Tessa Thompson Breaks the Mold

The Hollywood Race, Part I

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In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in the film world—on and off the screen.

Director Steve McQueen once said in an interview that, before meeting him, people would often assume that he was white. I felt a bit guilty when I first read that, remembering my surprise when I looked up his name after watching Shame, gasping at the first photograph I saw. True, this was a gasp of excitement—elation, even. As in, “Yes! A black man directed a movie like Shame?! Yes!” But this reaction also points to an issue that comes up in my conversation with actress and singer/songwriter Tessa Thompson—there are certain expectations we have for our black filmmakers and actors. We are excited when some of them break the mold, but even those of us working against stereotypes and misconceptions participate in perpetuating them, at times. In the first installment of The Hollywood Race, we talk with Tessa Thompson, star of Sundance favorite Dear White People about working with Tyler Perry, Justin Simien, and her two favorite, “whitest” movies from last year.

Tessa Thompson has no qualms saying the unexpected thing, if that thing is her truth. In a conversation about her critically acclaimed co-stars from the set of For Colored Girls—Phylicia Rashad, Kerry Washington and Janet Jackson, first she tells me what I expect to hear. Obviously, these women were great and inspiring, and she learned so much. Thompson was—like any of us would have been—struck by Rashad’s poise, and floored at being in the presence of Ms. Jackson (one of her childhood icons), and Thandie Newton. They were all actresses she’d previously “admired from afar.” But when I ask her which of these women she connected with the most, her answer surprises me:

“Actually, on set, the person who really surprised me was Macy Gray. Although we worked so little together in the context of the movie, and we were even kind of at odds—she gives me the abortion in the film—it was her. Here’s a woman who’s been in a number of things. First, she’s a musician, but in her work as an actress, she just lets it all out. She’s not necessarily concerned with making the right choice and because of that she has this freedom. When that incredible lack of inhibition meets talent, and research and craft, that’s really special.”

For Colored Girls, a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange adapted for the screen by Tyler Perry, surely took Thompson back to her theater days. Like many actors, she fell in love at a young age (she remembers auditioning for A Midsummer Nights’ Dream her sophomore year in high school, her first positive experience with Shakespeare), but it took her some time to pursue—really pursue—a career.

“I had all these odd jobs, and I was just broke!” she recalls. “Eventually, when I realized that [commercials] were not for me, I finally started going out for television roles, and stuff just started happening.” Some of that “stuff” included her role as Jackie Cook on Veronica Mars. Though she was unable to make it into the recent movie remake, Thompson has fond memories of the period in her life building up to the big break.

The conversation soon turns to this notion of diversity in Hollywood. One of the reasons we’re talking is because I included Thompson on a list of “10 Black Actresses to Watch in 2014.” There are people who believe such lists are unnecessary in 2014. It’s much more pleasant to think of America as a post-racial society. And it even seems like we are sometimes, until someone slips up and gets caught saying something racist, at which point we all get together and rage collectively on Twitter for a few days. But part of the goal of this series is to keep that conversation going, even when there isn’t a race-related scandal afoot, and Thompson was willing to open up about her experiences as a person of color in the industry.

“I try to pick interesting projects, the kind of projects that I would want to watch. Unfortunately, there isn’t always that for me. There are great things out there, and—not to throw shade to people like Tyler Perry—because I’ve done a Tyler Perry film and I think the work he’s doing is important and the fact that he’s a force in Hollywood creating this black empire is impressive. But the kind of films that I’d want to do are more like my two favorite films from last year—Her and Nebraska—probably the whitest films of the year.”

She’s joking a bit, and we laugh. She’s quick to point out that her love for these films doesn’t, technically, have anything to do with race. She describes them as “really human stories told in interesting, non-conventional” ways, and she laments the fact that there simply are not more of these types of scripts for people of color.

“The truth is, no, we don’t live in a post-racial state anywhere in America, and this is particularly true in Hollywood.”

The fact that, earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) was given a diversity award is proof of that. Thompson brings this up, delving into the reasoning behind Rhimes’ acceptance speech, in which she expressed her gratitude for the award and also said that she was “pissed” to be receiving such an accolade when diversity in media should be so common that such an award would be unnecessary. Until we all start thinking a little more like Rhimes, Thompson says we won’t move past this point:

“What about just casting the person who’s right for the part? Even if it’s different from what you thought you were looking for, racially? That comes from a place of openness. Deciding that any person can play the protagonist, and any person can play the villain—only then can we have real diversity in media.”

For now, Thompson says she’s doing her part in the business, which may actually mean working less. After working on a project like Justin Simien’s Dear White People (recently picked up by Lionsgate), she says she can’t just take any old role that comes her way. Simien is the kind of guy who, she says, understands that there are black people who want to see Wes Anderson movies, and he also has had a number of experiences as a man of color working in the industry for over a decade. This appreciation for a black audience that isn’t always on the radar works it way into his highly anticipated directorial debut. Thompson plays the lead in the film, Samantha White. Sam initially plays as a militant college student, the voice of the campus radio show “Dear White People,” and she also functions as “the mouthpiece of the film.” But Thompson says, like any good movie, the story is more complicated than that, and things are not just a black and white.

“Sure, the title is purposefully provocative, and it does represent what the film explores on a very basic level,” she says. “But really the film is about identity—identity versus self. It’s about the things that are actually true for you and the things you want people to think about you, and how you reconcile those two things.”

Thompson says we’ll be surprised by how “lighthearted” the story really is, and I believe her since she’s been full of surprises throughout this conversation. In addition to all of this, she’s a budding rock star. This month, her band Caught A Ghost will tour with another band, Wild Bell. Even today, this is a unique path for a woman of color, but maybe at some point it won’t be such a big deal. For now, Thompson may seem a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood, but as we’ll see in the coming months, she’s in good company.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.