For far too long, topics like queer sexuality and mental health have been stigmatized in mainstream media. Often when our community has seen characters who identify as LGBTQ+, that also happen to have a backstory involving mental illness, the plot involving this character quickly becomes problematic. If a queer character exists with a past history of mental health trouble, that becomes the underlying reason as to why they aren’t straight or cis. This line of thinking may be a simple plot to write for the uneducated, but it is also incredibly dangerous to the LGBTQ+ community. The reality is simple: Queer people exist. Mental health conditions effect people of all types. Some queer identifying people will have mental health trouble. Struggling with a mental illness does not cause a person to become gay, trans, asexual or any other queer identity.
To create a quality show about a queer character struggling with mental health while facing loss, learning to love, and discovering terrifying truths about people you think you know, is an astounding challenge; one that Jason Armstrong mastered with the creation of Swerve.
Starring Sharon Belle, Kat Inokai, Emily Alatalo, & Winny Clarke, Swerve tells the story of Elise (Belle), a young woman dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mental health condition characterized by mood swings, instability in relationships and impulsivity. Elise’s mood swings and impulsive nature draws her to “swerve” in her path of life and change course at random.
“The Swerve: To deviate suddenly from the straight or direct course… That’s the story of my life.”
The first episode takes us on the journey with Elise, as she swerves, once again. She quits her job and takes a seat on a curb, only to be picked up by a kind stranger named Jen (Inokai). Together, they head up to a small cabin to escape their troubles but quickly find out they aren’t alone, when a woman named Stevie (Alatalo) borrows their cabin’s deck for sunbathing. The three women quickly bond, but the truth of why each have come to this small cabin will shatter the world that Elise has created. The twists and turns of Season 1 will make viewers laugh, cry, and fear what is to come next. And without giving away too much, Season 2 is just as good. We are introduced to new characters and old friends of Elise’s, including her former best friend Cassidy (Clarke). But what happens at the cabin doesn’t remain at the cabin, and Elise must now face her two worlds colliding.
Like so many fans of this show (or Swervers, as they call themselves) we cannot wait to see what Season 3 will bring.
Because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to recognize Swerve for it’s incredible portrayal of a queer woman struggling with BPD. It’s real and raw approach to Elise’s struggle with mental illness is impactful for both the LGBTQ+ community as well as anyone living with mental health conditions. Sharon Belle’s performance as Elise is jaw-droppingly powerful and honestly relatable for anyone struggling with mental health.
We were lucky enough to chat with Jason Armstrong, the writer and director of Swerve, as well as actors Sharon Belle, Kat Inokai and Winny Clarke, to ask them a few questions about the show and the importance of mental health in their own lives.
**Warning**: This Q & A is NOT spoiler free. If you have not caught up on Seasons 1& 2, we highly recommend doing so before reading any further. Watch Below.
Queer Quality: When we last left the Swerve crew, Elise and Cassidy were dealing with watching Stevie be murdered right in front of them. Elise locks herself in a room, naked, and ultimately ends up taking off without telling Cassidy, and now Paris (Connie Miu) who has shown up. What should we expect Elise to do next? Is she simply “swerving” again, as she’s said she’s drawn to this type of self destruction or is she a woman on a mission? (Maybe to seek revenge for Stevie’s murder).
Jason: Elise is in (nearly) uncharted waters at the close of Season 2. She has bigger intentions than just escape. The questions now become about her means, ability and resolution to follow through with her plans. I’m not going to spoil anything, but the road ahead for Elise is twisty and dangerous. Abandoning Paris, Cassidy and her other friends is just an unfortunate by-product of her quest for answers.
QQ: While watching Season 2, we see Cassidy and Elise’s friendship rekindle almost immediately after they see each other again. We see Cassidy become very protective of Elise, almost in a jealous way. We know that part of the reason Elise took off in the first place was because of Cassidy’s rejection to Elise telling her she was in love with her, but now Cassidy fears losing her again. Is this a healthy friendship? Will we see more than a friendship arise between these two?
Jason: Cassidy’s feelings toward Elise are complex. Their history is a lot murkier than we’ve learned so far. The fallout of re-connecting and subsequently witnessing a murder together is going to force some old ghosts to start invading the present. Sometimes we trade uncomfortable silences for leaving difficult subjects un-touched. Elise’s teenage confession to Cassidy is far from the most complicated part of their past.
QQ: Jen went up to the cabin in Season 1 to die. She knew she was sick and going to run out of medication, but she also hired the hit on her own life. Why then would she stop and pick up Elise? Why subject another person to that pain, especially one as sensitive as Elise? What does this say about Jen’s mental health?
Jason: I don’t want to take away anyone’s interpretation of Jen’s motives, but to me, picking up Elise was a final act of looking for meaning. Living in the moment certainly diminished her willingness to examine the consequences of her unexpected closeness with Elise. As with so much in life, many factors played into the chain of events. Elise sitting curbside, after vandalizing her place of employment, hoping for a ride is as much connected to how things went as Jen deciding to stop and see if she was ok. But Elise’s time with Jen is also key in her breaking some cycles and handling her present situation.
Kat: Jen was definitely in an interesting headspace, but I feel like dealing with a chronic illness with a terminal verdict needs to be compartmentalized when you look at her relationship with Elise. It sounds strange, but as someone with a rare autoimmune disease, I could really relate to this sort of duality. I do think that the decision to live out her final days connected Jen even more to her purpose to simply experience life and be the nurturing person she was. When she picked up Elise, I don’t think there was anything but love and concern there. Also, she is very open about her fertility struggles and her failed relationship right off the bat – if anything I felt that Jen and Elise’s maternal/ family vibe solidifies one of her last wishes coming true, with the added benefit of showing Elise unconditional love.
QQ: Mental health is a huge part of Swerve and something many Swervers relate to. Elise’s personality disorder clearly controls her decisions and actions throughout season one and two. How will her mental health dictate what we see from her in Season 3?
Jason: Mental health dictates the way we all respond to whatever life throws at us. Elise has BPD. Elise is sensitive. Elise is very intelligent. She’s a complex mix of every experience she has had and often finds herself able to reflect on her challenges even as they persist. I firmly believe that variances in the way our brains work, once analyzed, can also be harnessed for greatness. In our family, we label them superpowers. How great are stories where one’s most significant weakness is also a source of untold strength? Season 3 is going to dive deep into examining that.
QQ: Sharon and Kat, what are the challenges you faced having to get into the headspace of Elise and Jen? Both are struggling with illnesses. What was the process like for you two diving into their dark minds? Did you have difficulties coming out of these characters after a day of shooting?
Sharon: Playing a character like Elise, I find I really have to take it one day, one scene and one step at a time. I have never been a method actor and I find staying in character for long periods of time doesn’t serve me or Elise. Like you said it can be a dark place in the mind of Elise so I’m usually jumping in and then out. I find that if I stay true to the text and truth of the scene and stay connected to my scene partner, it takes me everywhere I need to go. I do sometimes have a hard time jumping back out of character, but that’s nothing that a good cry and 15 minutes of alone time can’t fix.
Kat: I am not going to lie, I went to some dark places while I tapped into Jen. But I also found a lot of beauty and joy – especially working with Sharon. I actually do have a rare autoimmune disease (MCTD) and although the prognosis is good, it has no cure and it definitely eats into the quality of my life. In a sense, playing Jen let me dip my toe into my own anxieties and fears, and work through them – working one scene at a time let me understand how to compartmentalize things more successfully. It ended up being a safe way for me to feel and process things I didn’t even know I had been feeling. But I was also so grateful to have Jason and Sharon right there with me. They really helped me come back to myself and the present moment. They are incredible.
QQ: We loved episode 2.12’s therapy session, where it is asked “Did you love yourself today?” How do you love yourselves? What are some of the things each of you do to maintain good mental health? Any tips for bad days?
Sharon: How do I love myself? I spend 2 hours in bed when I wake up, I’ll eat ice cream for breakfast, I’ll eat breakfast for dinner, I go to the gym, I take bike rides in the sun, I try to live with no regrets and laugh as much as possible. The master formula, still working on some tweaks here and there. When I’m having a bad day I usually just cry, a lot, and frequently, and I tell myself that’s okay. Then I watch a sad movie and cry some more, then I eat ice cream and take a nap. After I’ve totally indulged myself I’ll push myself to do something outside and get some sun and fresh air. Feeling productive and useful helps my mental health so I’ll usually clean the house or run errands. Also lists, lists, lists.
Jason: I’m wired to need a lot of alone-time. That’s challenging in a big family (there are six of us). My family is very accommodating of that, but I will say that having people around you that love you unconditionally is one of the greatest strategies for keeping your mental health in check. My wife and I also take a day a week and go hiking and picking through flea markets and antiques malls. It’s very stimulating to see neat stuff from the past overhear snippets of conversation. It reminds me that the world is big and full of all kinds of people dealing with all kinds of things and that folks everywhere are daily overcoming tremendous odds for small, personal victories. That kind of encouragement is key to my own mental well-being. We’re not alone.
Kat: As a mom I still find it really hard to take time for myself so I’m actively working to fit my ‘I love myself’ rituals into everyday life- I take baths, read comics, watch movies, make podcasts no one will ever hear, write stories, try out strange recipes, bawl my eyes out… I ask myself ‘what do I need’ and I really try to listen without judgement. I also have a bit of a mental health first aid kit – most days I practice mindfulness and breathing exercises and they really help. Here’s a great way to stay mindful if you’re feeling overwhelmed: out loud, say 3 things that you see ( I see the door, I see the floor, I see the lamp); then say 3 things you hear (I hear my breathing, I hear the cars outside, I hear the fan); then say 3 things you physically feel (I feel my glasses on my nose, I feel my shirt on my back, I feel my toes in my shoes). Repeat this process 3 times. It’s a great way to come back to the present moment and ground yourself.
Winny: I love loving myself! I meditate every day for about half an hour. I have a gratitude journal, which is the best ten minutes of my life everyday! It gives me a great perspective. Even when I am in a state of depression, I can still find things to be grateful for, and that actually has taught me love myself more in my current state. My favourite tip on bad days is not trying to force productivity. We don’t have to be productive every second of every single day. If you are aware that you are going through a rough time, take a bath, take a nap, watch something you enjoy, cry, exercise, write. Whatever is therapeutic to you. Don’t feel bad for taking a break!
QQ: Anything we can know or expect to see this upcoming season? Will we see anymore of Paris or Laird (Mark Nocent)? Will the ghosts of Stevie and Jen haunt Elise? Will Cassidy stand by Elise’s side after watching a murder in her backyard or will that be too much for her? Any new characters we should get excited for?
Jason: Most everyone is coming back, some in major ways. You can definitely expect to see Paris, Laird and Cassidy as well as some great new characters to fall in love with as more of Elise’s past is revealed.
QQ: Fans are hoping for a little behind the scenes action this season! Any chance we can see some fun stuff like that before the season is released?
Jason: Absolutely. We’re hoping to have the time and resources to capture more BTS this season.
QQ: Anything you want to say to the fans?
Sharon: Thank you, thank you, thank you. You all are honestly the most supportive and loving group of people and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet most of you (CLEXACON<3) and to represent.
Kat: Thank you! I have been really blown away by how fans have related to the characters’ mental and emotional experiences, and how encouraging they have been. I guess I want to encourage them too – I hope everyone continues to relate, knows that they are not alone, and finds the strength to keep nurturing and loving themselves no matter what issues they are going through.
Winny: The fans have changed my life in such a massive way. Between meeting you at events or talking to you over social, I have become so empowered as a human moving through depression and anxiety. I just love you all so much. I am excited to grow with you!
Jason: Thanks so much for joining us on the journey that is Swerve. The show’s audience continues to grow and it’s so inspiring to see people connecting with these wonderful characters, brought to life by our incredibly talented cast and crew.
For anyone wanting some more back-story and a few answers to some of Season 2’s mysteries, check out our anthology series “Circa: 1981.” It includes several episodes featuring Elise’s mother Iris and Elise’s Grandfather, Irwin. It’s an excellent primer to Season 3 for viewers who enjoy the minute details of a story and its characters.
If you have not already seen the trailer for Season 3, make sure you check that out and follow along on Twitter for new details about when Swerve returns.