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Pausing from our 2022 Sundance viewing to sit down with actress-producer Tessa Thompson, we couldn’t help but think back to where we were this time last year. Rebecca Hall’s Passing premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (virtually, as is the case again this year), and Thompson, the star of the film, was on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter with Hall and her co-star Ruth Negga. It wasn’t her first time at Sundance, but adding a producer title to the trip was uncharted territory. Leading up to the moment, Thompson had turned in a string of critically acclaimed and commercially successful performances in recent years, and the LA native had navigated that path effortlessly while keeping activism and advocacy at the forefront of every project she was a part of, both within the entertainment industry and outside of it. Now, she sits on the precipice of a Lead Actress Oscar campaign for a project that took the better part of a decade to get made, nearly a quarter century after the filmmaker behind it first drafted the screenplay.
(Photo by © Marvel / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection)
It is no wonder that after Passing was showered with rapturous praise, inspiring thoughtful and passionate conversations about identity and race, Thompson has approached all the end-of-year attention the film has garnered with quiet appreciation. “It has performed so well, but more than anything, more than any of that, has been the personal conversations that I’ve had with people when I’ve had the chance to ask how the film lands with them. It’s disparate and so fascinating, and everyone’s right!”
Going into the project, Thompson was acutely aware that it would elicit strong reactions, that it would be polarizing due to the subject, source material, and perhaps even her casting, but none of that intimidated or discouraged her. “I knew it wasn’t gonna be an easy story to tell because we wanted to play in the spirit of the novella,” she told us. “The book is beautiful – it’s also not going to give you [all] the answers.” Hall’s debut effort behind the camera is ambiguous and seductive, and Thompson’s work as Irene has been lauded as one of the best lead actress performances of the year. Eighteen years after her first job as an actor and just five short years after Thor: Ragnarok made her a household name, we are just beginning to grasp Tessa Thompson’s multi-hyphenate potential. As is the case with most Hollywood success, careers that appear carefully crafted are often the result of coincidence and luck piled on top of a tremendous amount of talent.
It’s only a clever coincidence that Thompson’s first role was a murder victim from the 1930s who would fit right in on the pages of Nella Larson’s Passing. Thinking back on her gig on the CBS procedural Cold Case as Wilhelmina “Billie” Ducette, a genderbending queer rebel in love, did inspire some amusement. “Wow, back to my first job!” she laughingly told us, adding, “All I remember is immersing myself in the period. I got to go into the costume houses and try on old men’s suits. I loved getting to interrogate what kind of person I might have been in a different moment.” During those early days on television, Thompson discovered her work ethic, her process, and her mantra for how to navigate the more negative sides of fandom she would experience later.
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When Thompson was cast in Thor: Ragnorok as Valkyrie, a comic book character who had been portrayed as white and blonde prior to that, some folks took umbrage. It would be easy to chalk those criticisms up to mere racism, but Thompson offers a more generous take. “I think even under the veiled racism, it has more to do with people just wanting to see the character as they imagined it reflected on film. I understand that.” Most in her position would likely find it difficult to be so diplomatic, given how vitriolic and offensive the conversation was at the time, but Thompson’s uncommon grace was born of experience.
Thompson had already seen the darker side of fandom on the internet earlier in her career, and it had prepared her for the Valkyrie backlash. “My character Jackie Cook was the nemesis of a very beloved [character] Veronica Mars and [actor] Kristen Bell. So the fan reaction? People were upset.” She told us, “When my casting for Thor came out, it reminded me of that [time on Veronica Mars], because I was excited to engage with the internet, but there were some very scary, very racist things that people were saying.” The most die-hard “Marshmallows” would be hard-pressed to say they loved Thompson’s Jackie, but that distaste is just a testament to her acting.
(Photo by Marvel/Disney - Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Her portrayal as Thor’s hard-drinking cohort has also proven the naysayers wrong as well. She was voted 3rd in our Rotten Tomatoes poll of Fearless Women Who Inspire Us, and she is now a fan-favorite in the MCU who can set the God of Thunder on his heels. It’s safe to say those who vocally opposed her casting have been effectively silenced.
(Photo by Barry Wetcher/©MGM)
Thompson’s first trip to Sundance was in 2014 with Justin Simien’s Dear White People, which also kicked off an incredible run in her career during which she worked alongside directors like Ryan Coogler, Tyler Perry, and Ava DuVernay. Over this stretch, Thompson also found something else that has guided her career: Community. Simien taught her about building community, which was reinforced by working on Creed with Coogler, while her time on DuVernay’s Selma solidified her understanding of the power in community. “Ava lives the idea, ‘If your dreams are not bigger than you, they are not big enough.’ That’s something that’s stayed with me as I craft what I want to do, and why I do it.”
When Coogler set out to create a no-nonsense musician that could distract an aspiring boxer from his lifelong dream, he found his “Bianca” with an assist from Thompson. “[Coogler] taught me the value of true and honest collaboration for a character. Originally, Bianca was not the woman [we see] in our film. We worked tirelessly and intimately together to make a person that felt like a living, breathing human being, and no detail was too small for him.” From her zodiac sign to where she went to school, they discussed and sculpted who she was. It is no wonder that that performance and her work with Ava and Tyler Perry nudged her to the next stage of her career as a producer.
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The first film Thompson produced, 2018’s Little Woods, was directed by Nia DaCosta, who is slated to direct the next Captain Marvel movie. Funded in part by Planned Parenthood, Little Woods takes a hard look at female reproductive and medical rights through the eyes of two women forced into difficult decisions. When we spoke to Thompson around the film’s release, she said the film’s message and activism were a significant draw for her taking the role and signing on as Executive Producer. When we spoke to her again this week, she added that early collaborations guided that decision as well. “Their effect on me – Shonda Rhimes, Tyler Perry, Ava, and Ryan Coogler – it cannot be understated how my aspirations, my production company, all came about because of the models these folks set, doing that with Black folks – for us and by us.”
We joked that her appearance as one of the race-bent Friends in a music video for rap god Jay-Z had to qualify as an American Express Platinum “Black Card” – it can never be revoked – but Jay-Z is not the only music star in Thompson’s orbit. She has appeared alongside Janelle Monáe in a number of the latter’s videos, including “PYNK,” in which dancers don pants that symbolized female anatomy. When asked about which of the two performances she found more intimidating, she again laughed off the cultural impact. “Both of those music videos were so fun to make! Janelle and I certainly didn’t know the Vagina Pants or any of it were going to be such a cultural internet phenomenon.” When we talked about her playing Monica alongside Tiffany Haddish (Phoebe), Issa Rae (Racheal), Lil Rel Howery (Joey), Lakeith Stanfield (Chandler), and Jerrod Carmichael (Ross), recreating the comedy was what she recalled first. “Moonlight (2017) was such fun because I got to go back and re-watch all these episode episodes of Friends and figure out what they did. It was brilliant. They’re so skilled in terms of timing physical comedy. I’ve never worked on a sitcom, so that was new, and getting to do that with an extraordinary, talented cast was indescribable.”
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After these early performances, building community and learning how to navigate online fandom, and her dedication to activism, starring in Passing seems like a natural choice, but what Thompson was able to convey on screen, often with limited dialogue, is a revelation. In Passing, the two leads Claire (Negga) and Irene (Thompson) are old high school friends who find each other several years later, living two very different lives. Claire grew up with her white relatives, abandoning her Black identity and marrying a white racist who would no sooner marry a Black woman than murder one, while Irene stayed in Harlem and married a respectable black doctor. Ironically, each woman is a desperate inhabitant of a prison of their own making, envious of one another but also acutely aware of the dangers of their association.
That danger is something the audience is forced to confront right from the first frame, and it doesn’t relent until the credits roll. Examining the thrilling tension between Irene and Claire is what drives the audience through their rekindled friendship. Though many watching will view Claire’s cavalier attitude toward discovery as dangerous, Irene is where we and the actress who played her perceive the most jeopardy. “Irene’s danger is that she thinks that she’s safe,” Thompson explains. She adds further that the character’s muted reaction to that danger is evidence that “she’s almost choking on what she might like to say, but still our film is asking this central question: ‘Are any of us free to construct our own identity, to be the fullest expressions of ourselves?’ I was bolstered and challenged by this question as something we could calibrate. Does the audience understand, and how much do they need to understand?”
(Photo by Edu Grau/©Netflix)
Watching the understated dance between the two and all the words left unsaid is the most thrilling place for the audience to sit and observe these women. In the opening, Irene reconnects with Claire because she is vacationing in her world of danger. Passing as a white woman to buy her son a toy and grab a quiet lunch is when their eyes meet across a ballroom. As Claire tries to get closer to Irene, the danger mounts, and still our lead stays (mostly) silent, a choice Thompson reveled at portraying on screen. “I knew whatever gets communicated to the audience, whatever they understand her to be thinking or feeling, was not necessarily needed, because she herself couldn’t tell you if you asked her. If you had given her language, she would lie.” An unexpected gift from working on this project for years (pushing back and turning things down to be available for it) was that Thompson lived with the character long enough to learn know how she would lie – to herself. Though most were not privy to the work it took to harvest these fruits, we still enjoy the results happily.
Passing is streaming now on Netflix.