For Expanse star, role of Roci engineer ‘feels like a dream’

This month, I had the honor of interviewing not one, but two glorious science-fiction goddesses from groundbreaking TV series The Expanse.

This week, we’re hearing from my favorite member of the crew of the Rocinante, Dominique Tipper, who plays chief engineer/executive officer Naomi Nagata.

(MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!)

Dominique was gracious enough to find a moment, during filming of the series’ fourth season in Toronto, to sit down at her computer and answer some questions about what it’s like to be a part of a show that’s making remarkable strides when it comes to roles for women, diversity, and representation.

(Read last week’s interview with Cara Gee, who plays Naomi’s Season 3 BFF, Camina Drummer, here.)

The actor does an eloquent job of summing up what’s so memorable about Naomi, a tech genius and conflicted Belter who shares rich, complex relationships with each of her Rocinante crewmates, whether it’s a sisterly bond with Wes Chatham’s Amos or an often tense romantic connection to James Holden (Steven Strait). 

Refreshingly though, Naomi’s journey isn’t dependent on her male counterparts. The character is courageous, strong, thoughtful, a voice of reason, and always acts according to her convictions, even when that comes at a great cost.

Season 3 was an exciting one for the mohawk-rocking badass as she grappled with the consequences of betraying her crewmates and made a dramatic return to her Belter roots on Tycho Station. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for her in Season 4.

Below, Dominique gives us a hint at what that may entail and also talks with infectious enthusiasm about her Expanse experience and a lot of other fun stuff, like the show’s cancellation and thrilling last-minute resurrection, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, her directorial aspirations, and what other franchises she’d like to be a part of. (Pssst, Marvel, hire her already!)

You play Naomi Nagata on TV series The Expanse. Naomi is an inspiring character and, if I may say so, you are a glorious sci-fi goddess. What’s your favorite thing about playing this rich, complex character?

Thank you. I would say my favourite thing about playing Naomi is exactly that. She is such a rich and complex character. She constantly surprises, disappoints and inspires me. She is flawed and brilliant and so real. I also love seeing where the lines blur between us. It’s always quite the journey.

Are you in Toronto now for the filming of Season 4? What’s it like to be back after the emotional roller coaster of the show’s cancellation and resurrection by Amazon?

Yes, we are baaaaccckkk. It has been the most bizarre and challenging year for all of us, and I just think we’re all happy that we get to continue telling the story. We all love this show so much and the tone of our workplace is that it’s always been about making the show the best it can be. No egos, just that. And so being a part of that kind of environment is rare and enriching … AND SEASON 4 IS SO GOOD!

The cast and crew seems like a tight-knit bunch. Is that fun to be part of?

I love them all dearly. I can’t even tell you how lucky I am that I get to make this show with such a wonderful bunch of people! Were always having fun, which is so important as it’s such a hard and complex show to make.

The Expanse is groundbreaking in terms of representation of women and people of color. What’s it like being part of such a strong female cast and working with Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cara Gee, and Frankie Adams?

Being part of this cast feels correct. Representation is so, so important and to be on a show that is part of the change, on so many levels, just feels right to me. We all want to see media that represents the world around us, aesthetically and emotionally. The thing I love is that we don’t just cast a bunch of people from different, varied backgrounds and give them stereotypical, race specific arcs. Everyone has agency and emotional complexity and is integral to the storyline. None of the men have completely masculine qualities and none of the women have completely feminine qualities.

The casting surprises me all the time! People are often never how I imagine them. There is a dedicated effort to casting against what you may first lean towards. Against the obvious or at least what we have been conditioned to imagine as the obvious. For me that is the real key to changing things. That’s the real world I see around me and that’s what I want to see more of! So to not just be watching it and be a part of it is incredible.

The diversity of the show is one of its strengths. I read that as a child, you only had a “handful” of women who looked like you in media to look up to. How does that inform your experience of working on this series?

It feels like a dream. I was sent a picture of a young mixed race girl dressed up as Naomi at New York Comic Con, and I cried my eyes out. You know, representation isn’t just about skin colour. It is also about the quality of the part.

So to be playing a mixed race woman that isn’t a device for telling a story about colourism, that isn’t a highly sexualized, diluted version of a black woman, that isn’t a “look down her nose at her sisters” type of character, that isn’t the “angry black woman,” that isn’t an idiot, that isn’t confused about who she is, and not only is she not any of those things but she goes way, way, way beyond any of that in terms of her complexity, is such a revelation.

The world that Daniel and Ty created (being in the future) has allowed for us to play characters that aren’t stereotypically race specific and it’s beautiful.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck wrote The Expanse novels under the pen name James S. A. Corey. They also serve as writers and producers of the show.)

Things seem to be changing a bit for the better in the film and television industries when it comes to representation. As a woman of color, what further progress would you like to see?

It is getting better at last, but there is always much more work to do. I think there are many, many levels to further progress and I don’t know exactly what the whole solution is, but I do try to take responsibility for what I can do. I have my own specific set of privileges, and I challenge them. We have to ask ourselves and our privilege if we are doing all we can to help things change. It’s uncomfortable, but change always is.

We have to think beyond our comfortable, beyond our usual, beyond what we think we know, and I try to do that as often as possible. If I see regression happening on my set, I point it out and help it to change. I don’t turn a blind eye and sit comfortably within my privilege, and this is something we can all work towards and I think it will ultimately inform the bigger picture.

Season 3 was a big one for Naomi’s arc. She’s always been very true to herself and done what she thinks is right. This past season saw her return to and re-embrace her Belter roots, which was great. What was it like to explore this side of the character?

Season 3 held some of my favourite moments for Naomi. I think it was nice to see a well-rounded Belter perspective as we hadn’t really seen that on the show yet, and I loved that Naomi was the vessel for that. I think with being mixed race, her Season 3 arc had elements to it that echoed to my own journey with my identity, and I loved that in the end she just done what was right for her and, still, she just is who she is and she is unapologetic about it.

You rocked a pretty amazing Belter accent. Was that a challenge?

Haha, thanks! That was so much fun. To be honest, the Belter accent is not too far removed from my own accent so it’s not that hard for me.

You also got to work closely with Cara Gee, who plays Drummer. I feel like intricate, devoted female friendships like this can be a rarity on TV. What are your thoughts?

Ahhhh, firstly, Cara Gee is an incredible woman and I love working with her. I LOVE Naomi and Drummer’s relationship. It’s one of my favourite things on the show. Again, these are the kind of relationships I am used to having with the women in my life. They are always at the core of my being and they are the relationships that get me through everything and I feel like Naomi and Drummer’s relationship is one of the few I’ve seen on screen that looks and feels like what I know to be true and its awweeessoommmee.

Naomi is chief engineer and executive officer of the Rocinante. A strong woman in science and tech is quite revolutionary for sci-fi. Have you heard feedback from female fans about what this means to them?

I have heard feedback from women and men, actually, that love Naomi and the representation of having a saviour engineer on our show. I’m just happy to be bringing this woman to life. The levels of representation she embodies is more than I could have imagined.

What’s your general interaction with fans been like? Expanse fans rallied to save the show in a way that seems completely opposite to some of the “toxic fandoms” we’re hearing a lot about lately.

Expanse fans are the actual best. I’ve had a lot of interaction with our fans on Twitter since we started and we’ve always had such a fantastic time live tweeting and whatnot. Again, I think I’ve been spoilt with the lack of assholes it seems.

You and others from the cast recently appeared at Dragon Con. What was that experience like?

Dragon Con is crazy and it was amazing. It was so awesome meeting our fans face to face and hearing them share their stories of how important the show is for them, especially after nearly getting cancelled! It was nice to say thank you for their unwavering support. The panels we done were awesome too. All round awesomeness basically.

You started acting at age 3. What are some of your earliest memories of that?

I actually didn’t start acting at 3. I was always doing performing arts since that age, but I really didn’t start acting properly until about 7 years ago.

When and how did you know you wanted to pursue acting as a career?

It was on the set of my first film, Fast Girls, in 2011. I had gotten the chance to audition for the film through the producer Damian Jones as I had met him about 5 years before at the Eurovision Song Contest, and once I got to see those ladies work, that was it for me.

I had one line in the film but I was with the girls all the time in different scenes and I got to do all the training for the running scenes with Lashana and Lorraine for 10 weeks and so it meant I could watch a lot of what was happening and their processes and it was just wonderful. So Lashana Lynch, Lily James, Lenora Crichlow, Lorraine Burroughs, and Damian Jones are pretty much why I’m acting now!

You recently directed your first music video. That’s exciting! Tell me more about that.

Ah, it was aweessoomme. This is my second time directing something. My first foray into it was making a trailer in the style of a short film for Ann Akin’s play “Trying to Find Me.” That was awesome, and the short film/trailer, which is also called “Trying To Find Me” has been the official selection for four film festivals to date.

I have a love for music videos and have been wanting to make one for a while so I just managed to squeeze it in before leaving to shoot. It’s for an artist called Smoothvee, for his song called “Egos.” I’m currently editing it so it will be out soon!

Is directing something you’d like to do more of?

Absolutely. I’ve been working on an idea for a short film I want to direct and I’m also working on a script for my first feature that I want to star in and direct.

You’re also a singer. I love your music name, Miss Tipper. Is there anything in the works for Miss Tipper right now?

I don’t pursue singing anymore, to be honest. I know it’s still all over the Internet but I stopped pursuing that a while ago. I’d love to do it in a film at some point, but that’s probably as far as that will go now.

Are you personally into any geeky fandoms?

I’m a big Game of Thrones fan! Hehe.

Were you a sci-fi fan before you were cast in The Expanse?

I can’t say I was. I still wouldn’t say I’m a sci-fi fan. I love it, and I really love the world and being a part of it, but I can’t say I’m a hardcore fan.

I read that you recently started reading comics. What prompted you to dive into that?

I love me a graphic novel. I can’t really remember why I started reading them but I LOVE Saga. I’ve actually fell behind on reading them for the past year but I do really enjoy them.

You starred in the zombie movie The Girl With All the Gifts. I thought that was a really underrated film. Tell me about that experience.

Ah, that film was such a joy to shoot. It was nice to do something British as I always find myself in American productions because of the way opportunities work for people of colour, but it was so nice to do something at home. Everyone was great to work with and I made some lifelong friends as a result of that job. I agree with you about it being underrated. I loved the concept so much and I thought Colm (McCarthy) done such a wicked job of bringing the story to screen.

What’s your survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse hits?

I’m hoping that NEVER happens but I guess it would be firstly to not panic, and then grab a weapon and some water and food, lol.

I have to ask you about your appearance in the film version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You played an Auror. Omg! Was it like to be a wizard in the Harry Potter franchise?

I mean, I was such a small part in that film that it didn’t really feel like a big deal. But it was cool watching all the brilliant actors at work on that film and the sets were AMAZING!

I know you probably can’t say much at this point, but any hints about what’s in store for Naomi in Season 4?

OMG. Naomi has quite a lot going on in this season, as always. She goes on a very different type of journey in this season that we haven’t seen her go through before. All I will say is, it’s a little different from the book (if you’ve read it) in a really cool way.

Just for fun, is there another sci-fi or geeky franchise you’d love to be a part of?

I would LOVE to be a part of the Black Panther universe (I mean who wouldn’t). I also LOVE the Deadpool films so that would be a cool one to be a part of too.

Photos: Courtesy of Dominique Tipper, Syfy.com, Warner Bros. 

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