When she was 12, Dominique Fishback was told by her school guidance counsellor that she didn’t have the necessary ‘it’ factor to become an actress. “It broke my heart and I went home crying,” Fishback recalls today, “but I went ahead and auditioned for LaGuardia anyway.”
Unfortunately LaGuardia, the prestigious Manhattan performing arts school that counts Timothée Chalamet and Awkwafina among its alumni, turned her down too. So Fishback went to an ordinary high school in Brooklyn and focused for a time on basketball instead. But at 15, the acting bug bit hard again. Fishback googled “free acting programmes for kids in NYC” and won a place on a short theatre course that encouraged her to write her own material. It’s fair to say she never looked back. Fishback graduated from New York’s Pace University with a theatre degree in 2013, then premiered her own Off Broadway solo show, Subverted, the following year.
“I knew from a young age that I had to love my job”
“I just knew from a young age that I had to do a job that I loved every day,” she says. “I was so adamant that I couldn’t be in an office. Like, there was nothing else I could see myself doing, so I just had to have tunnel vision.” Now 30, Fishback has definitely proved LaGuardia and her school guidance counsellor wrong. Last year, she earned a BAFTA nomination for her stirring performance in Judas and the Black Messiah. As Black Panther Party activist Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson and partner of the Chicago chapter’s cruelly betrayed chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), she fills the screen with empathy, integrity and a quiet intelligence.
Following this captivating breakout turn, Fishback landed her first blockbuster movie role, in next year’s Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts. But first up is the buzzy limited series The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey, which premieres this Friday on Apple TV+. Adapted by Walter Mosley from his own novel, it’s a poignant and thought-provoking six-parter about a lonely 93-year-old man living with dementia. An aged-up Samuel L. Jackson portrays the physically fit but increasingly confused title character as he accepts an unapproved miracle cure from a shadowy doctor. With his faculties restored, Grey tries to attain peace of mind by solving the mysterious murder of his beloved nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller).
It’s a slightly sprawling story that begins at a slow crawl, but the series is firmly anchored by the blossoming relationship between Jackson’s character and Fishback’s Robyn, a 17-year-old orphan who’s been hardened by her tough start in life. Initially Robyn seems faintly repulsed by the befuddled and unkempt older man and only shows up at his flat because she has nowhere else to go. Soon, though, she shows her compassion and practical skills by cleaning up his disgustingly cluttered apartment and becoming his surrogate niece-slash-carer. When Grey regains his memory after accepting the doctor’s treatment, their bond deepens in a very touching way. “In the book [Mosley] talks about there being two Robyns: one who’s driving with a knife and one who’s all love, and I wanted to make sure we got to see the two Robyns in the show,” Fishback says.
Collaborating so closely with a Hollywood legend like Jackson must have been intimidating, but Fishback didn’t let it faze her. “I’ve been working at this [career] for so long and wanted it for such a long time, that I’ve always said to myself that when I get an opportunity like this, I’m gonna make sure I deliver,” she says. “And so I don’t think about the actor I’m acting with; I think about the character I’m here to portray and the story I’m here to tell.”
Speaking from a smart LA hotel room with the city skyline behind her, Fishback is open and friendly during our Zoom interview. Her energy levels never flag and she doesn’t downplay the years of hustle that got her to this point. When NME asks when she first knew she was making a real go of her acting career, she replies: “I’m gonna be very honest: it probably was Judas. You know, I think that’s also because of the survival tactics I have from growing up. You can never say ‘this is it’. Things can be very fickle [in this business]. Nothing is promised, nothing is owed. So I just say: ‘OK, I’m not going to get comfortable.'”
Before Judas and the Black Messiah, Fishback had a regular supporting role in The Deuce, HBO‘s well received drama series about the porn industry in ’70s New York. She gave a typically compassionate performance as Donna Pickett, an ambitious sex worker who’s canny without being cynical. Fishback also had a sizeable supporting role opposite Jamie Foxx in the Netflix superhero movie Project Power, and a smaller part in the hit coming-of-age film The Hate U Give. Even so, she says Judas made her feel she could legitimately call herself a “working actress” for the first time.
“Being the first Black actress to star in a ‘Transformers’ film is so cool”
Tellingly, Fishback dealt with this success by investing back in herself. “I’ve been doing more classes in voice and piano and spending the money doing things that I always wanted to do but was too scared to,” she says. “Because before, I always felt like: ‘Who knows when my next job is gonna come?’ And then [after] booking Transformers, obviously it was like ‘Oh.’ I think when Transformers comes out I’m going to feel a little bit different [about my career] again.”
Fishback is taking voice and piano lessons because she also has musical ambitions. “I’m really inspired by Lauryn Hill and the MTV Unplugged album in particular,” she says. “I love that album because she just had her journal with her lyrics and her guitar, and she messed up some. It was spoken word and it was so raw and rhythmic.” Fishback says she wants to use the spoken word style to glide across genre lines the way Hill did. “I want to make my music really heartfelt instead of having to be, like, pop,” she says. “Hopefully it’ll be catchy and people will want to sing along, but for me it’s more about the storytelling.”
Fishback has also dipped her toes into the music video world by appearing in a Jay-Z video. She portrays the hip-hop icon’s mother, Gloria Carter, in a clip that accompanies his deeply personal 2017 track ‘Smile’. “Nobody ever asks me about that!” Fishback says today, before revealing that she came desperately close to losing the role.
The video’s director Miles Jay asked Fishback to play Gloria Carter after being impressed with her work in The Deuce, but his shoot clashed with her filming schedule on The Hate U Give. “I wasn’t in a lot of scenes [on that movie], but the four days that Miles wanted to shoot this video were the four days that they needed me on set for the movie’s riot scenes. And there was no way that production was going to move anything for me to be able to do ‘Smile’,” she recalls.
Jay reluctantly told Fishback he would have to audition other actresses for the role, but she didn’t give up. “I just prayed about it,” she says. “I said to God: ‘I know that schedules are man-made and if I’m supposed to do it, it will be. But also, I’m from Brooklyn and you cannot dangle a Jay-Z video in front of me like that then take it away!” A few days later, Jay messaged her to say that none of the other actresses felt right and they were prepared to wait for Fishback to become available.
Fishback says she was relieved that Hova himself never came to set, “because maybe that would have been a little nerve-wracking”, but she met him a few months later at a Roc Nation brunch in New York. “I remember he entered the room and, like, all the energy goes towards him,” she recalls with widening eyes. “He’s taller than you think and has so much presence. And I don’t really get starstruck, but my heart is beating so fast.” Eventually she plucked up the courage to approach him and “it was like the crowds parted between us and we made eye contact.”
“I don’t get starstruck, but Jay-Z made my heart beat so fast”
Fishback freely admits she got tongue-tied in the presence of Jay-Z, a man she particularly admires because he’s one of Brooklyn’s most famous and successful sons. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Dom…’ and he said ‘you don’t need to introduce yourself, I know who you are, and I’m honoured you played my mom and brought me back to that time,” she recalls. “And in my head I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Jay-Z is saying these things to me!’ And then finally, the only thing I could think to say to him was: ‘Um, I’m from Brooklyn…'” At this point, Fishback lets out a self-deprecating laugh. “And he just said, ‘I know.'”
Fishback’s Brooklyn upbringing is clearly very important to her. She brings it up again when NME asks about working on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which wrapped production last October. “I was so happy to work with Steven Caple Jr., the director, and Anthony Ramos, who’s from Brooklyn as well. He was my friend before this,” she says. “So for us to be the first Latin actor and first Black actress to star in this franchise and also to be from Brooklyn, that’s so cool to me. And I’m talking about old Brooklyn, you know, true Brooklyn!”
She also has no time for any snobbery surrounding CGI-heavy blockbusters. “Those types of movies don’t get critically acclaimed, but it’s amongst the hardest acting to do because you’re really making everything up in your mind,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, Optimus Prime is this tall – look at him over there! But obviously there’s nobody there so you’re, like, emoting into the air. That’s definitely a challenge.”
Another, very different challenge Fishback is taking on is the screen adaptation of her one-woman show, Subverted. It was announced last April that her Project Power co-star Jamie Foxx will executive produce it alongside her. “The idea is to do it as a special rather than a movie,” she says today. “I think Subverted has a very long life and could take on any form it wants, but I want to honour my roots in theatre and the show that I made.” Fishback played more than 20 different characters in the Subverted stage show, but the special will centre on an 18-year-old girl called Eden who is witnessing “the destruction of Black identity.”
“I don’t want to put [the special] in the present day,” she says. “Because one of the strengths of this show is that it was talking about things then that we’re still talking about today. I wrote this 10 years ago and it still rings true.”
Beyond these projects, Fishback wants to take on more comedy roles in the future. She’s a big Jim Carrey fan and says his 1997 movie Liar Liar is one of her all-time favourites. Last year, she really relished appearing in an episode of Amazon‘s anthology series Modern Love because her character, Lil, was a stand-up comedian. “I did a 20-minute comedy set for five hours straight and they only used a minute of it!” she says. “I was like, ‘Dang!’ But just knowing I could do that was really nice. The producers even gave me compliments on it after.” She says her overall objective as a performer is to be thought of as “undeniable”. Fishback’s career may be at a relatively tender stage – she’s only just got used to calling herself a “working actress” – but it looks as though she’s already well on her way to achieving her goals.
‘The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey’ premieres on Apple TV+ this Friday (March 11)