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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Tessa Thompson spent her childhood bouncing between L.A. and New York, where her father, singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson of the band Chocolate Genius Inc., is based. Now, after impressing in supporting roles in Selma and Justin Simien’s Sundance breakout Dear White People, she’s winning strong reviews for Creed, playing an aspiring singer and Michael B. Jordan’s love interest.
You have a musical background. Was that an advantage in playing Bianca?
I think [Creed director/co-writer] Ryan Coogler was really interested in authenticity, and had thought that maybe Bianca would be played by a musician that was maybe making her acting debut. Then I think what he found is that he wanted to make sure that whoever played Bianca could really challenge Mike, both as a character and an actor. So I think at that point it made sense to have an actor step into the role. [Ryan and I] had met at Sundance when I was there with Dear White People and he was there actually just taking a break from writing Creed to just see some movies. I think it was helpful for him to know that I had been onstage, that I could be onstage. He didn’t know much about my writing specifically, but I think he felt pretty safe once he knew that I could be onstage and command that part.
Was the music in the film a challenge for you?
I worked [on it] for two weeks straight for 15 hours a day. [Composer] Ludwig Goransson and I also had some guest artists come in. We had Donald Glover and an indie artist I really love called Moses Sumney. Other than that, it was basically just us hanging out. We had made 10 songs that we sent to Ryan, and there were four that he felt strongly about that would work in the context of the movie.
Was your portrayal inspired by any real-world women?
It was — the real-life woman I met when I went to Philadelphia. There were two women who did my hair, but I became very close with one of them. We would spend seven hours together and she’d be braiding my hair and helping me with Philly vernacular and telling me about her love life. Then a lot of it was just working with Ryan because he is a director who works with such specificity. Even things that won’t make it onscreen he wants to know about. He wants to answer every question about a character, and — particularly in the case of someone like Bianca, who so much of her story is something the audience doesn’t get to see — make sure it’s something they can feel in a really palpable way.
How do you feel about being compared to Talia Shire’s Adrian character in the first Rocky?
I guess that’s good. … But it isn’t something we thought too much about. Sylvester Stallone took care of that [reference] for us because he’s in the movie and satisfies that. I think that all of the decisions Ryan made about the various things that gave Bianca dimension and nuance had to do with wanting to present a character, down to the way that her hair was. You don’t get to see too many representations of ethnic hair onscreen, for example. In that way, I hope people also think, “Well, this is different than Adrian.”
Do you see parallels to the first Rocky film?
I think there are parallels in the sense that what I loved about the first Rocky in particular is that you got to see these two people who were very much unalike, come together — a love story that was plagued by difficulty. And a female romantic interest who was imperfect, that was not necessarily sexy, at least when you first meet her. I remember seeing that film at a young age, and that was interesting and moving. For me, as an actress, I don’t feel comfortable being put in a space where I’m sort of the hot girl in the movie. If I could do it maybe I would. It was really nice to get to play the romantic lead, but I didn’t have to lead with so many things that women have to, with their beauty and their sex appeal. Those are assets I just don’t feel that comfortable using in my work.
When did you know you wanted to act?
I grew up in Los Angeles, maybe a stone’s throw from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but I have no actors in my family. So when I thought of Hollywood I thought of the armpit of Hollywood. Now it’s in nice shape, but at the time it was sort of dingy and dirty. But I grew up watching movies, and I would make movies with my dad. I had a television series produced with my dad that was called Lizard Hunters. Literally we would hike through the Hollywood Hills, and my dad would be shooting the whole time and we would hunt for lizards and I would do a direct address to the camera. But it was really when I got my first job in television, an episode of Cold Case, where I played a bootlegging lesbian in the 1930s. I fell in love.
What’s your pet peeve about Hollywood?
The fanfare around awards now. The year Audrey Hepburn won the Academy Award for Roman Holiday, her acceptance speech was basically “thank you” and that’s it.
What’s next for your career?
The projects I’ve worked on recently have been with filmmakers that I think have something interesting to say. That’s sort of been the barometer for me, to do projects that interest me, that frighten me, that challenge me, that have a point of view that is going to enrich me or expand me as a person.
Born: Los Angeles
Big break: Playing civil rights activist Diane Nash in Selma; Dear White People
Reps: Greene & Associates, Mosaic and Jackoway Tyerman
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