GREATEST: Kiersey Clemons
In conversation with Swarm co-star Dominique Fishback, the indie star opens up about borderline obsessive fanbases, living up to expectations and the serendipity of instinctual acting.
The silver screen was never far away for Kiersey Clemons. She began her acting career as a child, starring in plays and commercials which eventually led to television roles on the Disney Channel and beyond. Her commitment to portraying characters in an honest and vulnerable light has helped Clemons forge a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most promising new names.
It was Clemons’ role in the coming-of-age indie film Dope which catapulted her into the public eye. As the witty and tomboyish Diggy, she deftly balanced toughness with vulnerability in a way that placed Black queer women in a shining new light. Thereafter, the actress cemented her status as a rising, cross-genre star in projects including Hearts Beat Loud, Fairfax and DC Comics’ summer blockbuster The Flash.
In Swarm, the Donald Glover-produced, serial killer-satire TV series inspired by Beyoncé and her Beyhive superfans, Clemons plays a supporting role to Dominique Fishback’s pop star-obsessed protagonist. The show opened up questions about toxic fandom and celebrity culture, with Fishback drawing critical acclaim for her complex performance.
As the show continues to weave its way through the cultural discourse, Clemons and Fishback discuss the move from Disney to indie, stepping into a blockbuster franchise and the fortuitous power of unrehearsed acting.
We haven't had the opportunity to talk after Swarm, really. I wanted to hear your perspective of what it was like for you to be a part of that show. You did amazing work.
For me, when I read the script, I thought they needed a very specific actress to play Rashida. When they told me it was you, I was so excited. Then at the table read, you blew me away. How did it feel to see the series come to life?
I remember the table read was chaos for both of us. We got there at the same time. I was very flustered, but I think that lent itself to the monologue. As actors, when you don't prepare, sometimes you get the best stuff.
I like to prepare and let it go. But there's a feeling about a table read that I really like because it's so instinctual. There's a stillness to it because we're all seated, and it forces us to really connect. You're also trying to make this world exist over, well, Zoom, but what would normally be a big conference room table. I think Donald [Glover] was there. You guys were all in your little Zoom boxes, and it made me excited. I couldn't wait to join and meet you and work with you because I've always been such a big fan of yours.
The whole cast and crew were amazing. Even though I was only there for one episode, it was really nice to have you to lean on. I feel like we were able to really open up with each other on a personal level, and it made all the stuff that we had to do a lot more comfortable.
What is the most profound thing that you’ve learned while collaborating with another artist?
Brett Haley directed this movie I did called Hearts Beat Loud. He would always say, “Don't say your line while worrying about how much space there is between your dialogue and the other person's dialogue. Don't worry about what you think the pace of the scene is. Do not say your line until you can't help but say it. Until it's literally rising up from your gut.” That's one of the most profound things that a creative person has ever said to me.
Have you been able to take that to other sets?
I always base the scene off of the other person that I'm acting with because I think a lot of acting is reactionary. You want to create the world in your mind and bring it to life.
How old were you when you started acting?
I always wanted to be an actor. My mom put me in a play when I was like 7 or 8. She knew that I liked performing. Then I did more theater with the Belasco Theater Company as a teenager, where I learned things that I still hold on to.
What was your first experience on a film or TV set?
The first job that I did where I felt like, “Oh, I'm an actor now” was Shake It Up. I grew up watching Disney Channel.
I mean, this has nothing to do with me, but Zendaya being who Zendaya is now is so incredible because I remember someone in the crew saying to my mom, “She's gonna be a star.”
All of the characters that we bring to life, they exist in their own realms.
What did you do after that?
A lot of commercials. I still get residuals from a Best Buy commercial that's been on for 15 years. I tested for this movie which became a big Disney franchise, like the Gen Z version of High School Musical, and I remember thinking, “God, I really hope that I don't get it. If I get this, I'm obligated to do this until I'm like 26.”
At the time, I had all of these friends who were actors, and we were in and out of each other's apartments, driving each other to auditions. I lived with Kofi Siriboe. Everyone was auditioning for indie movies, and I just thought a movie was a movie. I didn't know what an indie movie was, but they were like, “They're smaller movies.” So I went to my agency that I was with at the time, this boutique agency, and was like, “I want to go out for these indie movies.” And they were like, “Uhh, you know, they're harder to book.” So I said, “Just send me out.”
So is that when you got Dope?
Yes. Kofi was like, “Everyone's auditioning for this movie. You should tell your agent.” So that's what I did. I remember [the character] Diggy had the same chill essence that Kofi has. So I said, “Kofi, will you read the lines?”
So we did the scene with him as Diggy. And then I just went in. I was just the lesbian version of Kofi.
Do you feel like you collaborate with your characters? Do you have to compromise with them at all?
Yeah, that's what I mean when I say that I don't like to define Diggy. For example, someone asked me if Diggy was non-binary, and I was like, “I don't even think that she asks herself questions like that.” She exists in her own realm. All of the characters that we bring to life, they exist in their own realms.
So tell me about The Flash and your version of Iris West. What did you do at the audition? What was that first part like?
It’s interesting that I'm bringing up Dope so much now because it changed my life, and now I’m here doing The Flash. Rick Famuyiwa, who wrote and directed Dope, is initially who cast me in The Flash.
I know! This was—oh my gosh—it was nearly 10 years ago.
That you got cast in The Flash?
For me it was the first time—and maybe you feel this with Transformers—it was the first time that I experienced other people's passion for me playing a part that didn't even exist yet; a fan base that is so intense.
It makes me more excited because I almost want to please them. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing. For me, it feels good. Maybe I need to unpack that. I don't know. Did you feel pressure to live up to any iteration of Transformers before this?
Not at all. I feel, moreso, responsible to continue to be myself and not try to change for the comfort of people who want things to stay the same. The majority of the fans are really excited and very accepting. How do you feel like this character and this project is going to shift your life or your career?
I think because everyone talks about this “big shift” that will happen so much, I have no expectations.
[Laughs] I feel the same.
I don't know if that's self-protective or not, but maybe we just immediately tune into the fact that it doesn't matter. That's not what we do it for. We know how superhero movies and movies like Transformers perform. Whereas, when you make a little indie movie, you have no idea if people will see it or how many people will see it.
Yeah. Swarm wasn't indie obviously, plus it's a TV series…
But in a sense, we didn't know what the fan base was going to be like, even in everybody's desire to bring more representation to the screen and to the characters. I would be remiss to not go back to Swarm and talk about the relationship with Blackness and queerness and how you speak about that a lot. Is that important to the characters that you play? Do you approach your projects thinking about that, or is it something that naturally finds you? And what do you feel like your voice is as a Black, queer artist?
I think they come to me more than I seek it out. Which I am not mad at, at all. I obviously love playing queer characters. But I'm not opposed to performing outside of that. I will play any character that is a person that exists in the world. I don't base it around who I am as a person or my personal experiences, and that's what makes us empathetic. Art allows me to be more empathetic.
How did you feel about the ending of our characters’ relationship on Swarm?
I mean, I'm not gonna lie to you. I was not rooting for Dre.
No, let me choose my words more wisely. It was more that I understood her, and I was empathetic towards her. I feel like we have to do that as actors. You could be playing the most terrible, disgusting person. You have to find a way to understand their actions, whether you condone them or not, right?
Yes. As you move forward in your life and in your career, what do you think is the grounding idea that you hold on to?
Leaning in more to my feelings. Not being afraid of how I'm perceived based on how I am dressing. Or the [idea] of tackling one's masculinity or femininity, which we've talked about. Even with my friendships: leaning on friends, trusting them more, being more vulnerable. Leaning into only doing work that I'm passionate about.