Tessa Thompson on the activist expectation: ‘I’m not sure it’s that useful all of the time’

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attends the Royal Academy of Arts to view Oceania

Did y’all know that Tessa Thompson is 37 years old?! I found that out as I read her Town & Country cover profile. For some reason – perhaps her beautiful, unlined skin – I thought she was in her late 20s, at most. I also consistently mistake Tessa for a British actress. I always have to check myself with “wait, is she British and just really good at American accents?” I don’t know why I had it in my head that she’s British. She was born in LA and she grew up there and in Brooklyn. She now lives in LA full-time and she graduated from Santa Monica College. She covers T&C to promote Sylvie’s Love, a period romance-drama which she executive produced and stars in. The profile was written by Roxane Gay! Some highlights:

Speaking shortly after the election: “‘How are you?’ feels like a cruel question these days. It feels like things have been turned inside out this year,” Thompson says. The world as it really is, she explains, “has been exposed in all its glory and gore, and maybe there is hope in that, in the sense that some of us are more awake than we have been.”

People expect her to speak about politics & social/racial justice: “We’re living inside this time where there’s an expectation, if you have some measure of a platform, to use it. I’m not sure it’s that useful all of the time. If I have a microphone, maybe the most useful way is just to pass it on to someone that knows more than I do.”

On Sylvie’s Love: “We haven’t necessarily gotten to see ourselves as the romantic leads, and when we have, particularly in period pieces, there’s less focus on the interpersonal, like how hard it is to be two humans trying to love each other. There’s a lot of emphasis on historical context, which is, obviously, wildly important. I was conflicted as to whether it would work, whether you could tell a story like that.”

She doesn’t confirm or deny her bisexuality: No corner of Thompson’s fandom is more passionate than her queer following. Though she doesn’t explicitly identify as bisexual, in a 2018 interview she said she was “attracted to men and also to women.”

Sometimes she needs to be the first person of color to speak: “There’s invariably people in the room that have been silenced. I remember a distinct moment on set. A squeak just came out of me, I didn’t even mean for it to, and then I could see the secret little smile on some of the women around the room, and you realize that there’s a choir of wheels waiting to squeak together. It emboldens folks, and you realize you have support and you’re not squeaking just on your own behalf. You’re squeaking for everybody.”

[From Town & Country]

I like the point she makes about the expectation that she has to speak up about all of these issues simply because she has a name, a platform, a following. And she does speak up when it feels authentic to her. But we should also just let artists of color CREATE without apologies as well. Because that’s the way 99% of white artists operate too – they only use their platforms as activists when they feel like it, and most of the time, they’re just focused on creating. As for her point about “squeaking” – it’s just a reminder of how many meetings there are where only white people (white men, mostly) speak and speak over women’s voices and Black voices. I got the point she was making, but I always get depressed when I think about those meetings and how little really changes.

Cover and IG courtesy of Town & Country.

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13 Responses to “Tessa Thompson on the activist expectation: ‘I’m not sure it’s that useful all of the time’”

  1. Lyra says:

    I understand. Being a black and famous woman people may expect that she is an activist all the time and this can get annoying. Sometimes people just don’t want to talk or don’t even have what to say?

  2. Jillian says:

    Totally agree with her, and I love what she says about handing the microphone to someone who knows better (a hell of a lot of celebrities could take that advice). A round of applause to whoever chose those blues in this spread, Tessa looks outrageously gorgeous (and she’s always spectacularly beautiful)

  3. Eni says:

    “Though she doesn’t explicitly identify as bisexual, in a 2018 interview she said she was “attracted to men and also to women.””
    Took me a while to understand what was meant by bi-erasure, I believe it’s exactly that type of nonsensical phrasing…
    I am attracted to men and women! -> yOu’rE nOt bI thOugh! O_O

    • ethyy says:

      That isn’t bi-erasure, you might want to do some more learning on that. She just doesn’t want to put a label on her sexuality, which is her right.

  4. smcollins says:

    When I saw Thor Ragnarok I thought she was British, too (her accent sounded so natural) and I was surprised to learn she was actually American. Her chemistry with Chris Hemsworth was amazing but I was glad they didn’t lean into a romantic pairing, it made their sparring/flirting that much more fun. Her character in Annihilation was the complete opposite of her Valkyrie character, highlighting her talent & range. I’m looking forward to seeing Sylvie’s Love, I’m sure she’ll be amazing (on top of being incredibly beautiful she has that It quality that jumps off the screen).

    • Bread and Circuses says:

      I could have sworn she was a New Zealander, myself, probably because Taika Waititi snuck so many New Zealanders and Australians into that movie (okay, Chris Helmsworth was already playing Thor, but Cate Blanchett, Rachel House, and Taika himself all got roles, plus Sam Neill had a cameo).

      It was a surprise to me too to learn she’s American! I also thought she was just great at accents (she has a solid–as far as I can tell–English accent in parts of Sorry to Bother You too.)

  5. Kitty says:

    There’s just something so likeable about Tessa. She’s a good actress and she just seems like a cool down to earth person. Her role in Thor 3 is one of my favourites female roles in The MCU. The Men in Black film her and Chris Hemsworth did was absolutely dreadful though. Neither of them could save that pile of garbage

  6. Heidi Davis says:

    It bums me out that all of the royal stuff is getting so much traffic and comments and this article is dead last. I have royal fatigue, there is only so much rich folks being garbage people stories I can endure before I lose all faith in humanity.

    • Winechampion says:

      I’m beyond sick of the relentless Royal obsession on this site too. I visit less and less because it’s become Royalbitchy with a few non-royal stories thrown in here and there.

      • Evenstar says:

        YES! There have been so many little celeb/entertainment stories I’ve seen the past few weeks that got ignored in favor of the 900th post about William getting mad or something about patronages.

    • smcollins says:

      My people! My bff (who comes to this site but doesn’t comment) and I were just talking about this yesterday, how crazy excessive the Royal posts have become. There’s 8 (!) posts today alone. I get it, they get the clicks and the comments, but sheesh! So, yes, more posts like this one please and less about the royals would be fantastic 😁

  7. Valiantly Varnished says:

    Exactly. Black actors and actresses and musicians should be given the same grace and space to just create that their white peers are ALWAYS given. This idea that black existence is automatically political needs to stop.

  8. FF says:

    As a rule Black actresses are usually older (but don’t look it) because it takes so long get their careers to take off.

    I’ve said Hollywood is an apparatus to give middling white men inexhaustible careers and actresses tend to be disposable and swapped out the minute they get a franchise (meanwhile the guys can be in the lead until they’re octogenarians).

    Well, if it’s not great for white women it’s worse for Black women – who rarely get second chances and if they’re on a hit show tend to get marginalised for the focus to go to white characters – sometimes it’s the showrunners fault, or the network, or the fandom, sometimes all three contribute.

    As for her comments about activism, Mahershala Ali had an interview (with John David Washington) and he mentioned that as a black actor you always get asked about your race over your process – there’s often no space for Black actors just to be actors and asked purely about that. (He also mentioned that often Black actors are often in a circumstance of having to turn water into wine in terms of what they have to create onscreen versus the material they’re given.)

    I get her squeaking thing too, it’s why you often need more than one or two Black women/people in a writers room, or on staff, or in a film crew, etc.

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