Westworld's Tessa Thompson talks acting, activism, and impulse tattoos
From superhero to corporate shark, elegant A-lister to amateur anthropologist—the only constant with Tessa Thompson is perpetual change.
It’s not exactly déjà vu, and there may be no fitting French idiom for “full-circle memory,” but that’s exactly what Tessa Thompson is experiencing as she strolls around the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier.
It was here, as a fifth grader, that the actress gave her first public performance, memorizing Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” for a school poetry recital. Now 34, she has returned to the Southern California town as a bona fide movie star, due to a series of career turns which she describes with a colorful phrase that—for the sake of this family-friendly publication—we’ll call “oh, sheesh” moments.
Thompson expands on this idea a little later, over lunch at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. Dressed in a shimmering black pantsuit with a funky fringe at the cuffs, she looks every bit the Hollywood diva—until she emits the first of her frequent bursts of laughter, which comes as she describes the euphoria of landing a big part and the creeping sense of performance anxiety that follows, as in: “Oh, sheesh, now I actually have to pull it off!”
There have been many such moments for Thompson lately. Last year, she stole the show as a hard-drinking Marvel superhero in Thor: Ragnarok (a role she’s rumored to be reprising in this month’s Avengers: Infinity War). She held her own alongside Oscar winner Natalie Portman in the recent sci-fi thriller Annihilation. She plays the lead in this summer’s Sorry to Bother You, a fantasy-comedy that was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And this month (April 22), she returns as the ruthless Charlotte Hale in season two of the creepy HBO sci-fi hit Westworld.
While all this might suggest a career that is skewing toward the blockbuster-fantasy genre, you could actually disregard all the sci-fi stuff and Thompson would still have a pretty full dance card. Later this year, she’ll star opposite Michael B. Jordan in the Rocky spinoff Creed 2, while other upcoming projects include the prison comedy Furlough and the modern Western Little Woods. She’s also set to produce a biopic about real-life jewel thief Doris Payne. Oh, and because she is clearly not busy enough, Thompson appears in a steamy music video for her friend Janelle Monáe’s new album, which drops this month.
Offscreen, Thompson is a high-profile activist. She opened the Women’s March alongside Jane Fonda at Sundance earlier this year, and is heavily involved in the Time’s Up movement, which works to end harassment and inequality in the workplace—issues Thompson, as a woman of color, is familiar with. “I remember when I first started working, the kind of roles that I could play,” she says. “I wouldn’t get to see myself in a sweeping period film. I wouldn’t get to be the love interest in a romantic comedy. There were these very clear delineations around what I could be in media, and that just felt really stifling.”
Thompson has a green salad as we chat, then checks her reflection in her cell phone to make sure there’s no food in her teeth. “I’m a clumsy person,” she says, laughing. “I spill stuff on my clothes all the time.” Nobody seems to notice, or care, that an A-list actress is conducting a tooth check beside them. The Four Seasons’ Culina is a favorite Hollywood let’s-do-lunch spot, and the industry types talking shop around us (including Alex Garland, who directed Thompson in Annihilation) would not dream of being openly impressed by a celebrity in their midst.
As for Thompson, who has been acting professionally for 13 years, she is still liable to get starstruck now and then, and has a catalogue of anecdotes to prove it. During her recent encounter with Jane Fonda, for instance, she gushed to the star about what a huge fan she is—“I got to tell her what 9 to 5 meant to me as a kid”—and had no qualms about name-dropping afterwards: “Now, I can just be like, ‘Jane Fonda, my friend.’” She also recalls being invited to a Janet Jackson concert by Jackson herself (“Growing up, I was her three different times for Halloween.”) and thinking: “OK, I’ve made it. I can stop now.”
If this is a slightly uncool thing for a celebrity to say, maybe it’s because Thompson doesn’t really think of herself in those terms—and for this, she says, we can thank her family. “What I’ve always heard about fame is that you don’t change as much as the people around you do, and no one around me has changed,” she says. “My mom calls IMDb ‘IMBD.’”
She lets loose with one of those big laughs again, this time turning a few heads.
When asked what it takes to be a good performer, Thompson turns to a quote from the great comic actress Lucille Ball: “I’m not funny. What I am is brave.” What Lucy was getting at here, says Thompson, was that she was not afraid to make a fool of herself—she was brave in the way that kids are. “You’ve seen how children play,” she says. “They’re not thinking about how they’re perceived by others.” Adults, on the other hand, are generally consumed by the idea of outside scrutiny, which is why you rarely see them jumping in puddles or making faces through bus windows. “Bravery is acting without dignity,” Thompson says. “It’s about not taking yourself too seriously.”
This principle was put to the test when Thompson had her first significant encounter with green-screen work, during the shooting of Thor: Ragnarok, which not only required her to conjure up thoughts and emotions, but also to interact with things that weren’t really there. “It’s silly sometimes, the things you’re asked to do with CGI,” she says. “You know, you’ll be imagining something really dramatic, and in your eyeline there’s somebody just eating a sandwich.” She smiles. “It felt like being a kid playing. It was fun.”
Thompson’s interest in acting began when jumping in puddles came naturally. The second oldest of five children, she was a precocious kid who loved dancing and performing. There was a precedent for this: Her father is singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, the founder of the musical collective Chocolate Genius. Her parents split when she was young, so she and her siblings divided their time between their dad’s place in Brooklyn and their maternal home in the coastal California city of Santa Monica.
While she enjoyed acting as a youngster, Thompson didn’t think of it as a potential career. “It didn’t feel like something that made sense to dedicate your life to—there had to be something more meaningful.” After high school, she enrolled at Santa Monica College, where she studied cultural anthropology, but eventually succumbed to the bug. “I couldn’t help it,” she says. “At some point, I was like: Acting is either a thorn in my side, because it’s a constant preoccupation, or it’s just something I do, and I figure out how to make it hold my attention.”
Even now, you can still see the anthropologist in Thompson—she has a habit of turning a question this way and that to arrive at an answer. Annihilation director Garland describes her as a “ferociously bright and thoughtful” person, and there are several moments during our conversation that feel more study group than celebrity profile. “The way you look up at the stars shifts when you know more about them,” she says while discussing Garland’s extraterrestrial thriller. “They either have less mystery because you understand them, or more.” She checks herself mid-reverie, smiling in a silly-me way. “I don’t know.”
These sorts of questions, says Thompson, are what keep acting fresh and interesting. She is also a firm believer in the invigorating qualities of fear—the “oh, sheesh” thing in its purest form. “I love to find roles that scare me,” she says. “One of my favorite things, even though it can be hard sometimes, is to get a job and be uncertain if I can do it justice.” Ragnarok presented such a challenge for Thompson, and not only because she had to pack on 15 pounds of muscle.
When preparing for a dramatic role, Thompson thinks about amplifying or diminishing certain qualities of her own character. “You’re aiming to become another person,” she says, “but you start with yourself.” When the person you’re aiming to become is a comic book figure, things can get a little murky—especially if, like Thompson, you have an overdeveloped sense of the absurd.
“I mean, obviously, I felt like a superhero,” she says of her role in the Marvel film. “I had a cape. I had swords. There was wind blowing. Meanwhile, it was also like a Beyoncé video.” But there were a few twists she enjoyed—such as her character, Valkyrie, having a tendency to hit the bottle. “Sometimes, I had to put my hands on my hips in a certain way, to hit that superhero pose, because the eye wants that, the audience wants that, it’s the archetype,” she says. “But the fact that she’s inebriated means she’s not as in-control as we’re accustomed to with superheroes. I just allowed myself to lean into that, to let her not be this perfect female superhero who’s strong and super sexy and has her stuff together.”
Westworld presented Thompson with a different kind of challenge. Her character in the show, Charlotte, presides over an Old West theme park populated by lifelike androids, which guests are invited to maim, kill and violate at will. “Some characters, you’re accessing things inside you that are dark and not, you know, not so happy,” Thompson says. “There are characters that call on me to explore things that I haven’t considered or really don’t understand.”
The Westworld set isn’t all doom and gloom, however. According to Thompson, a favorite pastime among cast members is trying to guess where the plot will take them next. “The way [co-creators] Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan run the set is to give certain details to certain people and not to others, so you’re always trying to broker for information,” she says. “Most of the work we do, I would say, is in the hair-and-makeup trailer, trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s really fun.”
Looking at Thompson, it can be hard to tally what you see—the effortless style, the cool confidence—with the flap-handed Janet Jackson fan, or the giggling green-screen rookie, swinging her sword at nonexistent foes. “Tessa has a way of looking so glamorous and so poised, no matter what she’s doing,” says Westworld’s Joy. “She could be sitting on a tree stump having a cup of coffee and she looks like the most formidable human. Then, you talk to her for a second and she erupts in this gorgeous laugh.”
The incongruity is even more jarring when Thompson is in character as the cold and calculating Charlotte. “It’s just this hilarious dichotomy,” Joy says. “Because Tessa has that sharp, searing intellect and all these layers to her, and she plays a bit of a villain on the show, and then you see her when she’s not working, and you’ve never met a more charming or delightful soul.”
Thompson is indeed a hard person to pin down. At one point, she recalls a shoot in which Nolan instructed Westworld cast members—whose ranks include seasoned pros like Ed Harris and Sir Anthony Hopkins—to take their cues from her: “She’s running the scene. You follow her.”
Thompson enjoyed that moment, “particularly in light of these conversations about women and the imbalance of power.” But then, out of nowhere, the outspoken activist seems to distance herself from the very idea of identity politics.
“While I’m incredibly proud to be a black woman, I also feel like I want to buck convention, those binary ways of thinking,” she says. “Because I don’t feel I fit into those too-rigid spaces of what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be a black woman, or what it means to be an American.”
This refusal to be hemmed in, to preserve what Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” describes as the “inner mystery,” may point to the impulse that drove Thompson to abandon academia and pursue a career in acting. “It feels handy,” she says, “to work in a field that’s continually asking me to change.”
Thompson has a penchant for getting spur-of-the-moment tattoos. Most of the markings are tiny, but she isn’t opposed to getting bigger pieces, even though she’d be creating work for the makeup department.
“I know it sucks for whoever has to paint me every day,” she says, “but I love the idea that you cover up some of yourself to become someone else.” A few of Thompson’s tattoos, in fact, were actually played up in Creed—“I had reasons,” she says— allowing the circle behind her right ear and the word “yes” on her right wrist to become part of her character’s persona. Thompson also has the Hebrew letters for “life” inked on her right wrist, in memory of a loved one who died. It’s a reminder, she says, that life “is to be celebrated, because it’s not going to last forever.”
CAN YOU SEE ME?
Tessa Thompson’s chameleonic career.
For Colored Girls (2010)
With innocence and aplomb, Thompson embodies ripe femininity as a young woman facing an unwanted pregnancy.
Dear White People (2014)
Thompson gives voice, literally, to millennial racial politics as a witty and acerbic DJ for her college radio station.
Playing civil rights pioneer Nash in Ava DuVernay’s historical drama, Thompson says she felt like a real superhero.
Thompson’s love of Janet Jackson inspired her character’s long braids in Ryan Coogler’s entry in the Rocky franchise.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
With sculpted biceps and killer swordplay skills, Thompson embraces her (slightly intoxicated) superhero side.
Thompson suppresses her natural affability to channel the corporate chilliness of Hale, complete with spiky stilettos.