Tessa Thompson Has the Range

From Thor to Passing, the actor tackles every film genre with the greatest of ease.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Tessa Thompson wears a Burberry jumpsuit; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes.
Tessa Thompson wears a Burberry jumpsuit; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes.

Tessa Thompson is a busy woman. Her ever-expanding oeuvre contains both major blockbusters, including two films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as thoughtful indie affairs like last year’s Sylvie’s Love and her latest, Passing. While at first Thompson wasn’t familiar with the 1929 Nella Larsen novella on which Passing is based, upon reading the original story and Rebecca Hall’s adaptation, she was blown away. Still, she was surprised when the black-and-white film about the intimate life of two Black women was celebrated at Sundance and later bought by Netflix, where it now lives. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, the actress discusses the construct of race, the erotic nature of being a god, and why kangaroos are her favorite marsupials.

How did Passing come to you?

A friend of mine, who is a writer-producer named Angela Robinson, texted me and said, “There's this movie that you're unavailable for, but I think you'll want to make yourself available.” It was an adaptation of this novella that I had never read and never heard of by a woman named Nella Larsen. I read the novella first in one sitting, and then I read the screenplay, written by Rebecca Hall. Then, I immediately made myself available because it really blew me away.

Did you always want the part of Irene?

When Passing came my way, I knew Ruth Negga was going to play Clare. And that was part of the draw as well, because in both the screenplay and the novella you get the sense that my character, Irene, is so beguiled by this woman, and I did find Ruth beguiling and thought she was just perfect. But we have joked that we could do a stage version of it where we switch parts every other night, which I think would be a dream.

Have you ever lived in Harlem?

I have lived in Harlem really briefly actually. I sublet a place in Harlem. I love Harlem; it's really magic. I've spent a lot of time there. But I'm really nostalgic for all of uptown New York. Downtown's cool too, but there's something about uptown New York.

Thompson wears a Miss Sohee x Christian Cowan dress; Bulgari bracelets.

Where were you when the film premiered at Sundance this year?

I was in Australia. I actually hadn’t seen the film until recently. I saw it on my birthday this year at the New York Film Festival because I refused to watch it digitally. I was just too scared to be alone watching it on my computer or television. I don't know. I really needed to be with people watching it. But we did really well at Sundance. People liked it. I couldn't believe it even sold, honestly. I don't know. You make these things and you're like, “Does anyone want to watch it?” It just felt like something people might not see en masse.

Have you ever been tempted to pass?

No, but I feel like there are small ways. I think to a modern lens, both Ruth and I are not women that could pass necessarily. But you look at Rebecca's mom, [Maria Ewing]. For me, as a Black woman, I look at her and go, that's another Black woman. But she spent most of her life not necessarily identifying or presenting that way. Which I think is sort of what Nella's talking about—the ways in which race is a construct, that it doesn't exist in a way. But I think there are small ways that you pass, particularly as a light-skinned Black woman. I think there's this idea of being a presence in the room that maybe isn't as threatening as I would be if I were darker skin. My Blackness to me has always felt beautiful, yes, but inevitable. But you realize if you are mixed race or to some people racially ambiguous, there is this sort of a privilege you have. Depending on how much you don't want to be otherized, you might be compelled to soften your edges a little bit so that you can move through space with more ease. And that I understand, especially in Hollywood.

Have you seen changes in Hollywood since you started?

Yeah, definitely. Even the fact that we can make a film like Passing that stars two Black women, that is about the interior lives of two Black women, is something that obviously couldn't have been made before. And Hollywood would've never lensed a woman like me to be the protagonist. So I think in that way, there's been a tremendous amount of change. Even the fact that, in my career, I’ve been able to hang out in so many different genre spaces and to make movies both big and small. And to play the kind of protagonist that I don't think you would've seen a Black woman get to play is a testament to how much things have changed just in the course of my career, certainly. Which is not to say that there isn't more change to be made.

You also play Valkyrie in Thor. What are her skills?

She has weird skills, to be honest. She can sense when someone is close to death, and she takes them into Valhalla, which is essentially the afterlife. She can revive people. But when she revives people, sometimes she ends up in their body. It's a weird thing. It can be quite erotic. And then she has superhuman strength and is essentially God.

Did you come to love Australia when you were filming there?

I worked a lot, but I had three weeks off. So I got to really see Australia. I went to Tasmania to meet Tasmanian devils. Australia has a wealth of interesting animals like sugar gliders and wombats. A lot of marsupials, which are kind of my thing, I figured out. I feel connected to them. I like a good tried-and-true kangaroo. They're great. And just the idea of having your own pouch to put things in sounds really economical.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Sarah Hein, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click