TV

How Quintessa Swindell Breathed New Life Into “In Treatment”

The nonbinary actor plays Laila, a rebellious lesbian teen, in the long-awaited fourth season of the HBO show.

By Alex Gonzalez

After a decade-long hiatus, HBO’s In Treatment returns for a fourth season on Sunday (May 23), with Dr. Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba) taking Dr. Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) spot as the series’ therapist. The show’s format is the same: Dr. Taylor will see a set of patients each week, with each episode focusing on a different patient. One of those patients is Laila, a rebellious teenage girl played by Quintessa Swindell.

Laila is taken to Dr. Taylor by her grandmother, Rhonda (Charlayne Woodard), who wants the doct or to provide her lesbian granddaughter with “some tools for the real world.” While Rhonda seems ambivalent toward Laila’s sexuality, Laila is initially reluctant to see Dr. Taylor.

Outspoken about climate change, racial inequality, and sexual freedom, Laila questions the meaning of life during her sessions. The self-proclaimed “textbook Pisces” also struggles to open up to Dr. Taylor. Despite coming from a wealthy family and maintaining a “4.4 GPA,” Laila feels as though she is living her life to please her grandmother and her workaholic father, and describes herself as a “poor little rich girl with daddy issues.” In a later episode, she even says she believes she’ll never truly be happy.

Swindell recalls going through a similar existential phase in high school. “I had so many existential ideas,” the nonbinary actor tells Logo. “Like ‘Oh, I want to be able to do this, but I am [unable] in this way.’ Or ‘I want to be able to do this, but this is where I am financially.’ I feel like that’s kind of where Laila is. There’s so much that she wants to do, and she’s so heady, about so many different things.”
 

Swindell, 23, grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. To prepare for the role, Swindell studied old episodes of In Treatment. Particularly, they noted how patients would enter the office for their first session and how they would exit.

“I remember going back to the earlier seasons and looking at how Dane de Haan [who played a 16-year-old gay photographer named Jesse] entered his therapy session,” Swindell says, “because I was just a really big fan of his and I knew he was on it. And then I just took little bits… I didn’t want to copy too much. I wanted to focus on making it as fresh as possible.”

In 2019, Swindell portrayed the popular, wealthy Tabitha in the Netflix’s Trinkets. In a 2020 interview with Observer, the actor admitted they had a tough time identifying with their breakout character before later realizing that they have more in common than Swindell initially thought.

While Swindell says that their personal journey as a nonbinary person is similar to Laila’s journey as a young lesbian, they admit that a role so similar to their life was even more daunting to play. As a child, Swindell didn’t understand the concept of gender existing on a spectrum. They didn’t know anybody who was openly nonbinary until they left their hometown. Revisiting these feelings of uncertainty regarding their sexuality and gender expression made playing Laila all the more challenging to Swindell.

Suzanne Tenner/HBO
Swindell as Laila in In Treatment.

“I don’t know if it ever gets easier,” they add. “It was a little nerve-wracking because there’s so much that this character experiences, and there’s so much trauma that she’s holding on to inside and exploring that in real time. That was a little bit daunting, but it was also, like, incredibly cathartic to be able to think about all of these things again. It was a scary experience, but also at the same time, it was a really beautiful one. And definitely an excuse to get angry in front of everyone.”

Season 4 of In Treatment takes place in the present day, with immediate TikTok references and mentions of the COVID-19 pandemic written into the script to clue in viewers. On the show, Dr. Taylor sees patients in her home office and via web chat after her actual office closes due to the pandemic.

The pandemic impacted production as much as it did the storylines. According to Swindell, certain days were allotted for specific cast and crew members. While each 30-minute episode takes place over the course of an hour-long therapy appointment, Swindell says that each episode took “about two days” to film.

While it’s not uncommon for actors to take breaks after filming emotionally intense scenes, Swindell would never want to get out of the headspace. Once they were in that zone, they wanted to keep going. “We were just so deep in it,” they explain. “They would call ‘cut,’ and I’d just be staring at the ground, ready to go for another one.”

In Laila’s second appearance, she opens the episode by live-streaming herself standing in front of Dr. Taylor’s office. She proclaims to her followers that mental health is equally as important as physical health and adds, “Literally everybody needs therapy.”

In their personal life, Swindell has been seeing a therapist for the past two years. While Laila’s public proclamation on therapy appears to be just for show, Swindell says starting therapy was one of the best choices they ever made: “I couldn’t be more thankful or blessed to be able to have someone who brings so much light to my life, and so much understanding. She’s amazing. She feels like family in a way. So I can’t imagine not having someone like that in my life.”

Beyond therapy, Swindell’s personal self-care practice centers around music — listening to it, talking about it with friends, even making it. Some of their favorite bands and artists include Big Mama Thornton, Thom Yorke, and Arca. They recently gifted themselves a Roland SP-404 drum pad to play around and make music of their own. They also decompress by talking to friends and taking long baths.

Apart from music, they find solace in their wardrobe, particularly in their collection of band merch. “I’m very thankful for fashion as a whole,” Swindell says, “because it services so much. I can put on my Black Flag t-shirt and my jean jacket, and I feel cool. I feel like Joey Ramone.”

While Laila and Dr. Taylor seem to connect fairly well, Laila is nihilistic, meaning she doesn’t expect the world to get better in her lifetime. She criticizes Dr. Taylor — and Gen X as a whole — for not doing anything about climate change or mass incarceration, leaving her hopeless. She talks to Dr. Taylor about her plans to escape with her girlfriend despite not having the wherewithal to do so.

But in real life, Swindell assures us they are not as stubborn as Laila. The biggest thing they learned from the role was “to hold space for [themselves] to be comfortable with not knowing everything and being open to having [their] mind changed.”

New episodes of In Treatment air on Sundays and Mondays at 9pm ET/8pm CT on HBO.

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