If you don’t already know Tessa Thompson’s name, you’re about to.
Tessa Thompson is a superhero for our times.
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