As a young biracial actor that identifies as non-binary and gender non-conforming (GNC), Quintessa Swindell had never entertained the idea of playing a character like Tabitha Foster from Trinkets—the posh and wealthy “queen bee” that has historically been portrayed by white cisgender women in Hollywood. After all, Swindell, who uses they/them/theirs pronouns, had auditioned for the roles of Moe and Elodie—the other two protagonists—before they received the audition sides for Tabitha.
The hit teen drama, which premiered its second and final season on Netflix last month, follows the journeys of three high school friends—Elodie (Brianna Hildebrand), Moe (Kiana Madeira) and Tabitha (Swindell)—who form an unlikely friendship after meeting at a Shoplifters Anonymous meeting in Portland.
“As soon as I got Tabitha, I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s not gonna happen. How are they gonna cast someone who looks like me, who is the identity that I am, in this role that is so stereotypically one type of way and one type of girl in general?’” Swindell tells Observer. “And when I got it, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna audition for it, I’m gonna send in a tape and I’m just gonna do my best rendition.’”
As soon as I found out who I was, I wanted to retain that and hold on to that because it seemed like the most solidified thing in my life. So I was like, ‘I don’t want to lose it because of a job. That’s gonna be forever.’
Even after landing their first series regular role on the show, the 23-year-old admits that they initially had trouble identifying with Tabitha, who is cisgender and is forced to attend mandated meetings to curb a bad shoplifting habit. However, after filming two emotionally demanding seasons of the series, Swindell discovered that they share more in common with Tabitha than meets the eye.
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Growing up in a single-parent household, Swindell says their love of entertainment began when their father brought home a compact television set, allowing them to go to Blockbuster to rent movies that “finally transported me out of my environment and into something completely different.” During their days of doing theater at a performing arts high school in Virginia, Swindell explains that it was “at that point I started to understand that it wasn’t necessarily theater that I loved but it was film, and it also seemed kind of like that there wasn’t a plan B [to pursue another career].”
After graduating from high school, Swindell decided to move to New York City to study acting in the BFA program at Marymount Manhattan College, where they found an unexpected culture of inclusivity. In retrospect, the young actor credits the lived experiences that they had as a student in New York for helping them to come to terms with their own racial and gender identity.
“Being a Black non-binary person in and of itself was the hardest thing, especially growing up in Virginia where it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m too Black for this group, [but] I’m too white for this group. Or I’m too punk for this group or I don’t like this type of music hard enough to be in this group.’ So, it was constantly ebbing and flowing between who I was at the time and what I felt comfortable with,” they reflect.
“When I moved to New York, I honestly didn’t even know that people like me existed or people who felt the way that I felt even openly discussed it because in Virginia it’s just taboo. So, I think the people I was surrounded with in New York kind of lent [me] that strength and that ferocity, just by being who they are,” they say. “For me at least, as soon as I found out who I was, I wanted to retain that and hold on to that because it seemed like the most solidified thing in my life that I had discovered and felt. So I was like, ‘I don’t want to make this contrived and I don’t want to lose it because of a job or because of an opportunity. That’s gonna be forever.’”
They continue: “It’s tough [in] the industry, but I think at the same time, there wasn’t a large past of [openly] non-binary or trans people until Laverne Cox. I think as soon as I started coming in a year or two ago, there was a massive influx of trans directors and actors and everything like that, so it’s not necessarily an anomaly at this point. It’s like, ‘We exist!’”
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In just 20 episodes, Swindell’s compelling and inspirational portrayal of Tabitha Foster has touched on a wide range of difficult topics, including racism, divorce and abuse. Over the course of both seasons, it becomes increasingly clear that Tabitha’s seemingly idyllic life was merely a façade—one that masked the burden of meeting everyone’s expectations and the scars of an abusive ex-boyfriend named Brady (Brandon Butler).
Given that they had been taught in school to personalize any role that they played, Swindell explains that they were able to bring their own lived experiences in high school and past knowledge of abusive relationships to tell Tabitha’s story in the most authentic way possible.
“I had friends go through physical and emotional abuse, whether it’d be from a partner or whether it’d be family-oriented,” they explain. “Growing up in a rural part of Virginia, it’s not unheard of. I was around it a lot, so I understood where it came from and what frustrations kind of arose after it. The feeling of not knowing whether you can get out of it at any point or whether you should in some instances as well. There’s just so much emotional processing to go through, so it’s definitely tough.”
On that profiling scene: “I think we did it 50 times because I was like, ‘No, we gotta get it right.’”
Tabitha, through her unlikely bond with fellow kleptomaniacs Moe and Elodie, is able to undergo a tremendous personal transformation to find her own voice, starting with a scene that Swindell admits was “very rough when we shot it.”
In the middle of the second season, Tabitha is perusing the aisles of a high-end department store with her mother, Lori (Joy Bryant), when she is followed by a white saleswoman and ultimately asked to empty her pockets. After realizing that her teenage daughter had been racially profiled, Lori immediately intervenes and escorts Tabitha out of the store. In the parking lot, the two have a candid conversation about the reality of casual racism that has plagued people of color for centuries.
“I think we did it 50 times because I was like, ‘No, we gotta get it right.’ There are so many moments in my life that I’ve been racially profiled, and it also just happened recently. It doesn’t ever stop in some sort of way, even in the current climate,” Swindell notes. “But yeah, the scene was amazing. We also had, for that block of two episodes that we shot, a Black director [named] Ayoka [Chenzira]. Ayo was absolutely fantastic in that process, as well as Joy [Bryant], my [on-screen] mom, and the writers too. We all know what it feels like and I think having that community around on-set really shifted what it could have been like from script to camera. When you have people on set that are like you, supporting you, uplifting you, there’s no way in hell that the work is gonna be bad.”
While Tabitha is initially shaken by the experience, she ultimately uses it as a moment of clarity to embrace her heritage after speaking to a Black classmate named Marquise (Austin Crute). Later in the episode, Tabitha goes to a Black hair salon and then shows off her new braids to Moe and Elodie, which is an unapologetic moment that, Swindell says, has really resonated with a lot of fans on social media.
“[Tabitha’s cultural identity] wasn’t really displayed in the first season and having that response now is so comforting and so relaxing, especially with everything going on in the U.S. right now,” they reflect. “I feel like the show really spoke truth to power.”
With her newfound confidence, Tabitha’s personal growth is illustrated once more in the powerful series finale. In a moving ode to survivors, Tabitha works with Moe and Elodie to expose the emotional and physical abuse that she had suffered at the hands of Brady, creating an emotional photography exhibit in the school cafeteria.
“We had shot something earlier that day and we had come back to see the crew members hanging everything up, stringing all of these photos that I remembered taking a few days before, and I think it brought me to tears,” Swindell recalls. “It’s the most beautiful tableau of Tabitha’s journey and strength and especially that last photo of her with her braids and everything. I’m not particularly a very open person, but seeing Tabitha have that moment for herself and channel that energy and finally come to terms with who she is and what she’s gone through, and finally getting to a point where she could wake up and not continue lying to her friends or being anyone’s token was just so therapeutic.”
While Swindell had expected Tabitha to begin a new romantic journey with either Luca (Henry Zaga) or Moe’s brother Ben (Andrew Jacobs) in Season 2, the 23-year-old says that they understood Tabitha’s desire to find validation within herself instead of always seeking it from other people. “When she actually broke up with Ben, I was like, ‘This sucks because I stan, but at the end of the day, she’s doing her thing in the most mature way possible.’ I was surprised and excited for her,” they add with a smile.
When Trinkets wrapped production in Portland last December, Swindell was not only able to bid a bittersweet farewell to the most nuanced character that they had ever portrayed but was also able to reflect on the milestone of completing their first major project. Asked to describe the thing that they were most proud of as an actor, Swindell pauses before answering: “Just the fact that I was able to do it and get through it.
“I’m proud and happy that the creators gave me the opportunity to do something so special and be a part of something that they loved. I’m also proud of myself for just being able to take a hold of this character, be confident in the choices that I was making and just be respectable and to be of service to those that are probably going through something similar around the same age or in the past. I’m super proud of it. When I look back, I’m like, ‘We did that!’”
In a year that has seen a major push for social change break out in the midst of a global pandemic, Swindell has become more committed than ever to using their online platform to speak out against injustice. As a descendant of Black and Indigenous peoples, the 23-year-old says that their innate desire to be outspoken “manifested when I was studying theater because there was just a massive influx of different people and different identities, and it’s always kind of been like that.
“At the end of the day, all of our voices are still evolving, step-by-step. It’s all a big process and advocating for people’s justice around the world is absolutely necessary because a lot of people haven’t woken up to those kinds of concepts before, so advocating for it is just looking out for the people around me.
“My best friend back home in Virginia—her name is Angel—she’s a Black trans woman. So when I see [trans] women in Hollywood being beaten and almost murdered and killed, how could I not speak up about it? That could be someone’s partner, someone’s kid or sister. It’s just second nature [to me].”
With an eye to the future, Swindell hopes to deepen their own understanding of social issues while continuing to raise awareness about what it means to be GNC or non-binary through their work both on and off the screen. “It’s such a diverse group of people, but I think just like a lot of other communities, it’s not like a monolith,” they explain.
“Every single person is completely different and you don’t have to be androgynous, you don’t have to shave your head, you don’t have to grow out your hair if you don’t want to. I think the androgyny thing is the biggest frustration [for me] in film and television because I feel like when there’s a non-binary character involved, [audiences] can’t understand a non-binary femme. They have to see a non-binary, androgynous person where nobody really knows what they are, and that’s not the point. It’s not the way that you present [yourself]; it’s how you feel on the inside, it’s how you feel in your heart and bringing whatever you have on the inside to the outside is what, I think, makes you who you are.”
At the end of the day, Swindell has made one thing very clear: They are ready to start the difficult conversations about self-identity—conversations that will only happen if Hollywood is willing to keep their word and prioritize the storytelling of more diverse and marginalized voices for many years to come.
Trinkets is streaming in full on Netflix.