"I get these messages and I hear people talk about it, and it's a little out of body," he says.
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When Tom Swift premiered at the beginning of Pride Month a few weeks ago, series star Tian Richards thought he knew what to expect. The actor had, after all, already debuted his character in an episode of Nancy Drew a year prior, and the publicity surrounding his new spin-off series always celebrated the fact that he was the first gay Black lead on network TV. But now that he's wrapped filming on the first season and five episodes have aired, he's starting to realize he had no idea just how meaningful this character and series really is — to both viewers and, perhaps more importantly, to himself.

"I get these messages and I hear people talk about it, and it's a little out of body, because when I'm not playing Tom and I'm not in his skin, I do see him as this separate entity from myself," Richards tells EW. "To see that people have this reverence for something that I was a part of, that obviously feels amazing. And to be airing during Pride Month has been such a highlight, because the show is so many different intersections and we get to talk about the queer experience, what it's like to actually exist and not just to be entering that space by way of coming out or coming to terms with ourselves. And for it to be Juneteenth this month and with just how much Black excellence is highlighted in the show, and that it shows us freely in all spaces and fully, I love that the most."

Tom Swift -- ìÖ And The Benefits of Bondageî -- Image Number: TS106b_0055r -- Pictured: Tian Richards as Tom Swift -- Photo: Fernando Decillis/The CW -- © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Tian Richards on 'Tom Swift'
| Credit: Fernando Decillis/The CW

When Richards first stepped into the role on Nancy Drew, he essentially had a clean slate to build an entirely new version of Tom Swift despite his classical origins, as the TV character was a reimagining of the teen inventor from the 1910 book Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle. "He now gets to be more indicative and representative of what the world is today," Richards says. "In the books in his inception, the world very much was portrayed to be Eurocentric. He had very blond hair, was blue-eyed. Now, it opens it up to people of different colors and backgrounds, people of different gender identities and sexual experiences."

Continuing to explore the character in his own spin-off series gave Richards and the writers the chance to expand that even further. Now, as the titular gay Black genius billionaire playboy main character, Tom is a devilishly charming, sexy, brilliant inventor with unlimited resources and unimaginable wealth. He is someone who many men would kill to be, or be with — and sometimes both at the same time.

"A big part of this show is seeing tech and STEM as something that isn't relegated to being nerdy or ostracized, but it is cool and innovative and it makes our world function, and to see other people occupy those spaces that you don't usually get to see," Richards says. "Tech just doesn't look like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. It also looks like people like Tom Swift and, in real life, people like [architect] Iddris Sandu, who was a big inspiration. I love that young kids will get to see this, because hopefully they will become interested more in tech and in aerospace and inventing because they see someone who looks like them in this role."

That's not something that Richards takes lightly. He knows the potential this role and series have in shaping young minds because it's something he didn't really have when he was younger. Growing up Black and gay, he didn't see characters like himself in the lead role or in the center of any stories, let alone one that shows someone like him as a billionaire or brilliant inventor or playboy, and he can't help but wonder how his life might have been different if he had.

Tom Swift -- “...And Nine Inches of Danger” -- Image Number: TS103fg_0011r -- Pictured (L-R): Tian Richards as Tom Swift and Hayward Leach as Justin Ford -- Photo: The CW -- © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Tian Richard and Hayward Leach on 'Tom Swift'
| Credit: The CW

"I did feel a lot of pressure in that I had to be this thing, this example, this role model, knowing what he meant and what it could be," he says. "When I was a kid, if I saw someone that was chocolate like I am, that looked cool, doing these things, it makes you feel, 'I could be desirable, I could be sexual, and I can also be sturdy and powerful,' because I didn't see that. The first time I saw a Black queer man that looked like me was Michael K. Williams in The Wire." He quickly adds with a laugh, "But I didn't want to aspire to be Omar. But still just to see him visually, that meant a lot. If I had seen Tom Swift, younger me would've been more quick to allow myself to be free. It wouldn't have been such a long journey to self-acceptance."

It's not just Tom's qualities that make the character so meaningful to Richards and viewers. It's also the fact that Tom is the hero of the story and the romantic lead, rather than being relegated to just a side character or comedic relief or harmful stereotype. "It's beautiful because you see a coming-of-age story in a different way with a different hero at the front of it, and finally see us in those spaces," Richards says. "Queer people and Black queer people, we don't get to see our story portrayed that way — it's usually by way of trauma or grief or oppression. But to see that just be the identity that you hold in the world and then your problems are something totally separate, I love how all of that comes about. Because even though Tom is of the one percent of the elite culture, he still has human issues. He's having fun, he's got the cars and the clothes and the cool tech inventions, but we're rooted in this heartfelt place. Tom is central, taken seriously, and still fabulous, insecure, broken, messy, and chaotic."

That's how Richards ended up dealing with all the added pressure of playing network TV's first gay Black lead — by focusing on all of Tom's layers and making him a three-dimensional human rather than a symbol for an entire community. "Once I eased into it, what took that pressure off is seeing that he's complicated," he adds. "He is somebody that is so outward and outgoing but also broken, and I love that they gave me a chance to play the levels. He wasn't one thing. And on paper, Tom isn't always the guy that one would root for; he's a little messy and I was able to ground him in something real that way. With playing a gay character, you don't want them to be an archetype or fall into a trope, and I made sure to stay mindful of that. I can't lie, at times I was a little in my head like, 'This is coming across too masculine or too flamboyant,' or whatever, but he's all of these things, and that's okay."

Tom Swift -- “....And the Crashed Cotillion” -- Image Number: TS105a_0273r -- Pictured (L-R): Donovin Miller as Lino, Tian Richards as Tom Swift and April Parker Jones as Lorraine -- Photo: Eliza Morse/The CW -- © 2022 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Donovin Mills, Tian Richards, and April Parker Jones on 'Tom Swift'
| Credit: Eliza Morse/The CW

In finding who Tom is on that deeper level, Richards also started realizing just how much he related to the character he was portraying. On the surface, he always knew he had a lot in common with Tom as a gay Black man growing up in today's world, but he had no idea just how much the show was going to change his life on an internal level. "It's actually allowed me to get to unpack parts of myself that I just didn't deal with, different issues with my own dad and different emotional spaces that I suppressed, and in just a couple of episodes, I got to unlock that," Richards says. "When I signed on, it was for an episode of Nancy Drew, but now we get to really sift through the intricacies and the complexities of what manhood and queer Black manhood and culture looks like. I didn't think that would get that real, but it did, in the best ways."

He adds that he's already been inspired to "get back into therapy to tackle these issues head-on and really move forward so I can live a more free and full life. It's definitely given me that, and the confidence to feel like I can be at the center of something and lead. In my world, I often felt like a peripheral person, just there to support, and this has let me know that I'm capable and worthy of being at the center of my narrative. It just goes back to when you grew up a certain way and people view you a certain way, if you're not taught that you are worthy or that you can have it, then you don't think that it's possible. This taught me that it is and I am. I didn't know that would make me feel that way."

After filming just one season and airing only five episodes so far, Richards' can't believe how much his life has already changed. "There are so many reasons to celebrate this show and I'm having such a great time being a part of it — to know that it's only the beginning, I mean, wow," he says. "It's crazy to think that my first series is as a lead, as the titular character, and it's everything Tom Swift is. That still blows my mind. If I'm starting there, it's boundless to where I can go. I can't wait to see it."

Tom Swift airs Tuesdays on The CW.

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