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Interview: Tessa Thompson Talks Emotionally Charged Scenes in 'Selma,' Becoming an Indie Poster Child w/'Dear White People,' & More

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act July 24, 2014 at 5:41PM

It's a busy time for Tessa Thompson, who appears in two much-discussed films being released later this year, Ava DuVernay's sweeping Civil Rights drama, "Selma," and Justin Simien's highly anticipated racial satire "Dear White People."
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Tessa Thompson
Shelby Duncan Tessa Thompson


It's a busy time for Tessa Thompson, who appears in two much-discussed films being released later this year, Ava DuVernay's sweeping Civil Rights drama, "Selma," and Justin Simien's highly anticipated racial satire "Dear White People."

The actress, who's well known for roles in '90s noir series "Veronica Mars" and Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," has also built a consistent resume of indie projects, from Tina Mabry's "Mississippi Damned" to co-producing and co-starring in "Grantham & Rose" opposite Marla Gibbs earlier this year, as well as performing with the indie soul band Caught A Ghost.

We recently had a chance to talk with her about upcoming projects and what's next for her career.

JAI TIGGETT: You've just finished filming "Selma," which deals with one of the most intense periods in American history. Tell me about the atmosphere on set.

TESSA THOMPSON: The energy behind the project felt very charged always. On set, depending on the day, there was a lot of laughing, singing, group hugs, prayers and cries.

The day that David [Oyelowo] did his first series of speeches in a packed church, he began by praying over the huge crowd watching, with Senator John Lewis himself in the front row, and a roaring thunder happened just as he finished and we lost all power. I think on any other production, this would have been perceived as some pesky impediment to our progress, but there was a sense of kismet and perfection in every step. 

Many of the crew had worked together before and some of the actors too, and there were also many fast and lasting friendships made in this process, so it truly felt like family. 

JT: Diane Nash, who you play in the film, doesn't get a lot of acknowledgement for the role that she played as a student leader in the movement.  How familiar were you with her story, and what kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?

TT: She is an unsung hero to be sure, and that made her presence in the film so exciting and important. I knew of her, vaguely, before I read the script. I was familiar with the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins in Nashville. But I didn't realize how essential she was to the SCLC 's involvement in Selma. I also didn't know about her relationship to James Bevel. I believe she was a figure who was at times marginalized because of her gender, but still remained strong and so instrumental.

I read everything I could, a book written about her, but also other leaders who mentioned her in their books. I also watched all the footage I could get hold of. And with the guidance of Common, who is a Chicago native, I took a trip to see where she grew up and to speak to some folks about the Southside of Chicago at the time she was coming up. I also spent time with the racist propaganda of the decade, video and audio that was published. This made me feel more connected to the endemic nature of the racism that she was fighting. 

JT: I had a chance to read the script and noticed that it isn't specifically an MLK biopic, as it's been described. It's really about the movement overall, and all of the supporting characters seem to get highlighted at some point. Which of your scenes left the biggest impact on you?

TT: I believe that is what Ava does so beautifully in this script, she is conjuring the feeling of a movement - the many hands, minds, and bodies, with King at its center. My favorite scene was a strategy meeting that takes place between many of the leaders. We had watched rare footage of King and his group casually eating and planning, and sometimes yelling, but always collectively aiming at resolution. That spirit was so fun to capture, and it was a pleasure to play with that caliber of actors. Also, the scene itself highlights the crazy legislation that kept Black people from voting at the time, so it feels rich with meaning.

JT: There was intense training to prepare Civil Rights activists for the treatment they were going to get, which is also mentioned in the script. Did Ava have the cast go through any of those simulated situations to prepare you for "Selma"?

TT: Not directly, but there were many conversations had about it. We were a group that was very steeped in research, so I think she trusted that we understood what these people did, on a base level. She made sure to remind us constantly that these are not characters - these are people, ancestors, flesh and blood, brother and sister.

"I think I've realized that when you are aiming to create a real body of work, you are as much defined by the things you don't do, as by the things you do."

JT: What do you think of the Oscar buzz that the film is getting at this early point?

TT: I haven't thought about it, actually, and I try hard not to anticipate how any work will be received or celebrated.

But there seems to be real excitement around the piece, and that is thrilling. I think when any one kind of film does well, it creates a precedent and paves the way for more like it. If this film means more studios will take a chance on narratives that are challenging, or having an indie (female!) writer-director at the helm, or a cast consisting of mostly people of color, then that's a fantastic upside of the success.

JT: You play a pivotal role in "Dear White People", with your character's voice and radio show driving the story. What was it like for you to anchor the film in that way?

TT: The film is a true multi-protagonist story. I felt responsible for the part of the narrative I held up, but I felt supported by all of the other actors and their work. The idea of playing Sam White scared me, which is why I wanted to do it so badly. Anyone that is highly opinionated and outspoken is prone to scrutiny at some point, and that is true in the script, but I also knew that given the subject matter, that might be true when audiences see the film. I did feel like the film wouldn't work if you didn't feel connected to these characters, if you didn't understand something at their core, and also if you didn't enjoy them as people.

JT: You've said that you related to some of the cultural/identity issues that Sam goes through, and wrote Justin a letter about it. What can you share about that?

TT: I wrote to Justin mostly as a fangirl because I was so taken with his voice when I read the script. But I did feel like the movie was a love letter to a previous self. The film is a satire about race in America, sure, but it is mostly about identity. There was a period when I had a hard time reconciling all the different parts of me in a way that I thought would make sense to others. Now I'm older and I care less and feel more fluid about myself, but had I seen a character like Sam White at that time, it might have been cathartic.

JT: The film is polarizing and stimulates a lot of discussion. What kinds of conversations are you having with people about the movie as it travels?

TT: Oddly, some of my favorite conversations have been with young people who haven't even seen the film yet, and already strongly identify with it. I was performing a theater piece recently and two young women found their way backstage to tell me that they've been following the film and feel as if their stories were being told. We, all three, had a laugh about silly conversations you get into as someone who is multi-racial and then, because it's 2014, we took some selfies.

I've had so many of those moments since we premiered at Sundance in January. I've never been a part of something that made its way into the zeitgeist quite in the grassroots way this has. It makes me feel like some indie poster child or something.

JT: Tell me about "Grantham & Rose" and working with Marla Gibbs.

TT: She was incredible. So funny, free, energetic, and easy. We made the movie on a micro-budget and on a very tight schedule with a lot of first-timers. To have someone of her level, at this point in her career, be so giving, patient, talented, and without ego, was such a gift. She also was so happy to get to be at the center of a narrative in that way and get a chance to show her range, and that was a gift to her. It was all around lovely.

JT: You have an associate producer credit on the film. Do you plan to produce other projects?

TT: My dearest friend Ryan Spahn penned this brilliant script and called me saying he had fashioned this character around me and would I be interested in spending some of the summer in Atlanta playing her. I agreed with the caveat that I would only do it if he and his team allowed me to produce as well. It was so such hard work, long hours, but so satisfying and invaluable for me to gain that experience.

I also spent a season on the last television show I did shadowing as a director there. I've been co-directing some music videos for the band I sing in as well. Eventually I'd like to take on something bigger in scope.

JT: People are calling this a breakout year for you, appearing in two very buzzy films. What are your aspirations at this point, for what kinds of roles and projects you'd like to take on next?

TT: The term "breakout" always makes me think of an inmate or some butterfly emerging out of a cocoon. I'll take that, if that's what the people are saying. But, I don't know, I'm just excited that both of my recent projects will come out this fall and in such close proximity.

I think I've realized that when you are aiming to create a real body of work, you are as much defined by the things you don't do, as by the things you do. I have other things of interest too, so if nothing is right at the moment, I can always keep myself busy. I want to do so many things! We are in a golden age of television with so many iconic characters being created in that space. Being one of the Walter Whites or Olivia Popes of the small screen world seems dreamy. But I love doing movies, so I'm happy to keep working that way too. I'm curious to see what is next.

JT: What are you interested in doing, that you haven't yet had a chance at yet?

TT: A lot. Broadway. Shakespeare in film format. Also, I sing in a band and would love to play a part where I can incorporate that. I would love to collaborate with my father on something. I want to someday play a relentless villain.


**

"Selma" will have a limited release on Christmas Day before being released wide on January 9.

"Dear White People" comes to theaters on October 17. 

This article is related to: Tessa Thompson, Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo, Common, Justin Simien, Marla Gibbs, Interviews


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