The Mandalorian actor Emily Swallow on the Star Wars universe and the many hats of acting
Updated: May 1, 2020
Emily Swallow talks to us about joining the Star Wars universe in a brand-new show like The Mandalorian, joining the long-running series Supernatural and the artistic freedom short film allows actors.
Emily Swallow is an actor who has experienced just about every style of performance there is. She's been on stage opposite Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks, on screen as Amara the sibling of God in Supernatural and the Armourer in The Mandalorian, and even in the voice-over booth as Lisa Tepes in Castlevania. Not to mention more recently, in a mocap studio for The Last Of Us: Part II.
There are so many places we could start our chat, but inevitably it begins with the state of the world we find ourselves in today. New York City is where Swallow and her husband are for the duration of the pandemic, and where it struck far closer to home than many.
"I've stayed healthy in spite of my husband actually having the virus, but he is doing well again now. Somehow I avoided getting it when he got it. That's a blessing. We're in New York. It's very strange here right now because the city usually has such a constant hum of life. It's just so much more subdued. It's been a surprisingly abundant time in terms of creativity and making connections with people.
"I've had some creative outlets, doing some play readings, and workshops, and working on some music with people. That's a silver lining to have this time where everything's on pause and you can just focus on what you want to focus on creatively."
It's creatively where responses to the enforced time at home is proving divisive for many people. Some are diving head first into this free time to develop their projects, whereas others are understandably, unable to focus. The expectation to emerge from this time with something to show for it can feel intense.
"Right! Which also I think is so much pressure. I've had too much. In the beginning I thought 'Oh my gosh. If I don't come out of this without having created this magnificent project that's just everything I've ever wanted, then I've failed.' It's challenging me to be patient with myself and it's been more of a gradual focus on the smaller things that I've wanted for a while. From that, I've seen some ideas for projects come to light and collaborations take shape."
The lockdown in the UK coincided well with the launch of Disney+, offering audiences over here access to the universes of Disney, Marvel, National Geographic and Star Wars. With that last one came The Mandalorian, a series in which Swallow features as the mysterious Armorer.
"Considering what a huge thing it has become and how exciting it's been for me, it started out really, really low key. It was shrouded in mystery, I knew I was auditioning for some sort of Star Wars live action TV show...
"It's always frustrating not to know much about something that you're auditioning for. You get over that, work with what you have, and then fill in the blanks with your imagination. I was given a set of sides and just told that this character was a leader of a group of people that were in hiding.
"The audition was just me with a casting associate and a camera. There weren't any of the big names in the room (which was a relief because I didn't have to put too much pressure on it). Considering what the project was I'm really glad for that because it was nice not to know that I was auditioning for something that would wind up being this huge hit series. When it hit me that I was going to be working with Jon Favreau, that was exciting because I think he's such an incredible creator and collaborator."
Going into the project, the only detail Swallow had been given for the character was that Favreu had been keen for the character to have a British/Mid-Atlantic accent, something to make her stand out from the other Mandalorians. The full scale of the production was revealed when she arrived for her costume fitting at Legacy Effects.
"They were the first ones to show me a sketch of the armor that I was going to be wearing, and it just took my breath away. That's when I said, 'Oh, wow! They're really putting a lot of work into this'. I also got a little tour of the studio and got to see some of the other things that they've made. They've been responsible for such iconic pieces in different movies and TV shows. That definitely got my heart beating a little faster."
As impressive as the costume design was, it would ultimately present significant challenges when it came to performance. All the Mandalorian characters are covered head to toe, in particular wearing a distinct mask that never reveals their faces. It was something worked on with creator Jon Favreu who Swallow credits as a great collaborator.
"It was such an interesting challenge. I really enjoyed it because I've never done anything like that on TV before. I have a background in theatre training and had done some mask work there, so that was incredibly useful, but never would I have thought when I was getting my MFA that I was going to be using it for Star Wars. It really was such an interesting process for those of us wearing Mandalorian armor going back and forth with the directors, and getting feedback on what they saw from the other side of the camera. Trying to find the language of movement of these warriors and their different personalities.
"We quickly recognised that when you can't see somebody's face, you're just so much more aware of every other part of their body and every single movement. It's really easy if you, as an actor, make too much extraneous movement to distract from what's going on in the scene. That really focused me and I enjoyed that challenge. I like getting to think outside of the naturalistic realm of most of what I've done on TV.
"It was such a supportive, playful, and collaborative atmosphere. I think that's first and foremost because Jon Favreau is such a generous collaborator. I'm pretty sure he's always the smartest person in the room, but he doesn't need anybody else to think that. Ultimately, he's interested in what everyone else has to bring to the table, and he's such a strong, confident, trustworthy presence at the centre of all of it that you feel like you can bring different ideas and try things.
"From what I understand he brought all the directors together to make sure everyone was on the same page in terms of the story they were telling in the overall feel of the series, but beyond that, he told all of them, "I've chosen you guys for your unique talents and your unique styles, and I encourage you to lean into that. Don't feel like you have to all fit into one particular mould of storytelling." Ultimately, I think that that really came through. I feel like from start to finish, there was absolute unity among the episodes, but there was also a different flavour to each one that made it so much more enjoyable."
Enjoying the series is something the demanding Star Wars fanbase most certainly did. At a time when the new trilogy and their movie spin-offs have been coming under some serious flack, it must have been a joyous experience to not only be part of a show that proved popular, but also as a character the fans responded to so positively.
"That was just such a ball for me because that was certainly a piece that I couldn't have predicted. I certainly have seen how people react when they don't like a certain telling of the story. I feel so lucky that the fans received our show the way they did.
"It was just so pleasurable to be this character who is in some ways the keeper of their history, their code of ethics and conduct, the one who keeps reminding them about who they are at their core. I think her mystery made it possible for people to have fun imagining where she fits in to everything."
Going from a brand new show set in a galaxy far, far away to joining a long-running show set here on Earth - albeit with some otherworldly elements - Swallow also plays Amara, something of a Big Bad, in hit series Supernatural. Now in its 15th and final season, it must be daunting to join a show so well established and be the new kid on the block.
"Yes, you're right. Anytime you step into a long running show, I always tell people it's sort of like being a transfer student in the middle of the school year because everyone else knows the books, they know the teachers, they know how things go, and you're jumping in and just trying to catch up. I've had widely varying experiences with that on different shows, but I think that because of the way Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki and the producers of that show lead the charge, it is not surprising to me that it's been on now for 15 years.
"I felt so welcomed and I didn't feel like anybody was telling me, "Okay, this is the way we do things, so you got to just fall in line." There was, of course, already 10 seasons of what had been established with these characters in these stories, but they were so excited to have this new character come in. I felt like I was welcome to bring so many of my own ideas, and nobody was telling me the way I had to play her, or anything that I had to do with her. It was very cool being a character who had been talked about and hinted at and who already had so much history when she came into the story. It just made it that much more fun to build on it.
"It's a gift to be part of a long running show and to have that success, but it's such a testament to Jensen and Jared, because it's also exhausting. They are shooting nine months out of the year, especially with their characters, they're in almost every scene. It's long hours, and then they're flying off to do conventions on weekends, and they both have kids. For them to just be so positive on set, it really sets the tone for everyone. That crew is just one of the loveliest I've gotten to work with."
Another string to Swallow's bow is her work as a voice actor in Castelvania on Netlfix in which she plays Lisa Tepes. Performing for the screen must be such a different skillset to performing in a recording studio. What are the main differences between the two and are characters approached in the same way?
"I approach the character the same but the performing of it is so different. I still get into it physically, because my voice is not separate from the rest of my body. When I find physical choices that inform a character, that necessarily impacts my voice.
"Voice work is so strange because not only are you just in a little sound booth talking into a microphone, but in my experience, most of the time, I'm not even in the same room as the other actors in the scene. I'm either talking with somebody who's in another booth, or sometimes I'm recording my stuff on my own and they put it together with the other actors' dialogue later. That part of it is not quite as enjoyable to me because I love collaborating in real-time. I think it requires you to put a lot more trust in the overall process because someone else is going to put your dialogue together with the other actors."
On screen, on stage, in the recording studio, recently in the motion capture studio for video game sequel The Last Of Us II, and even as a singer. Which of all the mediums offers her the most artistic reward?
"At the end of the day, my heart is in theatre because it's just so immediate. I love that the audience is right there. I love the rehearsal process. You don't often get a lot of rehearsal in film and TV. That's my favourite part of doing a play, the month or so that you get to spend in a room with these other actors making discoveries without pressure. You have so much more time, so I think that it allows you to get more deeply into the work in more nuanced ways.
"Then I love the period when you're in previews and rehearsing during the day and putting changes in the show. And then performing it that night, and seeing how the audience reacts to it. Then coming back for rehearsal the next day and analysing and saying, "Okay, what worked, what didn't?"
TV is different because you don't have an audience when you're doing it, but it's been so rewarding to get to do a lot of fan conventions because that finally puts me in touch with the audience. It gives me a chance to find out what they respond to and what they enjoy and the connections that they make."
On the subject of fan conventions, which become becomes almost part of the job for those actors who find themselves in a genre show with a popular character. How have you found your interactions so far?
"It's been different for me. Supernatural and The Mandalorian have been the two things that I've been in with the biggest fan bases.
"Supernatural was so interesting because Amara was such a dark and brooding character, I don't think I've cracked a smile the whole season. It was actually funny at my first few conventions. I was confused about why people seemed to be sort of apprehensive about approaching me. Then I realised it was because they were worried I was like Amara. It's definitely a relief now the fans know me a little better and that I'm a pretty big goober and I'm very silly, and I'm not anything like Amara in that respect.
"Then the Star Wars fandom, it's just pure joy. I remember when I did my first convention after The Mandalorian came out, it was just a whole other level. It was so much fun to get an even wider range of people coming to my table and asking questions and wanting to take pictures.
"For both of those, it just feels like such a community, and I feel like I've been so warmly welcomed into both of them. That's been a huge gift."
And finally, with everything going on in her career, Swallow still has time to invest in the short film projects we love at Exit 6. Some of the more recent projects on her CV include The Games We Play, Health to the King and Forget Me Not.
"What I love about short film is that it's a relatively easy way to get to create with the people that you're dying to create with. The short films that I've worked on have been such rich material that there's been time to prep, which is nice. You almost have to do more prep because you're telling such a narrow portion of the story you have to bring more with you in your imagination about what happened before, and what brought these characters to this place. In 10 or 15 minutes you're communicating everything that needs to be communicated.
"I think as an actor, the more characters I'm getting to work on and the more ways I'm getting challenged, the better I'm going to be for every single role that I approach. I feel like it's a creativity and your imagination workout in the same way as exercise. The more characters you've tried on, different styles you've worked in, and directors you've worked with, the more you have to bring to every project, and the range of work you can do becomes wider."
You can follow Emily on Twitter: @BigESwallz