A gurgling infant falls from the sky, landing in the arms of a woman. As shocks go, it’s a big one, especially since the baby turns out to be killing unsuspecting civilians. But you get the feeling that Michelle de Swarte, who plays the woman in HBO’s new horror-comedy The Baby, can handle it. Before going into acting, after all, De Swarte worked as a journalist, a model and a standup. She’s had her fair share of problems falling from the sky.
“My self-esteem is all right,” she says, as we sit on strangely low chairs in a London hotel lobby. Her hair is pulled into a neat ponytail, her shoes are flat and, as we arrived, I watched her sneak an empty smoothie bottle behind a vase of flowers standing on the bar. “For the most part,” she adds, “I don’t mind failing. But that doesn’t mean I like or love myself every day. It doesn’t mean I don’t get in the cycle of calling myself a dickhead when no one’s in the house.”
Like her character Natasha, De Swarte is a single, child-free, mixed-race woman in her early 40s, living on her own. Under those circumstances, explains De Swarte with a deep, crackly laugh, it can be hard to tell if you’re a control freak or if you actually just don’t have to compromise very much. “I woke up yesterday morning, meditated, worked out, got in my little steam tent and listened to Louise Hay positive affirmations,” she says. “I got to one o’clock and I was like: ‘I’m gonna go get a packet of fags. I’m exhausted.’”
This lack of moderation, coupled with her humour, makes De Swarte intensely British, despite the fact that she has spent much of her adult life in the US. “I lived in LA for a while,” she says. “I never looked better – and I never felt sadder. With this whole wellness thing, I do wonder if it’s just a thin veil for being a self-centred cunt.”
In The Baby, Natasha is forced to look after a random homicidal baby, despite being happy alone and not wanting children of her own. Cue gory trips to the petrol station, a violent buggy incident at soft play – plus a disturbing entanglement with the enigmatic Mrs Eaves, who is apparently on a one-woman mission to murder the infant.
De Swarte grew up in Brixton, London, in a strong matriarchal family, something that doubtless informed her portrayal of Natasha – who seems so out of step with the codified, conventional version of womanhood being adopted by her female friends. “My grandmother is queer,” she says. “My grandmother’s sister is queer. Most of the women in my family were single mums. And nobody ever made any illusions about what they were doing and what it took.”
In her early adolescence, De Swarte spent some time living in Women’s Aid accommodation and says this gave her a chance to see what happened when the Disney fairytale version of relationships didn’t work out. “I was really lucky that all the women in my life were open about what was happening. No one ever was like: ‘You’re going to get married and have kids.’ I never thought I had to do that.” Did she ever think about having kids, I ask, aware as the words come out of my mouth that this is way beyond a personal question? “It crossed my mind now and again, because why wouldn’t it? But I never felt pressure to do anything like that.”
Coming from a queer family also meant that 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 has given a shit.” De Swarte picks up her teacup. “Literally nobody cares.” When talking to someone so smart and funny, it can be hard to remember that, for several years, De Swarte made her living almost entirely from how she looked, rather than how she thought.
“When I was modelling,” she says, “your job was to not talk and look pretty. It was also a time when advertisers would say they wanted a Black girl to be the face of a campaign, but I was as dark as they were willing to go.” That must have been hard for someone who, working later as a standup, would be defined by her opinions. “It was all right, actually,” she says. “When I was walking down the catwalk, I’d just be thinking: ‘I hope I don’t fall.’ And then I fell. To this day, that is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever done – fall on my arse on a Gucci runway.”
What was her catwalk face? “Probably the same face as when you do your pelvic floor. That moment before you sneeze. The same face I think we’ve decided reading someone’s mind is, too.” I laugh. “I’m one of the lucky ones of my generation of modelling. I came through it pretty unscathed.”
Unscathed wasn’t the word I was expecting. While modelling in New York, De Swarte was propositioned by Jeffrey Epstein, the late sex criminal. “I speak about it on stage and it’s important to say it in a way that’s not edited. I wouldn’t want to give you the responsibility of telling that story because it’s … ” she hesitates, “it’s deep and it’s dark. It’s also not necessarily my trauma. It’s more than that.” Would she ever write about it? “For sure, at some point. But I’d like to be completely in control of the beginning, middle and end.”
Having been diagnosed as dyslexic at primary school, De Swarte effectively checked out of formal education in year nine. Does she think this had any impact on her sense of ambition and the future? “No one told me I was either going to be really successful or really shit,” she says, with that nonchalance that reads, to an outsider, as easy self-confidence. “There wasn’t crazy expectations.” After leaving school, she worked as a greeter at a shoe shop on Oxford Circus, and handed out leaflets, but wanted to explore what the rest of the world had to offer. “There’s always been an attitude in my family that I should make the most of the choices I’ve had. Now as an adult, I love being able to buy what I want from the gift shop.”
De Swarte had just turned 40 when she got her first leading role in The Baby, following a supporting part in Katherine Ryan’s sitcom The Duchess; a full decade older than Debbie Harry when the first Blondie single came out. Does she feel aware of her age? “I’d have moments when I’d think to myself: ‘Why are you scrolling on Instagram?’” She mimes lolling in a social media slump. “‘You’re 40. Get it together!’”
However, she is also aware that, as a modern feminist, things are significantly easier than they once were. “No matter how hard and challenging we find it, the generation before had it worse and had less choice,” she says, biting into a biscuit. As a journalist, De Swarte made a series of films with the feminist intellectual and activist Gloria Steinem, a woman she clearly loves. Are there still things, in terms of gender equality, that grind her gears? “Oh yeah. Being patronised, being in a meeting and not getting eye contact, having to assert myself, having to stand up for myself; it’s exhausting. But all the things that I have now are just regular 41-year-old woman stuff. Like gravity, your skin having audio.” She rubs her fingers together, as we laugh at the new friction our bodies have acquired.
Talking of friction, how was it to share so much screen time with a baby? “It was tough,” she says, looking serious. “I like babies. And it’s tricky to play an abrasive character when you’re holding a baby.” De Swarte explains that for the role of Natasha, a lot of her time was spent holding the babies (the character is played by twins) off set, so they felt comfortable around her before the cameras started rolling. “As the series went on, I got to know them,” she tells me. “When I ran into their parents the other day, they invited me to their second birthday.” She even learned to recognise their cries, to the point that while doing additional sound recording, she could tell they had put placement cries in the mix, rather than the real babies.
De Swarte’s route into acting is as far away as possible from the stage school, home counties, trust fund, pale, male and stale version so commonly found on our screens. How does she decide what to do next, how does she judge her own success? Her answer is simple: “Do you know what men do? Whatever the fuck they want. And that’s what you’ve got to be thinking.”
The Baby is on Sky Atlantic and Now on 7 July