The Baby’s Michelle de Swarte Finds Humor in the Scariest Places

by Michel Ghanem

michelle de swarte wearing a red blazer against a blurred pink background
Courtesy of Getty Images. Treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

If you’re looking for a meditation on motherhood and caregiving unlike any you’ve ever seen before, look no further than The Baby on HBO. Whereas popular series like This Is Us—and television in general—typically represent parenthood and caregiving as the only possible and meaningful natural progression in an adult’s life, The Baby stars a child-averse protagonist and suggests its titular baby is born of evil. The 8-episode limited series is brooding and stylistically sleek, making for an engaging and, at times, frightening binge for those who might be craving more thrills after catching up on Stranger Things. In The Baby, there’s not a single parenting book or mommy blog that would prepare its protagonist for what happens in her life.

At the center of the series is newcomer Michelle de Swarte as Natasha, a 38-year-old single woman living in a spacious London flat. After growing frustrated from witnessing her friend group dissolve due to family obligations and a ruined game night thanks to yet another pregnancy announcement, Natasha takes a solo beach holiday to clear her head—only to find herself saddled with a mysterious, creepy baby that she is unable to get rid of no matter how hard she tries. The Baby is only de Swarte’s second acting role to date after appearing in Netflix’s The Duchess. But watching her as Natasha, you wouldn’t be able to tell—in this limited series, de Swarte is emotive and captivating as she processes what motherhood might mean to her. The actor’s résumé also includes countless fashion campaigns and runway shows as a model in the early aughts, television presenting and reporting gigs, and more recently, stand-up comedy. Like Natasha, she has no desire to have children.

On a Zoom call with W from North London, de Swarte is observing the discourse around the show from afar. (The series won’t air in the U.K. until July 7.) “From what I can tell, [The Baby] is starting some important conversations. That’s what you’d want from a show like this that revolves around the subject of motherhood and caregiving,” she says. The show might be reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant on Apple TV+, also a horror series with a comedic bent telling the story of a mother’s journey through grief after losing a newborn. “I guess the common thread there is when you have such a visceral void in your life, how it can manifest in very literal ways,” de Swarte says on how both shows might resonate with each other. Below, the actress discusses how stand-up comedy lends itself to the role of Natasha, her personal connection to the project, and her horror obsession.

The Baby is such a stylistic treat. How did you come into the role and what was the casting process like?

I got a call to try out for the role via me doing a corporate Zoom gig in lockdown. I’m a stand-up comedian, so in lockdown I was doing all of these Zoom gigs and one of them happened to be for the casting director’s partner. She happened to sit in, and she [later] contacted my agent and asked if I could try out for The Baby.

How does your background in stand-up comedy and modeling inform your performance on The Baby?

I would say modeling, as far as transferable talents, didn’t lend itself much to this role. But stand-up comedy did, definitely, just to be aware of what comedy beats are. Especially as The Baby is a comedy-horror, but a lot of the comedy aspects of the show are mostly from the absurdity of things and saying them with complete conviction rather than, “I’m going to deliver this in a funny way.”

This is your first lead role. What considerations went into preparing for it?

I probably didn’t overthink it in terms of what it means to be the lead, but definitely as far as playing Natasha and preparation, I had a lot of time with the creators and Nicole Kassell, who is the executive director, just to really get into Natasha’s background and what had led her up until the point where we get to meet her. I had a lot to root myself in. They also let me have a lot of input in the building of Natasha’s flat. I got to watch it get built, and pick the wallpaper and what books I think might be on the shelf. We made Natasha playlists, all that kind of stuff.

Are there aspects of Natasha’s ambivalence toward motherhood that you relate to?

I could understand why Natasha is in the place she was emotionally and mentally, and there are some similarities. Natasha and I are a similar age, I don’t have children, I don’t have any wish to have children. I could see how she felt about her friends making choices that were going to affect her life. I don’t feel like that. When my friends and family members that I love have children I understand—it’s my duty to accommodate that if I want to have a relationship with them, you know. But I could understand Natasha.

Are you excited for your friends who have children to see the show and what their take on it might be?

Yeah, one hundred percent! I’m at an age where a lot of my friends were really lucky to have kids if they waited. And for some reason, four of my closest friends are now pregnant with their second child or have just given birth. I think it’ll be a trip.

What do you think The Baby might be trying to say about caregiving or motherhood?

I trust that the audience will take from it what they need and what they want from it. But being part of the show, what I thought it was about was abandonment and how sometimes, if you don’t resolve things that happen in your childhood, they can really affect your adulthood.

Are you a fan of horror and thrillers?

I’m a huge fan of horror, and I always have been. Even last night, after my gig I watched Candyman and Don’t Breathe. But there are always some films that I will not fuck with! I saw, which I wasn’t aware of, that there’s a Nightmare on Elm Street that came out in 2010. I was like, there’s no way I can fuck with that. Nothing has affected me more than Nightmare on Elm Street, because it’s [about] your dreams. My favorite horror film of all time is the French film High Tension. The soundtrack and acting are great, and also, some queer entanglement happening. The gore is chef’s kiss, with a great French twist at the end. It’s really satisfying, I recommend it.

Did you enjoy acting in a horror series?

It was an absolute treat. If you’re a true fan of horror, you have to make peace with the fact that you’ll mostly be watching horror films on your own because the majority of people do not like watching horror. So to be part of a whole crew and team making the genre was great. I loved being able to do a lot of jump scares, which Natasha does in this show.

If the possibility opens up for The Baby to continue beyond the first season, is that something you would be interested in? And what’s next for you?

It’s a limited series, so I have to accept the title that it is. But in terms of what I’m doing next, I’m in the middle of writing and developing a show—fingers crossed. I’m doing stand-up comedy because now we’re allowed to go out in front of live audiences, which is so nice, especially after filming. To be up on stage in front of a live audience and get instant feedback is really fun.

What are you watching lately on TV that you’re enjoying?

I’m in the middle of Selling Sunset. That has made me want to watch shows that are complete escapism about absolutely nothing. I wish I could say something more highbrow for you in this interview that would make me seem like some intellectual type, but the truth is, I am watching Selling Sunset, and I fucking love it. It’s so bad and so good. The innocent escapism of it all, when what’s going on in the news is so heavy, we’ve all been in lockdown for years at this point and we’re all just starting to be social again. When it finishes, I’m like, what did I learn? Absolutely nothing. There’s something really reassuring about that. [Laughs].