'The Expanse' star Dominique Tipper talks season 2, Naomi’s backstory and the show’s diversity

Syfy’s space opera The Expanse isn't on everyone's radar yet, but we’d be remiss not to call that a glaring omission on the part of any self-professed science-fiction TV viewer. Part of the show's quality comes from its striking special effects and interplanetary world-building, but the show also boasts a terrific — and, importantly, a diverse — ensemble cast that features familiar faces and some promising newcomers.

For instance, you’ve probably seen Thomas Jane in something, be it his turn as the Punisher, or roles in Boogie Nights and Deep Blue Sea. In The Expanse, he has the honor of the worst haircut in the solar system.

Someone you may be seeing for the first time, however, is Dominique Tipper. The actress previously only appeared in one episode of a television series (a season four installment of BBC One's Death in Paradise) before landing a leading role as Canterbury crew member Naomi Nagata. As Naomi, Tipper has an interesting challenge: Her background is gradually filled in over time, and one season in, viewers still know very little about her character.

Dominique Tipper in 'The Expanse'

But a scarce backstory doesn’t make Naomi any less compelling. In particular, her scenes opposite crewmate James Holden — who often butts heads with Naomi, but the two forge an unbreakable bond through a great tragedy — are an important foundation. The Expanse hasn’t fully let the audience in on the bigger picture for the series or Naomi and her somewhat ambiguous morality.

In an interview with Mic, Tipper discussed what fans should expect from season two, the show’s commitment to diversity and whether she’s drawn to roles in science fiction.

Mic: Season one of The Expanse felt very compact, with much of it revolving around a missing person case and your character's ship, the Canterbury, blowing up, and the ramifications from that. How would you describe season two?

Dominique Tipper: Season two is very much a foray into the inner makings of all the characters and what drives them, and what they've been struggling with or not struggling with, living within this universe and how it is and the way that they're in it.

In season one, you have to set a world up; you have to get everyone on board with, politically, what's going on. So I think that's what season one's done, and now for season two, it gives us a lot more room to get into the characters and that is, I think, fully what we go into in this season.  

One of the interesting things about Naomi is that the show slowly teases out her past. She's probably the main character viewers know the least about. What should fans expect to learn about her in season two?

DT: I don't want to say too much, but I think Naomi's arc takes a surprising turn. I don't think people probably expect what they learn about her and what they get from her in the journey she goes on this season. It's kind of quite separate from the group in some ways, just in her way of thinking, and I think that's what makes it really exciting.

I think you get to understand a bit more of how she identifies with being a Belter and what that means for her, because I think she begins to work that out and it's been something she's been running away from. I think she begins to regret it — based on the events at the end of last season — and what that really means to her, and what her place is in it, and what she should be doing about it.

And, to an extent, what side she's be apart of?

DT: Maybe. Yeah, I think everyone is trying to work that out on the show. I think it's a big theme throughout the show, of who's side are you on. You get to know a bit more about what she leans towards and why, and why it may be conflicting for her.

I think that's actually what makes it most interesting, is the conflict. That also plays into her relationship with Holden quite heavily and how she feels about him. The themes of the show on the grand scale play in between Naomi and Holden on a smaller scale, and that's actually what makes their relationship so interesting this season.

While viewers are definitely expected to root for characters like Naomi, Holden and Miller, season two is quick to point out that people are making really tough, disturbing decisions on several sides of this conflict. What do you think the show makes of the distinctions between good and evil?   

DT: I don't think there is any, and I think that's what makes the show compelling and also makes people relate to it heavily and question their own morals. Especially with what's happening politically at the moment in America, I think it's so relevant.

There's no bad guys and no good guys; there's just a bunch of people making decisions in the best way that they think they know how. That's what The Expanse and that's what the writers have done for the characters. It constantly questions your morals and constantly questions, "Well what would you do in this situation?" and makes you question what you would do in all the situations that the characters are put in.

For me, that's what I love about it — it's why I love playing Naomi. I don't think you ever know who's good and who's bad, and maybe you know who you would side with, but it will make you question your idea of good and bad.

One thing The Expanse has been rightfully praised for is its diverse, multicultural cast — the latest coming from the casting of a non-white character, Bobbie Draper, who's from Mars. What does it mean that a show you work on is that dedicated to having a diverse ensemble?

DT: Personally, for me, I feel really blessed to be apart of something that so heavily falls in line with who I am and what I stand for. The effort to keep this show diverse is beyond anything I've ever seen before.

We're representing the future and society and the fact is, most shows and most films don't do that. They don't represent society in its entirety. To me, this is what it's like, and this is normal. I'm just glad that we will go down in history as a show that made sure it was doing normal. That's the way I see it, because when I look at society around me, it looks like The Expanse, it looks like The Walking Dead. It looks like every Shonda Rhimes show.

That, to me, is how it should be, and we're doing that. It's less talk and a lot more action, which I think is also part of the problem. We're not talking about it — we're just doing it. Everyone works, on and offscreen, to uphold that. For me, I feel blessed that I can bang on about stuff on Twitter and at the same time I’m part of something that represents what I stand for.

The Expanse — like other fantasy hits like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead — has a rich source material from which the show is based off of. Have you read The Expanse novels?

DT: I've read the first book, but I actually stopped reading them because I just wanted to be surprised by what Naomi is about to do. I didn't want to know, because it's almost like knowing how your life's going to turn out, and I'm not really into that anyways. I didn't want to kind of Tarot Read her journey.

When we started doing season two, it was just too much — it was information overload and I realised I was getting lines crossed with what I was doing in the show and what was in the books. So I just stopped, and [The Expanse authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck] are OK with that!

In addition to The Expanse, you recently appeared in the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Are you personally drawn to roles in science-fiction and fantasy?

DT: I won't say I am. I think I look a certain way and I think my haircut lends to the future. I don't know why, I just think that's the way it is.

But first of all, I think black women and people of color are written much better in science-fiction and fantasy, because there's no guidelines for how everyone should be. There is a freedom in that. That's why I end up doing a lot of those roles, because they're some of the most compelling for women and people of color.

Second of all, in terms of casting, it's because of the way I look. I get drawn to certain roles. It would nice, one day, to maybe play a character in a romantic comedy where I get to wear a dress and still have a mohawk, because that’s kind of how life is anyway.

I think it’s a two-sided coin. I love it and I love being on The Expanse, but I never get cast in girly roles — because I've got a mohawk or because of how I look or whatever. I get drawn to them and people are drawn to me playing them because of however I look, so I think it's a combination of both.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Expanse season two returns Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 10 p.m. Eastern.