Sci-fi star Tessa Thompson has made a career out of defying expectations – as she showcases the best of the high street, she tells Stylist about the power of speaking out and breaking rules.
Here are my five favourite films of last year: Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Moonlight, The Florida Project and Thor Ragnarok.
The latter Marvel offering might seem a little out of place – and it’s a surprise even to me that it’s on there – but it’s irreverent, properly funny and, most importantly, also has an incredible, euphoric female lead in the shape of Valkyrie. Played by Tessa Thompson, this superhero is a bisexual, heavy-drinking, witty warrior who shifts everything I thought I knew about Marvel films.
But Thompson, 34, is making a career of seeking out complex roles that defy race and gender stereotypes. In 2014, she played a biting activist in Dear White People, followed by Martin Luther King biopic Selma (directed by Ava DuVernay) and Rocky spin-off Creed.
Of late, Thompson has trod an interesting path into the sci-fi and comic-book world. There’s the marvellous Annihilation on Netflix with Natalie Portman, about an all-female scientific expedition – Thompson is heartbreaking as Josie Radek, a quiet astrophysicist who self-harms. She is also icily impressive as manipulative corporate warrior Charlotte Hale in Westworld, the hit sci-fi series set in an amusement park populated by robots – about to return for a second series.
The jury’s still out on whether Valkyrie will be appearing in next month’s Avengers: Infinity War (“I don’t know if I can tell you that!” she laughs) and she’s also reportedly in talks to join a new Men In Black spin-off.
But what is certain is that Thompson stars in surreal fantasy film Sorry To Bother You, which previewed at the SXSW festival to huge acclaim, that she’s producing a film based on the life of female jewel thief Doris Payne (“It feels really good to build something from the ground up”), appears in the video for Janelle Monae’s sexually charged new single Make Me Feel (Thompson is also a singer-songwriter), and is a vocal supporter of Time’s Up.
Away from her portfolio career, Thompson is incredibly smart company – talking easily about astrophysics, natural wine and science fiction – and worldly. She’s also very present; I occasionally trip over my questions because the undivided attention she gives is unusual for someone in her world.
While she lives in her native Los Angeles, her Stylist shoot takes place in Paris – she’s here for the Valentino show during fashion week – and arrives wearing vintage, ankle-length flared tweed trousers with a matching sleeveless top and a basket bag. Given it’s the day after the Oscars, that seems like a fitting place to start….
Frances McDormand’s use of the phrase “inclusion rider” is headline news. Is it a term you’re familiar with?
It is. In fact, it’s something that I spoke to Frances about. I’ve been working with [University of Southern California professor] Stacy Smith, who wrote that ‘rider’, about how we can make it company standard. I can’t stop shouting about it, so it was really exciting to hear Frances say that on that stage.
There is a whole system designed for things not to change, and it really requires that you go in with a fine-tooth comb and make the change a mandate. In terms of on-screen representation, it combats implicit bias, which is huge. I even have to unpack it myself – the other day, my mum was talking about having to see her doctor and I said, “Can he see you?”, and she replied, “She”.
I’m someone who talks a lot about fighting the patriarchy – part of that is understanding the ways I have internalised it. If we see that a doctor is always a guy on television, that’s what we think of when we think of a doctor.
On the Oscars red carpet, a journalist said to Daniel Kaluuya that Get Out “ticks a lot of boxes”, which made me wonder how far we’ve really come when we talk about inclusion. Is that a frustration?
Yeah, it’s deeply frustrating because a) we are not a monolith, and b) it’s such problematic thinking. But I think it’s useful that those moments are captured – it’s important that we get to tell our stories. The truth is, as a person of colour in entertainment, you have a lot of practice with questions like that. I would wager that it’s not the first time he’s had questions like that.
I also wonder how helpful it is to still have gendered acting categories at award shows…
It was really refreshing to be nominated for a Bafta [Rising Star Award 2018] against men, and have the category wide open. It just had to do with celebrating work.
Does sci-fi offer female actors something unique?
I feel really heartened that it seems to be more wide open for women of colour. Not just because it benefits me, but because it also reaches a global audience. It’s really important for people of colour to be able to see and tell their stories. Black Panther has already done more in terms of humanising black people on screen than films set in a world we know and understand.
Your character Charlotte in Westworld is assured and ruthless. Is that liberating?
When having conversations with Lisa Joy, the co-creator of the show, some of the fun is to decide what the future looks like. Is there a world in which a young woman of colour can be in a position of power and no one has to talk about it?
I really love that about Charlotte. For me the challenge is, I’m a people person, but more so, I am interested in people-pleasing. As an actor, you want to make people feel things, so you’re sensitive to how you make them feel, and it can spiral into a space where you don’t have enough agency to do whatever you want to do. Charlotte doesn’t operate from that space. She wields her power without consideration for how people feel.
When it comes to something that’s important to you, have you always been able to speak out?
I’ve never had a problem with that. What we’ve seen recently in Hollywood is that shame is such an incredible negotiation tool. The two things I’ve never had a tolerance for are injustice that feels nasty and deliberate, and people who are incurious.
That’s one of my least favourite things, an incurious person; a lot of injustice comes from that. It’s deeply upset me, ever since I was a kid. There’s a narrative in talking about Time’s Up, for example, and the activists who came with women to the Golden Globes – people say, “It’s so incredible that you can speak for someone who is voiceless.”
They are not voiceless – they can speak for themselves. Most people who you think don’t have a voice, do. It’s just nobody is that inclined to listen. When you take a second to ask a question and engage, most people have a story that they are eager to tell.
After the tumultuous times we’ve recently had, will the world we are emerging into be a kinder, more socially conscious one?
I’d like to think so. But don’t you think that at any given time people have thought, “These are the best of times” or “These are the worst of times”? I’m so optimistic about the change that is possible. And yet, there’s such ugliness and darkness too.
Take social media, for example – you can see with the women’s marches that you can use it to galvanise people and disseminate information. But then it also makes people increasingly more lonely and dysmorphic. I don’t know if it’s a pendulum swing or the flipside of the same coin, or some other cliche!
You studied cultural anthropology at college. What tipped you into acting?
I was doing theatre as a hobbyist, and a bunch of people said, “You should go audition”, so I did because I was broke and wanted to apply to drama school. I always wanted to do theatre, I could never see myself in movies or on television but I literally booked an episode of a television show [Cold Case] and then a series [Veronica Mars], and suddenly I was someone on television. If I didn’t do this, I think I would be a teacher or be employed in some sort of social work.
What was the most fascinating thing you learnt when studying?
I learnt about the Yanomami people in Brazil, who had an organised system of violence but no instances of rape or hurtful aggression. We, as people, maybe need an outlet for our darkness or aggression, and it might be useful to decide where to put it! My work is good for that.
Are you a big reader?
I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan, which is how I got into sci-fi in the first place – the first one that I read was Kindred. I also like non-fiction – I read Citizen [by Claudia Rankine] recently and another called The Mother Of All Questions [by Rebecca Solnit], which was really beautiful.
I like to have a couple of books on rotation, but I’m trying to get into more fiction. I really, really like graphic novels – I love the series Saga [by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples]. I’m also trying to get into new science-fiction, like The Power [by Naomi Alderman]. I love that book.
Your father and step-mum own a natural wine restaurant. Are you a good entertainer?
I would not say I’m a natural! I have to turn on the switch and remind myself to keep it on. I love to cook. I love to be put to work when I go to visit my parents. And I know a lot more about natural wine now. I’m usually in the kitchen on salad prep, then I’ll sit behind the bar with my dad and he shucks oysters and we play music together.
If you were having a casual dinner for friends, what would you cook?
I like not having a plan and buying things that look good, and figuring out what I’m going to do. I’m not very good at following a recipe. If one element is off, it doesn’t look as beautiful as it does in the picture. It feels like it’s setting yourself up for failure.
Is that a good metaphor for your life – you don’t like to follow recipes?
[Laughs] You’re probably right. Someone was asking me where I’m staying in London [after Paris] and I didn’t know. I have a high tolerance for uncertainty.
Given we’re in Paris, have you been here before?
I took myself on a trip here when I was 18; it was my first big trip. I was staying in my friend’s shoebox apartment and I wildly over-packed. She didn’t have an elevator and it was on the third floor.
I would go to cafes and people would stand at the bar with an espresso and a cigarette. After growing up in Los Angeles, the way people lived here was so different for me… I always had a sense that people lived differently but I didn’t take family trips, so it was my first time contending with the idea that the rules that we live by in any given place or society are totally arbitrary, and we can decide.
You’ve talked about how there should be an all-female superhero film – who would you have in the line-up?
I joked recently I would have [gun-control activist] Emma González. She’s like an actual superhero. And the way she can call people out on Twitter, it’s wild. We are dismantling whole systems, and it’s incredible to see someone so young who can really see that.
Is the next generation more outspoken about big issues?
I feel like everything I was when I was their age has made me who I am now, and I feel empowered to speak up. There’s some generational shift that I can’t claim because we didn’t possess it in the way that they do, but I like to think our generation helped to pave the way.
My younger sister is 23, and how expansive she is about gender identity and the fluidity of sexuality is astounding. She has a whole lexicon around those big ideas. Those were certainly ideas that I was internalising and trying to understand, but I didn’t have a language.
Having a language creates community, and inside of that community people feel vindicated and feel like they are seen and heard. That creates power.
Westworld season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic on 23 April at 2am, repeated at 9pm on the same day.
Photography: Jonty Davies / Fashion: Arabella Greenhill / Words: Helen Bownass