Navigating Hollywood, Episode 6: Emily Swallow, Actress, The Mandalorian, SEAL Team on CBS, Transcript
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Allen Wolf: Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood podcast. My name is Allen Wolf, and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. Today, we’re joined by actress Emily swallow. She’s had a prolific career so far, and she’s just getting started. You might know her from The Mandalorian, SEAL Team on CBS, or perhaps Supernatural, The Mentalist, or How to Get Away with Murder. I like to say Murrrrrrder. I just cannot say that word in a normal way. Anyway, we’re going to find more about her life and her career and what inspires her. Welcome, Emily!
Emily Swallow: Thanks for having me.
Allen Wolf: Well, I mention The Mandalorian, which is one of my favorite shows. You play The Armorer, and when you found out that you got the role, I’m sure you were super excited. But then you found out you had to wear a mask the whole time. What was that like?
Emily Swallow: Well, I knew when I was auditioning for it that I would be wearing a mask. I think they were smart to specify that so that anyone who, you know, wanted to show off their mug could do so. But to be honest, I find it to be tremendously liberating because I am a woman in Hollywood, and so I am far too aware of what I look like. Whether I’m pretty enough for certain parts, whether I look the right way for this, that, or the other, and it’s so much fun to have this character, who is beloved now, that has nothing to do with what I look like. So, I mean, I love that part of it, and I also just really enjoyed the challenge of having to play a masked character.
Allen Wolf: Well, I remember when I first started watching the show, I thought, how are they going to do this? Because you’re so used to visually connecting with the emotions, and you know, just little nuances and in the expressions you’re making. I was amazed at how all the actors just. I mean, you all act through that and create so much emotion and connection with the audience. So kudos.
Emily Swallow: Thank you.
Allen Wolf: Really good job. Well, I have so many more questions about The Mandalorian, but first, I’d love to just back up a little bit. You got your B.A. in Middle Eastern studies.
Emily Swallow: I did. Obviously.
Allen Wolf: I know, right? Did you first want to work for the State Department? I’m so curious.
Emily Swallow: Yeah. My plan was to go into the Foreign Service, and I did intern for the State Department one summer, and I thought that I would then take the foreign service exam and go into the State Department. But all along, most of the people in my life were not surprised that I decided to become an actor. I think it was more surprising to me than to anyone else because I just had so many interests, but I performed from when I was a little kid and church choir. My parents both love music, and so we had a very musical household, and we would go see live theater, and so I was always doing that. I just didn’t know that it was going to be my career path.
I did finish up my thesis, but I also auditioned for the graduate acting program in my last year at UVA and wound up going to NYU. It was sort of smart because most parents would be nervous if their kid told them that she wanted to go to New York to be an actress. But my parents were faced with the alternative of me going into the State Department and working at an embassy in Jordan or something like that. So, New York was easy.
Allen Wolf: Yes. Well, NYU, that’s where I studied film. Go Violets!
Emily Swallow: So tough. So tough.
Allen Wolf: Do you know what our mascot is named after?
Emily Swallow: I don’t actually,
Allen Wolf: It’s a bobcat, and it’s actually named after the library’s filing system. It’s Bobst Library, Bobst catalog. Bobcat. So go Violets, and our mascot is named after the library. When you are studying, getting your MFA, how confident were you that you would be able to go from studying that at school to turning that into a full-time career?
Emily Swallow: I was blissfully naive about how challenging it would be. I was the youngest person in my class, and I went straight out of undergrad, and I knew enough to know that the folks in my class who had been out working for a while and who then came back because they knew that they wanted more training. I could tell that they were more focused than I was. Like they knew specifically what they wanted out of the training, whereas I was just like letting it all wash over me because I had no real-world perspective.
And of course, when you’re in one of those programs, they’re constantly telling you about all the wild success stories, especially if you’re in a program like NYU. You know, I also had all these friends who were going to Juilliard and so like the actors that were most. In my vision, we’re the ones who had made it. I knew that there were also a lot of actors who struggled, but I had enough to worry about while I was in school because they kept us so busy that I didn’t really worry much about it until it came time for the showcase
And then all of a sudden, it’s like, oh my gosh, this is real because, you know, it’s your chance to get an agent. And I’m with the same agents that I was with when I did my showcase and graduated. I’m really fortunate that way that I like them that much in that they like me that much.
Allen Wolf: Was there a moment early on after you were then represented that you thought, oh, this could be my big break?
Emily Swallow: I have never really looked for the thing that would be the big break because I know in watching friends who have been in this business longer than I have that there’s things that get you more attention, there’s things that could be life-changing, but then there’s what happens after that, and you still can’t predict it’s going to happen after that. There was actually this fantastic book that I read. It’s called The Paradox of Choice. And one of the things that it talks about is how you have your status quo, and then life gets better, and then your status quo just changes.
So you could be constantly in this state of expecting more, wanting more, but you will never leave that state if you’re not aware of that. So that was also sort of helpful to have that perspective of seeing other friends who had had, you know, big things happen and then, oh, but wait, life goes on.
Allen Wolf: I’ve also heard the term; I think it’s “adoptive hedonism.” Maybe that’s not the term, but it’s where you change your lifestyle; something great happens. And you think, oh, if I could just do that thing, I’ll be happy. I’ll upgrade my life, but then you get to that level, and then you look up, you think, oh wait. No, that’s the thing I want, the thing that’s beyond you and just never-ending.
Emily Swallow: And are you going to be able to hold on to whatever success comes, right? I mean, I could drive you insane.
Allen Wolf: I remember reading an article, I think it was the New York Times, that talked about how Lady Gaga is rich, but she’s not mega-rich, and they talked about how she’s doing makeup lines and other things, they were saying, to get to that next mega-rich level.
Emily Swallow: It’s like, wow if you can just have perspective and just enjoy where you are, at that moment, it seems like that can make a difference.
Allen Wolf: Well, there is a scene in La-La land where Emma Stone went to an audition, and it was a disaster. The person she met was distracted and wasn’t paying attention. Are there any experiences like that for you? Or you went on an audition, and it just felt like a very strange experience?
Emily Swallow: I mean, I wish I could say that that scene was surprising to me, but it was not at all, because there’s been plenty of times when I am looking at the casting director, who is texting, you know, on their phone, taking a phone call. Or there have been times, especially in New York, where space is at such a premium. There’s been times when I’ve been in an audition room, and I can hear a tap-dancing class upstairs, and I’m just having to try and block that out.
I’ve had instances where like I had this chemistry read once, where it was very clear that the guy had been out partying the night before, and he just reeked of a hangover.
Allen Wolf: Wow, wow.
Emily Swallow: So lots of fun little things like that.
Allen Wolf: And how do you get yourself through those moments?
Emily Swallow: Imagination. I mean, I just try to focus on the circumstances of the scene part of acting is blocking out everything around you, but part of it is also just trying to incorporate whatever is happening. As if it’s supposed to be happening.
Allen Wolf: You’ve performed in a range of venues on film, television, the stage, singing. Which of those is particularly inspiring for you.
Emily Swallow: I love theater. I love live performing, singing, or theater because I just love having the audience right there. There’s something so magical about knowing that whatever is happening at that moment is only happening there with those people and will never happen again the same way. And I’m also just like a sucker for instant feedback, like when you’re shooting something, you don’t really know how it’s landing until you have an audience watching it much later.
I love feeling the audience and sort of adjusting to them and reading them. And I mean, sometimes it’s terrifying because you can also feel if they’re not enjoying what you’re doing. I had this time when I was doing this play called The Skin of our Teeth. It’s by Thornton Wilder. It’s a really bizarre three-hour-long play, and it takes place in different time periods.
And it’s like, there’s a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s bizarre. And I was the main character who has a lot of direct addresses to the audience. And it was in the third hour of the play. And there is this point where I had to say, I said, well, our evening is almost done, and somebody out in the audience said, “Thank God!
Allen Wolf: Oh, wow.
Emily Swallow: That was one of the plays that told me that I wanted to go to grad school because I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing.
Allen Wolf: And did any of you respond to that comment?
Emily Swallow: I think I just paused for a moment and then just kept goings.
Allen Wolf: Wow. Wow. Wow. It’s impressive looking at your IMDb page because you have just been in a lot. What are some of your favorite memories from The Mentalist?
Emily Swallow: I loved my first couple of episodes of that because we’re supposed to be on this South American island or Central American island or something. Of course, we were just shooting off the coast of L.A. La stands in for so many different locations in those first episodes; I was sort of getting a chance to out mentalist the Mentalist, and that was so much fun. I was this undercover FBI agent who was pretending just to be a normal tourist and suckered him into joining the FBI. That was a lot of fun, both because of the, I mean, the location was really great but also because Simon Baker, who played The Mentalist, he was directing one of those episodes and he is a wonderful, wonderful director.
And especially after having inhabited that character for five seasons and really knowing that show like the back of his hand to have him direct. One of my first episodes really kind of shot me out of a cannon and in a wonderful way to set the tone for what the show was going to be like. So that was really rewarding.
Allen Wolf: That’s great. Well, I went back and looked at your first episode in The Mentalist, and without knowing anything as I was watching it, I knew that you would be in multiple episodes, and I thought, I bet she’s not who she’s coming across as so, it was a fun reveal.
And the next episode to see what your real identity was, and you also were in multiple episodes of Supernatural. Do you have favorite memories from that show?
Emily Swallow: So many, they just finished that show after 15 seasons. And I think one of the reasons it lasted so long is because Jared and Jensen, who are the main guys on that show, and the producers and the entire cast and crew. They’re just some of the most gracious people and the most playful people I’ve ever worked with. And so it was always a joy to be on there, and it was also fun because that was the first time I played a character who kind of had some superpowers.
And it felt ridiculous when I was first shooting those scenes because, you know, before all the fun CGI effects go in there basically, you’re like, they would tell me to stand there and like hold out my hand, and then that was gonna zap somebody, and it was gonna be like fireworks and look incredible. But when I’m standing there shooting it, and I’m just holding out my hand, I was like, I feel really stupid, and this is gonna look so dumb. So until I actually got to see what some of that looked like, I felt like a big goober doing that.
Allen Wolf: Yeah, I’m sure it must take a lot of imagination to get through those scenes.
Emily Swallow: Yeah. But then you also have to be very minimal. You know, you’re sort of tempted to go like, and that would be idiotic.
Allen Wolf: I remember reading that when Laura Dern was shooting the Star Wars film that she was in, she kept going pew, pew, pew, pew when she was shooting. So yes, that can be a thing. Now, you are currently in the CBS show SEAL Team, where you play a physiologist. What has that experience been like?
Emily Swallow: I love when I get to learn a new skill as an actor. It’s one of my favorite things about acting. So they were great. And they gave me some people to talk to who are physiologists for the Navy. And I got to find out a little bit about what that would actually be like to work with seals—I kind of geek out on that part of my job. I love to get to learn new stuff like that. So that was fun, and I love working with David. I mean, my character was brought in to definitely give him a run for his money. Sort of challenge, some of these stubborn beliefs that he’d held onto for a long time, and he’s just such a lovely actor to work with, and I really have enjoyed getting to be his scene partner. It’s been fun.
Allen Wolf: Is it an interesting dynamic to work with someone who’s a lovely person and easy to get along with? But yet on screen, you’re supposed to have tension, and you’re really kind of going toe-to-toe with them. What’s that like?
Emily Swallow: It’s fun. I mean, it’s a relief that he’s not like that in real life. He’s also, though, an actor who loves to improvise. He likes to get off the script and try new things, and sometimes it would go places that I would not expect it all. But that was so helpful for the character dynamic because the whole time, that’s basically like how he’s acting with Natalie, he’s trying to challenge her, he’s trying to knock her off course. He’s trying to basically get her flustered so that he doesn’t feel so on the spot. So whenever he would do that, it was really helpful.
And, and I knew my role was just kind of sit back and watch him spin and then say, okay, are you done? Now that wasn’t something that I would have initiated coming into this show as the guest star and, you know, not wanting to try to change too much how they were doing things. So, for him to be the one to set that tone and then invite me in to play that way, it was a real gift.
Allen Wolf: Now, for The Mandalorian. Can you tell, I’m a big fan? Now, when you were cast in that role. Were you a fan of the Star Wars Universe?
Emily Swallow: Absolutely, I don’t remember a time when Star Wars was not a part of my life, because I grew up when the first three movies were coming out, and I just remember, like, playing Ewok adventures in my backyard and like, wanting to be Princess Leia and all that stuff. I was always a fan. However, since joining the Star Wars Universe in this way, I have realized what a fair-weather fan I was and how much I truly don’t know.
Allen Wolf: Really?
Emily Swallow: That universe is just massive, and there’s so much that I’m still learning. Even about my own character, people will tell me things that I didn’t know. Many of which are just theories about her backstory and stuff. But oh my gosh, make connections for me, and I’m like oh okay, interesting.
Allen Wolf: When you found out you were going to be part of the Star Wars Universe, I mean, take me back to that day. What was that like?
Emily Swallow: I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into, and I’m so glad because the audition process was really low-key. I got this audition for something that they said, they’re not telling us for certain what it is. We think it’s something to do with Star Wars. It’s a live-action series, which at the time, there had been no live-action Star Wars T.V., So I was like, okay, I don’t really know what this is. Who knows how this could turn out. And then my audition was just me with the casting and a camera, and there was nobody else in the room, you know.
I had these scenes, I knew that the character was masked, and so I tried not to do too much with my face and rely more on my physicality. And I remember we did the scenes a few times. And then he asked me to do them with a British dialect because they’d mostly been seeing Brits for the role. So that’s how that happened. I did that for the audition, and then John said, I like that. It sets her apart. So let’s keep that.
Yeah, I had that audition, and I thought it went fine. I was also planning my wedding at the time. And so things had slightly different importance in my acting life, which I’m also glad for, and then I found out I got it, and I was still sort of like, what is this, what am I doing? Because they’re so secretive about everything. So I slowly started to learn who was involved and then I started to realize, oh this could be you know, capital B, capital D, Big Deal because there are people who are involved with this, and then I think the first time it really started to get me excited was when I went in for my first costume fitting, and I saw what they had in mind for this character and then my imagination just took off. Then it was off to the races, for sure.
Allen Wolf: The Mandalorian was in the news when one of the stars, Gina Carano, got fired because of her tweets. Did that make you second guess what you post online?
Emily Swallow: It didn’t because I don’t ever really get political online. I mean, I have to say I was surprised because I loved working with her. She’s such a generous and giving actor, and she’s someone who’s interested in what other people think and have to say. And so it was surprising to me that it happened. I really use social media to look up dumb dog videos and, you know, post about my work. If I’m going to have conversations about politics, I would so much rather have them face to face with people. It’s just a hard place to have a real dialogue.
Allen Wolf: It feels like a place where there can be a lot of piranhas, and if just the right meat is dropped in its tank, you know, chomp, chomp, chomp. I similarly also stay away from politics online as well; it seems like it can be a little treacherous at times.
Emily Swallow: Yeah.
Allen Wolf: And you play The Armorer, and I feel like that should warrant your own series, right? I mean, who is the armor? Where did she come from? How does she make all this armor? I mean, how can we get Disney+ to make an Armorer series spin-off? Starring you. Is there a change.org petition we can all sign?
Emily Swallow: Some good old-fashioned letters.
Allen Wolf: Yes. I want to see The Armorer. It sells itself just off the title alone.
Emily Swallow: Yes.
Allen Wolf: You go to a lot of conventions where you meet fans and sign autographs. Is there something that happened at one of the conventions that was particularly memorable for you?
Emily Swallow: I once met someone who had my face tattooed on his leg, So that was special. It was me as Amara, my character on Supernatural, so that made it feel a little less weird.
And I was not the only character that he had tattooed on his body, and he was a very sweet guy. So, like, I met him at a panel, I guess and found him to be very non-threatening, and then it was like a few days later, he’d like sent me a picture on social media of the tattoo that he’d gotten. So I was glad that I’d already met him and I felt like, oh, he’s a nice guy.
Allen Wolf: He didn’t show you the tattoo there at the moment?
Emily Swallow: No, then I’m not sure how I would have responded. I feel like I could have a good poker face, but, yeah, it definitely was surprising. I was not expecting that.
Allen Wolf: And do people come up to you and want to talk in-depth about your character and choices?
Emily Swallow: I love that.
Allen Wolf: Do you just make stuff up?
Emily Swallow: Oh yeah, especially with Supernatural people. I mean, I am a fan of the show. I think it’s tremendous. But I also have not watched every single episode, and people will ask me questions about something like in season three, and I have no idea. And so I either make something up, or I turn it around, and I say, well what do you think? Because there’s a lot, I don’t know.
Allen Wolf: You can create whole new storylines and mythology by your answers to these questions. Now you got to go to a Star Wars premiere.
Emily Swallow: I did. I got to walk on the red carpet with Chewbacca, so it was like every dream come true. It was so fun. I felt like I was going to the ball, like I was Cinderella, especially because it was the Rise of Skywalker. It could be pure fun because I wasn’t in it. So there was nothing at stake for me. So I really got to just show up and look pretty and eat some good food and enjoy a movie. We were watching it, you know, the theater is full of people who love Star Wars and who are involved with making the movie. Steven Spielberg was there, and it was just incredible. It was just so much excitement to have an audience cheering along with the movie and crying along with the movie. And it was a lot of fun. I gotta say.
Allen Wolf: And what was it like going to The Mandalorian premiere? Because that was the first Star Wars television show. So I imagine people are coming into this having no idea what they’re going to experience.
Emily Swallow: Yeah. Well, including me because I, you know, I was in three episodes. So I had seen three scripts at least, but I didn’t know what the rest of the show was like, because I didn’t get to, you know, they’re very secretive. So they didn’t share other scripts with me. And it was a little bit weird because I was only allowed to say like two or three things about my character, and everything else was off-limits. So, I’m walking the red carpet, and I’m answering questions from reporters, and I’m having to really limit what I’m saying or just say like I don’t have an answer for that or I am not at liberty to say. So that was a little odd because I couldn’t just speak freely.
Allen Wolf: Do they give you a list of things that you can say, and then they just say don’t say anything, not on that list.
Emily Swallow: Yep. Which I love because I do; I mean, I like to be surprised when I’m watching something, and I love with The Mandalorian that they didn’t just drop all the episodes at once. So it really was a week-to-week, like what’s gonna happen who’s going to show up? So I appreciate the secrecy. I think that it adds to the excitement, but it’s also a little weird when you’re an actor in a show, and you’re, you’re told, you know. I’m convinced if I say the wrong thing, a Disney drone is going to come to shoot me down or something.
Allen Wolf: With Mickey Mouse ears, pew, pew. Well, this interview is sponsored by Navigating. Hollywood, which is dedicated to helping people who work in entertainment to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. There are courses for pre-marriage and marriage, and the Alpha Course, which gives entertainment professionals the chance to explore the big questions of life.
You can find out more at NavigatingHollywood.org. If you use the invitation code podcast, the courses are complimentary. What? Amazing. Now you played many characters in film and T.V. When you approach a new role, how do you keep it fresh?
Emily Swallow: Well, I think it’s just because I’m thinking about the specifics of each character it sort of does the work for me. I definitely noticed similarities that there might be with other characters, but I think because each, you know, I approach each script like its own unique story, which it is. And so, that sort of naturally happens. I enjoy finding parallels between characters that I’ve played. But I also really enjoy finding the things that make them different. So I think it’s sort of unfolds naturally.
Allen Wolf: We talked about your role in Supernatural, and that’s a show that deals with the supernatural and all kinds of amazing things. What are your beliefs about the supernatural? Is that something you believe in?
Emily Swallow: I do. Yeah. And it was very interesting stepping into that show, which I think, you know, I appreciate about it that it sort of creates its own mythology, even if it uses characters from specific religions from specific faiths and spiritual practices, I don’t think it’s trying to say anything about any one of those in the real world. I think that it’s sort of self-contained. But it was definitely weird. Especially telling people, Oh, I play the darkness. God’s sister. As far as I know, the God that I believe in doesn’t have a sister. And there was actually, there was this time, so, my parents still go to church at the church where I grew up, and whenever I go home, I go with them. And there was this time when I was standing in the lobby, and somebody at the other end of the lobby said, hey, it’s the darkness, and I was like, no, like listen, I get it, and that’s funny. But most of the people in here don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t need that kind of reputation, that they think I’m the darkness.
Allen Wolf: At least they didn’t say, hey, it’s God’s sister!
Emily Swallow: Yeah, that would have been just more confusing.
Allen Wolf: So was there a point in your life where God became real to you? What has your faith journey looked like?
Emily Swallow: I was raised in a Christian home, and I’m really grateful for that because it’s sort of naturally evolved its way into the fabric of my life. But I also think that because of that, there was a lot that I took for granted, and so when I went to college, when I was on my own for the first time, and when I was studying Middle Eastern studies and studying Judaism and studying Islam and studying Christianity, it really made me question a lot of things, and I realized that there were areas where I hadn’t made it my own and that I think combined with being in this like super intellectual environment that sort of became my God for a while, this like analyzing everything and wanting to learn as much as possible. And I sort of said, well, who am I to know what’s true?
I can like sort of take a little bit from everything, and you know that works a little bit for a while. But then as I got older and started to face things that were a lot more challenging and started to face my own shortcomings and to realize, like, no matter how hard I work, no matter how well-intentioned I am, life is still really challenging, and I realized how much I needed a personal God, a God with whom I could have a one-on-one relationship. And so that sort of brought me back to Christianity and a whole new way of being.
My now-husband also was an important piece of that because we started talking about our faith and how we’d grown up and how it had been challenged, ways that we’d fallen away from it. We read a couple of Tim Keller’s books together, The Reason for God, and one of them was Making Sense of God. It really challenged me to actually think and ask the questions instead of dabbling in the questions, and it made it a lot more real. But I appreciate about Tim that he combines a head knowledge with heart knowledge and really challenges a lot of the intellectual ideas that I had about why I could like, you know, take a step back and not really make.
Basically, I was avoiding making decisions about what I did believe. I was sort of chickening out, and so my faith was not helping me in my life because it wasn’t real, so it definitely changed reading those books and having those conversations with the guy that I married.
Allen Wolf: So, it sounds like you came to a point in your life where your worldview didn’t really match the challenges that you are facing, and you had to rethink what your whole worldview was, and that’s something you read together with your husband. Was he your husband at that moment? Or were you dating?
Emily Swallow: No, he was not. We were dating.
Allen Wolf: It’s amazing that you could go on that journey together where you both are having similar questions as you were working through this.
Emily Swallow: We were, yeah. So about ten years ago, I started to go to 12-step meetings for eating disorders and working the steps, and you know, the foundation of the 12 steps is really in Christianity. They have made it something where you can, you can be an atheist, and you can work the 12 steps. And I think that that’s a tremendous service, you know, for people, so that no matter what they believe, they can be healed.
But the basis was really in the Christian faith and in working the steps and then having to really ask myself, who is the god of my understanding, what are my own limitations as a human? And because, you know, I basically had been brought to my knees and seeing what a lot of those limitations were. I realized how desperate I was in a really good way. I think we’re all desperate whether we realize it or not, and it sort of depends on what life throws at us as to how much we register that.
And so I think I’m really grateful that I was faced with something that I couldn’t handle on my own because I know now like my life is infinitely better for having a relationship with God and I just didn’t, I didn’t know that for a long time.
Allen Wolf: Is the story that you got to a point with your eating disorder when you hit rock bottom and realized you needed to do something drastically different?
Emily Swallow: I had no more answers. I was really unhappy. I was really sad. I felt like I was wasting all this potential and letting down people in my life, you know, and it seemed so shameful in so many ways because intellectually, I knew better than to behave in the ways that I was behaving with food, but I still couldn’t stop that. So it wound up being a huge gift because that was the thing that brought me back to God. It was after a few years of being in that program that I met my husband, we were having a conversation, and he said, listen, I need to tell you something. I went to rehab a few years ago, and I’m sober now. And I’m in A.A. and, you know, I just want to share that with you. And I said that’s fantastic because I’m in a 12-step program too. So it wound up being this thing that actually, like, brought us even closer and that we could relate through.
Allen Wolf: Wow. So he took That step of vulnerability with you, and then it sounds like that really helped you to be in a place, or you could be equally vulnerable with him. I imagine that a lot of actors struggle with eating disorders or eating issues. Have you found that that journey that you’ve been going through has helped you to connect to others?
Emily Swallow: Absolutely, and I mentioned earlier on that it’s such a blessing to play this character who has nothing to do with what I look like. And I think the pressure is always there. Whether you’re a man or a woman in Hollywood, you know, you’re far too aware of how you look. And I think because there are so many things that are out of my control, as an actor in terms of whether or not I’m going to get a part, it’s so easy to fixate on what I look like because I am the product. I have found that to be true with a lot of actors who I know that it’s easy to get caught up in that because it feels intellectual like, well, that’s something that I should be able to control. Also, I should be able to make myself look perfect because then that’s going to make me more marketable.
First of all, it’s not true. There’s so many different things that go into creating a character and doing the work that we do. It’s also just not as easy to control. As we think, I mean, look at the diet culture in our country and how many people struggle, even if they’re not in this industry. So it has been something that I thought was very shameful and that I thought I shouldn’t have a problem with his actually really deep. And my relationships with a lot of people have brought me close to people that otherwise I wouldn’t have a friendship with, and that’s been a tremendous blessing.
Allen Wolf: “Should” can really be crushing, and I heard a good saying that I liked and remind myself of, which is basically, “Don’t should on yourself.” And as soon as the word “should” comes into conversations, I usually point that out and would say, okay, well, let’s not use that word. It really does have a lot of guilt attached to it, and it’s can be really crushing.
It’s interesting what you said about that both men and women deal with body issues. I remember when Zac Efron, they were unveiling a figure of him for a wax museum, and he is very muscled up in his wax figure, and he said to the audience, “this is not normal. This is not what any of us look like. I really worked out for this particular role which they based what I look like on, and that’s why I look like that but don’t think that you need to look like that.” But I think we don’t hear that enough because you see on social media, of course, all over in film and T.V. and idealism of what you think you should look like, but behind the scenes, those actors can be starving themselves. They can be working out multiple times a day to get into that condition. But it’s something when you look at it, you think, oh, I wish I look like that, and it can lead to all kinds of loveliness.
Are there times where you feel like your faith has given you a new perspective on something that you’re working through in the midst of your career?
Emily Swallow: Absolutely, I can get so myopic and so focused on work, a particular aspect of a character, a project I’m doing. And my faith just encourages me not to do that, which I think is much healthier, and it helps me to always have a larger perspective than I would be tempted to have on my own. There have been projects I’ve been involved with where it’s been challenging to work with certain people, or I feel like I haven’t done the best work that I could do. And my faith really allows me to say. I don’t know why this thing is happening this way. I don’t know why, you know, I’m not having the best experience possible, but I can trust that this is actually the best possible outcome and this is happening this way for a reason, and that’s a huge relief because otherwise, I would be trying to micromanage everything. And again, I would have that illusion that I should be able to fix things. I should be able to make it better. I should be able to make that person like me. Darn it. It’s a relief not to feel the responsibility to be God because I am definitely not.
Allen Wolf: And have you found when you’ve talked to people that you’re working with and the issue of faith comes up, how do those conversations typically go?
Emily Swallow: I find people have a wide range of beliefs. I’ve been surprised at how interested people are to talk about it, easy to sort of feel like, oh, it’s taboo. It’s not something that you talk about, especially in Hollywood, but people are really hungry to know. Okay, what is it that makes you tick? What helps you get through the day, what helps you get through this life? I think people are really interested and hungry to hear that perspective. So I’ve had some really lovely conversations; even if the person that I’m talking to doesn’t have the same beliefs, I still find that people want to hear.
Allen Wolf: I heard a saying where someone said, tell me about the God that you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in that God either.
Emily Swallow: Oh, interesting.
Allen Wolf: What has been surprising to you about your career?
Emily Swallow: Definitely the range of things that I’ve gotten to do. I mean, I feel so, so blessed. But I didn’t set out to do. Of the things that I’ve done, I’ve kind of just gone along for the ride, and now, you know, I’ve gotten to be in Star Wars and Supernatural and sing, and I’ve gotten to be in video games, and I’ve gotten to voice animate characters. And it’s, I mean, I’m just soaking it all up, but it was not a planned trajectory.
Allen Wolf: If there was something you could go back and tell yourself and you could choose when you would go back, what part of your life would go back to, and what would you say?
Emily Swallow: I look at how hard I can be on myself, and I try to think about when that started. I really think it started when I was a kid because I have one brother who’s older than me, and he was always like he was a superstar athlete and a class officer and super charming and charismatic, and I was a little bit more reserved and shy, and I wanted to do something to be special that he didn’t do. So my thing sort of became academics, and I was the one who studied really hard and got really good grades. But I think that that was when I started to worry too much about distinguishing myself like, with achievements that way. So I think I would like to go back to her and tell her to chill out a little bit and tell her that it’s okay. And that your achievements do not define you.
Allen Wolf: And what would you tell her does define her?
Emily Swallow: I think what matters more is the love that she had, and I have for other people and relationships and faith and really the stuff that’s a lot less tangible.
Allen Wolf: You mentioned you got married recently.
Emily Swallow: It was in 2018.
Allen Wolf: And what’s it like having both of you work in entertainment because your husband is an actor.
Emily Swallow: He is a really good actor.
Allen Wolf: He’s Tony-nominated. There’s literally evidence of what a good actor he is. Tony-nominated. Fantastic.
Emily Swallow: Yeah, he’s pretty snazzy. I’ve had friends in the past say they would never date another actor, and I think it absolutely depends on the individual. And I think for us it’s helpful that we’re both actors because we can both relate to a lot of the challenges that we face and a lot of the fears that we face and the, you know, the things that intimidate us and we can help each other keep perspective and make our world larger than just this piece of us. This acting piece. So and, you know, he understands why I have to travel for work. And I understand that for the first two years we were married, we never ate dinner together because he was always doing his show on Broadway at night.
Allen Wolf: And how did you stay relationally healthy during that time?
Emily Swallow: I think the little out of that was served by our church community. We hosted a community group with our church. We talked to people who were smarter than us and who’d been married longer than us, and we went to counseling. We tried to see what tools would help us in building that foundation. Also, I have to mention Tim Keller again. Before we got married, we both read The Meaning of Marriage, and that was so helpful. I mean, I was 38 years old when we got married. And so I spent most of my life really just worrying about me. So finding out and really establishing with each other what it means to be in partnership was pretty important so that we could figure out how to navigate that, and that book helped us a lot with that.
Allen Wolf: And how has your faith impacted how you approach each other in your marriage?
Emily Swallow: It’s really helpful for us to be coming from that same foundation. I think that it makes us a lot gentler with each other and a lot more humble when we have a problem with each other. I think that it teaches us to check in with ourselves and see, okay, what’s going on in my heart that’s causing me to see my husband this way and then anything that we do come up against we know, and we trust that we are working through it together and that there’s a reason that we’re together we trust that God brought us together and that really helps when we’re more annoyed with each other over things that are not going right. To trust that there is a greater reason that that we’re together in this world.
Allen Wolf: For someone who’s just starting out wanting to be an actor pursuing that, they’re growing, going on a lot of auditions. What advice would you have for them?
Emily Swallow: I think you really have to know yourself. Why you love it. Because there will be plenty of things to challenge that, and I think it’s also important to keep a sense of perspective. Like, we all get lost in and work in different ways, but I think especially in the arts because it is so much of you that is being drawn out. It’s easy to take it more personally and to get more wounded by the lows and get more excited by the highs. But I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and to keep connected to things that have nothing to do with acting.
I think sometimes, like when things get challenging for me, it’s important for me to sort of ignore acting and check in with things in my life with people, with other things that I’m interested in. I think all of those things help, and to talk about it. I know that sometimes I have the sense like, well, I know I’m in a challenging profession, so I shouldn’t complain about it. But there’s still lots of feelings that need to come out. It’s important to be able to talk about those with other people. Usually, people who are in the profession and can kind of get it or people who are outside of it and can sort of keep me in check and help me have a better perspective about what’s going on.
Allen Wolf: And what about someone who, who’s been acting for a while, but they’re in a moment where they feel like nothing’s going the way they had hoped and they’re feeling really discouraged. They’re not sure if that next project will come along. What would you say to that person.
Emily Swallow: I think sometimes it’s important to step away and reconnect to other things that you love. I think for me also like, kind of looking at some of the choices that I’m making and deciding, you know, analyzing like am I auditioning for the right things because there have been times when I feel like I have to go in for anything and everything because I just got to get something that then I know that my heart is not in anything and everything. So there could be, you know, there’s a chance that I’m just not doing great work because my heart’s not in it. So maybe I need to trust that I can be more selective and that the right thing will come along if I don’t feel like I’m at you know I just need to throw myself out there for every possible opportunity.
Allen Wolf: At the end of your life, how would you like to be remembered?
Emily Swallow: Hopefully, as a good friend and a good daughter and wife and I want to be remembered by the relationships that I have and as an action figure.
Allen Wolf: I love it. Is there an action figure?
Emily Swallow: Yes.
Allen Wolf: What?
Emily Swallow: Oh yeah, and she comes with her little hammer and her tongue to make her do things.
Allen Wolf: That’s amazing. Wow, thank you so much for being with us today, Emily.
Emily Swallow: Thank you.
Allen Wolf: Thank you so much for sharing about your life, your artistry, and your faith, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. If you work in entertainment, be sure to check out the courses that are available at NavigatingHollywood.org. Again, that’s NavigatingHollywood.org and again, use the word podcast to register for the complimentary course. Please follow us and leave us a review so others can discover this podcast. You can find our other shows, the transcripts, links, and more at NavigatingHollywood.org.
I look forward to being with you next time.