'Swan Song': Naomie Harris and Benjamin Cleary Discuss Mahershala Ali's Impossible Problem

Swan Song, the new sci-fi drama on Apple TV+, poses an impossible question to the audience—and Mahershala Ali has to answer it.

From writer and director Benjamin Cleary, it stars Ali as a man who, when faced with his own immortality, has the option to create an identical replica of himself to take care of his family. Naomie Harris, Glenn Close and Awkwafina co-star in Swan Song which arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday December 17, 2021.

Newsweek sat down with Oscar-winner Cleary and Oscar-nominee Harris to discuss the movie that raises an intriguing hypothetical situation.

"Although the premise has this technology element, knowing that, we never wanted to stray too far into the sci-fi which would sort of detract from the human story," Cleary told Newsweek.

Swan Song is set in the not-too-distant future but contains holographic video calls, advanced driverless cars as well as the plot pivotal human cloning technology. Cleary said each piece of tech needed to be advanced but never distracting. "Hopefully it's done in a way that feels subtle and believable, and that the world feels recognizable." He continued. "Because I feel like when that's done well, it allows me to concentrate on the emotions and the human relationships at the centre of the story."

Swan Song behind the scenes
Director Benjamin Cleary and Mahershala Ali behind the scenes of “Swan Song,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on December 17, 2021. Apple TV+

That relatable element at the center of Swan Song is portrayed wonderfully by Ali and Harris who play husband, Cameron and wife, Poppy. Cameron discovers he has a terminal illness but is terrified at the idea of leaving his wife and son alone. Instead, he considers the option of creating a perfect and healthy clone of himself to replace him when he dies. Ali, who has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the movie, finds out he is dying and doesn't want to leave his family without a father.

The love between Cameron and Poppy is evident throughout, even from their first meet-cute on a train—the likes of which Harris admits she could enjoy in her real life. She told Newsweek: "Oh my gosh, isn't that the most romantic start to any love story? I'd love that to be my future, I need that to happen in my life."

Harris was speaking to Newsweek in November over the phone as she was isolated after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Her and some other people who were on the set of her upcoming TV show The Man Who Fell to Earth tested positive but Harris assured us her symptoms were mild.

Benjamin Cleary and Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in “Swan Song,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on December 17, 2021. Apple TV+

Harris starred in Moonlight alongside Ali where both were recognized by the Academy but the pair actually only worked together on set for one day, whereas Swan Song gave them four months together. Harris admits she's thankful for the time: "To be chosen by him to do the project, it just felt like such a blessing, because I know that he's a phenomenal actor. But what I really got to see was just how amazing a human being he is, how generous he is, how inclusive he is of the entire crew. How considerate he is and sensitive and caring. He's just one of the best human beings on the planet, hands down."

Harris' character Poppy, a bilingual, musical, free spirit, came to her in full form thanks to Cleary. She was inclined to trust his vision since, as the writer and director, he'd already spent years with the character. "Ben had such a clear idea about who Poppy was. I don't think I've ever known a director have such a detailed view of who the character is. He sent me so much information about her backstory, songs that she would love and things that she would do on her days off, and so on. It was wonderful, it was hugely helpful."

Ali became a producer on Swan Song after reading Cleary's script and agreeing to jump on board with the movie. Once he heard Ali was interested, Cleary admits it changed the outlook of the story for him, and caused him to shed a tear. "I read it with him in mind and his voice and his soul, and the script was suddenly alive again, for me. I was crying. I was, you know, in it."

Cleary is full of praise for Ali and Harris for creating an impactful chemistry, but was also blown away by their "phenomenal" co-stars Glenn Close and Awkwafina.

Cleary said: "Glenn had to find this really neutral place where you don't know you whether to trust her or not and that's actually difficult to do." Close plays the lead scientist who is taking Ali's Cameron through the process of creating his exact body double. "Working with her and working on their backstory was a real education for me."

Glenn Close Swan Song
Glenn Close stars as Dr. Scott in “Swan Song. ” Apple TV+

It's a small cast in a self-contained story, but Ali was required to put in double the work as he played Cameron, and Cameron's clone. Cleary was once again astounded by Ali's ability to "flip-flop" between his two characters. He said: "We had a great double that Mahershala worked with, but I really wanted to try and free it up so that my Mahershala could do the incredible, nuanced, subtle things that he was doing with both of these characters, which just completely, on a day to day basis, surpassed my imagination."

Swan Song is exclusively available to watch on Apple TV+ from Friday December 17, 2021.

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