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

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

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.

just finished filming “Selma,” which deals with one of the most
intense periods in American history. Tell me about the atmosphere on set.

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

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.

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

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

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

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