One of Alexa Swinton’s first memories is of being attacked by a zombie. She was three years old, cowering on the lower bunk of a set of bunkbeds with some other kids and, improbably, the iconic late theater actress Elaine Stritch. Her mother was hiding beneath the bed. Suddenly, the rabid undead creature burst through a wall, trying to reach the children.
This is the charming way the 12-year-old actor and her mother, Inna, describe filming Swinton’s scene in artist Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament. The provocative six- hour film, released as part of the former Mr. Björk’s 2014 MoCA exhibition, is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings and its themes involve rebirth, the American auto industry, Mailer’s own death and other more… scatological imagery. It was also Swinton’s very first role. Both mother and daughter describe River of Fundament, succinctly, as “a zombie movie,” which, all things considered, is probably for the best.
“It was scary!” Swinton recalls, laughing. “I didn’t know it was a movie!”
She also remembers the famously irascible Stritch telling Inna, “We have to get this kid away from here! She’s stealing my spotlight!”
Born into a family of performers — both of her siblings are “in the business,” and Inna is an actor, screenwriter and stand- up comic — Swinton seems to have been destined for the spotlight, and she’s had no trouble seizing it for herself. Most recently, she’s been getting raves for her role in HBO Max’s Sex and the City revival, And Just Like That, playing the younger and more rebellious of Charlotte York-Goldenblatt’s two children, Rose (and, later in the series, Rock). Last summer, Swinton appeared in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror flick Old, and before that she starred opposite Allison Tolman in ABC’s short-lived sci-fi drama Emergence. She’s also played the daughter of Paul Giamatti’s character on Showtime’s Billions since the show premiered in 2016.
In July, when photos of the And Just Like That cast surfaced online, people immediately noticed Swinton’s character’s eclectic style: she wore a black tuxedo print T-shirt over an ankle length Oscar de la Renta floral print dress with sneakers and an adorable knit cap with an owl’s face on it. That first glimpse announced a character who had no trouble whatsoever expressing exactly who they are via their own quirky sense of style. It also begged the question of how the hyper-feminine, comparatively conservative Charlotte (played by the sneakily hilarious Kristin Davis) would cope with such a free-spirited child.
Swinton points to a specific scene in the show’s sixth episode as illustrative of the characters’ dynamic. Charlotte is surprised by her children’s characterization of her cherished collection of Madame Alexander international dolls as “culturally insensitive.” Swinton plays the scene with a dry, laidback ease that serves as the perfect contrast to Davis’s prim, sputtering alarm.
“Charlotte has these two kids,” Swinton explains. “They’re Gen Z, they’re on TikTok, they’re on social media, and they’re kinda like the people that are representing younger people in the world today.” The humor, as Swinton sees it, comes from the kids patiently, but firmly, explaining the world as they see it to the frequently befuddled Charlotte.
Swinton “has a unique personality and brings a new quality to Charlotte’s family, both as a character and an actor,” Davis said of her young costar via email.
It’s a dynamic that’s reminiscent of the character’s reactions to her three much more bawdy friends in the original series. It also reminds Swinton of her relationship with her own mother. “I think I definitely try to teach her what might be more… appropriate,” she says with a mischievous laugh.
Inna agrees: “You taught me about pronouns when you were six!”
“Just the other day, actually, I was talking about neo-pronouns to my mom,” Swinton says. “I sent her an article about how to use them just because she was curious. And I think that’s a lot like what Lily and Rock are like with Charlotte. It’s that vibe where they’re like, ‘You know what, this is what’s happening right now. We love you, we just want to let you know.’”
It turned out that Swinton’s character’s look was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the course of the season, Charlotte’s youngest, who was named Rose and assigned the female gender at birth, has increasingly asserted a less conventional identity. “I don’t feel like a girl,” they admitted in one episode. In another, they changed their name to Rock and, later, got a short, shaggy haircut.
Swinton, who resolutely refers to her character as Rock and uses gender neutral pronouns to describe them – while using she/her offscreen – was aware of the character’s journey before she ever got the role. Her audition process included the scene in which Rock tells Charlotte that they don’t feel like a girl. “I was like, I’m glad we’re finally getting something like this, because I haven’t seen it,” she recalls.
Swinton acknowledges that the experience of questioning and having to explain her gender identity is not familiar to her personally. She was, though, well aware of transgender issues and the concept of non-binary gender as many young people of her generation are. But, she says, her understanding of where Rock was coming from is largely thanks to a friend she met online during the pandemic.
“He identified as female before, and it took a lot of figuring out, and he needed someone to talk to, and so it was just helpful to have someone who wasn’t going to be there in person and have prior judgements,” Swinton explains. “I learned a lot about the actual experience of trying to figure out who you are as a person and how much you rely on your friends.”
Playing Rock has, of course, only deepened Swinton’s empathy for others in similar situations. “I just really feel for the people who are 12 years old and figuring out their identity and figuring it out with their friends and family.” At the same time, she says, it’s refreshing that the show doesn’t problematize Rock’s identity, that it depicts a family learning to adjust their expectations and preconceptions in a loving and supportive way. “I feel like Rock was very fortunate to have Charlotte and their family just be there, because not a lot of people have that,” she adds.
Family is important to Swinton, too. When asked to tell the story of her life, she says she has to start with her parents and grandparents. Mom Inna, who was born in Russia, immigrated to the U.S. with her own parents when she was 9 years old, and Swinton speaks fluent Russian. Her maternal grandparents live with her family, and she is steeped in her mother’s Russian-Jewish heritage. She’s grown up with stories of what life was like for her grandparents in the former Soviet Union. “I’ve learned to be very thankful for what I have,” she says.
In 2016, the Swinton family launched The Swinton Show, a YouTube channel featuring videos of Inna and her three children performing. One of the earliest clips is of a six-year-old Alexa singing “I’ve Got No Strings” from Disney’s Pinocchio. More recent videos feature Swinton singing “Let It Snow” and TikTok star Anson Seabra’s “Welcome to Wonderland.” At an age when most kids split their time between school and extracurricular activities, Swinton thinks of acting as a competitive sport. “I have to train a lot,” she explains. “I have to have a skillset for it, because some parts require other things that you need to be able to do, like ice skating and stuff like that.”
But The Swinton Show is more of a fun creative outlet. “It’s like the fun drills you do,” Swinton explains. “Like when you play basketball and you get to just have a fun time playing horse? You still try your very best and you still want to win, but you also just have fun doing it.”
She’s also spent the past few years getting a master class on set from the likes of Giamatti, Tolman, and Shyamalan. Since working on And Just Like That, Kristin Davis in particular has been a major influence. Swinton says she liked Davis from the instant they met at the show’s first table read. “She was very comfortable with me, which made me very comfortable with her,” Swinton says. Davis, she says, helped her adjust to long, late night shoots and was never too busy to run lines with her. “She was just like, ‘If you need help learning your lines, I’m right here, I can help with that.’”
“Alexa has been acting professionally for most of her life, so I didn’t really try to give her any advice about the industry,” Davis recalls. “Alexa is very confident and doesn’t seem to need much praise, which is unusual for someone her age, and so perfect for the part of Rose/Rock.”
Oh, and there’s one other tiny aspect of working on And Just Like That that has been especially thrilling for Swinton: the fashion. She’s all about color, design, aesthetics. Though she’s still too young to see Sex and the City, she was familiar with the characters and their style from watching fashion videos on YouTube, and took particular issue with one famous episode in which Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is forced to remove her shoes at a party only to see them stolen. “I would never,” she insists. “I would literally just hold them!”
The ladies of SATC have big Manolos to fill, but as an It Girl in the making, Swinton seems poised to step into them.