Turns out, Tessa Thompson is exactly as wonderful as you think. With a diverse resume of work super-charged from notable turns in Dear White People and Creed, the actress has become a familiar and reliable face in modern film, able to deftly maneuver between superhero badass and approachable charm (sometimes even in the same movie).
This year, an early and distinct role places her as astrophysicist Josie Radek in the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book Annihilation. As an intellectual science fiction film which primarily stars women with guns, Alex Garland directs a diverse crew venturing into unpredictably lethal territory—a plot of swampland sectioned off from stable reality by an incomprehensible force. Thompson’s character may be equipped with a rifle, but she’s a fairly reserved, science-minded outsider, hiding a nervous smile behind hands peeking from long sleeves; it’s about as far from Thor: Ragnarok‘s Valkyrie as you could imagine.
But that’s Tessa, right? Ably pushing against any attempts to typecast her talents, exploring different potentials with a brilliant sense for a script—a topic we get into, among others, in the following interview. Black Girl Nerds wants to thank Tessa for taking a moment to talk about #MeToo, intuiting Radek, and considering my coinage of The Tessa Thompson Rule.
Leonardo Faierman: Are you familiar at all with a term called the Harry Dean Stanton Rule?
Tessa Thompson: No, but it sounds amazing, and I love what’s happening here.
Leonardo: So, Roger Ebert made up this thing called the Harry Dean Stanton rule. It works like this: if Harry Dean Stanton is in a movie, it’s at least good. He’s never been in, just, a terrible movie. Any movie he’s ever been in is worth watching. And I would argue that—rest in peace, Mr. Stanton—we might have a successor, with the Tessa Thompson Rule. Because literally everything you’re in as at least good, if not excellent.
Tessa: I don’t know if that’s the highest compliment—“everything you’re in as at least good”—but I kinda like it! I kinda f—k with it.
Leonardo: It’s not an insult to the movies you’re in! But your track record is pretty much impeccable at this point. It’s sort of a boring question that actors must get asked a lot, but…you have a nose for your roles. What goes into that journey? Is there anything significant that goes into your choices?
Right now, I’m going to SXSW, and I’m so excited to see Sorry To Bother You—you have no idea.
Tessa: Oh! I didn’t know it was going to be at SXSW!
Leonardo: Supposedly, from what I hear, it’s going to be at SXSW, and I’m just so excited. My homies saw it at Sundance and they were just crazy about it.
Tessa: Oh, I wanna go! I’d want to see it with a SXSW audience, actually.
So yeah, I dunno Leo. There’s no accounting for taste, man.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding! But I feel like that’s what Harry Dean Stanton would say, so I was trying to play it off, but it felt weird. Delete!
I trust my instincts. Ever since Dear White People, that sorta changed the game for me in a way. I really burned for that film when I read it. I was like, if anyone else gets to play this part, I’m going to be really pissed. When I understood what that felt like, I used it as the new normal, the new barometer for how I choose work. Even if a project felt risky, and even if no one else understood it on paper—and there are certainly some choices that I’ve had to explain to people that I work closely with—but if it’s with a collaborator that I really believe in? Justin Simien’s voice sung for me on paper when I read the screenplay for Dear White People. And, in a similar way, Alex Garland, when I saw Ex Machina.
It’s really weird, I don’t know much of anything, but I have two weird sixth senses. I sometimes will pass a vintage or thrift store—and this sounds really trite—I’ll have to go in. Even if I’m going to be really late somewhere, I go in. And I find this gem, this thing, that’s grossly underpriced and beautiful, and fits me perfectly. I just have this thing, where I know: any time I feel that thing? I know that I have to go in. It’s never proved me wrong.
In the same way, there’s been a couple projects that have come to me. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but…I went to an Essence awards show, Women in Hollywood. Ava Duvernay—and I’ve seen her work, followed it—she got on stage and was thanking Oprah for coming on board with her soon-to-be project Selma. I remember being in that room and being like, “I’m going to be in that movie.” I wasn’t even sure [if] the movie was “about Selma,” I didn’t even know exactly what this film was about! I suspected it could be about the event at Selma, but I also thought it could be about a woman named Selma. I was like, “I’m going to be her best friend, then!” [laughs] I just decided, then and there, that I was going to be in that movie. I had no business thinking that I would be, but it was just a feeling, like: I want to work with this woman.
I had this same feeling when I saw Ex Machina, I was like, I want to work with Alex Garland. And it wasn’t even that [long] thereafter that I got sent the script for Annihilation…I almost couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous to meet with Alex, because I wanted it so badly. I just loved his work, I loved the script of Annihilation, I loved the prospect of getting to work in the company of women—it’s all too rare. [And yet,] the top three films of last year all [featured] women at their center.
Leonardo: Very true.
Tessa: Like Wonder Woman, and Star Wars…
Leonardo: And Lady Bird. Wow, Lady Bird is so different from the previous two!
Tessa: Yes! But so many of these top films have been female-led. And yet, you see, on the studio level in 2015, only one film was made with an all-female ensemble. And all those women were white, by the way. And, in 2016, no films were made with an all-female ensemble. So when the script came my way it felt rare, just in that way, but the material itself felt so singular. And Alex is such an auteur.
So: it’s not really me. It’s just that I feel like if I have a hunch about someone, whether it’s a Justin Simien before anyone knows who Justin Simien is and his voice jumps off the page, or it’s a filmmaker that has made beautiful films, something in me goes, “I want to make something with you.” I felt the same way about Ryan Coogler. All these filmmakers. So I’ve just been so lucky that they’ve wanted to work with me as much as I’ve wanted to work with them.
Leonardo: It’s interesting, it’s like the same thing—from what I know—with Oscar Isaac. Apparently the reason he got involved with Annihilation is that he was just like, “I want to have the experience of working with Alex Garland again, whatever the hell he’s doing.”
Tessa: I can imagine! Because the work that Oscar gets to do in Ex Machina, that musta been…and that was the first time that I really got a look at Oscar’s work, and I was just like, this guy, man! Put him in everything! So I could see what he’d want to do that forever and ever! [laughs]
Leonardo: My editor Jamie Broadnax wanted to make sure I asked you something, so here goes:
When it comes to changing who has the power to create and tell stories to challenging sexual violence, there’s a broad movement for change currently happening within the entertainment industry. When designed and led by women of color, what looks different about this movement for change?
Tessa: Oh my goodness, what a question!
Well, it’s important to acknowledge [that] in this watershed moment that’s happening in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement, this powerful storytelling movement, was created by a woman of color in 2006. I think, so often, women of color, the conversations that we try to put forward to the culture often proceed when [they] really get embraced by popular culture, unfortunately. So, I think women of color have been making this call for real systemic change. But when we talk about the watershed moment we’re existing in inside of Hollywood, where we’re asking for safety in the workplace, for equity in the workplace, I think the voices of women of color are going to be so important, because we understand [it’s about] even just issues of safety. The gross abuses of power disproportionately hurt us. Because of where we’ve been positioned historically, women of color are not the first to be believed or embraced when we speak up against that injustice. So it’s important that we acknowledge that in this movement.
And then, when we go a step further—or, actually, not even further, because to me, [these issues] are all bound up. You cannot separate issues from class or race or gender. But, additionally, when we talk about equity within the workplace, even the conversations that we’re having now about pay equity, that is a whole different landscape and minefield for a woman of color. So I think we’re just going to need women of color to be positioned front and center in helping to create to this culture of change.
And we also need our white sisters to step up. We need them to do things like Jessica Chastain did, to be curious about what we’re paid, and then want to ask, let’s get her paid. Let’s make sure there’s equity between us.
I think that’s real, that’s really the brand of feminism that we need now, and I think that’s what’s happening.
Leonardo: I think you put it so well. It’s sort of like, there’s a baseline that needs to be reached, to even move forward. That baseline includes things like safety, which is still not quite there.
Tessa: Yeah, you’re right.
Leonardo: I’d like to get another Annihilation question in, if possible. So, in the film, I feel like your character represents a super-recognizable woman nerd.
Leonardo: You’re like, maybe a little bit insecure. You’re distracted by your research, by your pursuits. A little head-in-the-clouds, a little distracted, because you’re so focused on what you’re working on. Is there something in particular that went into how you portray your Annihilation character?
Tessa: Particularly, in what sense? In like, what I did, in order to find that?
Leonardo: Yeah, like part of that characterization. What did you search for, what did you look for?
Tessa: Well, there are so many things. Even just trying to unpack—which is impossible to do, because it’s not my mind, not the world I come from—but trying to unpack some of these theories, being an astrophysicist and trying to familiarize myself with that world and speaking with scientists, something that I thought about a lot [was this]: if you look at the natural phenomena around you, even the most mundane of things, like condensation on glass for example, because you’re a scientist and you understand it, does that add a certain majesty to life? Or does it take away magic? Does it mean, because you understand more of your natural surroundings, that it sets you apart, a little bit, from other people? I think it probably does, in a way, [but] you can relate to other scientists because you share the same lexicon.
I had this experience at Sundance when I was watching Octavia Spencer on a panel with a bunch of NASA scientists and they were talking in shorthand. I’m sure a vast majority of the audience couldn’t understand it, [even] if it was the simplest stuff. Octavia finally said, “I’m sorry, does anyone know what she’s talking about?” And it just let the air out of the room, because nobody knew what she was talking about, except for a guy next to her, the other scientist. Except for that guy.
And so, I thought about, with [the astrophysicist character in Annihilation] Radek, what that means. To be privvy to knowledge that, in a way, should be accessible to everyone, because: you look up at the stars, we all see the stars. But the way Radek sees the stars is so wildly different, because she understands them. And that can be something that is so powerful for you, particularly if you’re not that good at, like, the “human” of it all? But it can also be something that stands to separate you from other humans, if you’re not in an environment where that’s integrated.
So, I thought a a lot about that with Radek. Also…she’s like, a virgin. I mean, she’s not like a virgin, she is a virgin. Which was just something in the characterization that [I found].
Tessa: I just guessed it. I just asked Alex, I was like, “Did you write her as a virgin?” And he was like, “Yeah, actually.” I was like, “Cool.”
Leonardo: [laughs] What you’re saying really informs who she is, when she’s meditating in that scene in the movie. She’s just kind of thinking on another level.
Tessa: Yeah, she is! And it makes sense to me that she’s the one that would figure out what is happening in that environment. Because she’s such a keen observer, and her shyness [makes] her thoughts get stuck in her throat at times. So she’s processing and making a hypothesis really early on, but she doesn’t have the bravado that a lot of scientists have, where they want to say what their hypothesis is and really let people know. She’s a little too uncertain, so she waits until she has really even footing. But I think that makes her such an incredibly investigator, because she’s open and available to really taking things in.
But, I really wish that she could’ve gotten laid before [**SPOILER REDACTED**]
Leonardo: [laughs] Here, here!
Tessa Thompson is featured in Annihilation, Alex Garland’s new film adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Annihilation releases in theaters later this month, on February 23rd.