Break The Mold
Authentic, formidable and willing to stand up and be counted, TESSA THOMPSON is one of Hollywood’s most exciting actresses, both on- and off-screen. In this season’s structural pieces, she shares her thoughts on race, sexuality and “vibrating on the same frequency” as Janelle Monáe. By JANE MULKERRINS
Tessa Thompson’s nails are not her own. They belong to Bianca, her singer-songwriter alter-ego in the film Creed II, she explains, as she waggles the extravagant, pink-polished talons at me from across the table. She wrapped filming on the follow-up to 2015’s Creed yesterday, in Philadelphia. “I can’t do anything with them on, and I break them constantly,” she says. “But Bianca’s fairly close to me. She enjoys solitude, has dreams of making a mark, and she’s somebody that is cautious with her heart.” Thompson looks down at her hands. “So it’s nice to have something that’s very unlike me, as a physical transformation and anchor into her.”
After almost a decade of roles in smart but relatively small films such as For Colored Girls and Dear White People, last year Thompson, 34, was catapulted into the mainstream. On the small screen, in HBO’s big-budget drama Westworld, she plays executive villain Charlotte Hale – “A proxy for corporate greed and the ways in which corporations can totally dehumanize folks” – at the mysterious theme park, where the androids have gained sentience and are going rogue. And on the big screen, in Thor: Ragnarok, she subverted superhero stereotypes as Valkyrie – her iteration of the traditionally white, blond Norse goddess is mixed race and bisexual.
At the same time, off-screen, Thompson has been an outspoken member of the Time’s Up movement, and may well be the perfect poster girl for the post-#MeToo era: an unapologetic, complex actress, who seeks out unapologetic, complex characters. “This is not just a job, this is my life,’ Thompson observes. “So, I’m like, how do I want to spend it? What do I want my story to be?”
“My character Bianca is close to me. She enjoys SOLITUDE, has DREAMS of making a mark, and she’s somebody that is CAUTIOUS with her heart”
We meet for breakfast at a restaurant close to Thompson’s home in LA’s hipster stronghold, Silver Lake. She is upbeat, enthusiastic, unguarded company, her positivity apparently in line with the ‘yes’ tattoo that pokes out from the sleeve of her lace-and-print Rodarte blouse. Her latest film, Sorry to Bother You, is the directorial debut of rapper Boots Riley, who also wrote the film, and it represents another career breakthrough. Like so many of Thompson’s choices, the slightly surrealist story tackles complexities around race. Set in a parallel version of Oakland, California, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is an African-American man who is informed that, to excel in his job in telesales, he must use his ‘white voice’. “Seeing black people in narratives of magical realism is something I’ve really been longing for,” says Thompson. “I grew up feeling so inspired by films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but it always felt like they were unavailable to someone like me.” This film, she says, allowed her “to look different and push boundaries”, with a physical transformation that required nine hours of bleaching and color to achieve her art-activist character Detroit’s dip-dye rainbow hair.
“[In my family] you can be anything you want to be. I’m ATTRACTED to men and also to women. If I bring a WOMAN home, [or] a man, we don’t even have to have the DISCUSSION”
Aside from her impressive work on-screen, Thompson has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to her close relationship with the singer Janelle Monáe. Thompson features prominently in the glossy, album-length music video accompanying Monáe’s Dirty Computer, one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2018 so far. “Isn’t it such a good record? I am so proud to have been involved,” she beams.
The album is a riotous celebration of femininity, queerness, sexual fluidity and self-acceptance, with gleefully homoerotic content, including Thompson poking her head through the legs of Monáe’s ‘vagina’ trousers in the unashamedly suggestive video for the single Pynk. “I get text messages from friends that are like, ‘Would you please let Janelle know I came out to my family because of her?’” enthuses Thompson. “I think that work is really helping people and probably saving some lives.”
But her involvement has also intensified the already frenzied speculation that the pair are more than simply friends. “It’s tricky, because Janelle and I are just really private people and we’re both trying to navigate how you reconcile wanting to have that privacy and space, and also wanting to use your platform and influence,” says Thompson. “I can take things for granted because of my family – it’s so free and you can be anything that you want to be. I’m attracted to men and also to women. If I bring a woman home, [or] a man, we don’t even have to have the discussion.” She pauses in her dissection of a chunk of avocado toast, and puts down her knife and fork. “That was something I was conscientious of in terms of this declaration around Janelle and myself. I want everyone else to have that freedom and support that I have from my loved ones,” she continues. “But so many people don’t. So, do I have a responsibility to talk about that? Do I have a responsibility to say in a public space that this is my person?”
“Janelle and I love each other DEEPLY. We’re so close, we vibrate on the same FREQUENCY. If people want to SPECULATE about what we are, it doesn’t bother me”
Certainly, the internet would very much like that. There are countless stories dedicated to detailing their every outing, and searching for significance in their chosen outfits. Thompson is tickled when I mention this, and seems unfazed. “We love each other deeply,” she says. “We’re so close, we vibrate on the same frequency. If people want to speculate about what we are, that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me.”
Thompson’s worldliness is very much a product of her upbringing. The daughter of a black Panamanian musician father, and a mother who is half-Mexican, half-white, Thompson grew up largely in Los Angeles. Her parents split up when she was three years old, and when she was seven, her father moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she would spend vacations. She also moved schools multiple times, searching for a place with enough diversity that she didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, or endure bullying because of it. “One school in particular was really racist, and I was having a lot of trouble with being bullied,” she recalls. “Kids just make do, they’re pretty resilient, but my mom really wasn’t okay with it.”
By high school, she found her own unique ways to subvert racial discrimination – she formed a “racial harmony group”, a regular sleepover made up of 20 students from each ethnic group in the school. Thompson joined the group as a black student in her freshman year, and as a Mexican student the second year. “And then, the third year, I said, ‘I’m going to be white this time,’ and they all said no, I couldn’t be.” Nonetheless, it was a sophisticated comment on selfhood for a teenager to make. “I guess I’ve always been conscious of the ways in which identity is a creation,” she says. “I could tuck all my hair up into a cap, and suddenly people would treat me differently because they’d assume I was a boy. I think maybe that’s what attracted me to acting. I would look at people and wonder how they made themselves.”
“I’ve always been conscious of the ways in which IDENTITY is a creation. Maybe that’s what attracted me to ACTING. I’d look at people and wonder how they MADE themselves”
Along with a thankfully increasing number of actresses, Thompson has started developing and producing her own material. Her first project is the true story of Doris Payne, an 87-year-old African-American jewel thief in Atlanta, whom she spent two years tracking down. “She’s had a lot of people come in and out of her life wanting to potentially tell her story, but they haven’t been the right people and it hasn’t been the right time,” she says. “But I think I am, and I think it is now.”
Besides her acting chops, Thompson has steadily garnered attention in recent years for her style, appearing on the red carpet in edgy dresses by the likes of Altuzarra, Roksanda and Mary Katrantzou. “It’s become sort of a thing for actresses to be like, ‘A red carpet? Pshaw, I’d rather be in sweats,’ but I love to be in a dress,” she enthuses. Thompson was shot for Rodarte’s FW18 lookbook along with Kirsten Dunst, Grimes and Rowan Blanchard. Were a large campaign to come her way, she “certainly would not say no. Campaigns allow you freedom. For a lot of actresses, it’s the way that they make most of their money,” she says. “And if you are a black woman, occupying that space and having that sort of visibility, internationally, is huge. There’s this idea that our faces don’t sell and so when we do get those campaigns, they show people that they do.
“It’s really easy to write off these spaces as being frivolous,” she adds. “But I don’t think they are, actually. I think they’re significant.” And that’s Thompson in a nutshell – finding the significance in the apparently frivolous, even in a set of incongruous pink fake nails.
Sorry to Bother You is out July 6
Watch as our superhero cover star talks about transforming the Marvel universe and the women she worships – plus she shows off some moves…