To what lengths would you go to save your loved ones from the pain of losing you?
That’s the question Cameron Turner (played by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) must answer in “Swan Song,” the Apple original drama about a terminally ill man who yearns to spare his wife Poppy (Oscar nominee Naomie Harris) and son from the grief of watching him die. The solution presented to Cameron is the opportunity to replace himself with a “duplicate” named Jack who will slip into his family’s lives without them knowing.
“Swan Song” is set in the very near future, approximately 2040, with writer-director Benjamin Cleary and his team of producers (including Ali) and artisans working to ensure that the sci-fi elements were as technologically sound as possible. But this movie spends less time weighing the ethical debate around these technological advances, focusing instead on Cameron’s existential questions about Jack taking his place. Sure, they share a genetic code, but can Jack really become Cameron? Will Jack be able to convince Poppy that he’s her husband — and will that mend their fractured marriage? Can love transfer from one being to another? And at what point will Cameron feel ready to take a step back and watch his family live on without him?
Beyond those big questions, another layer of nuance stands out. The Turner family is Black — a detail necessitated by Ali joining the project as both its star and producer, and bolstered by his work behind the scenes to help Cleary present a fully realized and culturally specific portrayal.
“We just wanted to spend real time talking about the things that were important, and thinking about fatherhood and family and what that means for anyone to leave their family behind,” Ali tells Variety about his influence on the narrative. “But especially a Black man leaving a young, 10-year-old boy without a father — and also having a child on the way — and how much anxiety that that brings up for any of my friends who are fathers or in myself.”
“Knowing what the stereotype is about us, about Black fathers, and knowing that that stereotype is not true for my friend circle,” Ali explains. “I wanted to honor that and play a father that I think would be an inspiration to all the brothers out there.”
When Cleary (the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind the short film “Stutterer”) conceived this story a decade ago and began writing the script five years later, he drew from personal experiences, aiming to create a universal story about love, life and grief. But he too was struck by the opportunity that centering the narrative on Black people offered.
“We haven’t seen Black leads in movies like this nearly enough,” Cleary says simply.
Harris seconded that sentiment, noting that while Cleary didn’t write the project (his feature directorial debut) with Black people in mind, the filmmaker ensured that the characters’ racial and cultural identities were weaved into the story.
“Ultimately, this movie is an ode to love, and that’s another reason why I wanted to be part of it,” Harris explains. “And it’s very rare that you see Black men being portrayed in this way. It’s more often Black women with that level of sensitivity, vulnerability, deep connection, sacrificial love. [But] how often do you see that in a movie where Black people are involved? It’s very, very rare.”
Harris, who was recruited for the film by her “Moonlight” co-star when he reached out via email to see if she’d be interested in the role of Poppy, Cameron’s wife — a music teacher who works with children with disabilities. Harris was thrilled to get the invitation from Ali, with whom she’d only shared a day of filming on “Moonlight,” bonding instead during the press tour on the way to that film’s best picture Oscar win.
“His generosity, for me, is equal to his talent,” Harris says of Ali, adding that she’s hopeful they’ll work together again, but instead of another weepy indie, maybe next time they can team up for a big blockbuster. “I think we should just change things up now,” she quips.
With “Swan Song,” Harris recalls being moved to the point of tears when she first read the script, but the actor initially found Poppy to be a challenging character to portray.
“It really encouraged me to find this vulnerability, this openness and this giving nature, which I hadn’t really explored. In my body of work, it’s really about strength — characters who are fighting for the survival of the world or fighting for liberty,” says the actor, whose recent resume includes reprising her role as Miss Moneypenny in the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” and playing the villainous Shriek in “Venom 2.”
“So it was jarring for me initially, when I had to step into Poppy’s shoes and inhabit such vulnerabilities such openness, and it was really scary. I kept trying to toughen her up a bit,” Harris explains. “When you’re that vulnerable, then you are open to the loss of someone in such a profound way that you’re not if your heart is closed. But then you feel the joy and the connection of being with those you love in such a deep way that you can’t if your heart is closed.”
Ali’s work portraying both Cameron and Jack was equally tricky, but with the added challenge of the physical logistics of playing a man and his clone. To pull it off, Ali acted opposite actor Shane Dean, while also working to make each character truly distinct.
“It first started, in the mind and the heart and being very clear about the differences in what they wanted,” Ali shares. “Being very clear about that made a certain element of [the portrayal] very easy, because I always knew Jack wanted something very different than what Cameron wanted.”
The actor also leaned into the physical differences between the characters, like how they breathed or moved in comparison to one or the other. But the biggest key was understanding that power differential where Cameron, as the “real person,” is driving the train, until it’s time for Jack to assume his place.
“Jack was always in a submissive position, and so that ended up influencing how every thought is processed and how every line, every scene played out is just being conscious of who’s in power in that scene,” Ali says.
The deep character work paid off for Cleary, who says he and editor Nathan Nugent were “blown away” watching the footage because of the “subtlety and nuance” with which Ali was able to play each character so that you knew immediately who you were looking at.
“When you’re dealing with characters that are totally [physically] identical like that, it really takes a master to go in and find the internal differences,” the filmmaker notes, adding that watching the chemistry between Ali and Harris from the other side of the monitor often brought him to tears.
“They were creating magic in the room,” Cleary says. “I’m deeply honored and just feel so grateful for the cast I got to work with for my first feature.”
“Swan Song” is now playing in select theaters and streaming globally on Apple TV Plus.
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