"We are in times that require us to listen": Tessa Thompson's lessons from playing a helpline worker

The Listener Vertical Entertainment
The Listener Vertical Entertainment
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Tessa Thompson gives a lovely, thoughtful and empathetic performance as Beth, the title character in “The Listener,” director Steve Buscemi’s eloquent film about callers to an all-night helpline called Softline. Thompson is alone on screen the entire time as Beth takes calls from a dozen people including a formerly incarcerated man adjusting to life on the outside, a mother with a special-needs child, or a homeless teen. Watching her respond to other people’s mental health issues, feelings of depression, thoughts of self-harm and loneliness is compelling. Despite its heavy subject matter, “The Listener” is remarkably life-affirming. As Beth listens attentively, she often draws what she imagines the person she is talking to looks like. (The callers are voiced by actors ranging from Logan Marshall-Green and Margaret Cho to Alia Shawkat and Bobby Soto).

The film, which was shot over six days in one location, is talky, but it never feels artificial. This is because Buscemi’s nimble direction gives Beth (and viewers) breathers between some of the calls, but also because of Thompson’s performance. Thompson, who is a producer on the film, pitches her voice perfectly as she responds to what she is told or gets callers talking about their feelings. But she also masterfully recalibrates her own emotions during and after each conversation. As Beth listens, her expressions shift naturally from interest to concern — both good and bad — depending on the situation. Thompson’s face and body language are especially revealing during an extended sequence where Beth talks with Laura (Rebecca Hall), a sociology professor contemplating suicide. As Laura gets Beth talking, and the listener explains why she provides this service, the film becomes quietly powerful.

As in her best performances — “Passing,” “Sylvie’s Love” and “Little Woods” — Thompson delivers a mix of warmth and steeliness here. The actress spoke with Salon about her new film and her thoughts on the issues it raises regarding mental health.   

Actors are often commended for their listening. And much of your screen time in this film involves you listening. They say you can’t learn anything while you are talking. Can you talk about listening and what makes you a good listener? 

I really like not having much to say, if I’m honest. The most fascinating bit in performance is listening, and what keeps it active and interesting to an audience is being able, without words, to get a sense of feeling, of thought, of wheels turning. I am struck by actors I admire at what they can do with an economy of words to express emotion. There was such a unique challenge in this. And generally, we are in times that require us to listen to folks, particularly folks who might have a different point of view. I have never been in a time that feels so divisive and there is so much dissension between folks so the ability to come together and listen with an open mind and heart, that is something that is in short supply but really necessary.  I liked that the film explores that.

What can you say about working with the disembodied voice actors and developing the rapport you did with each of them?  

We shot the film in six or seven days and entirely in sequence. It was almost like learning a play. I had all the calls memorized. We stuck to the script. When actors were in LA, they would read [their lines] off screen. By and large, we played each scene with the actor and that was important to Steve [Buscemi]. We could have had a script supervisor and have the voices come in after. But Steve wanted to foster this honest and organic connection between myself and the callers, because what these Softline workers are fantastic at is having an instant rapport with the people that call. He wanted to be sure to have that.

Your performance is very expressive — from the cadence of your voice, to what your eyes and body language reveal. Can you talk about finding the character? What I admire is how Beth recalibrates after each call. 

Preparing for the part, I had some conversations and did some reading on the internet about people who worked in Softlines, and what brought them to the work and what they experienced. But the most insightful thing was to call a Softline. There was one woman I spoke to early in my investigation; I was struck by her tone of voice. There was something about it that was sweet, but not saccharine, understanding but discerning, nonjudgmental. There was something about the quality of her voice that stuck with me. I tried to capture that spirit with Beth. There was something that felt at once very human. She was careful to express the similarities that she felt about the things I was expressing, but there was also something nonhuman to her, that she was too good to be true. In my preparation for Beth, I was pitching my voice in a similar space as hers. In addition, there was something special to me about embodying the kind of person that gives other people a tremendous amount of grace. It taught me how I might like to recalibrate and move through the world just giving people more grace.

What observations do you have about how people come to this type of work and the burnout they experience? Beth suggests she needs a break.

This woman I spoke about struck me and stuck with me. She came to the work by first being an avid caller to Softlines herself. She was going through a really tough time, and similar to Beth, she had a really tough time relating to other people. I think the Surgeon General recently said loneliness in this country is a pandemic unto itself. A lot of folks already felt isolated. But there is a kind of person who has a tough time connecting with people. She had called Softlines a lot and found when she was on the other side of this breakdown, as she described it, and was healthier, she found it helpful to listen to people, and that kept her sane. It is similar to friends of mine who have gone through recovery. They have found sponsoring other folks helps them stay sober and stay clean.

I began this investigation by calling and wanting to ask prodding questions and pluck from them why they found themselves there. The thing I found so striking was how adept so many folks I spoke to were so good at pulling out of me things that I didn’t know I was calling to say. Instead of it being this investigatory, anthropological, academic actor taking notes, it ended up being a conversation between two humans.  That was the thing I learned the most — the quality of the questions and the patience with silence. Particularly with strangers, we have a really hard time navigating silence. There is something about the feeling of silence that communicates patience that for me on the other end, drew things out of me that I was surprised I needed or wanted to say.

That’s inspiring because I have no patience.

I say this as a deeply, deeply impatient person! One of the gifts of being an actor is that roles sometimes come to you when you need them. Beth challenged me to be more patient with others, with self. My dog is in the movie, and when I first got him – Coltrane, he was a rescue – he came with a heap of problems. One of the big, huge lessons was absolute patience. Making this film and having the interactions with folks who do this real tremendous work really taught me about the work I need to do to be a more patient human with others.

I joke that I want the microwave to cook faster!

You are not wrong. Living in the modern world, everything is about how we make things more efficient. What is lost sometimes is real connection, not just with others but with oneself.

I do like slow cinema though . . .

I am really patient with a story. I love a slow burn! When things are too propulsive, I get whiplash. I have such patience as an audience member, but in real life, I’m like, “Can we speed this up?!”

The Listener
The Listener

Beth draws and uses a stress ball as she listens. She is lonely. We learn more about her backstory by the film’s end, but what qualities did you ascribe to her character? 

What I thought that was interesting about Beth is that she loves to draw. She is mild-mannered. She has a sweet dog and lives in a nice house and is seemingly caring. You learn later that she has had some issues. I thought it was interesting about presenting a character you might not assume those things about. I think we make all sorts of assumptions in connection with strangers — who they are, who they might be. Something about this film is that we should be more curious and open about strangers.

In terms of her character, I thought she, like many people I know, or hear about, is that it is honest to go through trauma and self-medicate and for that to spiral. Someone may not have access to get the support for mental health and that might spiral out of control. Someone who is fundamentally good might make bad decisions for a period of time. That is the story for so many people who don’t get second chances. Beth is like that; she has gone through a time that wasn’t so great and came out on the other side and given a second chance.

The film is timely as more people are talking more about mental health issues, depression, and loneliness. What observations do you have about the callers she gets and how she handles them? She does reveal more about herself that perhaps she should in one call. 

When I was speaking to the folks who do this work, there is a fine line. You want to make a connection. When I was talking to them, there was an effort to reflect back a similar feeling or experience by the person on the other line. That has to do with this idea that whenever we go through tough times, it can be easy to self-isolate and assume you are the only person who has felt that way or you are the only person feeling that way. The whole point of a Softline is to have a voice on the other end of the line telling you, “You are not alone.”

Beth needs to take a break — and this is a flaw in our system in social work, medicine, caregiving where people all experience burnout. My sister is a retired nurse, and the reason she is retired is because she was so deeply exhausted and needed to take time for herself. We see that so often. The system is not set up for them to have the resources they need to be healthy and happy and can do their work in a way that feels peaceful and safe. Beth needs to step away because her fuse is shorter, and her ability to take calls on and have more of a boundary is faltering. She is realizing that for all the connection she feels with her callers, she doesn’t have that in the real world. We experience that more than ever now. We have so many ways to connect with people digitally, and it can make us feel plugged in, but ultimately, I think it can make us feel really alone and isolated. So striking that balance is a really tricky thing.

What I loved so much about the film, is that so often in life the change we experience and the things we do that are heroic are so small. They are easy to miss. Change is so incremental. It is a huge act of bravery to pick up the phone and ask someone to hang out. In films, there is a big hero’s journey, and it is epic, and there is huge change. But In life, it isn’t often that way. I like that kind of quiet heroic turn for a character. It feels really honest.

You are a producer on this film as well as a few other recent projects. Are you moving into doing more producing?  

I am! I launched my production company Viva Maude in the middle of COVID. Then we had to survive the actors’ and writers’ strikes. It has been such a joy to launch during these wacky and turbulent times in the industry. What we want to do is offer stories that really give us points of view we have not seen and protagonists that do not typically get the star treatment. That has been a passion of mine for a long time. I have produced things I am in, but Viva Maude gives me a banner that allows me to produce things where I am not in center of the frame.

“The Listener” is being released in theaters and on VOD on March 29.