When I first interviewed Quintessa Swindell last month at the Venice Film Festival, Master Gardener had just premiered, and the latest DC Comics superhero movie, Black Adam, was still to come. But even with all that looming, Swindell was the picture of serenity in the Mediterranean sun; you might forget that within a few short years, they had leaped from commanding roles on Euphoria and Netflix’s Trinkets to new heights with these two top-tier films, which take place in different worlds.
In Master Gardener, directed by lionized filmmaker Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver), Swindell, who uses they/them pronouns, plays Maya, a troubled young woman who connects with a gardener named Narvel (Joel Edgerton)—a fair-minded mentor who is also a former Neo-Nazi. Playing opposite Edgerton was a special treat: “I’m a massive Star Wars fan,” they told me. “At one point, I was like, ‘So Obi-Wan [the series] is coming out, you want to give us the deets on the storyline?’”
Black Adam had only entered the initial editing phase at that point, but when I spoke to Swindell again in October, the premiere had passed—and the 25-year-old star was basking in the afterglow. Part of an ensemble cast, they play Cyclone, a Justice Society hero with whirlwind powers who helps confront Black Adam (The Rock), a fearsome figure unearthed from ancient times and looking to right past wrongs.
Swindell, who grew up in rural Virginia before finding community in New York, talked about the complexities of redemption, how to move like Cyclone (and what song makes Cyclone move), and what it really means to be true to themselves.
What drew you to your role in Master Gardener?
I haven’t worked that long as an actor and I’m still getting used to seeing what’s out there and how it aligns for someone like myself. Sometimes, as a non binary person, it’s hard to get a non-binary role and embrace that. When they’re female roles, I see so many projects that are either hyper-sexualized for young women or require X, Y, and Z—and seem so outlandish. And they don’t make people think or give a full-bodied, interesting role for an actor to play.
When Paul’s [role for me] came around, it was the exact opposite. It really meant something, and it wasn’t a stereotypical young girl. It was a girl who was trying to figure out her place in the world and wanting to change her life from one environment to another—you’re not your situation, basically. I really connected to that, and saw that in Maya.
Was there anything else about Maya that intrigued you?
[I thought about,] what does it mean to accept someone, especially someone with such an insane past? I don’t think I ever could, but I was curious about how someone could. Paul really puts you in the circumstance and the feeling. So when Maya sees Joe and the tattoos, it had a tremendous effect on me personally. It was wild.
What was your perspective on the story of Master Gardener?
I realized through shooting the film my own sense of what redemption and forgiveness mean. What exactly is the barometer of forgiveness and how do things balance and counterbalance one another? It’s like, “Have you done enough? Is there more you do? What’s the restorative justice?” And really questioning that. And my being a young Black femme in this world right now, and everything going on that you can possibly imagine, and becoming more learned on certain things.
When we were shooting, I was thinking about and trying to evoke that feeling of the Buffalo shooting, which happened right around that time. I was thinking [about Narvel], “Were you one of them? Did you do something like that?” And do you ever really change? [The movie] is hopeful and optimistic toward dialogue and conversation between opposing parties.
It sounds like this aspect really resonated with you.
I don’t think I’ve personally had shit very easy in my life. I’ve become very strict on certain things as far as what I think is morally correct. I definitely had to grow up very, very quickly, and develop that moral barometer early on. That’s really guided me to where I’m at right now.
How do you compare these two milestones for you, Master Gardener and Black Adam?
I don’t see one being higher or more meaningful than the other. Black Adam is all about freedom and who has the power to free whom, and there are so many parallels to today. Do the people have the power, does the state, does an outside governing body come in and liberate the people, or does a person from there liberate?
What was different about shooting a big studio film?
There was so much freedom, surprisingly, with the characters and building the character development. There was room to play and have fun; it was the happiest and the most fulfilled, creatively, that I’ve ever felt on any project. It did a lot for my heart.
Jaume [Collet-Serra, the director] showed me animated ideas of how the character would move and exist in general. And I remember I was like, they’re probably going to give up and settle for something less-than. The VFX guy, too, would come up to me and be like, “Q, how are you feeling? Your character is the most difficult to portray in the movie.” Because they were doing so many new things with the visual effects with Cyclone. And when I first watched the film, I started crying because they hadn’t given up. They portrayed something that I’ve always been searching for in a film or on the screen in general.
Cyclone’s whirlwind sequences are beautiful. How were they shot?
They would rig me up to something they call a lollipop rig. It has two guys on the edge of it, and they have this massive wheel, and I’m in the middle of this circular thing on the edge of that rig. I’m hoisted up a few feet above ground—and they just start spinning it! And I’m doing all of these flips and moves from side to side, for 30 to 40 seconds.
Jaume told me the character listened to music as she fought. At first I was like, does she dance to Björk? Does she like Moby? I settled on this weird genre, kind of dark, sci-fi, Goth rock. And the song that really does it for me and instantly puts me in Cyclone’s body is “Confetti” by Cold Cave.
Black Adam tells an origin story. What comes next for you in your story?
I’m keeping all of myself and my options open, because Black Adam gave me strength and power to be who I am and to love who I am fully. I want to do things that make me discover new things about myself but also allow me not to be too detached from who I am and what I believe true—and the messages that I want to share.