Tessa Thompson is a hard person to track down these days. Currently caught up in the whirlwind publicity tour for her role as the warrior Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok and also filming the second season of Westworld for HBO, the 34-year-old has become a pivotal figure in the world of sci-fi and comic-book storytelling. Once a place largely reserved for square-jawed heroes and blonde damsels, genre film and TV has only recently become friendly to young, non-white actresses like Thompson; the same goes for Hollywood as a whole. Asked on a recent phone call to describe some of the more stereotypical roles she’s been asked to audition for, Thompson laughed. “How long do you have?” Her tone got more serious. “Really and truly.”
But since her first on-screen roles—as a bootlegging lesbian from the 1930s on a 2005 episode of Cold Case, then a rich, mean girl with surprising layers on Veronica Mars—Thompson has been firmly pushing the boundaries of what a young, black actress should be expected to play in Hollywood. Informed by a theater background that included work with the all-female Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, Thompson has repeatedly sought out roles that defy gender and racial stereotypes.
She admits that in some ways, she’s been “really, really lucky” to be offered complex roles in the likes of Dear White People, Selma, and Creed. But Thompson has also steered her own ship. When the conversation turns, as most Hollywood conversations do these days, to the subject of Harvey Weinstein, Thompson explains: “I was asked to meet with Harvey once and didn’t end up going—the role was really nothing. He hasn’t been incredibly interested in the course of his career with presenting women of color with much to do, with some few notable exceptions.”
Thompson’s fight for what she calls “well-defined” characters—she cites a recent tweet from actress Jessica Chastain in rejecting the phrase “strong women”—is ongoing. Even with her star firmly on the rise, she still gets offered two-dimensional roles like “a single parent who’s upset with her baby daddy and just moves the story along for the male lead.” She also still encounters the “micro-aggressions” of being a female performer; “‘Sweetie’ or ‘darling’ is interchangeable with your name the way it isn’t for your male cohorts,” she says. Still, Thompson has blazed an enviable path. She took a tour of her most memorable roles to explain how stereotypes are made to be broken.
VERONICA MARS (2005-2006)
Thompson joined the Kristen Bell-led series for 22 episodes in its second season as a rich, mean girl, Jackie Cook, who eventually revealed layers of vulnerability.
Q: The world of Veronica Mars already had villains who were white girls named Madison and Shelly. How did show creator Rob Thomas flip that part for you?
Tessa Thompson: It’s funny to liken Veronica Mars to Westworld, but it was similar in that I didn’t really know where that character was going at all—I don’t think Rob Thomas did either. The fan reaction was intense because Jackie was not very pleasant to Veronica, and of course she’s our hero. I think the writers, in an attempt to redeem Jackie and also make a compelling case for me to stick around, wanted to kind of soften her. As a result, she had a really fascinating character arc.
Q: Veronica Mars was a show completely preoccupied with ideas of class. How did Jackie introduce more questions of race into that world?
TT: You look back at some of the quips—someone accuses Jackie of “skulking around” and she responds, “oh, you mean standing while black?” It was so cool that they were doing work like that. It would take me a while to get back to getting to do that kind of work. I think as an actor when you’re starting off early in your career, you’re kind of just seeing what lands. But Veronica Mars definitely primed me to look for surprising, dynamic women. It took me awhile to realize how cool that job was. Looking back I’m like, “God, that was really cool.”
the first time i saw the dub of Spider’s Intention I thought that Cantebury told Claude that his glasses were fucked up and you have no idea how upset i was when i realized he actually said “fogged up”