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Dominique Tipper Opens Up About Playing Naomi On The Expanse - Exclusive Interview

At long last, it's Naomi Nagata's time to shine. Not only has The Expanse's fifth season revealed, at long last, exactly what's lurking in Naomi's mysterious past, but the character has been put through the wringer. She's faced off against her former lover, the terrorist Marco Inaros. She's bared her soul while trying to rescue her son Filip from Marco's brainwashing. She's traveled through space without the aid of either oxygen or a space suit, and, in the season's stunning eighth episode, "Hard Vacuum," single-handedly rewired a derelict spaceship, even while on the verge of a complete mental and physical breakdown.

Even by The Expanse's standards, Naomi's arc has been grueling, and it's been a remarkable showcase for actor Dominique Tipper's talents. Tipper has always been good on The Expanse, of course, but this season she's taken her performance to a whole new level. As Naomi faces her biggest challenges yet, Tipper continues to show new facets of the character, revealing sides that are even tougher, stronger, and more vulnerable than we've seen before.

A few weeks before "Hard Vacuum" aired, Looper spoke with Tipper about the challenges facing herself and her character this season, how Naomi's background (as well as Tipper's) has informed her performance over the season, her most memorable fan encounters, and more. Here are her (spoiler-free) replies.

How Naomi's mysterious backstory changed Dominique Tipper's performance on The Expanse

Your co-star Steven Strait was a fan of the books before he was cast on the show. Have you read the books?

I go in and out of reading the books. When I got the job, I read book one and a little bit of book two. And then I found that, as we started to get the scripts, it felt like I needed a little separation. I wanted to mold this character in respect to the books, but also as I saw her on the page, so I think my Naomi is a little different than book Naomi. I've read book four, and then I read a bit of book five, and then I stopped when the scripts were coming in again, which I'm really pleased I did.

Sometimes I'll have a little read to get a little refresher on the world and to get me geared up for new season. So yeah, I'm very much in and out of it, but I didn't know about the books, I didn't know about the series, before I got the job.

So at what point did you learn that Naomi has a son and a shady past?

Oh, I've known since the beginning. I mean, as I said, I didn't really want to get too far into the books, but I was grilling, and Daniel [Abraham] was like, okay, here's what happened to this woman, blah, blah, blah. And they gave me that information: She had a son and she left him, this, this and that. And so we've kind of been crossing this since season one. I mean, you'll know if you've been watching it, we've been planting Easter eggs and themes since season one about Naomi's shadiness, why she doesn't seem fully trustworthy, and what's going on in her past. Is she a belter? Is she OPA?

And then what I love about season five is that you get the full payoff. Five seasons of us teasing you but not fully letting you know her past, and then we finally get to understand why she was how she was in season one, and then in season two, and then with this person in season three. And I think it all kind of comes together in season five. So I have always known. It has been a big part of the work I've done.

Were there any other plot threads that paid off this season that you were particularly excited to see come to fruition?

I mean, I love Amos' story this season. Aside from being in the show and acting beside him, he's probably my favorite character. I think that both Naomi and Amos have had such shady pasts that we've never delved into, really. Just got tidbits of it. I really loved that this season is pretty much Amos and Naomi's backstories coming to life, coming to the forefront, so I really am enjoying and have enjoyed reading and watching Wes [Chatham]'s work on the show this season. I think it's gorgeous, just finding out about his life in Baltimore.

Dominique Tipper reveals the hardest part of shooting The Expanse's fifth season

One of my favorite things that you do on the show is come in and out of the Belter accent depending on who Naomi's talking to. How hard was it to learn the accent, and then modulate it like that?

Well, it's a fully-formed language and accent. We have a dialect coach and lots of people in place to help us get it. But in particular with the going in and out of it, I really thought that was what would happen. I'm from East London, and I'm mixed-race Black, and the white side of my family is really Cockney. When I've had a Guinness and I'm with my family, I'm in the pub, I start to get a lot more Cockney. All of that really comes out. Equally, when I'm with Black people, my vernacular changes a bit to where I grew up in East London. I speak a bit more like that.

I just think that tends to happen with people. And I'm sure it happens with everyone. If you're Mexican and you're with your Mexican grandma, you get a bit more into her or your family's vernacular, so I wanted to show where Naomi has been. Also, it's a survival instinct for her to not sound like a hardcore Belter, because across the universe, again, I almost feel like it's like being a Black person. You don't want to show you're too "hood" in certain spaces, because somebody may not give you credit. These are things we have to do in life.

So again, it was that same thing. I feel like it brings a little bit of realism to who she is. And that she's good at it, I think, really speaks to who she is as a bit of a chameleon, but also what is actually quite a challenge in terms of people looking at her and thinking she's not the right kind of Belter. She kind of is a chameleon in that way.

So yeah, it was difficult at first, but now I find myself just slipping in and out of it. Like, in season four, there's a scene with Burn Gorman where I shout at him. I go in and I find him with Rosa Gilmore's character Lucia and I have a go at him. I wasn't planning to do that in a Belter accent, but when I got angry and did the scene, with him being this representation of the oppressor, I slipped into my Belter thing. And I was like, "Oh wow!" Like, this has got so deep in me now that I find myself just doing it. It's weird, but I think I have fun with that.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting season five?

The emotional cost of it. I only started acting about three or four years before I got The Expanse. I was a commercial backup dancer for 12 years before that. And so, I would say season five and where I had to go and what I had to do as an actress was probably the most emotionally challenging stuff I've ever done. And I fully threw myself into it. I wanted it to do Naomi's story justice.

It was so emotionally draining, and it was really hard physically as well. Her as a mother, that part of her life that she had to shut away, and exploring that and having her actual son in front of her was a lot. We had a lot nightcaps to wind down from the day's work. It was really hard, but worth it, I think.

What Dominique Tipper will miss the most about The Expanse

You guys have a remarkably dedicated fanbase. Have you had a particularly memorable fan experience or fan encounter?

Oh my God, yes. I mean, this is quite an emotional one actually, but I was at a comic-con, and I had a woman come up to me and kind of break down. And I was like, "Oh my God, are you okay?" And she's like, "I haven't been able to be with one of my children since they were a kid." She just was thanking me, being like, it's so nice to see how you portrayed Naomi. And I was like, well, the writers, they have done a beautiful job of it. But she was just saying that she felt seen. And that was an aspect that I didn't really think about. And so I felt quite honored, in a way, that she was even sharing that story with me, but also that she felt like she was represented.

That's been one of my kind of favorite fan encounters, because that's in my head. I hope people feel seen by our show in all different ways. I also had an engineer say to me, "I'm so glad that an engineer always saves the day." And this was a young white guy. I was like, "Oh, engineers feel seen too!" Like, that is excellent. So, I've had like some really good ones, actually. Just stuff that I just wouldn't really consider, I guess. Those are my two favorites.

With season 6 of The Expanse being the last, what are you going to miss the most?

The people that I work with. I love them so much. Frankie's like my sister, so is Cara Gee, and I love the boys like they're my brothers. Yeah, it's weird. I feel like I'm graduating high school or something. You know, this will be our seventh year. I don't like that I won't be seeing them every year for six months. But I'm also quite ready to try something else and move on. So kind of bittersweet, but definitely, definitely the people. I love them so much.