‘Thor,’ ‘Creed,’ a new ‘Annihilation’ — Tessa Thompson is taking over
‘I’m just so happy to be living in a time when we’re breaking down glass ceilings’
Welcome — kindly — to Tessa Thompson season. Just a few months ago Thompson busted up stereotypes as the beer-guzzling warrior that is Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. There was some dustup on social media when she was announced in the role — she’s a black woman and some people didn’t love that. But in Thor: Ragnarok, which comes out on digital Monday and on Blu-ray March 6, she delivered a great performance. She was the film’s comic relief as well as a tough warrior. “I was like, ‘I want to work in science fiction. I want to do fantasy. I want to do that,’ ” Thompson said of her role. “I also felt, if it’s not me, I wanted it to be another woman of color that gets to do that.”
And now she’s in a new film, Annihilation, with Natalie Portman, where she once again breaks molds: She portrays a nerdy astrophysicist. And she’ll be honored at the prestigious Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon right before the Oscars, an event that brings out some of the most important and influential black women in the film industry.
And not too long after that, she heads to Philadelphia to join co-star Michael B. Jordan and get to work on this Creed sequel. For Thompson this past year has been a crescendo of sorts — and it even showed at January’s Black Panther premiere, where before the film showed and at the after-party, she nearly had a receiving line of people who wanted to show their appreciation.
“To get to be one of those women on the stage,” said Thompson, “it’s surreal for me, truly … It just feels like such an incredible honor, particularly at this time.”
Thompson giggles at the thought of her being one of the coolest people in the room at a recent Black Panther premiere after-party. “Black Panther is … such a beautiful moment,” she said. “I felt such a sense of pride watching that screen … I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to sit in that audience as a little black boy or girl. Like, what that would feel like to see those images and see those characters in that way? It really meant a lot to me, and also made me internalize even more how grateful I feel for a character like Valkyrie. And to be a source of inspiration for young girls and young boys, particularly those that look like me, that haven’t seen themselves reflected.”
In Annihilation — as with Valkyrie — Thompson flips the script. Her character is a genius, and holds her own alongside star Portman. “She’s not terribly strong in a conventional way,” said Thompson. “She has to find her voice, and I feel like there are these ideas that sometimes … that we’re all like these strong black women and that’s how you want to see us projected in media … we’re more expansive than that.”
As Josie Radek, Thompson’s contribution to the film feels powerful, and it’s a continuation of the representation she’s looking to do in Hollywood. “I remember when I was working on Dear White People, Justin Simien and I would joke that there are no black people in the future. And if there are, sometimes they’re Morgan Freeman. And that’s obviously not entirely true at all,” she said before laughing. “But, I do feel like there are certain genres that haven’t felt as available to black people and to people of color, and one of them is science fiction and fantasy.”
Thompson is fully committed to breaking down barriers. “The last couple years, even though we’ve had such success … with some of the biggest movies having women at the center … like Wonder Woman, of course, and Star Wars, there’s still a real void.” Things kind of shifted after Valkyrie — Thompson, after working steadily in the industry for about 13 years, is now part of the Marvel’s universe — a worldwide audience.
“I’m always looking for new ground to break, so I love the sensation of getting a part and then immediately being mildly terrified about having to actually to do it,” she said. “I love when there’s something in it that either scares me, or something I don’t understand. And so for Valkyrie, I was trying to master the physicality of that, doing something with so much green screen. With Bianca, when I worked on Creed, it was … the challenge of doing that in a short period of time, because I had about two weeks. I’ve been working in this industry for quite some time, and sometimes, particularly as an actor, you can feel like you’re just a cog in something moving. You’re satisfying someone else’s vision … but eventually you also think, what do I want to say?”
So what does Thompson want to say now? She now wants to take some of her new Hollywood muscle and cultivate projects from the ground up. “I’ve been so inspired, by women like Issa Rae. I had always kind of assumed that she started to create for herself because she didn’t necessarily see herself reflected in the culture. And also, she wanted to have a break, and so she gave it to herself … I’m just so happy to be living in a time when we’re breaking down glass ceilings.”
Soon, we’ll see Thompson back in a film that’s part of the most successful sports movie franchise of all time. Creed. It’s of course a continuation of the Rocky franchise, and she’ll be bringing Bianca back to life. The Creed sequel is expected to be released in November.
“There’s so much at stake for us,” she said. “We’re so excited to tell the next chapter of these characters … I think the way in which Mike and I professionally fell in love really had to do with how hard we both like to work … we had such high hopes for what these characters could be. We’re both excited to get back to that space, because it’s just so fun to be so incredibly invested in something. But there’s also a lot of trepidation — because we want to get it right.”