Tessa Thompson was up until 5 a.m. shooting “Creed II,” slept for 30 minutes, hopped in a car, drove into New York from the movie’s Philadelphia set, and yet, somehow, is gamely chatting away on the Twitter account that compares her to goats. True story.
The 34 year-old actress is in the midst of a major year, with smaller films like “Sorry to Bother You,” which bowed at Sundance, and “Little Woods,” the occasion for her trip into New York, as well as the return of “Westworld” and the announced “Men in Black” spin-off she’s leading with Chris Hemsworth. For every HBO powerhouse series and studio action film, Thompson seeks out films like “Little Woods”; this one from first-time director Nia DaCosta, whom she met at the Sundance filmmakers lab and, after working on scenes with her, signed on to produce and star in the project when it became real.
The film follows Thompson’s Ollie and her sister Deb, played by Lily James, who live in a struggling onetime fracking boomtown in North Dakota as they attempt to escape their former lives in hopes of a better future.
“Nia’s idea is that it’s essentially a modern western, so to see this character navigate the course of the film in a reality in which you can only make bad choices when all you have is bad options, and just seeing her as the protagonist in this western, I thought that was so cool,” Thompson says. “And particularly for a woman to get to do, and particularly for a woman of color to get to do, because those opportunities are really rare.”
When Deb learns she is pregnant and in need of an abortion she can’t afford, Ollie weighs the option of returning to a life she’s left behind in order to help her sister out.
“Beyond the politicized elements of it, I just thought it was such a human story. And to me, the heart of the movie is a love story between these two sisters, these two sisters that are not blood-related, that were both in the foster system and found each other and mean a lot to each other but lose each other as young adults,” Thompson says. “I have sisters, and I understand how incredibly potent and complicated that relationship can be. I have so many feelings about sisterhood and to get the experience of funneling some of those ideas and pains and personal feeling about it into a project, and particularly a project that also wants to talk about access to health care, that also wants to talk about the ways in which poverty becomes a genderized experience and you might not have access to a safe abortion, and talk about the decline of the middle class and the struggle of the working people, and to set that in a human story, means that I think people can get inside the belly of the movie. It doesn’t feel like it’s medicine and it doesn’t feel like it’s preaching and it feels like a real human portrait.”
Thompson is well positioned as a multihyphenate creative force; in addition to acting, she’s a longtime friend of the Rodarte sisters and appeared in their most recent portrait portfolio for fall 2018, and starred in the “emotion picture” Janelle Monáe produced for her new album “Dirty Computer.”
“I feel lucky to get to work on such varied projects — to be working in the television space on ‘Westworld’ and to get to do smaller indie projects and also do big ole studio movies. It’s sort of always what I wanted to do, just be able to work in a lot of different spaces and just see if I can,” she says. “I like to be mildly terrified, so balancing this many things is mildly terrifying.”
The recipe for such an approach is, unsurprisingly, very go-with-your-gut.
“I think it was seven years ago when I was first sent the script for ‘Dear White People’ that I just really burned for that script. It was also one of those things that I felt like you’re happy to get a part, and that’s the first thing that you think and the very next thing is this impending sense of ‘oh my god, I have to do it now.’ Just things that really shake you up a bit,” Thompson says. “I think finding that piece, ‘Dear White People,’ sort of set the barometer high for me. It made me only want to do things that I really burn for.”
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