Tessa Thompson: "There are all kinds of Black women that we don't get to see on screen."

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  • Tessa Thompson
    Tessa Thompson
    American actress
  • Rebecca Hall
    Rebecca Hall
    English actress
Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer - Getty Images

You can always count on Tessa Thompson to keep you on your toes. A Shakespearean stage actress by training, her diverse repertoire includes big budget action franchises – from the Creed films to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – huge TV hits like Westworld, and small independent comedies like Sorry to Bother You. Funny, sad, weird, CGI-ass kicker – it’s all in Thompson’s toolkit. But it’s her latest role that may bring her unforeseen acclaim.

Passing, Rebecca Hall’s 2021 directorial debut, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is an intimate, quiet affair already attracting award-season buzz. At its centre is a never-better Thompson as the dutiful, yet conflicted New York housewife Irene. The slow-burn, character-driven story could be about so many things – a curiously close friendship, the emotional minutiae of a middle-class marriage – but is made unique by one simple fact: we rarely see such a film starring a Black woman.

“Lensing an experience like that. We've seen it time and time again in film iconography…and it's always a white female protagonist,” says Thompson, Zooming me from Los Angeles, and grinning from ear to ear at the opportunity to discuss this story. “For me, with the choices that I make in my career, I always ask: 'Where do we not get to be as Black women?' I hope Passing makes more room to be able to look at the interior life of a Black woman for her own sake. We have not so far been afforded that much space for nuance and ambiguity.”

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Thompson was originally unavailable for the shooting of Passing, but her friend, the filmmaker Angela Robinson, told her she “might want to make herself available”. She was right. Thompson devoured the novella, then the script, and met with Hall in London, telling her she would do “anything” to make the film. “The book had such modernity in the way it talked about identity, not just racial identity, but how free any of us are to be the people that we know ourselves to be,” she remembers. “I was just blown away by both Nella’s work and what Rebecca had done with it.”

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

For Thompson, it was “always Irene”- not least because Ruth Negga had already been cast as Claire, Irene’s childhood companion, whose sudden re-entry into her life causes chaos, and whose ‘passing’ for white in 1920s Harlem lends the film its central conceit. “In a perverse way, Claire is the honest one,” muses Thompson. “She says to Irene, ‘I'm not safe.’ And she is almost safer because she knows she's not safe. Whereas Irene is breaking everything in her hands, because she's not entirely honest with herself or her reality. In the film, you see her refusing to have these open conversations with her kids about race, which feel so eerily like they could be happening in the modern day.”

Thompson, naturally both warm and erudite, is quite clearly a deep thinker, who enjoys the chance to analyse her source material. She expresses funny, nerdish glee when I ask her about the many critical reads of Passing – both the novella and its cinematic adaptation – as being a narrative about not just race but infidelity, the smokescreen of domesticity and the pains of repressed homosexuality. “In truth, I think it’s maybe all those things,” she says. “But one thing I love about making films is that once they're released, they don't belong to you anymore. So, I'm really interested in what audiences take away from it, because it belongs to them now.”

Passing not only whetted her appetite for critical discourse, but for stepping behind the camera. “I think directing is something that I'd really like to do at some point,” she says. “I just love the filmmaking process and getting to watch Rebecca catapult into this space has been so inspiring.”

Thompson was a producer of Passing, and her newly formed production company, Viva Maude, has just signed a first-look deal with HBO. “I really wanted to be able to focus on narratives and not just the ones that I am acting in, because as much as I feel really lucky to add representation, and to be a part of that conversation, I'm also aware that I don't represent all Black women, that there are all kinds of Black women that we don't get to see on screen often enough,” she says. “In starting this company, I want to, in whatever way possible, cultivate relationships with filmmakers and help folks tell their story.”

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Her upcoming projects are as varied as her own career has been – and seem equally as exciting. “I have a non-scripted show that I created that we're working on and hopefully, we'll see it in 2022, and I'm also producing a film about a white woman's descent into the Alt Right,” she shares. “I'm just interested in stories that are compelling.” Her latest compelling story may – of course – bag her an Oscar, something she is “trying not to think about”.

“The thing you're supposed to say is, we don't make these things for awards,” she laughs. “But I think that's entirely true for Passing because Rebecca didn't make any concessions in terms of the kind of film that she wanted to make. We made this film in 23 days, we made it for very little money, it's black and white, it stars two women of colour, and we've had the chance to be both in theatres and in people's homes, and to see such a robust dialogue around it. We’ve already won!”

But I have one more question, of course. What does she think of Passing’s infamous, ambiguous ending? The typically articulate Thompson comically zips her mouth. “Oh, I have an opinion on that,” she smiles, cryptically. “But I’ll take it to my grave.”

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