet and the different stans that represent the different pop stars today, I think, for us, it was always this idea of just how do you emulate a feeling that someone that is great, a Black woman who's a pop star in America today, what is the feeling that she gives us? What's the feeling that she gives Dre? And just trying to emulate that as much as possible.
People can project whatever star they want into that, and they do, and they will, because that's how life works. But we just wanted to really allow people to understand the greatness of this character that we don't really see, so that people can understand the feeling that she's supposed to give that character.
Donald mentioned in another interview that some of the references for this were The Piano Teacher and The King of Comedy. While watching this I also got some American Psycho vibes. So, I was curious for you, were there any other reference points that you drew from for this?
JN:American Psycho is completely it. It's one of my favorite stories. I'm a huge Brett Easton Ellis fan. I'm also a huge fan of The Piano Teacher director Michael Haneke. Both of us were huge, huge fans of his work. And we watched a lot of the Criterion Collection when we were really looking at how to assemble the story and how to really look at the otherness of this character. It feels very much like Black Criterion. We shot every single episode on film.
We're pulling from so many really, I think, really interesting influences and people that we've admired and really just playing with this avant-garde tone and this genre-bending way of telling a story that is obviously dark, but also funny and has this horror-thriller element to it, but still has very much the drive that a TV show would have.
For you, I guess, how much fun was it to then create this antihero at the center of this story? What was it like to create this character and really go to some very dark or twisted places?
JN: Well, as a Black woman, it was really exciting because I feel like that space has only really been reserved for white men and the white women of our time. And I think there was something really badass about putting a Black woman at the center of a story, where she's doing things, where she's not always the most likable character, and allowing us to understand her to a certain point but also question some of her decisions and some of her beliefs and some of the actions that she makes.
I think it was really exhilarating. This room was entirely Black. The directors are all Black. Ninety percent of the producers on this show are Black. Ninety-nine of the cast is Black. So, that was really a monumental moment for us, to really just nail down this series from start to finish. And it is definitely the end. This is a full beginning, middle, and end story of this character.
I read that Dominique had to fight for the role of Dre. How did casting her bring the character to life? Did casting her do anything for you in terms of the final character that we see onscreen?
JN: It's so funny because Donald and myself, we're such big fans of Dominique, and I'd been watching her career for such a long time. This is a limited series. It's one and done. It's TV… And I looked at her as a movie star. So, when we approached her, we approached her for a small part to allow her to just be like, "We know that you got a lot going on, but would you do us this service to do this?" When she fought for the main character, that was really great because you just never know. So that was just a huge win for us.
I think when you look at Atlanta, which I worked on for two seasons, all of the actors on that show were discovered on that show. I think when we set out to tell this story, it was, I think, Donald and I were really bent on being like, "OK, let's find someone that we can, who we might not have seen before, tap into this role and give them that."
But what's great about Dominique is that she's such an incredible actress, and she's so versatile. You meet her, and she's the sweetest woman in the world. And then you see her tap into this role, and you feel for her. You're scared of her. You're with her, you're not with her. It's unbelievable. I think she completely surpassed our expectations, and I really can't wait for everyone to see her in this role.
Swarm debuts Friday, March 17 on Prime Video.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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