RYAN JAMAAL SWAIN
INTERVIEW BY DENISE MALLABO
Actor Ryan Jamaal Swain is an actor who is on constant a quest to master his craft. As someone who is inconstant dialogue between his masculine and feminine energy, Swain speaks about finding your passion and truths early on in life.
The actor currently stars as Damon Richards from the House of Evangelista in the TV series POSE. In the show, Swain’s character plays an ambitious ballet dancer who moved to New York after being kicked out of his home for being gay.
In this exclusive interview, Ryan Jamaal Swain opens up about fashion, style, the the ups and downs of his journey as an actor, his Broadway debut in Choir Boy, how art saved his life and his upcoming book.
What were you doing before this interview?
Thinking about sleep. This life ain’t for the faint at heart.
Sometimes only thinking about sleep suffices.
What's a regular day like for you as an actor?
Early call times, a lot of green juices in the morning, reading the script, doing some heavy daydreaming, point of view work, trying things out, playing and a lot of listening.
How old were you when you realized that you want to be an actor? What or who convinced you to pursue it? What made you fall in love with it?
I was a freshman in high school, so I guess 14 or 15. I was doing this after school program that was centered on theatre and I was like a moth to a flame. I had my first professional acting gig not too long after I started that program and I said oh yeah this is just the right amounts of crazy and challenge that is life-long. Now what made me fall in love with it was when I went over to study in Oxfordshire, Oxford for a summer program and was stripped of all my tricks; my back was against the wall. I had had a really shitty semester at school prior and was in this very dark place. And once I touched down in the UK, I vowed to myself that I would spend those next 6 weeks just doing the work, and there was an instance in the final week of that program where I felt GOD and my purpose just presented itself. And I felt what craft felt like and it’s been like an undeniable quest to master it.
Know that this part of your life is temporary. You are not in charge of your trauma, but YOU ARE in charge of your healing.
How was it like growing up in Alabama compared to living in New York?
Slow, Easy, Clear.
New York has the potential and can fog your vision if you let it. I’m glad I came from somewhere other than New York because it makes me remember that I have other things to be thankful, and clear about.
Take us through the process of your audition for Pose. How do you get into the character of Damon?
I’m not giving you those secrets because that’s part of my process but what I will say is that when I read the script, I saw Damon clear as day in my gaze. And I just listened to those pages I got, I knew him, I had seen him, and I was so happy. Audition process was pretty swift though, no extravagant story. First audition with casting, second was with everybody from the creative team, which I believe was the producer’s session/callback, and then 4 days later I found out I booked it. I am not oblivious that usually it doesn’t happen like that so I’m grateful but for the most part, I focused on the work and not what this represented. I saw a human being trying to figure it out in those 2 pages and by the end he landed on something great. As for getting into character: that’s an ongoing process: music, research, listening, and reading that script. Conditioning my body to be that of a modern dancer because I am an actor who moves well, not a dancer. So showing up to the work and not letting anything get in the way of that. It’s hard, but we make it through.
You and your character Damon Richards experienced the same adversity and lack of acceptance from people who are close to you. How did that experience change your outlook in life? What advise can you give people who are experiencing rejection because of their sexuality?
It didn’t change my outlook on life, which I know I’m very lucky that it didn’t. I knew through theatre, art, family that I found my thing that I was excited about and I put all my energy into that. I think that’s the bit of advice I can give is to find something that you are passionate about early on and go in that direction. Art saved my life. Theatre saved my life.
I think the thing to be reminded by for the young folks is: know that this part of your life is temporary. You are not in charge of your trauma, but YOU ARE in charge of your healing. Don’t negate what you need to work on to love yourself because you can very well transfer that to others. And talk about what you are feeling and why you are feeling it with someone or to your chosen family. We need that.
You just did the Broadway play Choir Boy. How was that experience? Any plans of doing more Broadway shows soon?
Choir Boy was one of the first experience as a teenager where I saw myself, indirectly. Indirectly meaning I wasn’t in New York to see the Off-Broadway show but every video I could find where the men were singing or talking about the show I watched and felt seen. So, for it to be my Broadway Debut was and is bananas! It was super quick but incredibly gratifying because it reminded me why the work is so important, and why being “in service to the work” is so important. And being able to try on Pharus Jonathan Young, the show’s protagonist in front of Tarrell Alvin McCraney wasn’t too shabby either. I love that character and hope I can play him or dynamic, complex characters like him sooner. So yes. More Broadway.
Who are your theatre idols?
I don’t believe in idols, but inspirations so here are my inspirations: Laurence Olivier, Cicely Tyson, Sammy Davis Jr, Audra McDonald, Michael Shannon, James Earl Jones, Courtney B Vance, Zachary Quinto, Billy Porter, Amber Iman, Phylicia Rashad, and so many others.
How would you describe your style?
Constantly in dialogue with masculine and feminine energy. Who is going to champion the canvas (me) today? Lol.
Who are your fashion icons?
Basquait, Touissant L’Overture, Freddie Mercury, anything Southern Gothic, Creole culture.
What’s a great fashion moment for you?
Anything Alexander McQueen early 2000s until his death.
What are you looking forward to the most this year? Are you excited about your book? Tell us more about it.
Making some really transformative and brilliant art. Book is coming soon. Yes, my concept is deepening so I’ll share soon not ready to share my “baby” yet.
If you were a book, what book would you be and why?
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
See Ryan strutting and dancing as Damon Richards on Pose only on FX!