‘CREED’ Star Tessa Thompson Fights For Creativity
Tessa Thompson has been around for awhile. In fact, my introduction to the bright-eyed actress was during a 2005 episode of Cold Case where she portrayed Billie Ducette, a lesbian bootlegger circa the 1930s.
Her performance was compelling and poetic.
Following her debut TV role, she scored a casting in the series, Veronica Mars and has since transitioned into film with roles in Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned (2009), Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls (2010), and Grantham & Rose (2014).
But Tessa’s rising star struck a Hollywood high when she led a group of Black college students caught in a culture war as Samantha White in Justin Simien’s satirical feature Dear White People (2014).
Following her leading performance, the L.A. native portrayed civil rights activist Diane Nash in Ava DuVernay’s SELMA (2014). It was another layered, cultural piece giving strong voice and visual to race relations and the fight for human equality.
A running theme in Thompson’s work? Maybe. But then again it could just be Tessa’s attraction to humanity shown through rich filmmaking and storytelling. Her characters stand out with relatable human conditions and ideals.
Next up, Tessa, who moonlights as an electro-soul musician with the band ‘Caught A Ghost’, hits the big screen alongside the talented Michael B. Jordan and the smooth Sylvester Stallone in Ryan Coogler’s CREED.
The story, which builds from the Rocky franchise, sculpts the identity of Adonis Creed, son of Rocky’s toughest competitor and close friend, Apollo. Tessa becomes “Bianca”, a Philly singer with a sea of stories swimming in her eyes.
Tessa talks to JET about her intent as an actress and writer, creating “Bianca” and what it’s like to be part of a “Ryan Coogler Film”.
JET: During the BlackOut Festival in August, you spoke about your interest in projects that present what’s next in media and creativity. What was the “newness” about Creed that intrigued you?
Tessa: I think representation is so important. There’s a whole group of people that live in Philadelphia that may relate to the “Rocky” films, but they’ve never seen anyone that looked like them in a Rocky movie before. I was excited by the idea that ‘here are these stories that are so iconically American and what these movies mean to Philly is incredible.’ The energy we were met with when we shot this movie was astounding. I thought of all the young, Philly girls going to see the movie opening night or weekend and getting really excited about seeing a piece of themselves reflected on screen. To me, if you’re going to make movies that are about the same character or in the same universe, then you ought to have a compelling reason to tell that story, and I feel like Ryan really had one. It’s exciting to me to tell stories in a truthful way and Ryan Coogler has an interest in doing that so…I was sold.
JET: I loved that your character had a story. How much input did you have in shaping ‘Bianca’s’ universe?
Tessa: I had a lot of input because Ryan is such a collaborative director. I think for him, Bianca was really an important piece of this puzzle to cast, and he really took his time. He wanted someone who could write the music, collaborate and have a really strong point of view and bring that to the character of ‘Bianca’. I feel really lucky that I’m the benefactor of that. When he cast me, he and Aaron Covington (co-writer) were not done with the final script, so we had a lot of conversations while he was in Philly and I was in L.A. about working on the music and how to make ‘Bianca’ a really rich, interesting character. I spent 10 months in Philadelphia just doing research and finding Philly girls (laughs). We would literally stop women on the street and take photographs of them – it was awkward for them but great for us! Sometimes [Ryan] would take a photograph of a girl at a train station for example, and found something really compelling about her eyes and unique to Philadelphia. I spent a lot of time looking at that picture and walking around the streets of Philadelphia, figuring out how to embody that. So thank you, that means a lot to me because we worked hard at flushing her out. We hope that people who see the film have a palpable sense that this is a real person with a rich life and rich inner-world.
JET: I wrote that in my notes after viewing the film that you felt the genuine connection with the ensemble. It felt like we were behind-the-scenes of these people’s lives. If that makes sense.
Tessa: No, that makes total sense! That’s really the way Ryan likes working. He also did a really cool thing that I think is pretty rare in context, especially a studio film, where we would have rehearsals or the three of us [Tessa, Michael, and Ryan] would hang out on weekends and just go through the scenes, play and improv and then Ryan would incorporate that into the script. I think you can only really freely do that if you really understand the ins and outs of the character. There were so many conversations on how to make [certain] scenes really rich. Everything that we put in the house has a story behind it and is there for a purpose and also for me to go in that room, look around, and feel like I’m living inside of her house, her skin. I just love that Ryan likes to work that way and bring that format to a studio movie. It felt very much like a “Ryan Coogler Film”, so it’s interesting that you say that because that was really what we were trying to capture.
JET: Who/what do you study to pique your creativity and to better understand the direction and intent of your craft as an actress and writer?
Tessa: That’s such a good question. I think for me, I realized in the last couple of years that your career or life, in general, is defined by the things that you do just as much as by the things that you don’t do. I’ve tried to hold on to that and have a sense of patience in waiting for the right thing and knowing what it is that I want to say and what inspires me. And if I don’t see those opportunities, then finding a way to create them for myself. That’s been my anchor and I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with people who work in that same way. I’ve been in a place where I really set that intention to look for those kind of people that are going to challenge me in that way and that has been the Justin Simien’s, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler. I think now I’m in a place where I’m constantly looking for that, looking to collaborate with people that really want to get in there and push each other and also push us through culturally and aren’t wasting the platform that they have. It’s seamless in a way that you can approach your life and your work and hopefully, you can marry them so that you’re constantly living in this space where you’re trying to be true and authentic. I don’t know, that’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?! (laughs).
*Head over to our sister site, EBONY.com for an interview with Michael B. Jordan!