She already has an impressive amount of film credits under her belt, For Colored Girls, Selma, Dear White People and Creed, just to name a few. But Tessa Thompson, isn’t just in it for the credits, she’s in it for the craft.
With the highly anticipated Creed II just days away, we got a chance to speak with Tessa about her dream role, Michael B. Jordan, what’s one her playlist and her favorite Philly cheese steak.
Check out Creed II, this Thanksgiving!
By Hasan James
Root: I got a chance to see the film, Creed, and it is an amazing film! This is that kind film franchise of course.Can you talk a bit about how you got cast in the film and the intricacies of your character?
Tessa: When we were making the first one, I came in and met with Mike (Michael B. Jordan) and Ryan (Coogler) and really felt so familiar with them immediately. I loved playing Bianca, so I was happy to come back and play her again. It’s the first time that both Mike and I have done a second installment of a film, so it was new for us. We got so close making the first film that it felt seamless getting back into it. I play a young recording artist who is struggling with progressive hearing loss and she sort of has a timeframe on her dreams in a way. I would say that’s one of the intricacies of playing her, but I also think we established what millennial love looks like. When two folks are fiercely independent and pursuing their own dreams, there are also becoming entangled in each other’s lives through their love. Obviously roles for women and men have shifted since the first Rocky film, so I think that was something interesting to explore in both Creed films.
Root: Were you a fan of the Rocky franchise prior to you taking on this role?
Tessa: I really loved the first Rocky film and I remember seeing it as a kid. To me, it felt just like a love story and the backdrop was boxing. I loved Adrian and I thought she was such a cool character. Even as a child, I felt like their love was really relatable because there was something childlike about it. It wasn’t like those old Hollywood romances, but very authentic and just so Philly! So obviously when I booked the film, I started watching the other Rocky movies and became a big fan of the entire franchise.
Root: What was it like working with Michael B. Jordan and a legend like Sylvester Stallone?
Tessa: I loved Mike ever since Fruitvale station. He’s just so gifted and every time he collaborates with Ryan, it’s so special. So that was one of the reasons I really wanted to make the first Creed film and working with Sly was incredible. It’s not often where actors write, produce and direct them films, but he’s really a pioneer in that space. It’s really inspiring that it’s become this enduring franchise, but when the first film was made, it was an independent that nobody was betting on, ya know? So in that way, I think that the film is woven into the DNA of films that tell a story about the underdog. And it’s that type of self belief that keep audiences coming back.
Root: Your character is a singer with a disability. How important was it to convey the importance of being able to achieve your dream despite having a disability?
Tessa: I think it was hugely important just to normalize it. I actually have a family member that goes in and out of having trouble with hearing, so it’s something that affects a lot of people globally and we’re shining a light on that. Also, when I spoke to people that were deaf or have hearing loss, one thing that became really clear to me is that for them, they live full and happy lives. Something that was really important for me was to tell the story in the most authentic way possible and in a way somewhat challenging. However, we had so much help with professionals and folks that have had these experiences, so I hope that comes across in the film.
Root: Bianca is Adonis’ rock and vice versa. I just love your love for one another. Can you talk to us about the strength and tenacity of your character and how she can inspire other women?
Tessa: I think the thing that’s most inspiring about her is that she resembles women that we could know and that we can love and hopefully she’s not some sort of Hollywood idea of what a girlfriend or wife is like. I’ve had so many women come up to me and tell me that and I think it’s cool that she has her own thing going and I think that’s something that is really rare when you talk about the female counterparts in sports movies because they’re so male centric that it’s hard to have a female character that doesn’t feel like a cipher, quite frankly. So, I think that’s the thing that is inspiring. I remember when we made the first Creed, Ryan Coogler showed me a picture of this girl that he saw at the train station here in Philadelphia and she became like our North Star, everything about her, the look in her eyes, the way she was dressed, and even in doing research for Bianca and trying to figure out what she moves like, what she sounds like, had everything to do with a woman that I met with. She has become one of my best friends and Sydney who braided my hair, we spent countless hours together. So to me, Bianca is just as much of myself I could put on that screen, and as much of the women that I’ve met in my life and here in Philadelphia making the film, and so it feels very personal to me for that reason.
Root: Did you get a chance to have the whole “Philly” experience while filming in the city of brotherly love?
Tessa: Oh my God! I went to Max’s the first day I arrived when we made the first film, which was awesome because I came a month early just so I can hang out at all of the venues, to get a sense of it just because I’d never been to Philadelphia before. I’m from California and it’s just very different. So yeah, the very first day Ryan sent me to Max’s. Johnny Brenda’s is where I ended up performing in the first film and that was the result of me just hanging out and getting to know folks. That was a venue that I loved at the time and I was actually singing in bands and we performed at Johnny Brenda’s. It was the only time I’d ever been to Philly for one night, so I went back there and hung out in beauty salons, nail shops and I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I would just voice record people sometimes just to get the Philly vernacular. I just wanted a real Philly vibe and get a sense of where I think Bianca came from and what her experiences were and get down to the little details.
Root: Before the Creed franchise, you had other great movie roles in movies like For Colored Girls and Dear White People. I love the fact that DWP went from a movie to a series. I didn’t see you in the series but I’m sure you were working on another film…
Tessa: I was doing some other things, but I love Logan. She’s really good.
Root: Recently the author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf, Ntozake Shange, passed away. Did you get a chance to meet her and spend time with her?
Tessa: I did and I spent a lot of time with her actually. it was really special to me. It was incredible! She was vivacious, colorful and kind. I was in my 20’s when I made that film and I had never made a big Hollywood film before but she was really sweet to me and took me under her wing, took me to my first fashion show and showed me around. I’m very sad to see her go.
Root: Do you have any upcoming film roles you can tell us about?
Tessa: I just wrapped on the new Men In Black movie, so that comes out in Summer 2019 and it stars Chris Hemsworth, myself and Emma Thompson and a wonderful cast. I’m really excited about it because it’s taking the franchise in a new direction. We essentially become Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones characters in the movie and it’s just really exciting. Obviously there’s been women in the other movies, but never as a lead agent. So it’s really exciting for me to play one of the agents. I’m also working on the next season of West World.
Root: You played a musician in your current movie, Creed.What are you vibin’ to now, music wise?
Tessa: I really love the last Internet record, so I’m listening to that still. I listened to the last Blood Orange record from Dev Hynes. I really like that Lil Wayne song with Kendrick Lamar, I really love that feature. Joni Mitchell celebrated a birthday a few days ago and I’ve been listening to her a lot, so that’s what’s been on my playlist lately. Oh and Tierra Whack, I love her! She’s a dope female rap artist.
Root: As an actress, what’s your dream role?
Tessa: You know, what’s funny is, I feel embarrassed to say that I don’t have one singular dream role. I mean, there’s definitely some people that, real life characters, I’ve never done that except for playing Diane Nash in Selma, which I was really happy to play. I’d love to have the chance to do that again with someone who I admire and, getting the challenge of really embodying them. Um, so there’s a number of people sort of on that list and one that’s potentially in the works. I’m working on a project about a real life woman named Doris Payne who was a diamond thief, so that’s a project that I’m producing and working on. So, I think getting to do more of that, just building a project from the ground up, being a producer of feeling like I’m not just a collagen, something moving, that I’m instrumental to the organism. I also would like to do more period pieces, especially since women of color so infrequently get to occupy that space.
Root: I follow you on social media and I saw that you were very vocal about voting and we had kind of a huge turnout.
Tessa: Yes! And there’s a lot of things to celebrate and there are a lot of success stories, particularly for women of color. So, that’s incredibly exciting, no matter what side of the political party line that you’re on, it’s really inspiring to see so many people engaged. We had so many first time voters and so many millennial voters. But the voter suppression is just tremendous and something that really needs to be addressed in this country. I think the silver lining is if we continue to stay engaged, that’s when we really can, can see change. I have a very touch and go relationship with social media because sometimes I’m like, what is the point? But I think when you can connect in that way, that was an inspiring day for me just to see people go out and vote with their kids and use social media in that way. I think when we begin to learn how to do that, how to use our voices, how to help educate each other, how to make those connections, is when we really see the benefits of technology in the way that we can use them to get closer as humans, and to really lobby our collective power because that’s when we are so powerful, together.