If you don’t al­ready know Tessa Thomp­son’s name, you’re about to.

Tessa Thomp­son is a su­per­hero for our times.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - BySarahLaing

IT TAKES A LOT to get the ELLE team ex­cited about a su­per­hero movie.

We’re not “It’s just a bit bread and cir­cuses, dar­ling” snobs; nor are we im­mune to the ap­peal of an eight-pack. But we live in a time where you can’t pos­si­bly watch all the things, and vast uni­verses peo­pled by fan­tas­ti­cal crea­tures with wildly com­pli­cated ori­gin sto­ries just aren’t our par­tic­u­lar thing. And then along came Valkyrie. This Novem­ber, Marvel is re­leas­ing Thor: Rag­narok, and for the stu­dio’s third in­stal­ment in the ad­ven­tures of the God of Thun­der, they’ve added a few new char­ac­ters, most no­tably one Brunnhilde of As­gard—alias Sa­man­tha Par­ring­ton, alias “leader of the Lady Lib­er­a­tors” and, of course, alias Valkyrie. In the orig­i­nal comics, she’s a sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist name-and-num­ber taker whose MO is, roughly, “Die, all you male-chau­vin­ist pigs.” (It was the ’70s, after all.) She’s no­table for wield­ing a sword and a spear, but, knife skills aside, her pri­mary job is shep­herd­ing the souls of dead war­riors off the bat­tle­field.

But when Marvel an­nounced Valkyrie’s in­clu­sion in this new film, it was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that some­thing was dif­fer­ent. She is de­scribed as a sol­dier, a mem­ber of an elite spe­cial-ops squad. In the trailer, she fights side by side with her male “col­leagues,” and, as far as we can tell, she’s no­body’s love in­ter­est. Oh, and they cast Tessa Thomp­son.

We’ve had Thomp­son on our radar since see­ing her steal scenes in Selma, Dear White Peo­ple and 2015’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed box­ing movie Creed. (She also sings on and co-wrote the sound­track.) She joined award-win­ning TV show West­world last year and got her small-screen start play­ing Jackie Cook on Veron­ica Mars.

She’s also a woman of colour, and that’s a big deal be­cause the OG Valkyrie was blond, blueeyed and, well, not of Afro-Pana­ma­nian/Mex­i­can/ Cau­casian de­scent, like Thomp­son. Marvel has been mak­ing strides in di­ver­sity in its films, but the cast­ing still came as a sur­prise—not least to Thomp­son her­self. “I haven’t seen a lot of ‘me’s’ in films like that,” she says. “You have to see it to think you can be it; I just never thought about do­ing a movie where I wear a cape.”

We’re sit­ting across from the 34-year-old ac­tress as she tells the story of her au­di­tion for the role. It’s late af­ter­noon on an L.A. Sun­day, and, although the day has been spent shoot­ing this is­sue’s cover, a siesta vibe has fallen over the down­town ware­house space. Thomp­son has kicked off her sil­ver Gucci Mar­monts and pulled her feet up un­der her. De­spite hav­ing had a long day, she’s very present for the con­ver­sa­tion, weigh­ing her words thought­fully.

“There was a time when I was con­flicted,” she says of this type of role. “I guess it was about this idea of tra­jec­tory—and partly be­cause I’d never en­vi­sioned some­thing like this. A play on Broad­way? That’s some­thing I’ve wanted since I was a teenager. I’d say yes with­out even know­ing the part.” h

Her am­biva­lence also has to do with the fact that, for a long time, Thomp­son didn’t con­sider her­self a block­buster sort of per­son. “I’d been dis­mis­sive of ‘big movies’ in the past,” she re­calls, say­ing she walked out of The Ma­trix. She thought of her­self as an indie-movie, “hu­man sto­ries” (said with an eye roll) type of artist and says her main role-choos­ing cri­te­rion is still “projects that serve a cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion, that feel es­sen­tial.”

But she’s also some­one who loves a chal­lenge, and she be­came in­trigued by work­ing on a green screen, which is a test of any ac­tor’s imag­i­na­tion. That’s kinda why she agreed to meet with Thor: Rag­narok’s di­rec­tor, New Zealan­der Taika Waititi. Waititi has an Os­car (for a short film), but this was his first kick at the big-time di­rect­ing can. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in his work,” says Thomp­son. “There’s a dan­ger when you put an in­de­pen­dent film­maker into a big fran­chise that maybe they won’t be able to fully express their point of view, but I didn’t get that sense from Taika.”

She then flew to L.A. to au­di­tion in full hair and makeup and was ac­tu­ally ly­ing in bed watch­ing The Avengers when the stu­dio called to of­fer her the job later that night. Thomp­son’s am­biva­lence about such roles is now gone. “It’s ex­cit­ing when some­one has some­thing to say and the plat­form and re­sources to do it,” she says, point­ing to the suc­cess of writer/ac­tress Issa Rae. “It would’ve been hard for me to skip out on [be­ing] a part of some­thing that’s so iconic where I also get to do some­thing that’s dar­ing.”

That she de­scribes play­ing Valkyrie in that spe­cific way says a lot about Thomp­son’s keen per­cep­tion of what it means for a black woman to take on a his­tor­ically white char­ac­ter in such po­lit­i­cally and racially in­tense times. “I guess we’ve al­ways been in tough times—peo­ple think that at any given point in his­tory,” she says. “But right now, I’m old enough to look around and think that I don’t re­mem­ber a time that felt like this,” she re­flects be­fore de­scrib­ing 2017 as “a precipice,” the cusp of some kind of cul­tural shift. Thomp­son be­lieves that although it’s a “re­ally fright­en­ing time, it’s also a vi­brant time [of ac­tivism and con­ver­sa­tion].”

But as open as she is to dis­cussing it, she is wary of the am­bas­sador-for-an-en­tire-com­mu­nity role that is of­ten thrust on mi­nori­ties in the spotlight and how ex­haust­ing it can be to have to con­stantly speak pub­licly on dif­fi­cult is­sues. “I’m just in­ter­ested in do­ing,” she says. “I want my work to be a re­flec­tion of what I care about.” But then there’s a mo­ment in our chat when, after a solid 20 min­utes of dis­cussing sib­lings, cell­phone ad­dic­tion, tat­toos—any­thing but the weight­ier is­sues of our day—Thomp­son finds her­self talk­ing about, again, the crazi­ness of cur­rent events. She cringes a bit, say­ing, “I’ve shot my­self in the foot be­cause I’m the one who brought it up—but, hon­estly, I’ve been re­lieved to talk to you about any­thing else.”

Still, Thomp­son doesn’t take her prox­im­ity to a “mi­cro­phone” that few have ac­cess to lightly. “There are cer­tain con­ver­sa­tions—like those about colourism in Hol­ly­wood—that I don’t think I’m al­lowed to ex­cuse my­self from. I wouldn’t want to.” She cites how she can’t be quiet when white ac­tresses talk about wage dis­par­ity. “It’s hard for me not to re­mind them that when you hap­pen to be of colour, that in­equal­ity is stag­ger­ing.”

What she doesn’t want? “My­opic” dis­cus­sions of Hol­ly­wood while Nazis are (lit­er­ally) hold­ing vig­ils in the real world. “I’m only in­ter­ested in talk­ing about it be­cause I think the me­dia has a lot to do with shap­ing per­cep­tion,” she says. “But I want more holis­tic con­ver­sa­tions about what mat­ters to a lot of peo­ple, not just a se­lect few.”

Thomp­son also rec­og­nizes that, racial makeup aside, to play a “strong” fe­male char­ac­ter like Valkyrie is a sub­ver­sive act in it­self. “I’m re­al­iz­ing some of the mes­sag­ing women in­ter­nal­ize, even as girls,” she says. “Like The Lit­tle Mer­maid— I loved that when I was a kid; I watched it in­ces­santly. But then you look at that story, and you see she gives up her whole life, her voice, to have a vagina and be with this guy she’s en­am­oured with. To be nor­mal! What’s nor­mal?”

Thomp­son is laughing, but she is soon se­ri­ous again and reeling off ex­am­ples. “As a kid, be­ing re­ferred to as ‘bossy’ be­cause you’re a girl who takes agency, or how we tell girls that if boys are mean to them, [it means] they like them—that’s so wild! Or this idea that be­ing pow­er­ful means you are mas­cu­line.” That’s why her ap­proach to Valkyrie has been to think a lot about how “strong women” have been de­picted in Hol­ly­wood and “turn­ing that on its head.”

The por­trait of Thomp­son that emerges from our con­ver­sa­tion is one of a prac­ti­cal dreamer, a wan­der­ing spirit who rel­ishes the ac­tor’s peri­patetic life­style but is also tight with her fam­ily. (She brings up her mom of­ten.) She is ob­sessed with the 1969 moon land­ing: She fre­quents flea mar­kets and an­tique stores, keep­ing an eye out for mem­o­ra­bilia to do with hu­man­ity’s con­quest of some­thing that was once out of reach. “It means a lot to me,” she ex­plains. “I guess I’m in­ter­ested in a cul­tural mo­ment when some­thing was hap­pen­ing in the news and there was noth­ing po­lar­iz­ing about it.”

That’s another rea­son we’re get­ting ex­cited about this par­tic­u­lar su­per­hero, rid­ing in as she does on the wave of suc­cess of another larger-than-life hero­ine, Won­der Woman. Tessa Thomp­son’s Valkyrie will pre­miere at a time in his­tory when we need, more than ever, lead­ers who unite us and in­spire us to dream bet­ter and be braver. And a cape makes for a great ac­ces­sory. n

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY NINO MUÑOZ

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