‘Creed III’ Star Tessa Thompson on the Word She Refused to Say and the Future of the Franchise

[This story contains mild spoilers for Creed III.]

Tessa Thompson isn’t afraid to say no. Whether it’s now with Creed III or in the past, she will speak up if something doesn’t feel right to her on a character level.

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In Ryan Coogler’s Rocky franchise spinoff and legacy sequel, Creed (2015), one of the most memorable scenes involves Thompson’s Bianca and Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis “Donnie” Creed going out for Philly cheesesteaks. During their first meal together, Bianca explains the meaning of the word “jawn” to the L.A.-minded Donnie, which is Philadelphia slang for any type of noun. But now, with Creed III’s time jump of seven years, the Creeds consider Los Angeles their home, and so they’ve become different people in some ways. Thus, Thompson made it clear that Bianca had to lose the colloquialism of her past.

“I said to them, ‘I’m not saying jawn in this movie because we’ve heard it, we’ve done it. I want to break new territory,’” Thompson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Not saying ‘jawn’ was also a way of saying inside of the filmmaking that you are going to witness someone that is constantly evolving.”

With Jordan now in the director’s chair, Creed III is structured in such a way that it could serve as the end or the new beginning of the franchise, namely because Bianca and Donnie’s daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent), inherited the boxing instincts of her father and grandfather, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Ultimately, the box office will have the final say on what happens next, but the odds of more Creed stories are looking good with Creed III setting a franchise record of $5.45 million for Thursday night previews.

“When we think about the title character as a boxer, there’s now more than one Creed. So I think there are definitely narrative possibilities,” Thompson says. “We have something that we collectively want to say, and I think there’s still plenty left to say. So if audiences want to see it, I think we’d all be happy to return.

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Thompson also explains that despite Sylvester Stallone’s absence from the film, he, as well as Rocky, felt “ever-present.”

So you said something years ago that’s stuck with me. You basically admitted that you weren’t crazy about the pregnancy storyline at first because you didn’t want Bianca’s dreams to take a backseat to Donnie’s (Michael B. Jordan) dreams. And so Donnie’s babysitting scenes in the second and third movies seem like a response to that, as Bianca was in the studio cranking out hits. So do you feel like you were heard on that subject?

Yeah, the thing that’s been a real pleasure about working on these films is I do feel heard. I really do feel invited to be a co-author of Bianca. When Ryan [Coogler] and I were first having conversations about Bianca, he had an idea that she would maybe be a single mother. I really respect that; I was raised by a single mother, and I have so many amazing women in my life who are single mothers. But I was like, “I wonder if there’s something else,” because he really wanted her to have a parallel sort of thing that she was fighting for or fighting against. And his then-partner, now-wife and business partner, Zinzi Evans, was a sign language interpreter, and so he had some proximity to that world. I also had proximity to someone who had hearing loss and struggled with that.

And so we started to talk about a universe in which that might be something that would be interesting for Bianca. So there’s always been this process of development and really talking through some of those things. Yes, these movies have been lensed by men and written by men, but there’s been a tremendous generosity in trying to understand how to really refine a female character who doesn’t feel like a cipher and has her own humanity and inner world for whatever time she gets to occupy the screen.

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Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed III

Bianca is no longer performing in order to preserve what’s left of her hearing, and there’s a heartbreaking moment where she’s quietly singing along to someone else’s performance of her own song. Was that rather painful to play?

It was painful, but it was also a pleasure because it was something that I pitched to Mike. It’s this idea that you could see her putting her best foot forward, and you could also complicate her as this businesswoman and powerful woman. There could also be something that’s bittersweet in it, and I found that really, really compelling and interesting. So, yeah, it was painful. When you get to a certain age and you look at your life and besides being deeply grateful for all the things that you have, you start to take inventory of all the things that you imagined you might have but don’t. And that’s a complicated thing. It’s interesting to look at someone who’s doing that, especially inside of success. So I found that really ripe and really interesting.

Bianca giving up her passion is a contrast to Damien (Jonathan Majors). He can’t fathom why someone would give up something they love, and he obviously can’t give up his dream of being champ. Holding on to that dream is how he likely survived his time in prison. So was it openly discussed that Bianca and Dame were meant to be thematic opposites of each other?

It was kind of discussed. We were also really interested in this idea of just someone who comes in and knowingly creates tension. We were also really interested in presenting these very different ideas. Bianca is trying, to varying degrees of success, to really integrate this spirit into her life of not having your sense of self and sense of personhood be completely tied up in what you do. She’s actively working on that in therapy and her own spiritual practice, and I found that really interesting. And I’ll be honest with you, that’s something that I still have to work through.

We live inside of a society that is very focused [on what we do], especially the industry I’m in. I mean, I’ll be working on a movie and someone will ask me what I’m doing next. And I’m like, “It’s day two of this movie I’m doing now.” (Laughs.) So we put a real premium on success in its stereotypical forms, and Bianca is actively trying to unpack that.

Dame, on the other hand, has felt robbed of his potential, and so a part of him is making up for that lost time now. How many Black men get inside of the carceral system and don’t have the chance to be the things that they would have been? So, in some ways, he has a really righteous anger that gets expressed in complicated ways, but the fundamental thing that he’s feeling is this want for freedom. And freedom means the ability to actually pursue your dreams.

Majors has an unpredictable quality to him that reminds me a bit of Tom Hardy and Christian Bale. When you’re in scenes with him, does he remind you of anybody you’ve worked with in the past? Or is he his own unique force?

Yes, he is a very singular talent. I just saw him in Magazine Dreams, and he just gives an incredible performance. And it’s a part that a Black man typically would not have the opportunity to do, but a space has now opened up for someone like Jonathan to be able to play these sorts of characters. And he does have a real unpredictability and both a real spirit of play and a seriousness. He’s also so fiercely prepared. I’ve worked with Christian Bale, and you see that same type of precise preparation, which is a kind of freedom. It gives you a dexterity to be really nimble, and so it’s definitely an exciting thing to get to play opposite.

So I wholeheartedly agree that the Creed franchise needed to move beyond Rocky and forge its own path for the time being, but was it strange at first to not have Sly [Stallone] and his 48-year-old turtles on set?

(Laughs.) This might sound like a line, but I sincerely think that he’s so a part of the DNA of this that he felt ever-present to me. It actually took me a minute to be like, “Oh shit, [he’s not here.]” There’s something about returning to these movies and all the history that we have with them, and Sly is so wrapped up in that. And in some ways, his absence makes him an even bigger figure in my mind, in terms of the franchise. He’s built something that is so strong and so durable that we were able to reinvigorate it and borrow from the universe and create something of our own. And in the success of this film, we also get to say that it’s durable, and that has so much to do with Sly.

The Creed franchise exists because the Rocky franchise once decided it was time to move on from Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. So I guess it had to happen at some point with Rocky.

Yeah, I think so. It’s a passing of the baton, but for whoever is left holding it, it’s warm because of the hands that were on it before.

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Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson on the Set of Creed III

On Thor: Love and Thunder, we talked a bit about your dynamic with Mike as director, but what was it like to get a performance note from him after all these years of being friends and scene partners? 

Well, to be honest, he didn’t offer me a note like any director would. He never directed me like that. It was always a conversation about how I felt and how we were feeling. It truly felt very unique in that way. He would’ve been welcomed to, but that wasn’t the dynamic.

You also said that he’d have to run back and forth to the monitor. Did you ever have to give him a minute to collect himself or help him calm down if he was overwhelmed? 

I have said this a lot on this run, but what really impressed me was how great he was with the crew. It didn’t surprise me because he’s a lovely human and is so well liked on set, but he has the kind of energy that lightens a set and makes everybody feel good. But you would never really know that he was also balancing performing, directing and the onslaught of decisions and questions that he had to answer. But I never observed him be short with anybody. He maintained a spirit of play and joy.

But because we are so close in our way and have worked together for so long, I could tell when he was stressed in a moment. I would look at him and he would just give me a face. I would just look at him and think, “Oh, he’s having a moment. “ And he then would just say to me, “Yeah.” And I would be like, “All right, take a breath.” And he’d take a breath. So that would be a moment where he would let the air out, but never in a frustrated way. It was just in a, “OK, you see me, you know me. This is a moment.” And I found that so deeply impressive. I also felt really lucky to get to be that kind of support. He was just so tremendous with the crew and everyone.

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Michael B. Jordan, Mila Davis-Kent and Tessa Thompson in Creed III

Mila Davis-Kent, who plays Bianca and Donnie’s daughter Amara, is absolutely adorable in the film. Did you walk away with a decent handle on ASL?

I have to be honest with you because this is something that Mike and I have talked about. Yes, I walked away with a decent handle, but we both have a fair amount of regret, honestly. I mean, we had no idea where the first film would take us, obviously, and at that time, Bianca wasn’t really learning sign language in earnest. She knew a couple phrases like ‘bullshit,” and it was mostly something that she was kind of entertaining. But the language itself is so beautiful, and I really wish that I had stuck with it then and tried to learn sign language. I would have such a great handle on it now, and for as well as I think we both did — and for as much of a connection that I think we were able to build with Mila and her family — to be able to speak without interpreters at all is something that I hope I can get to at some point with the language.

And so much of the process of making these films has been about really unpacking the ways in which we live in a world that is so biased toward the hearing community. Mila was saying this the other day when we were introducing the film. She is fearless, by the way. She gives speeches before all the [screenings]. But she has said that she really hopes that this film might inspire people to learn ASL in the same way that I think the Rihanna [Super Bowl] concert did recently, with that brilliant ASL interpreter and performer [Justina Miles]. So that’s the hope for all of us.

Did you hang out for her tea party at all? Seeing Mike in that costume seems like something you wouldn’t want to miss.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I stopped by.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Bianca said the word “jawn” the entire movie. Was that choice meant to show that they’ve become different people in L.A.?

Yeah, it was intentional. I said to them, “I’m not saying ‘jawn’ in this movie because we’ve heard it, we’ve done it. I want to break new territory.” Bianca is the only character where I have worn tattoos. I now have 12; I had less when we made the first one. And near my right wrist, I have a tattoo that says yes, which I wore in the first film, and it became a thing. The first thing you see when Donnie enters her apartment is a yes that she has on her wall, and it was a whole thematic thing that Ryan and I talked a lot about. In the second film, she changed that tattoo to “yesterday” because there was this idea that her feelings had changed.

And so not saying “jawn” was also a way of saying inside of the filmmaking that you are going to witness someone that is constantly evolving. She’s been in L.A. for a long while, and I think she has matured. So one way of signaling that is just that she speaks differently. She hasn’t changed fundamentally, but there are things about her where she has grown into a fuller expression of who she is. So there are no “jawns,” but who knows, a jawn could always come back around.

Creed III could work as an ending, but it could also work as a new beginning. So do you think you’ll play Bianca again?

(Laughs.) I don’t know! I think that there are possibilities. When we think about the title character as a boxer, there’s now more than one Creed. So I think there are definitely narrative possibilities. The thing that has been really exciting about all of the movies that we’ve made thus far is that everyone has real skin in the game. We have something that we collectively want to say, and I think there’s still plenty left to say. So if audiences want to see it, I think we’d all be happy to return.

I’m sorry about Westworld. Season four was actually my favorite season, and your character had a pretty awesome sendoff.

Thanks! Yeah, that was fun.

Of course, no one’s ever really gone on that show, but do you know if you would’ve appeared on a potential season five at all?

That was my proper sendoff. That was the intention. Of course, because no one’s ever dead on Westworld, I would’ve happily come back to do anything if that made sense in the narrative, but that was the completion of Charlotte Hale’s journey. And I feel really lucky to have gotten the chance to complete her story. It’s a shame when shows go before people intended them to go. Sometimes, you can’t really finish the narratives of characters who have been developed over the course of a series, but I feel really lucky that I got to do that.

Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace inside the Thompson estate, what day on Creed III will you likely recall first? 

I was in front of a fire last night! (Laughs.) I think I will recall a day during one of the boxing scenes where Mila was sitting next to me. I don’t know if the shot was used in the film, but it’s supposed to be a hero shot of her where you get the sense that she is being absolutely taken by the sport of boxing. It’s well past spectacle. She’s having that moment that you have as a child when you realize that you love something and that you want to do something one day when you get bigger. And in that scene, it’s a dolly shot. It’s on a track, and it comes straight into her as she’s just staring down the barrel of the camera. I was sitting so close to Mila and the camera came within inches of her face, and she didn’t even flinch. She was so incredibly fearless and determined, and it was also a moment where I felt like I was watching Mila fall in love with the process of filmmaking while she’s playing this young girl who’s falling in love with boxing. And something about that was just really beautiful to witness because I can’t remember when it happened for me. I can’t remember the exact moment when I was a kid, where I must have been like, “I might want to do that one day.” So getting to relive that and see her do it so well with absolute fearlessness is something I’ll never forget. I’ve seen people that have been working forever who can’t take a shot like that and just stare down a barrel with such confidence and ease. So it was really special, and I’ll never forget it.

Creed III is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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