Tessa Thompson Never Planned to Be Famous

by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Juergen Teller
Creative Partner: Dovile Drizyte
Styled by Sara Moonves

Thompson wears a Dior romper, bralette, and briefs; Cartier necklace and ring; Giuseppe Zanotti shoe...

Tessa Thompson’s star turn in Sylvie’s Love pays homage to the classic Hollywood romance films of the 1950s and 1960s. Everything from the archival Chanel costuming to the jazzy soundtrack to the Super 16 mm film grain gives the movie a midcentury texture. Having a Black woman who achieves her romantic and professional dreams at the center of the narrative was essential for Thompson; her costar, Nnamdi Asomugha; and filmmaker Eugene Ashe. For W's annual Best Performances issue, Thompson talks about first kisses, her pandemic soundtrack, and her “cosmic” sense for thrifting.

What was the idea behind the story of Sylvie’s Love?

We wanted to make a film in the style of those classic, sprawling love stories that Hollywood has made so often, but to center two Black leads, which has not been done often enough. The idea was to take a beautiful photo by Gordon Parks and zoom in on the woman in the picture. Instead of fixating on the COLORED ONLY sign in the background of the photo, the film’s focus is on the stunning Black woman in the foreground.

Did anyone from your life inspire the development of your character?

My model for Sylvie was a person like Diahann Carroll, who was part of the Black bourgeoisie in New York in the ’50s and ’60s. It was also an homage to my grandmother, who was effortlessly elegant. She had remarkable poise, and I pulled a lot of that for Sylvie.

How important were the exquisite costumes in establishing the character of Sylvie?

The movie starts in 1957. You meet her, and she's young and she's wearing these tea-length dresses, and there's something constricting about them. When you see her on the weekends, in these montages when she and Robert are falling in love, suddenly you see her in little jeans and a sweater, and clearly she feels freer and more herself. But my favorite look is when she finally gets the job. She works up from an assistant at this television show to finally being the producer, and you see her in this little sweater, her hair is pulled back with a scarf, and she wears this really smart pencil skirt. It feels like stylistically, she's coming into her own. Later, you see her in a trench and it's the same scene, which is no mistake. She's telling Robert, her partner, "I'll bring home the bacon, you follow your dreams. I can wear the pants in this relationship." I love that she's in this trenchcoat doing that, it feels very classic. I think the way that she dresses as the movie goes on really expresses her trying to unpack her own feelings around gender and her gendered experience thus far, which really limits her in so many ways.

Tessa Thompson wears a Bottega Veneta dress and shoes.

Did you wear classic, period-correct underwear?

Yeah. I stole one of the pointy bras because I loved it so much. I thought it was so glamorous, so I pinched it from the set. I tried to cheat once and wore my regular underwear, but our costume designer caught me. I think there's something communicated that you can't express but that you feel viscerally when you're wearing a piece that someone else has worn.

Where was your first kiss?

I wasn't a child actor, but my dad had a friend who was a casting director, and they were casting a music video for an artist named Brenda Russell. I kissed a young boy who was also in the music video. His name was Floyd. So my first kiss was technically on set, and then I wasn't on set again for over a decade after that. But that was my first kiss. It's on camera. It's immortalized for life. In the video, I think it’s this idea that we play the younger version of this married couple whose relationship is falling apart, and they're trying to get back to their child selves. I play this woman, and I'm in a wedding dress. We get married. I was 6, but I remember that day feeling very adult, so it didn't scare me. I felt like I was born for this. Actually, I think about Floyd every so often.

Music surrounds the characters in Sylvie’s Love. Did you ever think about being a musician like your father?

I thought about it. When you come from that environment, it's almost more daunting in a way. Growing up in Los Angeles, I never thought about being in television or film. Maybe this is a dated reference, but it reminds me of if you grew up in Detroit, for example, in the days when the automotive industry was there, you wouldn't necessarily grow up thinking you'd want to make cars. For some reason, I always thought I'd do something really wildly outside of anything that I had proximity to, but here I am in good old Hollywood, California!

What was on your pandemic soundtrack?

I listened to a lot of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who is a beautiful singer. I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder. I love “If It’s Magic,” it’s such a good love song. I got into listening to Bessie Smith, and I've been trying to work out at home while listening to her, which for some reason really works. It's a really weird combination, but there's something primal and visceral about Bessie. It's good for pumping iron.

What’s your secret skill?

We used to, by necessity, shop at a lot of thrift stores when I was a kid, with both of my parents. I hated it as a kid, because it felt embarrassing to have to shop at thrift stores. But now I have an uncanny ability when I'm passing a thrift store; I feel cosmically drawn to go inside of it, and then I find something remarkable and something that is so devastatingly underpriced. I can feel cosmically that there's something inside that thrift store that the person who has priced it doesn't know the value, and I just go in like a thief in the night and I pay my $4.86 for it. I've gotten some interesting things. I've often fantasized, actually, about being on Antiques Roadshow. The idea that you could unearth something rare and interesting, and something that everyone thought didn't have value, and then find out that it does—I love that idea.

Thompson wears a Dior romper, bralette, and briefs; Cartier necklace and ring; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes.

Hair by Lacy Redway for Nexxus; makeup by Nina Park for Chanel at Forward Artists; manicure by Stephanie Stone for Essie at Forward Artists.