Welcome to Look Back At It, a monthly column where some of the most iconic Black actresses in Hollywood reminisce and reflect on the roles that made them stars. For this month’s installment, Tessa Thompson breaks down her career—from For Colored Girls and Passing to her most recent film, Creed III.
“I always think that the movies we make are postcards of time,” says Tessa Thompson. “Especially in the films that feel timeless or evergreen, they still tell us about ourselves in that particular cultural moment. [My films] feel like postcards to me because I can see my own growth inside the span of all these years. I just feel so proud.”
On the Saturday afternoon that I speak to Thompson over Zoom, she’s cradling her dog Coltrane while in the midst of virtual press for Creed III. The third installment of the trilogy, directed by her co-star Michael B. Jordan, comes eight years after the original. In that span of time, she joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, produced a period piece, and starred in the award-winning film Passing alongside Ruth Negga. And before Creed, she acted in a slew of poignant films about family, womanhood, and grief like Mississippi Damned and For Colored Girls. In other words, Thompson has been booked and busy since she first began acting in the early 2000s.
Below, Thompson takes us through her most iconic roles to share the many ways she’s grown on and off screen, the joys of working with the people you admire, and the roles that changed everything.
Kari in Mississippi Damned (2009)
“Mississippi Damned was such an incredible experience. It was Tina Mabry’s directorial debut and I think it was the first time that I had ever worked with an all-Black ensemble. It was really extraordinary to have that experience. I learned a lot about acting for the camera. It felt like a personal breakthrough for me in understanding something about cinema and being a performer inside of it because I had done a lot of theater previously. I love this film. We shot it in North Carolina and I remember that I smuggled back a kitten named Gravy. There were kittens that were hiding under a house and I ended up giving Gravy to my family. So that was my gift from this project.”
Nyla in For Colored Girls (2010)
“This was an incredible ensemble [which included Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, Loretta Devine, and Thandiwe Newton]. This was my first time ever working with an all-female cast in terms of the leads. Every single woman is iconic and every single woman I had looked up to and watched. It was incredible to be on set with women who defined my idea of Black femininity at every turn. I mean, growing up I was Janet Jackson three times for Halloween. And, also, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf [the work by Ntozake Shange on which the film is based] meant so much to me. When I got the call to send a tape for an audition, I pulled out my old copy that I had stolen from the Brooklyn Library. It’s the only library book that I had never returned. So I had such a relationship with the material and it really was a dream for me to get to. And, of course, Phylicia [Rashad] and I have continued to work together through Creed. I’ve looked up to her so deeply for so long. Working on this was really life-changing.”
Samantha in Dear White People (2014)
“This was life-changing. I was in a real rut before making this movie. I just felt frustrated with the kinds of roles that were available for young Black women at that time. And then I read this script. I got to be, not just the object of the narrative, but also the subject of the narrative. The film was interested in our complete humanity. And, also tonally, we don’t make as many satires now. It used to happen a lot more in Hollywood, but even in that genre pocket, there are not a lot of those films that feature Black characters. So it was really life-changing and career-changing for me to get to work with Justin [Simien, the director] and to really think intentionally about the kinds of stories that we tell and how they have the power to reflect the world that we live in, and also, hopefully, change it. This really became a new North Star in terms of the kinds of stuff that I wanted to do.”
Diane in Selma (2014)
“Iconic. I mean, this film was such an honor to work on. So many people from this cast are now my dear friends, like Colman Domingo. To be able to make lifelong relationships on a project is a real gift. It doesn’t always happen, but it happened on Selma. And we also got to engage with and really talk to these heroes. I was able to sit with the late great John Lewis and hear his stories. I sat with [my real-life character] Diane Nash and heard her stories. These were real lives lived. This film really challenged me to think about how I show up in these moments now as a Black American. I think getting to unpack that part of my humanity inside of making this movie was just really impactful for me. And then, of course, just getting to work with the tremendous cast was just such a gift. I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve really worked with some incredible people.’”
Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
“This film has a really special place in my heart. First of all, I never ever thought that I would occupy these kinds of spaces or be in big superhero movies. That was never part of the plan. But in connecting the dots, I know that Dear White People put me on Ryan Coogler’s radar and I know that Creed put me on Marvel’s radar because all of us joined the MCU [laughs]. They were like, ‘We’ll take all of you.’ So it’s fun to think that these things are sort of in conversation with each other in a way. While I didn’t set out to make a film like this, I had been manifesting and thinking about working in something with a lot of CGI because I was so curious. Technically, it’s so challenging and requires such an incredible imagination and focus. It seemed weird and hard and awkward. It is all of those things, but it’s also so fun and requires a completely different muscle as an actor. So I feel very lucky that I got to do that with a director whose work I love so much and with a cast that was so incredible. Every day we just showed up to the set and were like, ‘Can we be so ridiculous that we feel like we’re never gonna get to make a movie again?’ And then the fact that it did so well and people really responded to it was so cool.”
Detroit in Sorry to Bother You (2018)
“I love this film so much. This is a very funny story, actually. So, Boots Riley [the writer/director] had been trying to get this film made for a while and he knew my dad from way back. He somehow got my email and sent me an early version and asked if I would do it. And, at the time, something got lost in translation and we couldn’t connect. So years later, the project came back around and I read it and I was so in love with it. I was like, ‘I’ll drop anything to make this movie. I think it’s so special.’ But then he was like, ‘I don’t think you can do the movie anymore because you’re too recognizable. I want you to audition and do a chemistry test with LaKeith [Stanfield].’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute! You offered me this movie!’ [laughs] So we ended up meeting on Zoom and now we joke about it because he says, ‘It was always you.’”
Josie in Annihilation (2018)
“This was another film that was such a gift. I think it had been since For Colored Girls that I had really gotten to work with an all-female cast. It was my first time getting to work with Natalie [Portman]. Also, interestingly, I was a big fan of Ex Machina and of [the director] Alex Garland and really wanted to work with him based on his previous work. The process of making this film was so interesting because it’s very uncommon for films to be shot in sequence. Usually, you’re going all over the place. But with Alex, it was very important to him that we shot everything in sequence. That was the first time I had ever done that. And also, I think my character is not typically a character that you would see a young Black woman get to play, so that really meant a lot to me.”
Agent M in Men in Black: International (2019)
“I got to work with Chris [Hemsworth] again which was really fun because we joke so much about all the different spaces that we could occupy together. There was a soft pitch to re-do The Bodyguard, but he would be the singer and I would be the bodyguard. [laughs] That didn’t pan out. But I loved working with him and I grew up on these films, so getting to be in that universe was really a gift. Filming in London was also so fun.”
Sylvie in Sylvie’s Love (2020)
“I love this film. Eugene Ashe [the director] really wanted to make a film that felt like an iconic Hollywood sprawling romance, but with Black folks at the center in a period piece where our adversity and our pain are not the main focal points. I thought, in a way, that that was really radical. I produced the film, too, so I really felt like a co-author in terms of getting to build the character and the narrative up. It was really just dazzling to make. I’d love to make something like it again. Period pieces are something that we don’t get to do often enough. Or, if we do, our pain is usually the focal point. I think that’s one way of diminishing our humanity because even in times of pain and strife and struggle, we still find time to fall in love and to listen to music and to be dazzled by somebody else. I would love to see more of that.”
Irene in Passing (2021)
“Passing has a special place in my heart and is maybe one of my favorite films. I loved getting to work with Rebecca Hall [the director], who’s so tremendous and really has been such an inspiration to me. This was my first time working on an adaptation like that, so it really felt like playing a piece of music. I’m such a fan of literature and of writing, so getting to perform in that way felt like I was a conduit or a vessel for incredible prose. I would love to do more of that because the process was so satisfying to me.”
Bianca in Creed, Creed II, and Creed III (2015, 2018, and 2023)
“These films have been such a pleasure to make. Mike [Michael B. Jordan] and I talk about this a lot, but there’s been so much personal growth inside of the growth of these characters. It’s very interesting to see that over the course of these three films. They’re postcards to me because I see my own growth inside of the span of these nine years. This third one is also Mike’s directorial debut, and I get to be a part of that as someone who loves him. We’ve been making these things for a long time so I just feel incredibly proud to be part of his journey, too.”
Juliana Ukiomogbe is the Assistant Editor at ELLE. Her work has previously appeared in Interview, i-D, Teen Vogue, Nylon, and more.