February 2020

‘This is the Way’ Actress Emily Swallow embraces The Mandalorian mantra

Author: Iain Denholm | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai

The last six months have seen Emily Swallow juggle not one but three major TV roles, portraying characters as diverse as a research physiologist in CBS’ Seal Team, God’s sister in Supernatural and “The Armorer” in The Mandalorian, Disney’s smash hit Star Wars spinoff. Here, the Jacksonville-born actress shares why she swapped a career in the Foreign Service for the unpredictability of an actor’s life and explains why she has never looked back.

Iain Denholm: First, on behalf of The Mandalorian fans out here, I have to say, “This is the way!”
Emily Swallow: Oh my gosh, absolutely (laughs). I love it. I was just in Australia, doing a fan convention for Supernatural, but there were plenty of Star Wars fans there who asked me to write that on their posters. It’s pretty fun to have something that seems to be lodged in people’s psyche as a real phrase for all The Mandalorian people. It’s so cool.

ID: Many Star Wars fans have said that the show really captures the essence of those original movies.
ES: I have heard a lot of people respond that way, and I think that’s what the show’s creator John Favreau set out to do. He wanted to harken back to the feel of the original three movies but also introduce a story that stands on its own so that people who maybe weren’t already fans could join in and appreciate it just as much. The world of The Mandalorian feels a little dirtier than some of the newer movies, which I love, and it has an outlaw, Wild West feel, which is so much fun.

ID: Did the secrecy around the project affect how you auditioned for the role?
ES: It did. The project hadn’t been announced at that point, and, looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t know what it would have the potential to become because I would have been a lot more nervous.

Whenever you go in for one of those very secretly held projects, you’re given so little information about what it is you’re auditioning for and what the scene is that you have to make things up for yourself, and that was certainly the case with this. I knew that the character would be masked, but the only information I had was that she was a leader and was very Zen-like. The scene I had was pretty similar to that scene in Chapter Three where the Mandalorian brings the Beskar [iron used in Mandalorian armor], and a fight breaks out, and I step into a peace-making role and get to say that line you already said back to me: “This is the way.”

ID: As an actress, playing a masked character must have been a challenge.
ES: Yes, but it was an interesting challenge. I did some mask work in my theatre training, and I love the way it changes the focus of the audience. When you don’t have a face to look at, you read the body in a different way, and the slightest physical movement can convey a big message whether you want it to or not. The directors, Deborah [Chow] and Dave [Filoni], were both incredibly helpful in relaying back what was being communicated and what we needed more and less of, and we were learning together. For “The Armorer,” I realized that she needed an economy of movement, because she is someone of very few words. It often feels like she is observing and taking everything in, and she doesn’t talk until she really needs to. That was a cool thing to get to work with, and it was fun to try to find that language.

ID: It’s not the most glamorous of costumes.
ES: (Laughs) it’s not, but it’s incredible. It’s probably one of the most powerful costumes I have ever had, and it was also really liberating because normally I show up to set and have to go through two hours of hair and makeup. It was nice to just show up and put on a mask and not worry about what I look like.

ID: Was it comfortable to wear?
ES: Mmmmm, I wouldn’t use the word comfortable (laughs). Especially the helmet, because I had a microphone inside there, so it had to fit very precisely, which meant a lot of foam padding. Often my visor would get fogged up from my breath, and I had no peripheral vision; so when we were doing those sequences where I’m forging the armor, there were so many times where I couldn’t pick something up or I dropped something because I couldn’t quite see it. I’m really grateful in watching it that it looks so graceful (laughs) and skillful because it definitely didn’t feel that way.

ID: Can it be a challenge to make those fantastical characters relatable?
ES: It can be. With these bigger characters, I find that human thing to connect to and invest in that. With Supernatural, a huge part of playing Amara involved connecting to her hurt and feelings of betrayal and abandonment, which justified her anger and the destructive path she went on. Amara was smiting people and bringing thunderbolts down from the sky with all the CGI and stuff, but I had an economy of movement with her and a stillness, and The Armorer also has a stillness. A lot of it with those characters is also trusting the process and the post-production. The first few times I was shooting scenes for Supernatural where I was supposed to have a thunderbolt coming out of my hand, I felt like such a doofus, and I just hoped it was gonna look good. But once I saw that the special effects guys knew what they were doing and I could trust that, it became easier.

ID: How was it to return for the final season of Supernatural?
ES: Oh, it’s been so delicious to jump back into Amara’s skin. I was thrilled when they asked me back, especially as we hadn’t heard about her for a while. At the end of Season 14, someone asked where Amara was, and Chuck said that she was “hanging out in Reno,” which I thought was hilarious. When I was first on the show, I definitely didn’t get to explore Amara’s lighter side (laughs). She was very serious, very angry and had a mission, so it’s fun to get to come back and find the lighter, annoying brother and sister relationship with her and Chuck—and to get a wardrobe change and finally be out of the black dress (laughs)! I also love the actors on that show, and I had such a great time working on it, so getting to come back and work with them again has been absolutely wonderful.

ID: You actually majored in Middle Eastern and Foreign Affairs. Was that your original career plan?
ES: Yes (laughs), I really thought I would go into the Foreign Service. But fortunately for me, the drama department at the University of Virginia was very open to non-drama majors, and I’m just so grateful for that because I got to explore that side of things—much to the dismay of my thesis advisor (laughs). I didn’t know anyone personally who had followed that career path, but I knew that I loved acting and performing, and I had a wonderful drama teacher who encouraged me to audition for some conservatories and grad programs. I auditioned for a slew of programs and got into NYU’s grad acting program, which I realized was a great opportunity. I walked through that door and never looked back.

ID: Does being an actress change how you watch/enjoy TV and film?
ES: It does (laughs). For better or for worse. Sometimes I really wish I could just watch without any interpretation or any of those questions like, “Oh, I wonder how that person got that role,” or “Whose idea was that?” It’s sometimes a bit of a liability but it also gives me so much more appreciation when somebody does give a really great performance. You could be the most talented actor in the world, but if you can’t block out some of the distractions and get past those nerves and trust the process and let all the work that you’ve done come out, then nobody’s gonna know how talented you are.

ID: Which shows do you love?
ES: Well, The Mandalorian, obviously (laughs)! I love Big Little Lies and Parks & Recreation, and I just got into The Watchman after hearing everyone rave about it. Also, one of my favorite series is the original BBC version of Broadchurch. It was so interesting to see David Tenant play that role on the BBC version and then come back as an Americanized version. It was an interesting take on revisiting a character, though I like the original more than the American one.

ID: With a list of high-profile roles under your belt, you are the definition of a “successful actress,” but how do you define what success in acting is?
ES: Thank you. Oh man, that’s a deep question in terms of the complexity of it. I have had to change how I look at success and make it less about an outward goal, because if I make it too much about achieving a certain type of role or being on a certain show, then as soon as I get that, I’m like, “Okay, that’s done; now, I need to do something that’s better.” And so then I never feel successful because it’s a moving target. I define success by how connected I feel to using my creative muscles, whether it’s in something that everyone gets to see on TV or if it’s just a small play that I’m doing in a black box theater. If I can stay busy in that way, then I feel successful.

ID: Okay, Freaky Friday time. If you could inhabit another celebrity’s body for a day, who would that be and why?
ES: Oh my gosh. Olivia Colman, because I think she is absolutely brilliant, and she seems so delightful as a human. She just seems so comfortable in her skin and so kind and generous and openhearted to other people. I would love to know what it feels like to have her level of talent and to just be so okay with the world. She seems like someone who is really content, and I appreciate that about her. There is none of the drama that sometimes goes with, and that we sometimes excuse with, tremendous talent.

ID: Career-wise, what does 2020 hold for you?
ES: 2020 is sort of a question mark, so far, although I rarely know what I’m doing more than a few weeks in advance. I’m doing more episodes of Seal Team and more is coming up with Supernatural, but beyond that, I don’t really know. It’ll be interesting to see, career-wise, what kind of impact The Mandalorian has, because it will be hard for somebody to look at that and say, “Oh, I wanna cast her in this role,” because I’m in a mask (laughs). Hopefully, it at least brings me to people’s attention who might not know me, and then they’ll watch something else where they can see me performing with my face and all the rest of me.

ID: Does that uncertainty ever worry you?
ES: If you don’t have faith that it’s all gonna work out, then you will go absolutely insane in this profession. When I feel myself getting anxious, I just have to remind myself that things tend to work themselves out—often not in the way I would have expected and often much better than I expected. Supernatural was a huge example of that because I remember going in for that audition and then being a little ambivalent about it, and that role has opened up a whole world that I never expected. So now I try to get out of my own way and trust that, if I keep my head down and do the work, then the right projects are gonna find me. “This is the way” (laughs)! 

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