Hollywood is an industry full of stars with varying origin stories; nepo babies who were literally born into fame, accidental overnight sensations who stumbled into the spotlight, slowburners who just needed the right gig to take their careers to the next level. And then there’s Dominique Fishback, the 32-year-old actress whose star just gets bigger and bigger every time you see her. She was just nominated for an Emmy for her critically-lauded role in Swarm. And Fishback’s historic role in the recently released blockbuster action adventure Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, marks her biggest film project to date, and though she’s humbled by the opportunity, she also saw it coming a mile away — after all, she’s been manifesting something this big since she was just a kid.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens up at a unique point in the franchise’s chaotic timeline; it takes place years before the events of the first Transformers film (2007) but right after Bumblebee (2018), and it explains why and how Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) and the rest of the Autobots came to be on Earth to begin with. Since the Transformers live-action franchise was introduced 16 years ago, all of the films have been led by white men, but Rise of the Beasts features a cast of diverse A-list talent including Anthony Ramos (In the Heights), rapper Tobe Ngwiwe, Michelle Yeoh (Everything, Everywhere All At Once), Michaela Jae Rodgriguez (Pose), Colman Domingo (Euphoria), and Liza Koshy (Work It). This many people of color on one call sheet is a first for the action series, and Fishback’s top billing is just as historic because she’s the first Black woman to star in the Transformers franchise. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
For the New York City native, her casting feels like a shift not just within the Transformers films but within the action genre and throughout Hollywood in general. Something is changing, Fishback notes during an in-person interview with Refinery29 Unbothered in New York City. And she’s glad to be part of that momentum, especially when it comes to her character, Elena Wallis. While many of the women in films’ past have served as love interests and supporting characters, Fishback’s Elena is a core part of this plot. As the resident expert on all things history and ancient relics, Elena is the brains of this extraterrestrial operation, guiding Noah (Ramos) and the Autobots in their search for the lost half of an artifact that is the key to saving the human and robot race. In short, she’s kind of a big deal, and to make her a well-rounded, full character, Fishback was intentional about creating a backstory for her that would inform everything that Elena did. If Elena and the other Rise of the Beasts characters feel different from Transformers lore of yesterday, that’s on purpose — the Autobots might’ve stayed the same over the last 16 years, but this is a whole new chapter for the franchise.
“We were really being authentic to who we are and our humor, and we weren’t watering it down or trying to make it ‘reachable’,” says Fishback. “Sometimes, with producers and studios, it's like, oh, this might seem too specific to a certain area or experience, but that's not always the case, because specificity is universal. With the stuff that Noah's going through in the film, so many people of different races and backgrounds go through it as well. There's a level of realness in terms of how we talk about poverty and sickness that’s present in the film — we don't normally go that route in these types of movies.”
That thoughtfulness extends to all of the roles in Fishback’s very impressive, genre-spanning filmography — whether she’s playing a sociopathic, serial killing stan (Swarm), a teenage drug dealer moving some serious super-powered weight (Project Power), a homegirl reluctantly stuck in the friendzone (Modern Love), or Deborah Johnson, the partner of late Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Judas and the Black Messiah), Fishback is always moving with intention. A studied thespian, she takes her craft very seriously, and it’s paid off every time; there’s a reason she’s been nominated for multiple NAACP Image Awards, Critics Choice Awards, and British Academy Film Awards.
Fishback knows exactly how important these highs in her career are, not just for herself but for anyone else who might have been told that they don't have the “it factor.” (To the guidance counselor who tried to downplay Fishback’s star quality back in the day, congratulations — you played yourself.) It’s been a long journey to get here, and she doesn’t take those memories of the struggle for granted.
“A lot of times in these franchises, the lead actress doesn't look like me, and they don't come from areas like mine, like East New York, Brooklyn, or Brownsville,” she says quietly. “I manifested something this extraordinary because I watched the first [Transformers movie] and knew I wanted to be an actor since I was a little kid, like 10 years old…but I didn't know which way to go or how to do it.”
People might not love everything I do, but I want them to say, ‘That girl can act.’ I want to be known as a limitless talent. I want that to be my legacy.”
“I started googling ‘free acting programs for kids in New York City,’ and I got into this theater company that in order to act, you had to write your own stuff,” Fishback explains. “So then we got to know our voices and learned that they matter, then we edited and built character and arc. Now, every character that I approach is going to come from a place of writing. Although I'm not writing the script or I'm writing the character, I understand that kind of arc through that process.”
“When I was in college, my classmates and I were all trying to get agents. At some point, I just paused and told myself that I was just going to perfect the craft so that when I get in a room, I always deliver," says Fishback. "People might not love everything I do, but I want them to say, ‘That girl can act.’ I want to be known as a limitless talent. I want that to be my legacy.”
Fishback’s acting ability is undeniable, but there’s part of her that also knows that her success was written in the stars. Her love for acting and storytelling didn’t come out of nowhere — it was divinely placed because she was meant to be on our screens.
“God’s promises are real if you stay true,” she smiles. “When I was a kid, I used to say, ‘I know God wouldn’t have made me this way if it wasn’t supposed to happen.’ But I didn't know where it came from — it just came from my spirit, and I just continued moving with tunnel vision towards that dream. So to get here and see God’s promise fulfilled in a way is really beautiful. And I have even bigger dreams to accomplish.”
Catch Fishback in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, only in theaters.