Tessa Thompson on the 'Men in Black' Line She Declined to Say

In a wide-ranging interview, the actor also shares her thoughts on her Marvel future, 'Westworld' season three and why she's going to bat for Chris Hemsworth to join the 'Creed' franchise.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Tessa Thompson at the 'Men in Black: International' premiere

Tessa Thompson has gotten used to threading the needle between nostalgia and creating something new.

She helped revitalize the Rocky franchise with Creed and is part of HBO's update on Westworld. This weekend she has Men in Black: International, a legacy sequel to the series that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones kicked off in 1997.

On the set of Men in Black: International, Thompson felt strongly that there's such a thing as too much nostalgia. She plays M, a woman who's spent her life seeking out the secret organization after witnessing them neuralyze her parents as a child. After first suiting up as a probationary agent, audiences were likely bracing for her to repeat, "I make this look good," a line delivered by Smith's J in the first film, but the actor declined.    

"I wouldn’t have said it. In fact, I think someone did ask me to — just as an option — and I said no," Thompson tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh. "M is just different from that character [Agent J]. Yeah, I was really conscious of too much nostalgia. Also, inside of that, there were moments when I thought, 'Let’s lean in.'"

Thompson is coming off of a small role in Avengers: Endgame, which saw her character Valkyrie assume the mantle of Queen of Asgard. In a conversation with THR, the actor shares her reaction to that scene, gets into her Marvel future and confirms that yes, she really is going to bat for Chris Hemsworth to join the Creed franchise.

Is it relieving to have a press tour where you don’t have to worry about spoiling Avengers movies?

I suppose it is, although I feel like I’m constantly involved in things where I’m so worried about spoilers all the time. Even working on Westworld, I feel like I’m always mired inside of paranoia that someone is going to arrest me and take me to spoiler jail.

Certain collaborations evoke something unique in us. They enhance us in ways that a solo effort often can’t. In that sense, how does your collaboration with Chris Hemsworth differ from your collaboration with Michael B. Jordan?

That’s so interesting; no one has asked me that. There’s this idea that audiences can sort of relax inside of familiar faces together, and there’s something you can look forward to. One big difference, in terms of those two collaborations, is obviously with Mike; we’re playing the same characters that get to evolve over a number of years and a romantic pairing, which I think is very specific. What I love about what we get to do is talk about millennial love and how that looks different inside of new ideas around family and partnership. So, I love that.

With this new film, my collaboration with Chris is us playing different characters, and there’s probably something familiar inside of it because it’s our personal dynamic. I think of it in terms of what Hollywood used to do all the time. In no way am I comparing either of these collaborations to this, but Hepburn/Tracy — these iconic duos that get to make a lot of work together. One thing that strikes me about what I get to do with Chris is that it’s not romantic at all, and I think that’s less common. I think that sort of bucks convention. We get to play buddies on a mission together, and we get to do that inside of a male/female pairing where we are equals in terms of screen time, agency and how much we mean to the plot. I think that’s really rare in terms of Hollywood films, unfortunately. I think that that’s something audiences can get behind and are excited by; I certainly am.

After encountering an alien and the MIB as a child, Molly devotes her life to finding the MIB. Is there an example from your career where you knocked down every door you could to get a particular opportunity you wanted?

I can’t liken it necessarily to Molly’s trajectory, because she was so narrowly focused on this organization from understanding that they existed, but when I look back now, since I was as young as Molly was during her first encounter, I was always interested in performance. I was always interested in observing people, and trying to get out of myself and be something else. There’s so much video of me doing that. When I was old enough to go to school, I was doing that on stages and combating my own stage fright, even when I first started doing plays as a kid. The other things that I thought I would do, or did do for a while, all pointed back to what I do now — just being interested and invested in people. So, in that way, I have been as narrowly focused as Molly; I just didn’t know it until more recently. I really have been at this my whole life in a way.

Agent O (Emma Thompson) puts M through a trial by fire, in which she handles herself quite well. Was there a particular project in your career where you were thrown into the fire, resulting in considerable success?

I shudder at my earliest experiences of working on camera; I’m very lucky that I got to do them with fantastic people. It was a lot, because I was learning on the job. So, I wouldn’t name those as successes, although I’m here to tell the story, so I suppose that’s a success in and of itself. More recently, I would say the first season of Westworld. I didn’t know what those scripts were; I signed on more blindly. They gave you fake pages to read, and I had conversations with the showrunners [Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy]. I didn’t know that I’d be playing this woman [Charlotte Hale] inside of a very male-dominated space, which Delos the company is, and having to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris and Jeffrey Wright. Also, just having to take up space in a way that as a performer I haven’t, and frankly, as a woman I haven’t — inside of male-dominated spaces — and having to really do that. Just to be able to really take up space in that way, I feel like it primed me for doing that in real life and in a real way with the work that I’ve been doing with Time’s Up. Certainly, when I was doing it on Westworld, I came into it not knowing that I would have to be doing that. It’s a good thing I was doing it with people as generous as Anthony Hopkins, but to be opposite a legend and a master class, I’m just glad I got out of there without sweating. He could sneeze and it would be riveting.

With “requels” or “legacyquels,” such as Creed and MIB: International, the challenge is including just the right amount of nostalgia so that audiences don’t feel like they’re being pandered to. When M was getting suited and booted, I kept thinking, “Please don’t make her say, ‘I make this look good.’” Were you conscious of avoiding too much nostalgia? Would you have been comfortable saying Will Smith’s famous line, “I make this look good,” if asked?

I wouldn’t have said it. In fact, I think someone did ask me to — just as an option — and I said no. (Laughs.) M is just different from that character [Agent J]. Yeah, I was really conscious of too much nostalgia. Also, inside of that, there were moments when I thought, “Let’s lean in.” For example, there’s a scene when M first enters MIB headquarters in London, and there’s this little alien being, which she goes down to pet and some things happen. One of the brilliant things about the first Men in Black, in particular, is that the humor and funny set pieces are situational, and have to do with this fish out of water. So, I thought that first scene in London’s headquarters would be a nice opportunity for it. There’s a writer that I was working with at the time named Jessica Gao, and we sort of came up with that gag, just as an alt, and I convinced them to shoot it as an alt. I think it works really well, just as another sort of nod to the earlier films, but I was really conscious of too much nostalgia.

To me, the reason to revisit older IP and franchises is if you have a really compelling reason. Sony had been wanting to make this movie for some years, and they had this seed of an idea: this young girl has an experience with an alien, and it changes her life. To be honest, one cool thing about revisiting films 22 years later is you get to make them with a modern sensibility — and I don’t mean better VFX, although that’s cool, too. I mean the modern sensibility now, and the time that we’re in, would allow for a woman like me to topline a studio film like this, and I think that’s impactful. It certainly introduces a whole new generation to it, a generation of young women and young boys, who get to follow a protagonist that looks like me. I think that means something. So, that was definitely a compelling reason, and I think it’s something new, fresh and not nostalgic. It just didn’t exist 20 years ago, and I’m happy that it does now.

You worked with two-time Oscar winner Dame Emma Thompson. Did you pick up on anything from her way of working or being that you might apply in the future?

She sort of just solidified the things that I know and the ways that I hope I am when I’m at my best. For example, she’s somebody who really and truly comes on to a set and just makes everyone feel great. Every day that she was on set, she brought treats for the whole crew, and she makes a point to go up to everyone, know their name and shake their hand. When you’re making these big movies that take four of five months and people are away from their families, that’s really important for morale and camaraderie, particularly to do that as the talent. So, to see someone like Dame Emma Thompson, who’s as seasoned and masterful as she is, work that way is really important, especially the levity and sense of humor that she has about the work and about herself. She’s so open to trying anything; she’s so incredibly collaborative.

The way that she met me and embraced me — literally embraced me — is something she didn’t have to do. It’s really just knowing the power that she has and how impactful she is, frankly. She does that with such grace, and just as an actor, her dexterity is incredible to watch live. You see it on camera, but just to watch her from take to take, tit for tat, always in new ways, always breaking new ground, the way that she can seamlessly go out of a very fun chat about what she did over the weekend and straight into a character with not a glitch in between is amazing, because that’s the way that I like to work. So, I can’t say enough about her. Getting to meet her changed my life, and she also imparted some really important things for me to hear, which is just to take care of myself. You work for so long just to get to a certain place in your career, and it can sort of be everything and you can be really narrow in terms of that, so it’s just important to really take time. So, she reminded me of that at a time when I really needed to hear it, and I can’t thank her enough.

An actor told me once that if you don’t know your scene partner before a fight scene, you certainly will after. With that in mind, how was your fight scene with Rebecca Ferguson?

(Laughs.) That fight scene was incredible. Obviously, she’s done the Mission: Impossible movies, and she has a real working relationship with their stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood, who’s also our stunt coordinator on the film. So, they had a real shorthand, which was great. Our fight scene was really challenging, because, obviously, she’s fighting with a third arm that she doesn’t have. So, she’s having to play that, and I’m taking punches from an arm that doesn’t exist. We also didn’t have a ton of time, relative to how ambitious the scene was, to really work it out. She commits so hard, and when I say hard, I mean sometimes it hurts. (Laughs.) She was so sweet, because she would feel so terrible; she’d really get me. I’d try to be tough and say, “No, you didn’t, you didn’t.” But, she would realize she did and feel awful. She’s so gifted and so funny. Also, I hope she wouldn’t mind me saying this, but she had her newborn with her. So, literally, in between takes, she was breastfeeding before going back in. What she’s capable of, physically, is incredible. They call it an E-Z Up, but I would come to her little tent while she was breastfeeding, and just sit and chat with her. So, I did actually get to know her really well. I loved her so much, as a fight partner and for the little work that we had together. I’d love to get to really team up with her again and do something. We’ve actually talked about that.

Since we only have a few minutes left, I’d like to do a lighting round of sorts. I have numerous quick questions, most of which you can’t go too in-depth on, so let’s see how far we get.

Cool!

Did you suggest Lily James to be Detroit’s British voice in Sorry to Bother You, because you had just worked together on Little Woods?

I did!

Is Lakeith Stanfield going to be upset that he wasn’t chosen for that alien surveillance cameo?

He might be because Donald Glover was. That was a surprise to me as well! I had been obsessively asking them almost every day who it was gonna be and Donald was a surprise. So, Lakeith might be upset, because I think he probably is an alien.

What’s your best adjective for Westworld Season Three?

Maybe this is boring, but surprising. It’s surprising me to no end. So, I think it will be to viewers, too.

“Charlores” is really fun by the way.

(Laughs.) It’s so fun to play. If you love that, just fucking wait until this season. Omigod. There’s a lot of fun.

Do you have a rough idea of when you’re playing Valkyrie next?

No. No idea at all, and it’s killing me! I want to know!

What was your first reaction to Valkyrie becoming Queen of Asgard?

I think my first reaction was, “How many Asgardians are left? How hard is the job?”

What was your first reaction to seeing the A-Force shot on the big screen?

Oh. My. Gosh.”

Did you shoot scenes that you thought were meant for Infinity War?

Oh, yes. Yes, I did. I don’t know if I was lied to or not.

What’s your impression of Rebecca Hall’s take on Passing?

It’s so beautiful. I read the novella, and I didn’t know how you would make it into a script. Then, I read the script, and I didn’t know how you could do it any more perfectly. It’s so beautiful.

What’s a skill you’ve learned from a movie that you still use in your everyday life?

That’s a really good question that I’ve never been asked. I learned to sign twirl for Sorry to Bother You. I learned to baton twirl for a film called War on Everyone. I don’t use either of those skills. I don’t use sword or dagger work anymore. Maybe, I need to pick all of these back up again. Hopefully, they’re like riding a bike.

How serious were you when you said you were trying to get Chris Hemsworth into the Creed franchise?

(Laughs.) Well, you should know that one of his favorite things to do is to imitate all the central characters of the Creed franchise: myself, Michael B. and Sylvester Stallone. So, I just get the sense that he really wants to be inside of the world. So, I’m doing it for him; I’m trying for him.

Do you have a rough idea of when you’ll play Bianca again?

No, but I know it will happen.

Have you met Sylvester Stallone’s 45-year-old turtles that he acquired during the first Rocky? Were they actually used on Creed, during Bianca’s scenes at Rocky’s house?

(Laughs.) Yes. Apparently, one of them was, and I got in trouble because I asked what the turtles’ names were [Cuff and Link]. Everyone on set gasped, because I should’ve known from the original films. I had just forgotten, so I vamped and said, “No, what are their real names, not their stage names?”

Which haircut do you prefer on Valkyrie's future love interest, Carol Danvers?

The truth is I love her so much that I love her any which way. She can do no wrong. If she wants to switch hair colors, I love her any way she is — just the way she is. I can’t pick one; I love them all.

Famously, you and a few other Marvel women stormed the gates of Kevin Feige’s office to pitch an all-women Marvel movie. Has there been any movement on that front?

(Laughs.) I don’t know. I know that we needed to just get through Endgame and to the next phase. So, maybe it’s time for me to check back in with Feige about it.