Dear White People and Selma actress Tessa Thompson covers Issue Magazine, where she discusses her new major role in Ryan Coogler‘s Rocky sequel Creed, hashtag politics, Dear White People‘s international success, and much more.Fruitvale Station):
On whether she was nervous about about how Dear White People would be received?
“I was speaking with Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington last night about this, actually. We were talking about how they’d gone to see ‘Dear White People’ at Sundance last year and Aaron said something to Ryan about me back then. At that time, they were just starting to write ‘Creed.’ Aaron followed me through the year.
“I auditioned, of course, but at the time there were a number of actresses they were interested in and also musicians. For a while, Ryan was keen on the idea of getting a musician without acting experience to play this part. I did the readings with Ryan and my co-star Michael B. Jordan, and after my audition I sent him a tape I had made of myself singing.”
“Until kind of recently I didn’t write any music. I co-wrote a song for the ‘Dear White People’ soundtrack, and that was the first song I’d worked on. Ryan was looking for a female musician who wrote and produced her own work. I’d always been interested in songwriting – it was something I’d done in secret and had a few unfinished songs lying around. For the movie, though, I’ve had to write songs that will play in the movie, to a deadline. It’s been a big challenge for me.”
On Chris Rock’s essay on being black in Hollywood for The Hollywood Reporter, where he mentions being offered the role of Huggy Bear instead of Starsky or Hutch:
“I didn’t care at that time as I was, frankly, a little annoyed with Hollywood. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I was in a really intelligent drama for two years (BBC America’s ‘Copper’), telling a story that was about this free black couple living in New York City in the Civil War period. That show got cancelled. I was hopeful about what was coming next, and I wanted to do something really interesting.
But I was sent two scripts for two network shows in which my role would be a slave. They were compelling dramas in a way and valuable stories, but it wasn’t interesting to me. They were race-specific in a way I found boring. I didn’t want to work until something really exciting came along.
‘Dear White People’ felt like a beacon of hope. It was a female character that was the subject of the narrative and not the object of the narrative. I was more nervous about the nature of the satire in the movie. The characters are mouthpieces more than they are real people. I felt worried about taking that language, which bordered on the Aaron Sorkin-esque heightened style, and making it something you could really get behind. I was also nervous about making my character real rather than just a caricature.”
On production executives who say black people only want to watch black people in shows and white people only want to see white people:
“It’s certainly a chip that I have on my own shoulder when I go after roles. There are certain roles that are just not written for someone like me. I realize the kind of conversations that need to be had there if they were going to choose to go with me. They feel they are taking a risk or making a choice that is ‘unconventional.’ It’s something I’m aware of, but I do see it as shifting. I acknowledge it happens, but if I acknowledge it too much then I feel I get too conscientious of it, and I’m not fighting. I’m not optimistic enough to see opportunities where they might exist.”
“Sometimes I look at social media to see how things might be changing. I look at the hashtag #DearWhitePeople and every so often someone will post something like, ‘I want to be Sam White,’ and it will be an Asian woman or a white guy. I get really excited in those moments.”
“Like Chris Rock, I’m really accustomed to watching films and looking at a character who looks nothing like me and feeling that I am that person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work the other way around so much. Unless we get into movies starring like Will Smith or Denzel Washington, then a film with a black lead is a “black movie” for black people. There’s that separation.”
“It would serve us all, I think, if we could get behind people for two hours that do not look like us and go on their journey. I think that would be useful for society. I think it would expand our humanity.”
“I don’t know how to make sense of that, but I do feel like the needle is edging forward. ‘Dear White People’ sold really well internationally. The Hollywood Reporter had this headline saying it was tearing away at the myth that black faces don’t sell abroad. It sold in Scandinavia and it sold in Hong Kong. It sold almost as much as or as much as ’12 Years A Slave,’ which of course won Oscars.”
Her thoughts on social media activism versus physical demonstrations and how people chose to protest the so-called Oscars “snub” of Selma director Ava DuVernay with #OscarsSoWhite:
On her hopes for the future:
“I was just this week at the University of Florida speaking to students on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. My talk was about just this – social media and activism. On MLK Day, I was on Instagram taking a break from writing my speech and there were all these pictures of Dr. King. I put in the hashtag and saw all the photos strangers had posted of him, then I found myself looking at those strangers. I realized he was kind of connecting me to other people in this weird way that’s totally disjointed. I wasn’t out on the street, I was looking at all these other people online who were, in turn, looking at other people too.”
“Although I do think direct action and organizing and having conversations like I had at UF is more valuable, I do think there’s something valuable about the internet being used to orchestrate that and organize those conversations. With the supposed Oscar snub, people organized their feelings around that hashtag and I think that was useful. People might have these feelings alone and they’re in this bubble. The internet can divide us, but it can also bring people together around something.”
“I don’t want to do anything until I feel I gotta do it. I want to go for parts I will fight for and would be devastated not to get. I felt like that about ‘Creed.’ I was such a fan of Ryan Coogler. He’s one of the most curious people I’ve ever met. He has a desire to find something that feels authentic. I had a hunch it would be something that would be really cool. I don’t feel any dogma about what kind of project I do next – I can see there being an action movie or superhero movie or a silly comedy I feel that way about.”
“I don’t want to be boxed in to any extent just because my last two projects explored race and politics. In a way, though, with some projects, because of who I am and what I look like, if I do get cast that just becomes political, in the same way the internet exploded with the idea of a black Stormtrooper. It happens around you.”