Tessa Thompson hasn’t wasted a second of lockdown. As Covid-19 confined us to our homes, the actor has not only spent her time voraciously reading, cooking and playing with her dog Coltrane, but also continuing her work for the causes she cares about. “I can’t be a person at this moment in time and not want to talk about what’s happening in the world,” she explains over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles.
Thompson may feel that any ‘activist’ label is unwarranted, but she undoubtedly uses her position as one of cinema’s most dynamic leading names to draw attention to pressing issues. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, Thompson – alongside actor Kendrick Sampson – penned an open letter, co-signed by more than 300 film-industry professionals, that called for Hollywood to divest from the police and invest in the Black community. In 2019, she launched the #4PercentChallenge from Time’s Up and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which asks Hollywood figures to commit to working with a female director, especially a director of color, within the next 18 months. She instantly got the likes of Kerry Washington, Amy Schumer and Janet Mock to sign up. Then there is her involvement with Pass The Mic, in which people with a major platform lend their social media accounts to experts on a particular subject matter. Thompson gave her Instagram account, with almost three million followers, to Dr Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, to explain how Covid-19 disproportionality affects communities of color in the United States. Her efforts have resulted in TIME magazine asking Thompson to grace one of its covers for the Next Generation Leaders issue.
“It’s my LIFE and it’s important that my core VALUES line up with my CREATIVE ecosystem”
“I don’t think any artist necessarily has a responsibility to try being an agent of change,” she considers. “But, for me, it’s always been something that feels compelling. And if there’s a risk in speaking up, it’s always felt worth it. I’m just continuing to try to learn how to show up in those spaces and to pass the mic to folks who know a lot more than me.”
When asked whether the risk of losing out on jobs has ever deterred her from taking a stance, she is steadfast. “Anyone who wouldn’t want to work with me because I’m a person at this time fighting [that] the value and dignity of Black lives need to be protected… I really don’t want to work with them. It’s my life and it’s important that my core values line up with my creative ecosystem.”
Amid her soaring career and commitment to issues that matter, Thompson still finds time for the fun stuff. Her Instagram also provides a snapshot of this: tributes to Björk, John Waters, Kelis, Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt cast a lens on her varied interests. And, as an avid watcher of RuPaul’s Drag Race, she made an appearance on the most recent series, gushing over its winner, Shea Couleé.
“She’s so beautiful. I squealed when I saw that Shea Couleé follows me on Instagram and knows that I exist. It reminded me [of] many years ago, when I realized that Oprah followed me on Twitter. I then became really conscious of Oprah reading a tweet of mine, like I thought, ‘Are my tweets Oprah-approved?’”
Thompson was born in 1983 and raised between Los Angeles and Brooklyn – her parents separated when she was young. She studied in Santa Monica, where she starred in local productions with the all-female Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company. Her on-screen career started out with smaller roles in big network shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes and Private Practice, before her 2010 breakout – in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, alongside a superstar cast that included Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson and Thandie Newton. Fast-forward to 2014 and Thompson was starring in big-budget blockbusters such as Selma and, the following year, Creed, as well as the Sundance-winning comedy Dear White People.
It was with HBO’s sci-fi hit Westworld, however, that she really went global. Signing in 2016, her performance, as Delos Destinations board director Charlotte Hale, garnered rave reviews, as did the show as a whole. “She is a character with many layers; she’s at the front line of a business, but also a mother and partner, struggling to make a relationship work,” Thompson explains, considering what drew her to the role. She has since moved into the superhero arena, too, with her role as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Endgame, and becoming the first woman of the Men In Black franchise, starring as Agent M alongside Chris Hemsworth.
“When I REALIZED that Oprah followed me on Twitter, I became really conscious of OPRAH reading a tweet of mine, like I thought, ‘Are my TWEETS Oprah-approved?’”
Kick-ass action hero one minute, a love-struck 1950s fiancée the next (more on which in a moment), her versatility lies in her ability to fully immerse herself in a character, bringing a level of genuine connection. “I have always envied the actors I see on set that are totally thinking about what their single contribution is,” she considers, “while I’m always trying to operate from the space of my character, plus I’m also really conscious of my surroundings and the set. I have to think of everything in the totality of the story.”
It’s this attention to detail that makes it unsurprising that Thompson has forayed into producing. Her upcoming project, Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love, not only sees her take center stage, but also work as an executive producer. Set in 1957 New York, the film follows Sylvie, the well-to-do daughter of a record-shop owner, who falls in love with sweet and gifted saxophonist Robert (played by a lovable Nnamdi Asomugha). With unwelcome interferences, heart-wrenching unspoken words and seconds-too-late opportunities, it made Thompson think of another Hollywood love story.
“When I first heard about Sylvie’s Love and had conversations with Nnamdi about making it, it reminded me of The Notebook. I remember seeing that way back in the day and thinking, ‘I’d love to be in a film like this,’” she recalls.
“To make a FILM that centers around two Black people falling in LOVE felt really IMPACTFUL to me…”
The significance of this movie being made now resonates strongly. “To make a film that centers around two Black people falling in love felt really impactful to me. I think even in these moments of peril and pain, it shows we’re still having dinner, we’re still celebrating, we’re still singing songs, we’re still making love and doing all the other things that we do as humans to sustain us.”
Drawn to movies that make an impact, Thompson has another meaningful project in the works. She has a lead role in Rebecca Hall’s upcoming directorial debut Passing, the film adaptation of the book by Nella Larsen, starring alongside Ruth Negga. It explores the practice of racial passing, a term used for a person classified as a member of one racial group who, visually, can be accepted as a member of another. “That project came to me and I read the book in one sitting; then I read Rebecca’s script and was completely blown away by both. I think she did such a tremendous job at adapting Nella Larsen’s work.”
“The book came to [Rebecca] at a time when she was having to unpack stuff in her own family history around passing… realizing that was something folks in her family did. And she hadn’t known that, so it sort of up-ended her own ideas about her identity.”
Thompson describes the message of the film “as something that is not just about the performance of race, but the ways in which so many things as a human are performative. The way gender can feel performative, the way sexuality can feel performative, the way happiness inside of just being a human can sometimes feel like you’re performing happiness… That idea really spoke to me.”
With her interest in telling myriad stories and an exacting eye, would Thompson be interested in directing? “I am interested in that, though I am not sure what form that would take yet,” she says coyly.
“Hollywood puts so much EMPHASIS on how you look. It’s PROBLEMATIC, as you’ll be asked who you’re wearing BEFORE you’re asked about your work”
With an ever-accelerating profile, designers have clamored to dress her, and she – along with her stylists Wayman Bannerman and Micah McDonald – effortlessly balances big names, such as Versace, Valentino, Chanel (which she wore to the last Met Gala) and Loewe, with rising talent like Christopher John Rogers and Pyer Moss. “I think about fashion the same way I think about the industry, in that I get to work in big commercial spaces and also make smaller, independent films. I like to do that with what I wear, too,” she comments.
However, while Thompson says she loves dressing up, she is conscious of the downsides in the industry. “There’s this thing in Hollywood, particularly if you’re a woman, that puts so much emphasis on how you look. It’s problematic, as you’ll be asked who you’re wearing before you’re asked about your work.”
If there is anybody who can navigate the rollercoaster terrain of Hollywood, it seems to be Thompson, who demonstrates not just how to play the game, but change it for the better.
THE FASHION CHALLENGE
Press play to watch Tessa Thompson put her styling skills to the test in our series of fashion challenges…