Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s December/January 2021 issue.
Over dinner at Bar Centrale, a Theater District haunt in New York City, Tessa Thompson is discussing the scope of her work and how she processes it. Typical interview fare. Then comes the unexpected analogy to Sisqó. Back in the ’90s, she was visiting her dad, Chocolate Genius Inc. musician Marc Anthony Thompson, at a hotel when she realized that the R&B star and his group, Dru Hill, were staying there too. The famed “In My Bed” quartet had rolled up in an SUV blaring their tunes at full volume. “It was cool,” Thompson says, admiring the levels of self-affirmation. “I don’t typically Sisqó around the things I’m in. If I watch them, I’ve got like one viewing, you know?”
No matter; the rest of the world has its eyes locked on Thompson, 38, even if she has become adept at blocking out the collective glare. (In truth, she considers herself “an analog girl in a digital world” — à la Erykah Badu — and secretly wishes she could throw her phone in a lake somewhere.) The growing curiosity that swirls around her is a by-product of her undeniable talent, diverse filmography — the Marvel superheroine Valkyrie; a civil rights leader in Selma; a defiant artist-activist in Sorry to Bother You; a calculating boss lady turned robot in Westworld; a woman born out of Janelle Monáe’s vagina pants in the music video “Pynk” — and her ability to transmit an IDGAF attitude when it comes to any speculation about her personal life or style choices.
Thompson’s creative swagger is something to behold. Take for example her look at the 2019 Met Gala: How many women do you know who can successfully pair a frilly Chanel couture frock with a 7-foot-long braid wrapped in latex? When mentioned to Thompson, she laughs. “Why not? For me, it’s a character. If you play a lot of villains, people wonder if there’s something sinister about you. In the same way, if you have a latex whip for your hair, people assume that your personal life is a lot more festive than it actually is, which I think is the case with me. They might be sorely disappointed. The only person I’m currently sleeping with is my dog, Coltrane, every night.”
Fashion, she says, is an armor that allows her to simultaneously play and project. In her day-to-day life, Thompson feels no different than anyone else. “We all live in public,” she says. “We’re followed in public whether we want to be or not. But if you’re a known figure, you exist inside this space where people might try to have ideas and perceptions about you. Which to me is the price of admission.”
For her fans, these flashes are their perceived window into the enigmatic ins and outs of a thespian who chooses not to be constrained by the humdrum step-and-repeat expectations of Hollywood celebrity. Thompson doesn’t necessarily mind the memes, like an innocuous moment with good friend Zoë Kravitz at this year’s Met Gala — “That’s my dog!” — or sweet ones with Coltrane, her actual pup. In May, a candid snapshot of a supposedly illicit exchange with director Taika Waititi and his girlfriend Rita Ora following an all-night party in Australia prompted viral whispers about a possible romantic dynamic. The world, pent up by pandemic living and perhaps a horny desire to live vicariously through them, had to know: What was going on there? To which she responds: “Nothing, is the answer. Much to everyone’s chagrin.”
If you really want to know what Thompson is about, watch her films. “Hopefully, the work offers the most insight into who a person is,” she says. “At least that’s how I want my work to be, more than anything else I might do.”
Born in California and partially raised in New York, Thompson got her start at the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, starring in the tragic comedy The Tempest in 2002. Three years later she began a string of steady television roles on shows like Cold Case, Veronica Mars, Hidden Palms, and Heroes. By 2009, she had transitioned to film with breakthrough performances in Mississippi Damned and, a year later, For Colored Girls. This eventually led to a trip down blockbuster lane with the sword-wielding Valkyrie in three Marvel films (her third, Thor: Love and Thunder, directed by Waititi, comes out in July), as well as Agent M in Men in Black: International and Bianca, a hearing-impaired singer and the wife of Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, in the Creed films.
These days she’s got her pick of the litter when it comes to projects and can currently be seen in Passing — Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut — co-starring Ruth Negga and André Holland and based on the novel by Nella Larsen. Thompson plays Irene “Reenie” Redfield, a fair-skinned Black woman from Harlem who occasionally infiltrates the caucasian world. Shot in black-and-white, the scenes are as tense as they are intimate. Simple gestures — the lowering of a hat to shade features, the application and reapplication of powder—serve to show the fraught particulars of interacting within white society at that time.
Thompson deep-dives into research before taking on a role. For the 2020 romantic drama Sylvie’s Love, which is set in Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s, she turned to vintage women’s fashion magazines to get a grasp on the mindset of that era. “So much of what we think about ourselves is what we’ve been told about ourselves,” she says. “So to delve into history, you feel like you’re excavating. And to be making something in the style of how those noirs would have been shot at the time, but to be doing it as Black women, it’s really just a dream.”
The actress points out that while Passing is centered around race, it is also an exploration of the multitude of constructs that are defined for us. “I would argue that if you looked at photographs of women who passed all throughout history, you would look at those women as Black women still,” she says. “I could never pass. But it’s about the ways in which we pass all sorts of things. And Irene, while someone who looks like she’s living very happily as a dutiful Black woman and mother and wife, is not. She’s not content with the confines of domesticity.”
These complex characters are Thompson’s favorite to engage with, she says: “Work that asks more questions than it answers — I typically think that means something interesting.” That also seems to reflect how Thompson approaches the expectations that come with being celebrated not just for her performances but for her radiant offscreen presence: embracing ambiguity and fluidity, and charting a path that is entirely her own and not adherent to any formal rubric of how to navigate stardom. “I really have a problem with strict binaries when it comes to anything,” she laughs. “That’s tough for me.”
The “work” for her is not limited to projects she has a speaking role in: In January, Thompson launched her production company, Viva Maude, which she is kicking off by executive-producing adaptations of the books Who Fears Death and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in collaboration with HBO. Most recently, Viva Maude announced it would be developing Raven Leilani’s best-selling debut, Luster.
“I really wanted to start actively developing projects that I’m not in. Because, frankly, I don’t belong in every narrative,” Thompson says. “One of the North Stars for me is optioning roles that have not existed before for Black, brown, and queer bodies.” Thompson is also acutely aware of her unique positioning as a light-skinned Black woman and how that standard of beauty can unintentionally disrupt desired social progress, which she hopes to proactively address with her production company.
“I feel really grateful as a Black woman that I get to play a lot of different parts and change the aperture a little bit around what we can be. But I also acknowledge and respect that there are so many Black women who look at me and don’t feel represented and don’t feel seen.”
Throughout the course of the pandemic, Thompson spent a lot of time alone (as she prefers) mulling over these themes. Part of her new routine involved committing to firmer boundaries with the Internet, less screen time, less posting on Instagram, and deleting Twitter altogether. She aims for eight hours of sleep when she can — although, she admits, it’s not typical — and has found time to reinvest in simpler pleasures, like supporting her favorite bookstore, the Reparations Club, located in the L.A. neighborhood where she grew up.
“I love what I do,” Thompson admits. “I don’t like being the center of the discourse when it’s around my personal life or when things are in the press that I know are untrue, but it feels like relatively speaking it’s a small price to pay. I sometimes wish that people would remember that a performer they see in the media might be playing a character at any moment. This idea that they know you is faulty.”
Before we wrap up, I mention that her brand of celebrity means she’s a favorite of Internet message boards. “What they do or don’t do is cool,” she says. “I don’t mind that; get me on those boards.” There is a very long one dedicated to you and those vagina pants, I say.
“Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.”