Actor Emily Swallow is known as Kim Fischer on The Mentalist and as Amara / The Darkness in the eleventh season of Supernatural. Recently Emily starred as the Armorer in the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian on Disney+. (Yes, the show with “Baby Yoda.”)

Emily’s character, the Armorer, is masked, so just how does one portray a masked character at an audition? Emily needed to create a balanced use of emotion without physically showing emotion.

Take that, along with not even knowing what she was auditioning for, and you have a really delicate situation which could have easily been broken.

Many detours lead up to the road where Emily Swallow’s acting career is currently at, so let’s put it in reverse and then floor it forward to learn how she won the role of the Armorer and how her other acting roles have impacted her life.

After college where you earned a degree in Middle Eastern Studies, you studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. That’s a drastic change from your college major. What made you decide to take up acting after graduating from the University of Virginia?

I think it took me a beat longer than pretty much everyone around me to know I would wind up an actor. I grew up with incredibly encouraging parents; they always told my brother and me that whatever we decided to pursue, they just wanted us to be happy. Well, there were a lot of things that made me happy – singing, acting, playing the piano, history, literature, political science – and, since I didn’t know anyone in my immediate sphere who was a professional actor, it just didn’t strike me as a thing I could aspire to. But I loved history and politics and learning about different social and geopolitical perspectives, so when I went to UVA and started focusing on a major, something related to foreign affairs really excited me. I thought I’d go into the State Department and be a Foreign Service Officer, and I did intern at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute for a summer. BUT I was spending half my time on this major and thesis and the other half performing in Drama Department productions. And I feel really fortunate that the department at UVA was so welcoming to non-majors, because I don’t know if I would have committed so much time to it otherwise. So…my last year of undergrad, one of my teachers, Richard Warner, asked me “Have you thought about doing this professionally? Because you clearly love it, and I think you could.” And we agreed that I’d benefit from going to a conservatory where I could develop a process; I’d sort of been flying by the seat of my pants and going on instinct, and I worked with some wonderful directors at UVA, but I didn’t really have a reliable way into climbing into a role. He helped me cook up a dozen monologues and off I went to New York for a couple of weekends to audition for a whole slew of programs, including NYU and Juilliard. When I got into NYU, it felt like too incredible an opportunity to pass up, so I walked through the door, and I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.

What did your family say when you told them you were going to be a full-time actor?

This is where my first career choice came in really handy – the idea had been to become a Foreign Service Officer and head to an embassy in the Middle East. So when I told them that I was just going to New York City, they were thrilled! Seriously – they have been my biggest cheerleaders, and have always encouraged me through the ups and downs.

Once you were in NYC, how did you get your agents and manager? How come you have different agents for voiceovers vs. acting on screen?

Our class did a showcase just like the dozens and dozens of other programs and, incredibly, I wound up with the agent that would be my agent until earlier this year, when she became my manager. Her name is Hannah Roth and I signed with her at Buchwald for theatrical work; I signed at the same time with Abrams Artists for commercials and voiceover work, and I’m still with them as well. I worked without a manager for the first six years of my career because Hannah was such a personal agent, and we didn’t meet anyone we wanted to bring into the team. But in 2010 I met and immediately clicked with Lisa Gallant, who was my manager until this year. Lisa had seen some of my TV work and came to see my play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at The Old Globe in San Diego, and we knew we wanted to work together. When Hannah left Buchwald to start 11:11 Entertainment this year, Lisa was beautifully understanding about me wanting to continue to work with Hannah, so we parted ways.

So – Buchwald handles my TV, film and theatre work, and Abrams represents me for commercials and voiceover; both agencies are large enough to have separate departments for these different mediums, and I clicked with different departments at each when I graduated from Tisch, so that’s why I went with different agencies for Theatrical vs. Voiceover / Commercial work.

You came on as Amara / The Darkness in the eleventh season of Supernatural. What was it like coming onto a show where all the main actors have already been working together for 10 previous seasons? Who was the first actor you met for Supernatural? Was it on set or at a party or somewhere else? Is it uncomfortable coming onto a show where everyone already knows each other?

You never know what to expect going into a long running show, but Supernatural is one of the warmest, most generous and most playful sets I’ve ever stepped foot on. I was welcomed immediately – before I even got to set! I remember Ruth Connell reaching out to me because she was in the same episode and she asked me to brunch with Briana Buckmaster and Erica Carroll, both actresses who had been on the show. It did so much to put me at ease because they were all incredibly down to earth and sweet and fun. But when I actually got to set I saw I had even less reason to worry – Jensen was the first person I worked with, and he made me feel completely welcome. In a way, it was completely opposite to the experience Amara had, because she was an outsider who was decidedly unwelcome. It was great for her, though, that I could use the nerves that I felt about trying to get to know all the names and faces in service of playing HER unease.

After working on Broadway and various other East Coast theatre and television productions, you made the move to LA. Why? What was the job you were offered that was shot in California? Who did you room with before you found a place to stay?

My first trip to LA happened when I tested for a CBS pilot to play Freddie Prinze Jr’s (older) sister; I read for it with Meg Simon in New York and got the call that they wanted to fly me out…it was very surreal, because in real life I’m three years younger than him, but in the show I was supposed to be five or six years older and half Italian/half Puerto Rican (I am neither). My experience was limited to the Sheraton at Universal Studios and the Warner Brothers lot, and LA felt vast and unfamiliar and fairly daunting; I didn’t have set plans to go back anytime soon. But, as is often the case in this profession, the unexpected changes our plans… later that year, I opened High Fidelity on Broadway and had signed on for a year, so I thought my location was pretty set… that is, until we closed after less than a month. That was the beginning of December, which meant pilot season was just around the corner.

Hannah, my point person at Buchwald in NYC, had just moved to the LA office, so we decided that my newly branded status of “unemployed” was as good a reason as any to try an LA pilot season. I think I stayed out there just over a month, and I got in the room with some good casting directors for some great projects, but didn’t land anything (since that first test, I’d say I’ve tested 15 times, and booked three of those pilots/shows). For the next few years, I’d continue to take short trips to LA, building relationships with casting directors and auditioning. I’d sometimes stay with friends in their guest rooms and sometimes I’d sublet. It was a great way to get to know the city, because I lived all over during those years. It always seemed like I could find a car to borrow off of someone who was working in NY while I was in LA and, when I couldn’t, I used Rent-a-Wreck or something similarly glamorous. Grin.

For a few years, it just seemed like LA didn’t have anything substantial to offer me besides guest spots, so I’d wind up back in New York or off to the Guthrie or Old Globe to do more theatre. My agents have always supported my desire to continue acting in theatre, and we tried to find a balance that would make me available during busier TV times. Then I got an opportunity to play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Guthrie, and I did the thing you’re “never” supposed to do – I left town during pilot season to do a play in Minnesota. But I LOVED that role, and doing it at the Guthrie was one of those bucket list items. So…I’m in Minneapolis in the dead of winter doing a dream role and it turned out all that time I’d put in in LA paid off, because casting directors wanted me to go on tape constantly. I had one of my busiest pilot seasons ever and, because I was doing work I loved, I was turning in great auditions. One of those was to be a series regular on the David E. Kelley/Sanjay Gupta pilot Monday Mornings for TNT. Bill D’Elia was directing, and he and David loved my tape and said they were even more intrigued when they heard I was playing Maggie. I tested for that pilot on tape from Minneapolis and booked my second pilot and the first that went to series. If that’s not encouragement to listen to your gut, I don’t know what is.

When Monday Mornings got picked up, I decided to move my things in NY into a storage unit and commit to LA for the six months we’d be shooting. We were down at Manhattan Beach Studios, so I sublet a place at the beach, and I found my happy place. I realized that living by the ocean gave me a greater sense of calm and gave me space to breathe.

Monday Mornings only lasted a season on TNT, so I found myself back in New York, but shortly after returning I went on tape to play Agent Fischer on The Mentalist, flew to LA to test with Simon Baker, and found myself an LA resident again. This time I sublet a friend’s place in Venice even though I was going to be shooting in Burbank; I figured I’d have to drive long distances no matter where I lived, and I was hooked on the beach.

My season of The Mentalist was 2013, and that started a period of me being in LA far more than New York. I still felt very connected to New York and still auditioned for work in New York, so I maintained those casting relationships, but LA had more love for me, so I found myself living there more. I was based there with short trips back to NY for the period between 2013 and 2018, but then I got married; my husband is blessed to be part of a successful show (Come From Away), so now New York is home again. I still spend plenty of time in LA these days because SEAL Team shoots there, and I really like spending time between the cities. I feel like they balance each other out nicely.

Your husband Chad Kimball is also an actor. Is there ever a fear of paying the bills since you both have jobs that could end like that <snap!>.

We’ve both known that fear, but we’ve made good choices with our money during the more lucrative times so we’re not living in fear of the work falling away. I think we also choose actively to live in faith that the work will come, and it has been true for us; we’ve both had dry spells, and those dry spells provide opportunities for growth in other parts of our lives, but we have been blessed to be busy these past few years, and we’re investing our money wisely.

Let’s talk about Star Wars The Mandalorian. For the auditions, there was a codename called “Untitled High Budget” so actors didn’t really know what they were auditioning for. Were you given sides that are actually from the script? What did you wear? Who was in the room with you? Did you have a callback? Were there chemistry tests? How did you know when you got the part? Who told you? Where were you when you found out? Who was the first person you told?

Ha! It was pretty darn mundane. My agents said they were pretty sure it had something to do with Star Wars, but because there had never been a Star Wars series, and NOTHING had been discussed about The Mandalorian yet, I had no frame of reference. It wasn’t clear how big the role would be or even what the context was, so I approached it like I do any other audition – since there was no script for me to gather information from, I just had to go with the breakdown and with my gut responses to the material. As I recall, the audition sides were similar to the scene with The Armorer in Chapter 3; I was definitely calling order to a group of people and breaking up a fight, and something along the lines of “This is the way” was in the sides. I was told the character would be masked, but I did not audition masked; I did, however, try to focus on very deliberate movement and less facial expression since I knew that would be more important in the playing of the role. Because the character was described as “Zen,” that was an easy thing to factor in. I think I wore a long dark colored jacket and pulled my hair back; I tried to keep it very simple. I was reading with Jason Stamey, who is a Casting Associate at Sarah Finn Casting. He gave me some really helpful adjustments based on the feedback they’d gotten from other auditions, and he was the one who told me to try a take with a British accent. The role was originally described as being a British woman in her 50s-60s. And that was it! I was in the middle of doing HENRY IV with the LA Shakespeare Center, and I think I found out during the run that I’d gotten it, so I probably told some castmates after I told my husband. I was excited but still pretty in the dark about what exactly it was, so I didn’t know what to expect! And I wasn’t allowed to say anything about it (major NDA), so I had a good excuse to stay cautious and mellow about it.

After you won the role of the Armorer, how long was it before you started work? Did you go in for costume fittings, table reads, etc., before the actual first day of shooting?

 As I recall, I found out in July or August and started filming in October. In between, I was planning my wedding and getting married, so other things are a bit vague in my memory! I had a few costume fittings where they took a cast of my torso and showed me what it was going to look like, and THAT’s when I started to get excited. My costume is the work of unbelievably skilled craftspeople and it took a long time for them to finish it. They even flew someone out overnight for a fitting while I was in New York and couldn’t get away to LA, so it was done with great care. We had no table read and I didn’t get a chance to talk much with Jon Favreau or Dave Filon until I got to set the day before shooting, but at that point we had great conversations about tone, other movie references, and how The Armorer fit into the Mandalorian’s journey.

In high profile, “secret” jobs such as The Mandalorian, what would *really* happen if you spilled the beans and showed the world your costume and discussed what you were working on?

I don’t know what the exact repercussions would be, but it would feel to me like I was betraying a trust and disrespecting the work of my fellow actors, crew, and the whole production. I’m sure I’d at least get a stern talking to, but I’ve never tried to find out about exact penalties – I’d rather stay out of it!

Have you ever worked with green screen? What’s that like? Do they put markers on the floor or objects for you to look at that will later be filled in with CGI?

I first worked with one on The Mentalist – we had an episode set in New York, and they used a green screen for the Manhattan skyline. So I didn’t have to deal with a lot of imaginary objects. We did use green screen for some of the weapons forging in The Mandalorian, and there were markers in place as reference points for things I was making or looking at.

You do appearances and attend conventions. What’s it like going to these events? How is your day organized? Does a car pick you up or do you have to get to the event on your own? Is there hair & make-up or you do your own? What’s it like talking to the fans?

It varies from event to event. Transportation is provided if it’s out of town, and our day consists of panel discussions, taking photos with fans, signing autographs, and sometimes Meet and Greets with a smaller group of people, karaoke and, at the Creation Entertainment conventions for Supernatural, a Saturday night concert. I do my hair and makeup on my own.

Talking to the fans is a huge gift. One of the things I love about theatre is that you have a direct connection to the audience, but in television you don’t get that. So it’s always interesting to hear what the fans connect with or what they like and dislike about a show. Because of the travel involved, the schedule can be tiring, but sometimes I get to stay an extra day or two in one of the cities and explore, and that travel has been a huge gift.

And now for some trivia:

a) What have you done in the past that you no longer have time for now?

I want to make more time to play the piano. I love it and used to play more, but it tends to fall by the wayside.

b) Name something you WANT to do but will never do. Why won’t you do it?

I can’t say I’ve ruled anything out just yet.

c) What drives you absolutely nuts in a bad way?

People who stand RIGHT next to the conveyor belt at the bag claim so you can’t see what bags are coming out and have to ask them to move if you DO see your bag. Why can’t everyone just stand a few feet back to make it easier for all of us?

d) If you could have any vehicle in the world, what would it be? Why don’t you have it?

A VW Surf van.

If you could interview yourself, what is the first question you’d ask? What’s the answer?

Cats or dogs? Dogs. Cats make me feel like I’m imposing on something REALLY important and they’re just barely tolerating me.

Emily Swallow

What advice do you have for actors just starting out?

Be prepared for hard work without immediate rewards; you have to trust that.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I have a love for the ocean and, because of all the trash I saw in the water while I was out surfing, I started to do volunteer work for the Surfrider Foundation Los Angeles Chapter. It’s an environmental nonprofit focused on the protection and enjoyment of our oceans, waves and beaches. I run a program called Ocean Friendly Restaurants, which is focused on reducing single use plastics, increasing energy efficiency and water conservation and encouraging sustainable food practices at restaurants. Because restaurants have such a huge impact on the waste flow and can be leaders in influencing consumer behavior, it’s a program that has gained a lot of traction in the last couple of years.

 

FOLLOW EMILY SWALLOW:

Instagram: @bigEswallz

Twitter: @bigEswallz

Website

EMILY SWALLOW’S BIOGRAPHY

Emily Swallow was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Sterling, VA and Jacksonville, FL.

She earned a BA in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Virginia and interned at the State Department, but an acting teacher at UVA noticed her passion and talent for acting and singing and encouraged her to pursue further training. She auditioned for the prestigious NYU Tisch Graduate Acting Program and was accepted into their MFA Program.

On television, Emily is best known for Supernatural, The Mentalist, How to Get Away with Murder, Monday Mornings, and the highly acclaimed Disney+ Series The Mandalorian. She can also be heard as the voice of Dracula’s ill-fated true love, Lisa Tepes, in the Netflix series Castlevania.

Emily continues to act on stage whenever she can, starring in world premieres of Donald Margulies play The Country House at LA’s Geffen Playhouse, opposite Mark Rylance in Louis Jenkins’ play Nice Fish at the Guthrie Theatre, in John Patrick Shanley’s musical Romantic Poetry at Manhattan Theater Club and in High Fidelity on Broadway. In summer of 2018 she played a lady AND a charlatan opposite Tom Hanks’ Falstaff in the Shakespeare Center Los Angeles production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2. She was part of the LA Drama Critics’ Circle Award-Winning 2016 production of Disgraced at the Mark Taper Forum in LA and she won the Falstaff Award for best Female Performer in 2010 for her performance as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the Old Globe in San Diego.

Emily is a gifted singer; she has done her share of musicals and rock concerts. In 2012, Emily and fellow singer/comedienne Jac Huberman created a stage show called Jac N Swallow, which they perform in New York at the Laurie Beechman Theater and Joe’s Pub. They would like to do the show again; will someone please babysit Jac’s kids?


Ilana Rapp is s a former (child) actress with Broadway, film and television credits. She has written for The Huffington Post and writes entertainment pieces for Casting Frontier, NYCastings and New Jersey Stage. She is a huge fan of the television show V. Ask her why her favorite number is 22. Follow Ilana on Twitter @LizardLadyNJ

 

 

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