Playing Tom Swift Allows Tian Richards to be Authentic (and Wear Dior)

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 27, 2022

Tian Richards on 'Tom Swift'
Tian Richards on 'Tom Swift'  (Source:IMDb)

On the new TBS series "Tom Swift," actor Tian Richards has found a dream role, if only, as he says in this interview because it checked all his boxes. "He is charming, gorgeous, a billionaire, black and has daddy issues. I didn't think that type of work would exist so soon for me or would exist at all."

The series, which premiered May 31, is a spin-off from the hit series "Nancy Drew." Its source material is the popular series of books that were first published in 1910 and have had a number of iterations over the years. Of course, back in 1910, Swift was a privileged, cisgender, and white; but this time around the show's creators and executive producers Melinda Hsu Taylor, Noga Landau, and Cameron Johnson bring Tom into the 21st century.

"The original Tom Swift was great for his time and what he represented," Richards told TVLine in a recent interview. "At the time, that was the face of young boys, all-American kids full of possibilities. But in 2021, that can look so different. It can look like someone like me—a black guy who is chocolate, who is queer, who is all those things that we're told aren't the normal or the status quo."

Richards first appeared in the role on CW's "Nancy Drew" in the season 4 episode,"The Celestial Visitor," in which Tom recruits Nancy to help him find a long-hidden meteorite. It is that discovery that kicks off the new series.

On the show, according to TV Insider, "Tom and his Swift Squad—best friend and business savant Zenzi (Katy Keene fave Ashleigh Murray), trans ex-Army Ranger bodyguard Isaac (Marquise Vilsón), and AI assistant Barclay (voiced by LeVar Burton)—are up to their swag in sci-fi conspiracies, unexplained phenomena, and an Illuminati-type organization with no time for Tom. Along the way, we also meet Tom's mother, Lorraine (April Parker Jones), and Rowan (Albert Mwangi), a member of the security team for a Congressman linked to the Swift empire."

While this is his break-out role, Richards has been working in television and theater for the past decade. Amongst his credits are the 2016 series "Greenleaf." Since then he's been featured on such series as "Outcast," "Being Mary Jane," "The Quad," and "The Neighborhood."

EDGE spoke with Richards about landing the role, his strive for authenticity and his opportunity to wear Dior.

EDGE: How did you discover your passion for acting?
Tian Richards: I grew up in a rural part of South Carolina, so there wasn't much access to a lot of cultural things. If you're growing up in the South and you don't like playing sports, all I have to say is "good luck." Watching TV and movies was my escape growing up. I loved using my imagination. I loved watching Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz." By the time I was 11, I started performing in summer theater camp and continued with it throughout high school.

Honestly, acting really started because it was an escape, and I was able to have somewhere to put my pain, my misunderstanding, and my experience. I was able to make something beautiful out of it. I think that's the beautiful thing that art you can take nothing and turn it into some wonderful. Meryl Streep said, "You take your broken heart, make it into art." 

EDGE: What attracted you to the role of Tom Swift?

Tian Richards: When I first read it, it just blew my mind on how many boxes it checked for me. He is charming, gorgeous, a billionaire, black and has daddy issues. I didn't think that type of work would exist so soon for me or would exist at all. This role gave me a chance to fully show my identity and not have to hide any parts of myself. So many times, as a queer actor, you have to pick apart and take what you can from a role and never fully represent who you are. The role of Tom Swift has allowed me to not only be unapologetic, but to help push forward the pendulum of change. 

Ashleigh Murray and Tian Richards in "Tom Swift"
Ashleigh Murray and Tian Richards in "Tom Swift"  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: Prior to getting the role, had you read any of the Tom Swift books?

Tian Richards: No, the crazy thing is I didn't know that they existed. Maybe he just wasn't as popular as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. My first-time hearing about him was when they were announcing the show. The original series was published back in 1910, so I love that we get to make a modern retelling and twist on who he is. 

EDGE: For many, Tom Swift may not be well-known except for those well-versed in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew universe. What's it like introducing Tom to a new generation? 

Tian Richards: The possibilities are endless because again, unless you have grown up with the books, a lot of the viewers don't have a semblance or an understanding of who he is. Getting to introduce this new character is awesome. Aside from the historical path to the book series, the show gets to be a new type of hero adventure for today's audiences. We get to show you what a black queer hero looks like. And he is a techie. Techies are usually reduced to the nerd composite archetype. I love that this show is marrying so many different identities and showing they can all exist in one place. 

Tian Richards and Marquise Vilsón on "Tom Swift"
Tian Richards and Marquise Vilsón on "Tom Swift"  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: Tom Swift was modeled originally after such inventors as Henry Ford, Thomas Ford, and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. If you could invent anything, what would it be?

Tian Richards: I would invent a device that allows you to experience other people's experiences. I know that sounds dangerous, but if we see it, hear it or feel what someone has been through it would help us understand them. Right now, it is so easy to dismiss or be desensitized their feelings or experiences because you haven't lived it. I think if you were to experience someone else's life, it would make us more empathetic to humanity and make changes in how we treat each other.    

EDGE: You are the first black queer male lead on network television. What are your thoughts on this boom in opportunities for more queer representation and for people of color?

Tian Richards: I think it's become a thing of celebration and, it feels monumental because when you don't have any examples or representation. Everything feels a lot more important. We all should just be able to exist and be who we are without any apology. For so many centuries and decades, we've been withheld and just being even seen as human is wonderful. I do think that when we amplify it in that way, it does take a little bit of our humanity away because you become a celebration horse or bait as opposed to people just seeing you for who you are. I think we need to continue to break the glass ceiling and fly high until the path has been changed for the next generation. In the meantime, let's continue to break it until we are seen for who we are, and the world is used to seeing us. We need to stop being a trend and become a staple.  

Tian Richards on "Tom Swift"
Tian Richards on "Tom Swift"  

EDGE: You also have a great supporting cast that includes Ashleigh Murray, Marquise Vilsón, April Parker Jones, and LeVar Burton. How did you bond? 

Tian Richards: We just got each other, and we clicked instantly. Due to COVID, I met them all on Zoom before filming started, but it was an immediate connection. I met LeVar first because he had done the voice for Barclay in the Nancy Drew episode. Connecting with him felt historical, because of who he is and what he has done. I was aware of Ashleigh, because of her work on Riverdale, but I'd never watched it. I had seen her in Netflix's "Deidra & Laney Rob a Train," and I thought she was fire. When we hopped on Zoom for the first time together, we clicked. We could be siblings. We have a similar tone and humor. 

I've known April since I was 18. Marquis is somebody whose work I have followed. I have a great appreciation for everybody on set. I love that we all have a common respect for the work and in each other's humanity. 

Tian Richards on "Tom Swift"
Tian Richards on "Tom Swift"  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: Let's talk fashion. Tom has a great sense of style. What has your relationship with the fashion universe been like?

Tian Richards: The fashion is a character on its own. It is so much of who Tom is and how he presents himself to the world. It's his armor. Whether he is ready to play or ready to get things done, his look is going to represent it. I love how you're always able to see what he's wearing, how his nails are painted, and what accessories he has. They really set his mood. As for me, I'm a pretty basic bitch when it comes to clothes. I usually just wear gym clothes or sweatpants. I love a nice graphic T and a ball cap. I am really a blank canvas for our costume designer Ayanna James Kimani. She is amazing. I came to find out that I am a Dior sample size. I don't even know what the sample size is, but I'll take it. So, to be dressed in Dior and Alexander McQueen every day on set just blows my mind. 

EDGE: You have been given this amazing platform.  What are you hoping the audience are going to take away and learn from Tom Swift?

Tian Richards: I hope they have fun and are able to see us represent the characters in a positive and beautiful way. That as human beings we can be amazing, complicated, chaotic, and messy. Life doesn't have to be all figured out. That we can be admired and admirable in our choices in life. For so many people, I don't think they have seen queer people represented this way. I don't think you've seen black people with our legacy and history represented this way. I want the viewers to feel educated, seen and represented. 

"Tom Swift" is now streaming on the CW.