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Dominique Fishback had never rapped before, but after her breakout performance in Project Power, no one would blame you for thinking otherwise. In fact, co-star and platinum recording artist, Jamie Foxx, was so impressed by Fishback’s rapping during her audition that he had to ask if she’d been perfecting the skill her entire life. In Project Power, Fishback plays Robin, a high school student who has aspirations of becoming a professional musician, however, when Robin’s mother’s (Andrene Ward-Hammond) health deteriorates, Robin has to make the tough choice to sell a new superpowered street drug known as “Power” in order to provide for her family.
While most audition processes are relatively uneventful, Fishback’s experience was just the opposite.
“I flew to L.A. for one day, lost my wallet at the airport, didn’t have any credit cards or any money, but when I got to the hotel, I was like, ‘Okay, just go to sleep. You’ll deal with that later, but don’t lose focus on what you came to do,’” Fishback tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So, when I got to my audition, I rapped and then Jamie said, ‘Oh, do you rap in real life?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but I do spoken word.’ He said, ‘Go and do something for us then.’ And they were really impressed. And then, I was like, ‘Oh, this turned out to be a good trip, even though I lost my wallet.’ And when I said that, Jamie was like, ‘Oh no, you need cash? Because I got cash.’ And he pulled out this white envelope with a wad full of money, took out a $100 bill and gave me $100. And then, one of the directors gave me $50. And Jamie was like, ‘It’s not every day you leave an audition with $150.’ It was amazing. And then, when we wrapped up the movie, I gave Jamie the $100 back in a frame, and I signed it.”
Despite an impressive and memorable audition, Fishback didn’t land the role of Robin at first, but her recent streak of unlucky occurrences was about to change in a big way.
“I didn’t get the role originally. And then, a month later, I got a call saying there was a scheduling conflict with somebody else, and I was going to play Robin,” Fishback recalls. “And I couldn’t believe it. It was like a whole month. And then, the same day that my deal closed for the movie, I got an email from JetBlue saying they found my wallet.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Fishback also discusses her experiences on David Simon’s Show Me a Hero and The Deuce, as well as her life-changing role as Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah.
While it’s an unimaginative first question that you’ve probably been asked a lot already, what power would you like to have in pill form if it was safe and legal?
Okay, so I’ve decided. Because it seems like the powers are based off of your chemical make-up, I love words just like Robin. I care about meaning. So, I think I would want to have the power of incantation and, therefore, be able to say a spell and have any power I want. So, I’d be like, “Give me this power, give me this power.” I’d have any power I want because I’d have the power of words.
You’ve clearly put some thought into this.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I have. It came to me once, and I was like, “I’m running with it. That’s it. It’s mine.”
So was there anything unusual about the process of getting this great role?
I wouldn’t say it was unusual. It was just a lot of fun. I had to decide for the first self-tape what rap I was going to do. I figured that people are probably going to do some of the more well-known rappers right now. So, I decided to do TLC. I decided to do Left Eye’s rap from “No Scrubs.” So, I did that and then, I had to do a callback on a self-tape. And then, I flew to L.A. for one day, lost my wallet at the airport, didn’t have any credit cards or any money, but when I got to the hotel, I was like, “Okay, just go to sleep. You’ll deal with that later, but don’t lose focus on what you came to do.” So, when I got to my audition, I rapped and then Jamie said, “Oh, do you rap in real life?” And I’m like, “No, but I do spoken word.” He said, “Go and do something for us then.” So, I ended up doing one of my spoken word pieces called “Ode to My Hood,” in which I personify Brooklyn pretty much. I’m from Brooklyn, East New York. So, I have a conversation between myself and Brooklyn, where Brooklyn is like, “Oh, you’re an actress. You’re going to get famous, and then you’re never going to come back.” And I’m like, “No, Brooklyn, it’s not like that.” So, that was kind of the piece that I did. And they were really impressed. And then, I was like, “Oh, this turned out to be a good trip, even though I lost my wallet.” And when I said that, Jamie was like, “Oh no, you need cash? Because I got cash.” And he pulled out this white envelope with a wad full of money, took out a $100 bill and gave me $100. And then, one of the directors gave me $50. And Jamie was like, “It’s not every day you leave an audition with $150.” It was amazing. And then, when we wrapped up the movie, I gave Jamie the $100 back in a frame, and I signed it. I was laughing and he was like, “Don’t give me that, I’m going to spend it.” But I like to believe he still has it up somewhere. (Laughs.)
The other part is that I didn’t get the role originally. And then, a month later, I got a call saying there was a scheduling conflict with somebody else, and I was going to play Robin. And I couldn’t believe it. It was like a whole month. And then, the same day that my deal closed for the movie, I got an email from JetBlue saying they found my wallet.
Wow, what a turn of events.
Yeah, it was a true full-circle moment. I couldn’t believe it. It was divine how it all happened, and so, I feel like the movie, hopefully, has that divine presence on it, as well.
Based on your performance, it was meant to be.
Thank you! That means a lot to me. I was definitely worried when I got there. I felt a little bit insecure, you know. But that was quickly washed out by the directors (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman). They said that as soon as me and Jamie did our on-camera test together, they were just really blown away. But even though they said they were blown away by the audition, so many things can happen. They could’ve been thinking about age (27 during filming). They could’ve been thinking about so many different things. You never know. But what’s meant to be will happen, and that was a prime example for me where I was so sad that I had to let it go and it just came back around.
I’m still in shock that you’d never really rapped on-screen or on-stage until this project.
I mean, when I was 16, I wrote a rap for a boy that I liked, and I recorded it and everything. But that was kind of the extent of it. I am a spoken word poet, and spoken word is very similar to rap a lot of the time. So, I have an artist friend named Samia Finnerty, and she’s actually the daughter of [actor] Kathy Najimy. We were friends for a long time, and Kathy saw me acting in a theater company and said, “You know, you should be in everything: TV, film, theater, everything.” And then, when her daughter got an opportunity to perform at Joe’s Pub, she asked me if I wanted to do spoken word to her daughter’s song. So, Samia would play the piano while I would do spoken word poetry on the stage. So, it was a little bit like rap, but I still considered it spoken word.
You mentioned that you performed TLC’s “No Scrubs” during your audition. Does that mean you picked out that TLC poster in Robin’s room?
I did! You’re paying attention to the details! Yeah, I did. I said I wanted to have TLC, and I wanted to have Tupac. Those were my two main people, and they agreed to do it too. In the classroom where Robin was getting in trouble, she has that purple notebook that says “Robin” on it. I brought that book, and I put the letters on it. I enjoy writing and I enjoy journaling as my characters, so it was nice to be able to insert that in, as well, and have those little parts of me other than acting. My thoughts, and stuff like that.
Since Jamie has been known to carry a tune, did his presence add to your nerves at all during the rapping scenes?
I didn’t really have any fear. I didn’t have any fear about rapping either because I had been on stage and rhyming. Spoken word is so similar, and that’s what I actually do. So when he said, “Go on and do something,” I was like, “All right!” I was kind of like, “You don’t gotta tell me twice.” That’s my area and that’s where I stem from. So, I wasn’t really nervous. Now, if I was singing, oh, you couldn’t get me to open my mouth. I’d be so nervous. (Laughs.)
You have five raps in this movie, plus an actual song in the credits, and each one gets more and more impressive. Can you talk about the process of putting them together with Chika?
Yeah, I genuinely love her. I think she’s a class act. She’s amazing. So, when we first did a FaceTime meeting, we got to know each other a little bit, and she asked me if I rap. I said, “I do spoken word. I’ll do something for you.” She was like, “All right, do something.” Once I did the spoken word piece, she was like, “Oh, well, you’ve got this.” So, she was really confident in me. I think a lot of the things that I was dealing with was more of the breath support. She rapped so fast. She did so much in one breath, and I had to get my stamina up. But having her in the classroom scenes next to me was amazing. And then, for the end song, just being able to actually go inside the studio, socially-distanced, and have Lido, the producer, on Zoom, coaching me through it and really getting that experience to be in the booth, it was just what I needed because I do have a musical interest. I am learning piano. I am singing. I do want to add spoken word or songs to music. That is a dream of mine. I’ve always been so afraid of it, of expressing myself in that way. I just felt like acting came more naturally to me, but my soul keeps hearing music and I keep getting thrust into these music projects. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt has something called HitRecord where he and I have called all of these musicians from all over the world to contribute to a song to promote the release and to celebrate the release of Project Power.
Are you going to stick with rapping? You clearly have a knack for it.
Ooh, thank you. Hmm, I’m not going to disregard it like I used to, but I am going to focus more on piano and making songs because my poetry has kind of always been like rap. I am going to have speaking versions. Have you ever seen Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged?
So, when I saw that, I was like, “Oh, that’s what I want to do.” How she spoke sometimes, how she rapped sometimes, how she sang sometimes — that’s what I want to do. So, I’ve been working on it. I’ve been working on it.
I loved Jamie’s “ooh” reaction to Robin’s rapping at the veterinarian office. Did he try a bunch of options there, or was it always that reaction?
No, I feel like he always… It wasn’t in the script like he did it. So, I think it might’ve been one time where it just came out like that, and that was the take that they used. And even the line where Robin was like, “Oh, you a big dog,” I think I ad-libbed that. So, we were all really vibing, improvising and going off of each other.
The truck scene that introduced Art (Foxx) and Robin was quite intense. Did you and Jamie dial up the intensity as much as possible in order to show the difference between the beginning of their arc and the end of their arc?
That’s a great question. Subconsciously, I think that was what it was going to be. But I think I like to look at each moment for what it is and really dial into how my character is feeling at this time. So, it’s not even about the future. She doesn’t even know if she’s going to have a future, you know? In acting school, you learn, “How are you different from the beginning than you are at the end?” And that’s not just over the course of a movie or a season. That’s over the course of every episode. Every episode, and then every scene. You start in one place and then you end in another place. That’s something that you hold on to. I’m more like, “How emotional is she or how much is she containing this emotion?” At the beginning, when he’s pulling her out of the trunk and she’s like, “Oh I’m going to die,” then how is she? So, I think it was just all in the moment. Once you do the work where you’re in her and you’re thinking, “What could the possible emotions be?” and then, you get on set and you need to release all of that. You just kind of play. You kind of just allow yourself to live as this person. And what happens kind of happens. Yeah, but we didn’t really map it out. Jamie and I didn’t even talk about it too much. We just did it.
During the closing credits, there’s a beautiful shot of you writing lyrics during magic hour. Was that moment always meant for the credits?
Actually, we shot in 2018 for four months, and then we went back last year and did reshoots for like a month. In the reshoots, they said, “We found this really great location. We really want the movie to end on Robin. We think it rightfully should end on her. So, we really want to just grab this shot. Can we grab this shot?” So, we went over there and I just literally had a notebook out to write in, and they just got different angles. It is a really dope shot, and I’m so glad we did it.
You and Joe (Gordon-Levitt) have a great moment near the docks where you argue back and forth about what you’re doing there. Even though you guys talk over each other, we can still make out what the two of you are saying on both sides. Is that a difficult exercise to get right so it’s still understood by the audience? I realize there’s probably some editing help, too.
I mean, I’m sure it’s difficult in a sense, but I do feel like Joe and I were really able to communicate with each other. Yeah, we trust each other as artists and as people. So, we have that connection where we’re kind of in flow. And so, we weren’t really thinking about it. We were just kind of in flow. Yeah, it came out way clearer than I thought it would come out. I was surprised.
You know you’re doing something right if David Simon works with you twice. How did you evolve as an actor after working on Show Me a Hero and The Deuce with him?
First of all, so extremely spoiled, right? Because you know that David Simon is all about character and the internal life of a person. He’s not really about filling in the blanks for an audience. He’s all about who they are in this moment. And so, just knowing that when I was going to come to set, I was going to get a fully realized character; it was a blessing. And it was my first two things. So, it really set a precedent for me where it’s great to get high quality work like that, but it also puts on the pressure because it’s like, “Well, what are you going to do next?” Strategy is so important and I really want longevity. I want to transform, be different characters and really hone into my abilities as an actor. And so, when you start off like that, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know how I’m going to follow this up.” I think, if anything, I learned that your efforts actually do matter, even if you don’t know that somebody sees them. I remember that I journaled as Billie so much on Show Me a Hero. I made pictures. And I come from a theater background where you’re talking to the director, sometimes the writer if they’re one, but you’re talking to them about your character, you’re showing these different analogies and you guys are having conversations off of those things. So, with TV, I learned that it goes really fast. You’re not really talking about character development with the writer or the director. That’s your work, and then you come to set and do your thing. But they really ran a collaborative set in a sense where I told [producer] Nina Kostroff-Noble about my book and then years later, I found out that David Simon loved my book and knew that I had been doing it. And this was after I was Darlene. And then, with that too, I was in ADR for Show Me a Hero and David said, “Let me talk to you after,” and I was like, “Okay.” So, then he came to me and was like, “So, I’m doing a new show. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. It’s called The Deuce.” I’m like, “Oh no, I haven’t.” He’s like, “Yeah, well I wrote a role with you in mind, but it’s not a role you take just to take it. You should read the script and if you don’t want to do it, it’s no harm, no foul because, well, it’s about the rise of the porn industry in the 1970s.” And I was like, “Okay.” So then, he sent me the script and I read it, and when Darlene watched the movie with the older john and she was crying at A Tale of Two Cities — she just really had this profound heart and you really cared about her. You got to know her interests, and she wasn’t just a stereotypical character. I felt if I was ever going to do something as deep or as exposing as that, then I would want to do it with these creators who took me under their wings when I was just in and out of school a bit. And so, we went on to do that and that was amazing.
And then, while I was shooting Project Power, the last episode of the second season of The Deuce, I saw David Simon tweeting that he was in New Orleans. And I tweeted him, “I’m in New Orleans, too! Hope I can see you.” And he was like, “Oh, I’m leaving on Tuesday, so yeah, let’s meet up tomorrow.” And he took me to Slim Goodies. He did Treme there, so he kind of took me on a mini tour and showed me all of the places that they shot and some really special locations in New Orleans. Then, he took me to a place where they do live music, and I got to see live music with David and my friend. So, even though it was kind of the end for Darlene in that sense, and I had just spent my last five or so years with them and these two projects, it felt like just the beginning. Because here it was, the finale on a Sunday, and on a Monday, I’m with the creator, and we’re just seeing his favorite city.
Did you, Jamie and Joe have any fun together away from set?
New Orleans is the best place in the world to spend Halloween. And I never really was a fan of Halloween because growing up in New York City in Brooklyn, Halloween was never what it was like on Disney. Disney always had Halloweentown, and all these things where people dress up. Hocus Pocus is still one of my favorite movies to this day. And so, they’re really dressing up their houses, and they’re really trick-or-treating. But we didn’t really get that sense, and so I never really had that connection to Halloween. But being in New Orleans, everybody dressed up and there was a party. Jamie rented a bus, and we all went to this thing called Boo at the Zoo. It was, like, zombies and shooting and a haunted house and swamps and ghost chains. And we ended up having an impromptu dance party. We were on the bus and Joe was singing “Thriller,” the Michael Jackson song. We were just really enjoying life and enjoying each other. So, I’m glad you really enjoyed the movie. I’m really proud of it and excited for people to see it. It was a tough shoot, it was long, but it was definitely worth it.
I always sympathize with actors over reshoots because I’d be so paranoid about maintaining the same look that I had during principal photography. Did you worry about continuity at all?
Not as far as the look because Sherri Hamilton, the hair department head, she was really on it. So, I didn’t worry about those things, but I did ask if I could see the earlier cut of the movie because I wanted to know who Robin was. It’d been a whole year. Who is she? What takes did we use? What is her accent like? Because I went to NOCCA — New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — to talk to the girls. I sat with about 9 girls, recorded their accents and they were telling me a little bit about themselves. And then, we went to the script and I said, “How would you say this line? Would you use this word?” And they’d say, “No, we wouldn’t use this word. We’d say, ‘You heard me. Okay, you heard me. All right, I got you.’” I didn’t want to do it too heavy because I didn’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb, so I just kind of really mushed it around in my mouth and got to see where the little moments were where she would really be inclined to use certain New Orleans slang. There are certain sounds that I wanted to make sure I hit. So, when we were going back for reshoots, I was like, “How do I get to the school? How do I get to the girls?” And we didn’t have any time, so I really had to just look back at what I had done before and took those certain words. And even when I was going to do the rap in the studio, I had seen a version of the movie, and I was like, “Is it okay if I do a little accent work?” Because I didn’t have a chance. We didn’t have a dialect coach on set who was going to be overlooking it for me. So, I was acting and doing all these things with all the elements, but I want to make sure it’s consistent. But then, I also spoke to the dialect coach on the Fred Hampton project, Judas and the Black Messiah, and she said that any accent is never fully consistent. I’m from East New York, so there are times where I drop into it and there are times where I don’t, where I fully articulate certain words. So, everybody has that power. And then, when she raps, what are her influences? She likes Tupac. She likes TLC. You know what I’m saying? You don’t always hear somebody’s accent in the way that they rap, and so, really trying to make her a fully realized person like that was important to me. So, that was kind of the thing that I was focused on when I went back.
How was your experience as Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah?
Oh my, that was… wow. That one was life changing. Even the fact of being so nervous, I’ve always loved the Panthers. I’ve always thought so highly of them. I’ve always wanted to represent them with heart and responsibility. That’s how deeply I care and feel about them. And so, to be doing a movie where you’re representing this person, there is a lot of pressure, but getting to know them and know their hearts was a great honor. So, I just feel like I want to make them proud. And then, to work with Daniel Kaluuya, he’s become a great friend of mine and confidant. And he’s an amazing actor and scene-partner. And Lakeith Stanfield, we’re really truly a family. All of us are Facetiming each other still. They FaceTimed me at 12am for my birthday, like a big group message. Jesse Plemons, he didn’t really have many scenes with all of us together, but there was one night where we were filming in Cleveland and we wanted to do open mic and go to a poetry lounge. We went and Jesse came out, I did spoken word and everybody got to know each other even better. I feel like the spirit of Fred Hampton, the love for people and for justice was a heavy spirit and heavy unity on that set. It was felt. You had the producers saying it, you had the extras saying it, you had the crew members saying. We all were saying the same thing, and that was really profound for us.
Project Power is now available on Netflix.
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