‘I fell on my ass on a Gucci catwalk’: Michelle de Swarte, model, stand-up and now star of The Baby | Television

A gurgling baby falls from the sky, landing in a woman’s arms. As the shocks go, it’s a big shock, especially since the baby turns out to be killing unsuspecting civilians. But you have a feeling Michelle de Swarte, who plays the wife in HBO’s new horror-comedy The Baby, can handle it. Before becoming an actor, after all, De Swarte worked as a journalist, model and stand-up. She’s had her fair share of problems falling from the sky.

“My self-esteem is good,” she says, as we sit on oddly low chairs in the lobby of a London hotel. Her hair is tied in a neat ponytail, her shoes are flat, and when we arrived, I watched her slip an empty smoothie bottle behind a vase of flowers on the bar. “For the most part,” she adds, “I don’t mind failing. But that does not mean that I love myself or that I love myself every day. That doesn’t mean I don’t get into the cycle of calling myself an asshole when nobody’s home.

Like her character Natasha, De Swarte is a single, childless mixed-race woman in her early 40s, living alone. Under these circumstances, De Swarte explains with a deep, crackling laugh, it can be hard to tell if you’re a control freak or just don’t have to compromise a lot. “I woke up yesterday morning, meditated, exercised, climbed into my little steam tent and listened to Louise Hay’s positive affirmations,” she says. “I came in at one o’clock and I was like, ‘I’m going to get a pack of fags. I’m exhausted.'”

“It’s hard to play an abrasive character when you’re holding a baby”… Michelle de Swarte in The Baby. Photography: HBO

This lack of moderation, coupled with her humor, makes De Swarte intensely British, despite the fact that she has spent much of her adult life in the United States. “I lived in Los Angeles for a while,” she says. “I’ve never looked so beautiful – and I’ve never felt so sad. With all this feel-good stuff, I wonder if it’s just a thin veil to be a self-absorbed jerk.

In The Baby, Natasha is forced to care for a random murderous baby, despite being happily alone and not wanting children of her own. Bloody trips to the gas station, a violent buggy incident during a sweet game – plus a disturbing entanglement with the enigmatic Mrs. Eaves, who is apparently on a one-woman mission to murder the child.

De Swarte grew up in Brixton, London, in a strong matriarchal family, which no doubt informed her depiction of Natasha – who seems so out of step with the codified, conventional version of femininity espoused by her friends. “My grandmother is queer,” she says. “My grandmother’s sister is queer. Most of the women in my family were single mothers. And no one ever had any illusions about what he was doing and what was needed.

Michelle de Swarte.
“I lived in Los Angeles for a while. I’ve never looked so beautiful – and I’ve never felt so sad. Photography: Matt Crockett/The Guardian

In her early teens, De Swarte spent time living in Women’s Aid housing and says it gave her a chance to see what happened when Disney’s fairy tale version of relationships failed. not worked. “I was very lucky that all the women in my life were open about what was going on. No one ever said, ‘You’re going to get married and have kids.’ I never thought I should do this. Has she ever thought about having kids, I ask, aware as the words come out of my mouth that it’s way beyond a personal matter? “It’s crossed my mind from time to time, because why wouldn’t it be? But I never felt any pressure to do something like that.”

Coming from a queer family also meant De Swarte didn’t feel the pressure to come out. “I was just like, ‘Yeah, I sleep with women and I sleep with men.’ And nobody gives a fuck. De Swarte takes his cup of tea. “Literally, nobody cares.” When talking to someone so smart and funny, it can be hard to remember that, for several years, De Swarte lived almost entirely on his looks, rather than his thoughts.

“When I was a model,” she says, “your job was to not talk and look pretty. It was also a time when advertisers said they wanted a black girl to be the face of a campaign, but I was as dark as they were willing to be. It must have been difficult for someone who, later working as a stand-up, would be defined by their opinions. “Everything was fine, actually,” she said. “When I was walking on the podium, I was just thinking, ‘I hope I don’t fall.’ And then I fell. To this day, it’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever done – fall on my ass on a Gucci catwalk.

What was his face on the podium? “Probably the same face as when you do your pelvic floor. That moment before you sneeze. I think the same face we decided to read someone’s mind is too. I laugh. “I am one of the lucky ones of my generation of models. I came out pretty unscathed. »

Undamaged was not the word I expected. While modeling in New York, De Swarte was proposed by late sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. “I talk about it on stage and it’s important to say it in a way that isn’t edited. I wouldn’t give you the responsibility of telling this story because it’s…” she hesitates, “it’s deep and it’s dark. Nor is it necessarily my trauma. It’s more than that. Will she ever write about it? “Of course, at some point. But I would like to be completely in control of the beginning, middle and end.

Having been diagnosed as dyslexic in elementary school, De Swarte effectively left formal education in ninth grade. Does she think this has had an impact on her sense of ambition and the future? “Nobody told me I was going to be really successful or really shit,” she says, with that nonchalance that reads, to a stranger, as easy self-confidence. “There were no crazy expectations.” After leaving school, she worked as a hostess at a shoe store in Oxford Circus and handed out leaflets, but wanted to explore what the rest of the world had to offer. “There was always an attitude in my family that I had to make the most of the choices I had. Now, as an adult, I like being able to buy whatever I want from the gift shop. »

De Swarte had just turned 40 when she landed her first starring role in The Baby, after a support piece in Katherine Ryan’s sitcom The Duchess; a whole decade older than Debbie Harry when Blondie’s first single came out. Is she aware of her age? “I had times where I was like, ‘Why are you scrolling on Instagram?'” She mimics basking in a social media meltdown. “‘You’re 40. Get together!'”

However, she is also aware that as a modern feminist things are much easier than they once were. “No matter how hard and difficult we find it, the previous generation had worse and had less choice,” she says, biting into a cookie. As a journalist, De Swarte made a series of films with intellectual and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, a woman she clearly loves. Are there still things, in terms of gender equality, that make her cringe? “Oh yeah. Being condescending, being in a meeting and not having eye contact, having to assert myself, having to defend myself; It’s exhausting. But all the things I have now are just wife stuff. Age 41. Like gravity, your skin has sound. It rubs its fingers together, while we laugh at the new friction our bodies have acquired.

Speaking of friction, what was it like sharing so much screen time with a baby? “It was hard,” she said, looking serious. “I love babies. And it’s hard to play an abrasive character when you’re holding a baby. De Swarte explains that for the role of Natasha, she spent a lot of her time holding babies ( the character is played by twins) off set, so they felt comfortable around her before the cameras started rolling. “As the show went on, I got to know them,” she told me. “When I met their parents the other day, they invited me to their second birthday.” She even learned to recognize their cries, to the point that by making an additional audio recording, she could tell they put placement cries in the mix, rather than the real babies.

De Swarte’s road to acting is as far as it gets from stage school, home counties, trust fund, the pale, masculine, outdated version so often found on our screens. How does she decide what to do next, how does she judge her own success? His answer is simple: “Do you know what men do? It doesn’t matter what they want. And that’s what you have to think.

The baby is on Sky Atlantic and Now on July 7

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