Tessa Thompson was at Sundance four years ago for the premiere of “Dear White People,” a film that slingshotted her career — she’s now a veteran of blockbusters (“Creed,” “Thor: Ragnarok”), a Best Picture nominee (“Selma”), a HBO hit (“Westworld”), and a Jay-Z music video (“Moonlight”). This week she returned to Park City with another feature tackling race, Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” in which a black telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) suddenly prospers when he learns to mimic a white person’s voice. Thompson will see the finished product for the first time at the January 20 premiere.
Over a fireside chat with Oscar-winning producer (“Crash”) and Women in Film, Los Angeles president Cathy Schulman, the actress, songwriter, and Time’s Up volunteer explained what drew her to the role. “I’ve long wanted to work in this space of magical realism in film,” she said. “I feel like for some reason there aren’t a lot of people of color who get to occupy those spaces.” After she’d worked as an actor for many years, Thompson “began to feel this feeling that there was a ceiling on the kind of stories that I could tell. That the kind of stories that made me interested in film in the first place were stories that were not available to me. And I think some of that had to do with just genre.”
As Riley shopped “Sorry to Bother You,” Thompson said he received constant pushback for pitching a “weird” film set in the future; financiers and studios questioned “if films like this work.” “You want to be like, ‘Have you seen ‘Being John Malkovich,’? or ‘Have you seen ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’?” Thompson said. “These films work and people want to see them. I think what people were saying without saying it is we don’t know about these movies with black faces. So when I read the script, I just thought, Finally.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Doug Emmett
The conversation took place in Park City at the DIRECTV Lodge Presented by AT&T. Thompson also revealed that her “favorite thing to do” is work with first-time directors, as she did with Tina Mabry (“Mississippi Damned”), Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) and Riley, best known as the lead singer of The Coup. “I just love that ripe time when someone has sat with something, it’s their baby, and you get to give it life and work with them,” she said. “To me it’s the magic of film.”
Speaking about the women’s empowerment movement she’s helping champion, Thompson was applauded for saying point-blank, “We want safe and equitable workplaces, and that just has to happen.” She continued, “I want to feel like I work inside of an industry that I admire, which means that I want workplaces to be fair, and to be safe for all people,” adding, “I think we’re capable of it.”
Schulman agreed, and spoke of experiences that led her to become an women’s advocate, such as when she “went through five jobs in a row, each time running into discrimination,” and the 13-year gap she experienced between working with female directors. “At a certain point, a certain rage grew in me.”
Besides campaigning for workplace safety and the chance to tell stories that “reflect the world in which we live,” Thompson said she wishes the industry would pigeon-hole people less, citing the example of female directors: “I resent when I hear women tell me [that] as a female director, the films that they can [get] meet[ings] on are only films about women. You should also have the ability to tell any story you want to tell.”