Tessa Thompson on Working With First-Time Directors: "I'm Happy to Get Them as Early as Possible"

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Tessa Thompson

Ahead of a trip to Art Basel in Miami for an artist competition, the actress talks to THR about goofing off with Chris Hemsworth, why she loves first-time helmers and what to expect from her new film, 'Passing.'

Tessa Thompson is on a tear.

The 35-year-old actress has had a banner 2018 thus far, thanks to back-to-back projects on screens small (HBO's Westworld) and big (Creed II, Annihilation and Sorry to Bother You). She's adding a side hustle with a quick trip to Art Basel in Miami (Dec. 6-8), where she hopes to meet and engage with visual art and emerging artists in partnership with the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series.

Ahead of the trip, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Thompson to talk about sociopolitical film projects, family and goofing off with Chris Hemsworth on the upcoming Men in Black film.

You've just wrapped filming on MIB, the newest Men in Black installment. Can you tell us about your favorite day on set? Or most challenging?

One of my favorite things about working with Chris [Hemsworth] is we really love getting to a point where we’re so silly and so ridiculous and we’re taking such risks that we turn to each other and we’ll just go, "Yeah, we’re never going to work again.” That happened a lot. A challenging day is that I had a fight scene with Rebecca Ferguson, who, of course, has done two Mission: Impossible movies. She’s incredibly fierce at fight scenes. So I took a couple hits, which she apologized for profusely. What I loved about Rebecca is that she was breastfeeding her baby at the time. I would go in a little tent next to mine and visit her where she was breastfeeding in-between takes. She'd put the baby down and go right back into being so incredibly fantastic in the fight stuff. That was definitely a favorite moment. 

It has been announced that you're going to work with Rebecca Hall and Ruth Negga on Passing, based on Nella Larsen's 1920s Harlem Renaissance novel. Tell us more about the story and who you play.

It is based on the novella .. .and it follows a woman named Irene who is reunited with a woman she knew in her childhood, played by Ruth Negga. My character is, essentially, passing for white ... and this person she’s reuniting with has decided to pass in her life all the time. The novella and film explore the ways in which their reunion unravels both of their lives. The film, too, explores race to an extent because it’s about two black women that are passing for white, but it’s really a film more about the performance of race and gender, and my character takes the performance of motherhood and happy home life. I’m such a fan of both Ruth and Rebecca. Rebecca wrote this film 15 years ago when she was exploring some things about her family history, so she had a deeply personal reason to tell this story. But it was so hard for her because there weren’t people that were interested in making this film because it centered on two women — women of color. It’s shot in black-and-white. It’s exciting that in the 15 years that have passed when she wrote the film, there’s a real search for stories with women at the center.

How do you feel about working for an actress making her directorial debut?

To me, that’s the most exciting thing. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers, like Tina Mabry and Justin Simien and Boots Riley. For me, when I find a new and exciting voice, which I think Rebecca is, selfishly, I’m happy to get them as early as possible. Rebecca has written other screenplays and is such a gifted actor that I can’t wait to begin shooting and see the depths that she can push me to.

You seem to gravitate towards projects with social and/or political messages. Have you seen a change in what's coming your way during these particular times?

Yes. I think so. Potentially, a part of it is that those folks that are interested in collaborating with me obviously know that I have a vested interest in telling stories that, at times, have some sociopolitical import and want to talk about what’s happening in the world. Maybe they assume that I’d be a good collaborator in that space. But having nothing to do with me, if I’m seeing a change in the kind of content that people are making and we’ve seen with a film like Get Out, for example, that a part of being a film that wants to talk about racism in new and exciting and dynamic ways, it’s just a fantastic film that does something miraculous inside of the genre that turns the genre on its head. That’s just, frankly, what I’m seeing more across the board. I’m being sent a lot more scripts. I’m having conversations with a lot more filmmakers who want to do that by using film in more subversive ways. There’s a real democratizing that is happening inside of the industry and in terms of who is able to tell stories and how. I hope that, in some small way, the work I’m doing helps to be a part of that change in some way.

Tell us more about how this partnership came about between you and the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series, an art competition for visual artists. 

It’s a partnership I’m so excited about because the work they do in terms of making the art space more inclusive and giving voice to up-and-coming underrepresented artists is something right up my alley. I have been trying to discover more about the art world, and I've had friends and people that I’ve admired from afar introduce me to artists whose work talks about the intersection of race and gender and telling their stories through the medium, which is so powerful. It’s so exciting for me to get to be a part of this experience, where hopefully we can give voice to more people and just to get to see some art.

Are there any particular emerging visual artists that have inspired you?

I haven’t met any yet, but when they asked me if I wanted to come and be in Miami, I did everything that I could to figure out my schedule so that could be the case. My dad was friends with an artist named Kiki Smith growing up. I remember there was a period of time when she was out of town. He house-sat and I got to see her space and her work. My dad is a musician and would sometimes collaborate with visual artists. For me, getting to see artists during the period of creation — even in my father’s recording studio as a kid — it sort of took the veil off of what an artist does and put it into real context in terms of the amount of time and sweat equity it takes to make a work of art. That’s something that’s tremendous for me. What we’re trying to do is all the same — it's just the medium changes in terms of storytelling. A lot of my heroes I’ve not had the chance to meet.