Emily Swallow has appeared on both stage and screen, lending her talents to roles on The Mentalist, SEAL Team, Castlevania, and most notably as “Amara” on Supernatural and as “The Armorer” on The Mandalorian.
Maggie Lovitt (ML): When I told a couple of friends that I was going to interview you, they got super excited because you're from the DMV like we are. Are you proud to be from this area?
Emily Swallow (ES): I am! When [my husband and I] were driving down to Florida, we drove by the sign for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is where I was born, and I pointed it out to my husband. I love Virginia. I loved going back there for school. I mostly grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. We moved down here when I was seven. I went back up there for the University of Virginia.
ML: How did you get into acting? You initially went to college for something entirely different, right?
ES: UVA was where I decided to pursue acting as a career. I did theater in middle school and high school, and I also did community theater. When I was at UVA, I was a Middle Eastern Studies major, and I thought I was going to go into the foreign service. I was also very heavily involved in the drama department, and I'm so grateful that the drama department there is so open to non-majors because it meant I could do both things. Then I had a really wonderful acting teacher who encouraged me to think about pursuing acting. He helped me work on auditions for grad schools, and I auditioned for several. I got into NYU, and I knew it was a good one, so I figured I should take advantage of that opportunity. I'm so glad that I did.
ML: How did you get your SAG card?
ES: You know, I was asked this question in another interview recently, and I'm not entirely certain what my first SAG job was. I was trying to look back on my member page to see when I became a member, but it didn't tell me. I think it was a movie that I did called The Lucky Ones a few years after I was out of NYU. I mostly did theater, and then I did a little bit of TV. I feel like the television work that I did at first was back when SAG and AFTRA were two different unions. I think some of the work I did was AFTRA work.
ML: Did you grow up as a fan of Star Wars?
ES: I was a fan, but I don't think I had any idea of the depth and the breadth of that universe. I definitely remember the movies being part of my childhood. I remember Ewoks dolls, and I absolutely played Princess Leia in reenactments with my friends. I had seen the other movies since then, but the whole world of the Mandalorians was pretty new to me because I hadn't seen The Clone Wars or any of the animated series. Now [that] I have gotten to watch them, I think they're just so fun. Star Wars was something that was such a big part of my childhood, but now being reintroduced to it and getting to learn so much more about it has been cool.
ML: Supernatural and Star Wars both have massive fan bases. What has that experience been like?
ES: It's such a gift. One of the things I miss when I'm doing film work is the connection to the audience. It's part of theater that's just so immediate. It's so wonderful to get to feel that connection that so often you miss out on with TV. Doing these conventions and getting to meet these fans and find out what kind of impact the shows have had on them, what moment stood out, and what they like or don't like about your character has been really cool.
I feel that the Supernatural fan base is just beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and now, getting to meet the Star Wars fan base, it is another level beyond that. Star Wars has forty years of fans, and you get entire families that watch it together. I love that. I will say that there is this incredible feeling of joy that I've experienced from all of the Star Wars fans. They're just giddy with happiness to get to cosplay characters and get to meet the different actors. Both communities really watch out for each other. I love the community that they have built.
ML: A fan created a custom-made Armorer helmet for you, didn't they?
ES: Yes! I didn't get to keep mine because they're holding onto that for future use. A fan who does his own stuff for cosplay and makes things for other people showed up at this convention and handed me the helmet. I was like, “Wow, this is incredible!” and then he told me it was for me. I just lost it. I couldn't believe it. I was just so excited. I brought it down to Florida with me to show my nephews. This is the only thing I've ever done that they're actually interested in.
ML: It seems like a great time to have an Armorer mask.
ES: The Armorer was just setting the trend before it was even necessary.
ML: Both Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano have mentioned that they were sort of handpicked for their roles. What was the process for you? Did you have to audition?
ES: I did audition. This was one of the characters that they didn't have a specific actor in mind for. Actually, when they were first looking for people, they were auditioning British women in their fifties and sixties. I am not either of those things.
It was incredibly lowkey. I knew that it was something to do with Star Wars, but I knew so little about it. I didn't know if it was a big deal or not. The audition itself was just me in the room with the casting associate and a video camera. I just had the scenes that they had given me and very little information because it was so secretive.
ML: Did they tell you that she was masked?
ES: They did. Which influenced my audition a little bit. But since I wasn't actually wearing a mask in the audition, it didn't really change the way I did it too much. I think I paid more attention to how I moved my body and communicated more that way.
ML: Is that where the British accent came from?
ES: It was the casting associate that suggested that I do it with a little bit of British accent because they had seen Brits for it. We just did it a few times, and that was that. Then I got the call from my agent. I was still so unsure about what the show was. I didn't know how many episodes I was going to be in. It was very shrouded in mystery.
ML: Were you provided with any information about the Armorer's backstory?
ES: I wasn't given anything specific about where she came from or what her origins were. It was mostly about how she functioned within this clan of Mandalorians. The function that she served as their spiritual leader, the one who keeps the history, and obviously the one who makes their armor.
Jon Favreau mostly talked about images and the feeling of a lot of old [Akira] Kurosawa films. How the Mandalorians were like a samurai order of warriors. [He discussed] the formality and the regal feeling that some of those characters have. It felt like the Armorer needed to move very simply. He described her as a very zen-like person. She's someone who has a lot of authority but doesn't need to put it on display, which I really liked about her.
ML: Did you come up with a backstory to work with?
ES: This is not confirmed by anyone else in the production, but in my mind, I felt that she knew Din Djarin when he was younger. So she knew a little bit about his origin, and the path that he had been on, how he's become this lone ranger. How he's really lost touch with where he comes from. I feel like when he comes back to see her in that first episode, it's like he's coming back to his roots and starting to step into who he really is.
ML: Do you think we might eventually get the Armorer's backstory?
ES: It's entirely possible. But there are so many parts of the story to tell.
ML: With so many of the roles on The Mandalorian requiring actors to wear full armor, what was that like? Did you all bump into each other a lot?
ES: Oh my gosh, yes! It was ridiculous for those of us that were in the Mandalorian helmets. You don't have a lot of peripheral vision. We realized very quickly that any extraneous movement was distracting because when you can't look at someone's face to see what they're expressing, you find yourself looking that much more closely at their mannerisms. So anything extraneous took away from the story we were trying to tell. Just walking across a room, you can't look down to see where you're walking. That had to be stepping forward on faith that you weren't going to fall on your face. But then in between takes, when we were trying to get situated and get into place, we were bonking heads and tripping over things. I would drop all of my tools for my welding and my forging.
I keep saying that I hope they're going to release a blooper reel because I think it would be pretty entertaining.
ML: Watching the Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian program, it really showcased what a fun and creative set environment the series has.
ES: I think that Jon [Favreau] and Dave [Filoni] really set the tone. Everything was very well communicated; the feel of the story and the overall arc of the story. Jon really encouraged the directors to lean into their own styles. There was such a feeling of trust. I feel that it relaxed and inspired everyone to work really hard to do their best.
Everyone working on the show has so much love for the Star Wars world. All of us felt like this was our childhood dream come true. I was amazed every day at the level of artistry in my forging tools, all the little details in the sets and costumes. In my experience, it was a really joyful place to be. My work was limited to my forging studio, and I'm sure it was a lot more physically exhausting to do some of the stuff in the desert settings. But everyone just gave it their all. Everyone was willing to pour their hearts into it, and that just absolutely came across.
ML: You have done voice acting on Castlevania, did that help you prepare for the Armorer when all of the dialogue is done with a mask on?
ES: I think so. I think that it did come in handy. The voice is one of the first ways that I am able to connect with a character. My background before acting was in music, which might have had something to do with it too. My preparation for a voice acting character isn't dissimilar from my preparation for other roles. I'm still trying to connect to the characters. Having that physicality, even if you're only going to hear my voice, still informs my voice. But it's really fun to be in a voice-over booth; you have so much freedom to move how you want. You can do anything you want to do to connect to the character.
ML: Did you have to do any of the combat for the scene where the Armorer takes on the Stormtroopers?
ES: I did a very little bit of it. I wanted to do it so badly, but the level of skill that the woman who did do combat was not a level that I could achieve in the time we had to film it. But I did train in a martial art style called Kali, which is what a lot of the fight was based in. I did some of the ends and outs and some of the transitions. The coolest parts of it were someone who is much more skilled than I am. I have to give credit where credit is due. That also was a moment that, even though I knew what happened in the scene when I watched [the episode], it was just so incredible to see.
ML: What were your favorite scenes to shoot?
ES: I loved shooting the scenes prior to that one, where I get to reveal that The Child is in the line of the Jedi warriors. There was something so cool about getting to say “Jedi” and introducing that to the story since it hadn't been mentioned before that. It gave me the shivers. I like that scene for all of the action in it. Din finds out that he's in charge of this child-being. I love getting to give him the jetpack. So many cool things happen in that scene.
ML: That puppet. What was it like seeing the Child in action?
ES: I didn't realize just what an impact the Child was going to have. I didn't get to read all of the scripts. I had the scripts for the episodes I was in and I also got to read six or seven. I didn't have the entire story. I didn't realize what a huge role he had. I was getting to experience a lot of the story at the same time as everyone else was watching it for the first time. I knew so little when we were shooting the series. It was really fun to get to be an audience member.
ML: If you could choose your own sigil, like the Mudhorn sigil the Armorer crafted for The Mandalorian, what would you choose?
ES: Oh, man! I think it would probably be my dog, Norma. She would look pretty good. She's half French Bulldog, half Boston Terrier. She's got these incredible ears. I think her silhouette would look pretty good as a Beskar seal.
ML: How heavy was the armor?
ES: The armor wasn't so bad. It was leather and a kind of canvas material. The leather was pretty supple, so it moved fairly easily. I wouldn't say that I would love to wear it every day of my life, but it was very easy to move around in. The one thing that was challenging was the gloves that they made me. They looked great, but they were too big for me. It was very challenging to handle my welding tools. What turned into these beautiful forging sequences, were anything but that when we were filming them. I had trouble picking things up and I kept dropping things. I couldn't tell if I was holding things right. That's one of the times where you're glad that you're doing it on screen. They can just edit it to look great. You can't do that in theater in front of the audience.
ML: As a second-teamer myself, I would love to know if the stand-ins ever had to wear pieces of the armor during camera rehearsal or just stunt doubles.
ES: We didn't really have a lot of rehearsals outside of shooting. Most of the time, we were dressed and ready to go. Especially for Pedro [Pascal], there were a number of stunt doubles and body doubles that were dressed up in the full Mandalorian armor. Most of us were just hanging out in our armor all the time, which was a great bonding experience.
ML: Now, I thought I'd ask some fun questions. What is the earliest call time you've ever had?
ES: I don't think I've ever been called before 4 AM. I was on the CBS show SEAL Team for a lot of this last season, and most of my scenes were first up. Most of my mornings there started at 5:18.
ML: What was your longest day on set?
ES: I've had some sixteen and seventeen-hour days. I had some really long days on the set of Supernatural. Not the season eleven finale, but the episode before that. I was involved with fighting these angels and demons. My character got really beat up, so I had a lot of prosthetics and make-up put on for blood, scarring, and burns. I had to get there early to get all of that put on, then there were long days of shooting, and it took a while to get out of it [after wrap].
ML: I love Vancouver. It's one of my favorite cities.
ES: It's a great city. I had never been there before I started working there. It's my favorite place to go to work. I just love that it's so easy to get out into the mountains or to the beach. It's just beautiful up there.
ML: I always joke that I got into acting because I love set catering. Which set had the best catering?
ES: Oh no! I think Supernatural. That might be because it's the most recent in my memory, but the guys who cater to them have been there for years. First of all, they're so kind. They'll make you whatever you want. I'm somebody who likes to have a big creative salad, and they always had great salad fixings.
ML: What is your greatest weakness at crafty?
ES: Doritos! It's so simple.
ML: I bet the wardrobe loves that.
ES: You can't really hide when you've been eating Doritos.
ML: There's a great debate on sets about which is the best sparkling water. La Croix, Bubbly, or another brand?
ES: I'm a fan of La Croix's Pamplemousse. It's the grapefruit flavor, but it's so much more fun to say “Pamplemousse.”
ML: What is something you always need to have with you in your trailer?
ES: I always live in fear of having nothing to do on set, which is sort of ridiculous because there's always something to keep you occupied. But I like to bring a book with me.
I always bring my journal because if I have to wait a long time after hair and make-up, it helps me keep focused on the character and the work I'm doing that day. I love having good music in my trailer. One of the things I dislike about film is how much time you spend in your trailer. It's a tiny space without much to do. I like to have some music in there.
We wrap up the interview by discussing the uncertainties of this new world we're living in. Her husband, Chad Kimball, is part of the cast of Come From Away on Broadway, where there's a question about when they'll return.
“We can worry and fret, or we can assume that things will work out for the best. We might not know what the future looks like, but sometimes when things fall apart, they might come back better than they were before.”