[Interview] Tom Swift’s Tian Richards Talks About the Show Being Unapologetically Black and Gay, LeVar Burton, Why Tom Is Such a Leo, and if Lil Nas X Will Be on the Show

Photo: CW

Tom Swift, the spin-off of the CW show Nancy Drew, is making waves with how it depicts Black excellence and queerness. It’s the first show with a Black gay lead on a network TV, has a mostly Black cast in all different shades, and queer and trans characters. And did I mention that LeVar Burton is the voice of AI Barclay? I talked to start Tian Richards about playing this groundbreaking role, love languages, star signs, working with CW OG Ashleigh Murray, and if Lil Nas X will visit the Tom Swift Universe.

What attracted you to the role of Tom Swift to begin with?

The little kid in me that has never seen anything like this exists. [I’ve seen] it in different composites of life but never all in one. To see someone who is unapologetic in how they show up in the world, being as fearless and bold as he presents but still being so broken and insecure. To just be such a free, queer, character who’s not apologizing for it but still navigating the authenticity of what that identity is. To be someone of the Black experience but to be a different type, it’s not about our oppression or hardship, but the legacy and celebration. To do all the sci-fi tech space world stuff, you never get to do all that. So when I read that on the page, I was like 8-year-old me is going crazy. So the fact that for me, in today’s world, getting being able to do it, to be that for my younger self and other younger people means everything.

When I first heard it was going to be a spin-off of Nancy Drew, and that Tom Swift was going to be Black and gay, I thought he was going to be very reserved and that it was going to be a very long coming-out story, and that his sexuality was going to be a tiny, random fact and that he might have a little kiss on the cheek once a season, and the show is not that at all!

Laughter

It’s very unapologetic in everything it does. It’s very unapologetically Black. I love that the Black characters does not exist just to be in relation to the white characters. It’s not like Tom is mixed, and his Black parent is dead so now he has this white father. The love interests aren’t white at all. The sexuality and sexual experiences aren’t tampered down at all and that’s what I really love about the show and was also very surprised about. You are saying you had the same experience reading the script and when the show was picked up?

Wow, first off thank you for saying that. You’re like the first person I heard say that. Because you don’t know what to expect when you have never seen anything this diverse before. Because I’ll admit when I was reading for it, I have my reservations like they are going to go with somebody that has a more palatable, Euro-centric look. I didn’t know. It wasn’t until I met Cameron Johnson and then our other creators Melinda Hsu Taylor and Noga Landau. And you know Cameron, it isn’t going to be small, reserved, oh no. We’re kicking the door down. Because at this point it is necessary. If it’s not told any other way I think we would have been telling the story the same way it has been, which doesn’t show us in our fullness. But we deserve at this point to see the full breadth of our experience at all the different capacities and show it in a new way. So when I first read it, it was just the Nancy Drew episode, so it was just a taste of who he was. But even that, he was just so bold in how he came into the room. And you know my personality, I’m a Cancer, Leo rising, so it’s that balance of being emotional and approaching the world with this fiery, no hold bars forwardness. And you have to take space because they won’t give it to you. When you’re Black and a certain type of Black, and you’re queer, and all these things it’s so easy to be erased and put to this side. And it’s important that we take ownership of ourselves and our humanity and I love that Tom does that. And it’s showing the new phase of cultural excellence. I do think a lot of time we do associate that wealth, if a Black person has it, with someone who is mixed or lighter-skinned. But this is saying no, this is Black legacy, this is us doing this. What did Beyonce says “Black Parade”? It’s that a type of battle cry. We’re here. Yes, we do go very hard, and we can be a bit explicit, but we need that space too. And also we’re making it for a lot of people who don’t get to do that so I’m excited to get to go to work every day and to do the outlandish but necessary things that Tom Swift does.

One of your main scene partners who is kind of like your sister, play cousin, god sister, is Zinze. What was it like working with Ashleigh? She’s been on a few CW shows before, so she kind of understands the drama and the pace of it. What was it like working with her?

It’s real, since I’ve gotten to know her doing the show, we’ve become real siblings. We text, we call, and we talk every day. When we are together, we’re hanging out, cracking jokes, and getting food together. I just love that woman with my entire being. She’s such a light and she’s authentic. So anything she says, anyway we connect, I know it’s coming from a real place. And just watching her work and this part of her life and her career is such a beauty to watch. And one thing I love too is the beauty of chosen families, you don’t have to have grown up in the same house or come from the same lineage, but when we find each other, it’s that thing of Pan-African, that we’re all interconnected as one. And one thing about Black people, I loved how you said all the names. I don’t care if you’re a play cousin, we’re going to make your family some type of way. I love how we’re able to find each other in the world and connect with each other in those ways and there is no better example than what we get to do on set. I love Ashleigh Murray. And yes, she’s an OG, I call her an OG at this point. And just watching her work, and she calms me down. You know, I can be a live wire, but she calms me down. I love her as Zinze, I do

Speaking of the opposite, at least on screen, you and Claire. I don’t like Claire, because I don’t trust her, but your back and forth is so hilarious to me. How are you able to say the lines and all the shade with such a straight face?

You have to mean it with your entire chest. And let me just say really quickly Brittany, Baby B comes to play and I love that. Because if you’re going to go toe-to-toe you have to commit and go all the way. What’s the line? You have to say it even if your voice shakes. I love how we are not afraid to go there. And I think it’s interesting to see this dichotomy play out between an Asian woman and a Black man who both come from different sectors of life in our oppression and our experiences but they are so both unapologetic in their common goals. And yes, Brittany Ishibashi is one of the sweetest people I met, but when it’s time to be Claire, she doesn’t play. There were a couple of ad-libs that she would throw, and I would be like “girl, how did you think of that?” Like that moment with the shoes. She threw so many basketball references at me, and you know, it went right above my little gay brain, but I was like oh, okay.

What was your reaction when you found out that LeVar Burton was going to be Barclay?

They got me! I never told this story, but they got me. When I was doing Nancy Drew, Scott Wolf, from Party of Five who plays Nancy’s Dad, was shadowing to direct that episode. And he was doing all the lines off the camera. So when you’re developing the show, you do many phone calls, many conversations. And it was one day, Melinda and Noga, and Cameron, and he [LeVar Burton] just popped up. And I was like “yo!” I really lost it because I wasn’t expecting it. And I didn’t expect to react that way but it’s crazy that you’ve known someone your entire life because they always existed in the cannon. As a kid, your parents make you watch Roots, in school, you watch Reading Rainbow, and of course, Star Trek is always playing on someone’s WGN, so you always see this man. So even as of late, I’ve been seeing him. So when he came on, it just made so much sense. And he is so open, he has such good stoic energy, he’s a true light, a true legend, and I will always give that man his flowers. And when I met him, he became a fairy godfather. He texts me during holidays, and when the show premiered. And that’s great because LeVar has fifty-leven jobs, he’s always working, he’s hosting, he doing podcasts, he’s doing audiobooks, he’s acting on like three different shows right now. Shout out to LeVar Burton. We all need to aspire to carry on the legacy of LeVar Burton. We all need to be better. 

We noticed that Tom is super attached to Barclay. In my imagination, one of the reasons he is so attached to Barclay is I feel like Barclay is his best friend and probably one of the first people he came out to. Could you speak a bit more about what you think is their relationship?

I love that theory. Because he created it at such a time when there was a void that needed to be filled. Even if you look at the name, it’s so close to his dad, Barclay, Barton. But with Barclay, Tom can be his full identity. He can be his full, nerdy tech self. He can be his full, gay self and all his feminity and all his masculinity. He can be unapologetically Black, there is no need to code-switch with him. And he helped himself actualize. So it’s almost like you’re losing a part of yourself and a part of your childhood when you have to deal with that [almost losing Barclay]. It’s also like when a parent or a grandparent gets older and parts of memories start to fade and that isn’t as vital as they weren’t were, it kind of feels like that. And I also feel like Barclay is that important right now because he just lost his dad. And that’s the other figure to be open with and look up to. And the fear of the Road Back putting hands on his mom, the fear of being left alone and isolated.

In my head, I think Tom’s love language is words of affirmation and he gets that from Barclay. He has all the money in the world, all this affection obviously, he has a rotation of men. And having those words of affirmation from Barclay like “oh good job!” “Oh, you figured it out!.” I think that’s all he really wanted from his father and everyone else, so I can definitely understand that relationship.

I’m mind blown because your ideology and take on this is amazing because I’ve literally been reading the Five Love Languages recently to like, get back on my love shit, and the fact that you said that. Because I’m thinking about mine, yes he does need physical touch, gifts, and quality time, yeah! Okay. 

I do firmly believe different types of relationships have different types of love language. I feel for romantic relationships my love language is quality time but I think in regular relationships I’m a words of affirmation kind of girl.

If I were to do mine, I would say I receive love: quality time for love. I show love by giving gifts.

I’ve also seen on Twitter that there is this fan theory, I know you can’t confirm it but I’m going to toss it out there anyway, that Lil Nas X is going to be on the show. They’re like “oh they’ve mentioned it twice” and this and that. I don’t think you’re ever going to confirm it, but do you ever see Lil Nas X in the Tom Swift universe?

Lil Nas X is so busy right now. He’s out here fighting the good fight for the gays, accomplishing music feats, fighting BET child, he has a lot of stuff. I love that he represents the freedom of a young Black queer man also as Tom does. And he’s doing that in the music space. And I like that we also get to be a part of that legacy in the TV space. And it’s all about showing love in a shady way, which is the best way. And who knows if he can ever pop up. I don’t know. He would be a dream person to have on the show.

People are convinced. They have their murder boards and they’re like he mentioned it here and there.

Tell them to tune in and find out. Let’s see where it goes. I like this theory.

Which gadget of Tom’s would you want to have?

I love when I get this question and it really changes depending on the day. If I’m going down the Rolodex, I’m going to say, the stylus, it just does so many things. Say you’re lazy and you just want to pick up something from across the room, turn off the lights, repair something. I love an all-purpose tool. I love things that have a whole lot of different functions. And I feel like Tom is a mixed bag in that way. I’m going to go with the stylus.

Another character on the show is the clothes. What is your favorite Tom Swift outfit have you had so far?

I’ll give it to you by the episode. Episode One would be that red top that dips down with those green pants that were an homage to the 70s, where I read Claire in the office. Love that one. Episode Two is that leather green top and bottom that he has in the office. Something about felt very disco, very 70s. If you couldn’t tell, I love the 70s. I feel like I should have existed there and my form of style is definitely based on the 70s. Episode Three, something about that Dior is so chill, the purple one I loved and the one I moved in it. And from that, if you look in Nancy Drew I have a white version of that hoodie, and this is the purple one, so we get a bit of homage to that look. So Tom does things differently. We don’t repeat looks, because when you got billions of dollars you can wear something new every day, but we will repeat some favorites. But our top designer, Ayanna James Kimani, is amazing at just pulling things that fit us and telling the story of the character.

You said you’re a Cancer, Leo rising. What do you think is Tom’s star sign? I think he’s a Sagittarius or a Leo.

Tom’s a Leo. All day. 

I know he’s a fire sign.

Tom’s a fire sign all day. 

I can see the Leo but I can see that Sagittarius because he puts a lot of there but no one knows him completely, but you think he does. So that’s why I thought of Sagittarius.

Definitely right with the fire but I would definitely say Leo because at heart he’s an artist and an architect. He’s an engineer. And engineers are artists. And Leos are creative and passionate and humorous and cheerful. And we’re seeing him in such dire circumstances that we’re seeing his weaknesses come out and a lot of his flaws and a lot of who he has to be. And you know Leos can be arrogant, a little self-centered at times, and stubborn. And you see those things happen. I just feel Leo in my spirit. Like you said before, the words of affirmation. Leos like to be admired, they enjoy expensive things like fashion, and they have fun with their friends. I gotta look at the Sag energy as well. Maybe his rising sign is Sagittarius.

Tom Swift airs Tuesday on CW and streaming next day on the app.