Tessa Thompson Takes Her Time

Tessa Thompson cherishes a slow burn. “I know that a lot of my contemporaries don’t agree with me, but I think being underlauded in your time sometimes is not a bad thing,” she tells me. We’re awaiting brunch in New York City at a favorite spot in SoHo, and here the actor, who stars this summer in the highly anticipated latest installments of two major franchises—Thor: Love and Thunder, from Marvel Studios, and HBO’s Westworld, back for a fourth season—is only just ambiently referring to herself.

Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR
Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR

It is a Tuesday in early May and we’re seated outdoors, graced by the kind of weather embraced by only the genuinely citified, with stark patches of shade too chilly for too-confident notions of springtime attire. But the sun feels delicious.

Thompson loves New York. She spent her childhood going back and forth between Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and her birthplace of Los Angeles. She comes back to the city often. “It suits my personality better than the isolation of Los Angeles,” she says. “There’s that kind of serendipity” about New York: You might run into a friend or catch a show. (Thompson, a professed “Pamela Anderson enthusiast,” recently saw Chicago, with Anderson in the role of Roxie, as well as Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning A Strange Loop, which she calls “undeniably fantastic”; she also has plans to see the Deana Lawson show at MoMA PS1 with a friend, the musician Dev Hynes.)

Or you might clock the doppelgänger of a minor internet sensation from back when. “That guy looks so much like …” Thompson’s eyes scan the restaurant, tracking left to right over my shoulder. “Remember Prison Bae? He looks a lot like him.”

“Well, I think he has a modeling contract. Who knows?”

“Too bad we’re not scouts.”

Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR
Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR

The week before was the Met Gala. This year’s spectacle had the unfortunate luck of aligning its stars with the backdrop of breaking news: the leak of an opinion drafted by Supreme Court Justice Alito effectively overturning Roe v. Wade. That something somewhere is always on fire during any red-carpet romp is a given, though a leaked Supreme Court decision presaging the end of abortion rights as we know them gives quite a coloring to the flame. Thompson tells me another attendee put it to her this way: “He was like, ‘It’s one of those moments that you’ll try to look back and remember exactly where you were when you got the news, and we will have been watching Lenny Kravitz perform “American Woman.”’”

The dark humor writes itself. But Thompson isn’t overly precious; the pageantry is the point. “I always see the red carpet as [creating] a character,” she says. What she wearsa starbursting trail of bubblegum tulle by Carolina Herrera at this year’s Met, a sculpted hooded jacket over bike shorts from Schiaparelli’s latest haute couture collection to the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party—depends on the nature of the event. “It’s always a costume to me.”

Our breakfast sandwiches arrive—mine with eggs, hers without. Thompson says she has never had an egg but is not uninterested in how the other half lives. She confesses that during filming for Creed III, out early next year, she nudged a production assistant—also, coincidentally, her brother—into divulging the breakfast orders of her castmates. One actor, she reports, had six hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. “Or eight,” she corrects. “No, eight.”

Thompson likes to keep abreast of things on set, a panoramic sensibility that her Creed III costar Jonathan Majors describes as a “vibration.” “She gives off such a deep understanding of the world and a deep understanding of who she is as an artist and a woman and a citizen of the world,” Majors explains. He likens her to Diane Keaton or Eartha Kitt: “She’s quite eclectic and rare.” (The castmate who ate all those eggs? “That was me,” Majors confesses.)

Thompson’s interests, though, stretch beyond what she can do on set or onscreen. Last year she launched Viva Maude, a production company dedicated to developing “inclusive stories with inventive creators.” Its announced projects include adaptations of Who Fears Death, the critically acclaimed Africanfuturist novel by Nnedi Okorafor, and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, the 2020 National Book Awards finalist by Deesha Philyaw, as well as a series for HBO based on Luster, the sensational debut by Raven Leilani. The roster not only reflects Thompson’s keen literary intuition, it also offers a glimpse of just what “inclusive” and “inventive” mean in this context. “How do we create worlds where the kind of protagonists that we don’t often get to see get to take up space?” Thompson muses. More explicitly, she names “folks of color” and those who are “queer” or otherwise “marginalized inside of Hollywood.”

The company name comes from the beloved 1971 film Harold and Maude, which was underappreciated in its day. “People didn’t really get it or know what to do with it,” she explains.

Recognition can take a while.

Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR
Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR

Thompson understands how hard it can be to make a movie. “They’re like small miracles,” she says, particularly “ones that are singular and bonkers.” She’s referring here to the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, writer-director Boots Riley’s surrealist satirical commentary on capitalism, in which she starred opposite LaKeith Stanfield. Riley had offered Thompson the part of Detroit, an around-the-way artist in Oakland, years earlier. By the time Sorry to Bother You hit theaters, Thompson had already starred in Creed and Thor: Ragnarok.

Passing was another one of those small miracles. The film stars Thompson, who was also among a rare group of Black and Asian American creatives who helped finance it. The director, Rebecca Hall, had adapted the script from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen a decade before; it took seven years, Thompson points out, before the vision was deemed cogent enough by the powers that be to get the ball rolling. That’s seven years for the adaptation of a novel no self-respecting student of American literature would leave off the shelf, though it wasn’t always so, Thompson reminds me. Acclaimed by critics upon its release, Larsen’s novel nonetheless lapsed into obscurity for much of the century following its birth, eventually recovered by readers who thought we might learn something from the interiority of the Black women at its center.

Passing was overlooked—or, in rubbernecking parlance, snubbed—at the Oscars. That was a mistake, I think, recalling the tug-and-parry magnetism of Thompson and Ruth Negga in the film. I tell Thompson so. Her response—“You win some, you lose some”—strikes me as admirably mature, and I tell her that too.

“No, I am also petty and salty,” she says. “But the thing is … in terms of awards, there’s no objective truth about what’s fine and what’s good in a work. It’s all subjective. So what do you do?”

Still, Thompson is grateful for the route she has taken in Hollywood. “I feel really lucky in my career to have gotten to play the kind of protagonist as a Black woman that we don’t necessarily always see,” she says. Josie Radek, from 2018’s Annihilation, comes to mind: Thompson plays the depressive physicist with an unassuming intensity that could be childlike or ancient. Charlotte Hale, Thompson’s character in Westworld, a cagey—and caged—executive, is another; it’s a show about robots called “hosts.” “You don’t always understand the mechanism completely,” she says. “I don’t mean this in an ominous way, but we”—the actors—“are kind of the hosts.”

Even at the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thompson searches for “the very human thing” in her characters. In Thor: Love and Thunder, she returns as Valkyrie, the smart-mouthed former bounty hunter opposite Chris Hemsworth’s titular Norse god. “It was kind of just one big messy experiment,” she says of Ragnarok. Stuffed with jokes and innuendo, that film attracted an inordinate fervor for its off-kilter, slightly deranged brand of humor relative to the rest of the Marvel franchises, a sensibility attributed to both the quirky mind of director Taika Waititi and the camaraderie of its cast.

When Thor: Love and Thunder opens, Valkyrie rules Asgard, but the malaise is thick. “She has this job,” Thompson says. “She’s certainly more healed and healthy than the last time we found her, and she loves her job, but she also is sort of … it’s lost its luster.”

The rut rings familiar. Thor: Love and Thunder was the first set Thompson returned to as filming resumed across the industry after the onset of the pandemic: “That was something that was really perfect to explore post spending a year of being like, ‘What am I when I’m not working? Do I exist?’ ”

Going back to work also got Thompson thinking about her own place in an industry in need of change. She’s not, she says, that “kind of actor who was so immersed in character that they only had eyes for their particular contribution.” Rather, “I come onto a set and I’m seeing everything.” That cognizance extends well beyond breakfast orders: “Right now, the focus is so squarely on Covid, but I hope eventually there’s also a conversation around the kind of hours that are worked.” Because at the end of the day, “there’s glamour, and also everyone’s just a worker, is a worker.”

Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR
Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR

Thompson’s father is a musician, but she never harbored any dreams of fame growing up.

“I don’t know what I wanted to be,” she says.

“I think I was always attracted to ideas, industries in which you had to connect with people.” She had the stuff, though, working through the Bard’s greatest hits first as a lark—cast as Hermia in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at her Santa Monica high school—and then as an 18-year-old professional with the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company. She began auditioning for television in between treading the boards, and in 2005 she became a regular on the second season of Veronica Mars as Jackie Cook. It was a sour sketch of a character whose brand of angst Thompson would more freely channel in a truer breakout role nearly a decade later, as the soft-militant radio-show host Sam White of the 2014 film Dear White People. “I remember when Dear White People came my way,” she says, “to finally be like, ‘Oh, I could be seen in something and also really the subject of a narrative, not just the object of it.’ ”

Thompson is getting used to the rhythm of the franchise thing, which can be “trippy.” But it comes with a fandom that can sometimes go overboard in its speculation about her personal life. Much was made of Thompson’s 2018 appearance in Dirty Computer, the visual companion to the album by Janelle Monáe, whom she has known for years. (In one shot, Thompson’s face emerges between Monáe’s pink ruffled pant legs.) Thompson doesn’t expend any energy on the subject and says she is resigned to the gossip. “It’s par for the course,” she says.

The pandemic was also an opportunity to reestablish the terms of her job: what she does and why. Viva Maude culminates Thompson’s yearslong introduction to behind-the-scenes dealings, which began with projects like Little Woods and 2020’s Sylvie’s Love, a ’60s romance that skirts the usual strictures placed upon portrayals of Black pasts. “We wanted to make something that felt like a fucking delightful period film in the tradition of The Way We Were—these films that have occupied so much space in Hollywood, but they have been so aggressively not us,” she says. “Yes, Black people were taking to the streets and struggling, as we continued to do. But they were also making love and listening to music and wearing dope outfits and hanging out on the beach and being silly and dancing. We were doing all those things.”

Luster’s Raven Leilani felt an “immediate trust” in Thompson, who first approached her about adapting her novel in 2020. “We talked for a long time just about the art,” Leilani tells me. “I feel like she understood both the joy and challenges of adapting what is essentially the consciousness of a Black woman.”

The main character of Luster is Edie, who is bordering on shiftless, rolling in the bramble of her 20s when circumstances find her living alongside the white wife and adopted Black child of her white, married boyfriend. Thompson is “deeply obsessed” with the book, as am I; we both read it in a day. (A sentence I’ve underlined: “I creep around the house and try to be racially neutral.”)

“My dream with something like Luster is to be able to allow audiences to discover a young Black woman in all of her beauty and brilliance and messiness,” Thompson tells me. (She says she would have cast Leilani as Edie if Leilani had been agreeable. “Oh my God,” Leilani responds when I tell her this, falling into laughter. “That is incredible. I can’t believe she said that.”)

Thompson’s interest in telling different kinds of stories is not to be mistaken for the rote sort of slogans for representation so often bandied about these days. Conversations about diversity very rarely consider “diversity of idea, thought, or presentation,” she says. “And for me, it’s not enough that we get to exist in frames.”

Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR
Photo credit: COLLIER SCHORR

I bring up one frequent critique, the sense that “Black movies” are seen as a genre unto themselves and taken seriously only as vehicles for narratives of struggle and triumph. And yet, says Thompson, what about that indelible wide shot in 12 Years a Slave? Instantly, I know the one. In the scene, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is halfway lynched, panting and heaving. Director Steve McQueen keeps our view broad, leaving Northup in the middle of the frame while the unrelenting work of the plantation continues in the background. “You see the whole plantation just operating as if a human isn’t hanging from the tree,” Thompson says, “which is what America has done to us for so long.”

To dismiss that film in the name of so-called “slave stories,” Thompson implies, would be to miss the elemental quality of filmmaking. Appraisals of Black artists often overfocus on their work as content in a way that “eclipses also what we’re doing inside of the work,” says Thompson. “And that is frustrating.”

She hopes to beget a sea change, altering the calculus of the kinds of productions that are green-lit. “Hollywood is such that …” She trails off. “Love it or leave it, and obviously I love it enough to not have left it.”

Hair: Lacy Redway for Unilever Global Haircare; Makeup: Romy Soleimani; Manicure: Gina Edwards; Production: Eric Jacobson at Hen’s Tooth Productions; Set Design: Ian Salter; Digital Design: Perri Tomkiewicz

Video: Producer: Amanda DiMartino; Director of Photography: Ryan DeVita; Editor: Shirley Cheng & Perri Tomkiewicz

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands July 26.


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