It was only last year that Tessa Thompson massacred us all with her starring role in Dear White People, a sharp satire that offered some of the best commentary on race in a college environment we’ve ever seen. Now she’s making her mark in Creed, a Rocky spinoff about the son of Apollo Creed, played by a can-do-no-wrong Michael B. Jordan.
In Creed Thompson plays Bianca, a tough singer-songwriter who ends up stealing the heart of an impressionable Adonis Creed. While Bianca could easily be just another underdeveloped love interest—as we often see in sports movies—Thompson is a scene stealer who not only stands by Apollo’s side, but must battle demons of her own.
Following an early screening of Creed, we had the opportunity to sit down with the actress—who is also set to appear in the much-anticipated HBO sci-fi series Westworld—to speak about her role in the film and her efforts to push diversity in the industry.
What was the first thing that drew you to Creed?
Ryan Coogler. I’m such a fan of Fruitvale Station and of his really special collaboration with Mike. I thought, here’s an actor and a director, for whatever reason, that have a really magical chemistry. But when I first heard about the project I didn’t even know Mike was attached. I didn’t know it had anything to do with Apollo Creed. I didn’t know that it was a reimagining of the Rocky franchise. I just knew it was Ryan Coogler’s next movie. I called my manager right away and was like, “Ryan Coogler is making this movie called Creed. I want to be in it.”
Do you often choose your roles by director?
I think so. I didn’t even realize that until the other day. I was on the phone with some person, it was a work meeting thing. The person says, “Well, you’re director-based.” I was like, “I am?” I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. Film in many ways is the director’s medium—it’s through their lens. Literally. It’s important to be making that with people that I trust, that I find interesting. Truthfully, I just want to make the sorts of movies that I’d like to watch. That means that I tend to be driven by filmmakers.
With an action or sports movie there’s a risk of a character like the one you play feeling two dimensional. But it’s never that way in Creed. Were you involved in helping to flesh her out?
Ryan was intent on finding a way to flesh out Bianca as much as you could in the context of what this movie is. And to make sure she had something that made her rich, made her really interesting. He feels that way in general. He doesn’t like the idea that there is ever a female that functions just to move the narrative forward along for a man. That’s something that he finds repulsive in Hollywood.
Were you a fan of the Rocky franchise before?
I was sort of a fan from afar. There were sequences of it that I remember seeing as a kid and being affected by. In particular when he goes to the pet store in the first Rocky. He’s making silly jokes in trying to court Adrian. There was something about being a little girl watching that. It was the first time I really understood what flirting looks like on film, what it looks like when a guy is being a bozo around you because he just wants to get your attention. I remember that in a palpable way, being able to see that on film and think, “Hey, a guy will do that to me someday.” The love story is the thing I remember as a kid.
And now you’re Adrian 2K15.
It’s cool being able to tell that portion of the story because that was the part that most interested me.
Were you a fan of boxing before this?
I got a lot more invested in boxing. It was really cool to get to watch Mike train and transform his body, to work with real boxers and to get a sense of their stories; to become fans of theirs, getting to know their families, and what is at stake for them when they get in the ring. It made it a much more compelling sport than it had been in the past.
There were stakes—dying, in this case—that made me look at boxing in a new way.
It did for me too. First of all, boxing matches are really beautifully shot if you watch them on ESPN. Basically, the featurettes they do on boxers before big matches. I hadn’t realized it, but as a boxing fan you get as invested in someone’s story as you do their form. There are moms of certain boxers that become famous in their own right because of the way they are ringside. That was something that I was also watching for. I was trying to find snippets of mothers, of girlfriends, of people that were close to the boxers and watching them ringside. I got to see what it’s like emotionally for them.
In terms of your role, you dabbled in music before, right?
I sang in a band for two years. This band called Caught a Ghost. With that band I got to co-write a song which actually got used in Dear White People. That was my first venture into producing a song and building it from the ground up.
As Bianca in Creed, did you have any role in her as a singer?
I did. Ryan called me on a Friday and asked me if I would do the movie. He said you should go to the studio as soon as possible. I started the next day with our really brilliant composer, Ludwig Goransson—he did the music for the film, but he’s also a producer. He’s made all the Childish Gambino records.
So the singing is you?
It is me.
You sound like FKA Twigs.
That was sort of a reference point for us! We were also just interested in someone that was a Philly-based artist, a Philly-based girl that was making experimental music. We talked really specifically about how that happened.
Looking at the roles you choose, diversity seems to be a very important thing. Is that a conscious effort you make? To push diversity when it comes to the people you work with?
When Dear White People came my way it was a period where I had finished working on this show called Copper that I really loved. It was a BBC America show telling a story about black Americans, newly freed black people that were living in what becomes the Lower East Side. I really liked telling that story, but after that I was kind of interested in the new stories, characters that become iconic but are not based in any sort of history.
So often I feel like when people of color get a chance to play really significant roles they tend to be roles of people that have actually existed. That’s fantastic, but there’s also more than that. After Copper I took a break. I just didn’t want to work on anything until it was something I burned for, was excited about. Dear White People was that next thing. I read that script and immediately was like, I have to work with this filmmaker. I have to play this character. That became the new barometer for me. I was like, I know what that feels like now—I just won’t work again until I find that next thing. Then Selma came my way. That’s been my new way of approaching work.
I feel like I want to want something really badly and then immediately after I get it I want to feel the nerves and the anxiousness you feel when you are doing something that powerful, that requires work and doing something that I’m not even sure I’m capable of doing. I love that period of being frightened and excited in that way. It just happened to be in that space, of projects that want to talk about race in America and are politically minded. That’s an interest to me. I think if you are creating art it makes sense to create art that reflects the times you live in and how you feel about it. So I’m attracted to people who feel that same way. But I’m also not precious about it. I’ve been really steeped in sci-fi for whatever reason. I’m working on this show Westworld.
I was going to ask you! Is there anything you could say about that?
They don’t even tell me anything about it! It’s crazy how hush hush it is. The thing that I can say about the show, which I really like, is that it’s taking these ideas about, for example, artificial intelligence and things that we think of that exist in the future and talking about human themes inside that. The show wants to ask what are we capable of as human beings when we don’t think there is a cost. I think that’s a really interesting question to ask now. Also technology and how we use it, our sense of responsibility. Whether or not we have that in the way we use technology.
You got started on TV with Veronica Mars.
It was my first job!
Is that a medium you are interested in? It is the medium now?
It really is. It’s a really cool space. I imagine the process of working on a show like Breaking Bad that just feels like long format filmmaking—getting to live with a character for a really long time. I think there is something that is really powerful about television in the sense that you come into someone’s house, or on their computer, or iPhone. I begrudge that but it’s where we are going. It’s in a way that’s really personal. You get to engage with them in a way that’s different than film. I love film so much. There’s also something so cool about the private time you spend with someone when you are on their television or in their palm, literally. I just want to go where the work is good.