Born and raised in LA, Tessa Thompson is an actress and musician who started in professional theater before moving to the screen. In 2014, she played the lead of Sam White in Dear White People and activist Diane Nash in Oscar-nominated Selma. Known also for her role on TV series Veronica Mars, Tessa will star in the upcoming Creed and recently released her debut album with Caught A Ghost.
Born in Oakland, California, Coogler is a writer and director whose 2013 debut Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. That year, he was named on Time’s list of 30 people under 30 who are changing the world. His upcoming film Creed is a spinoff of the Rocky series, starring Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan.
Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma is a 2014 drama about Martin Luther King and his non-violent campaign during the 1965 voting marches from Selma to Montgomery, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. King. The film met with critical success, and is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
Dear White People
A 2014 independent satirical drama, written and directed by Justin Simien. Set at a predominantly white college, the film confronts race, following a group of black students with outspoken activist, Sam White (Tessa Thompson), at the helm.
Michael B. Jordan
American actor known for his lead role in 2013’s critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station and his recurring role in TV show Friday Night Lights. He is slated for the role of Apollo Creed’s grandson in the upcoming Ryan Coogler film Creed.
Caught A Ghost
Modern soul music project of songwriter and producer Jesse Nolan, drummer Stephen Edelstein and vocalist Tessa Thompson, whose debut album Human Nature is out now.
The Los Angeles born and bred Tessa Thompson just landed a major role in writer-director Ryan Coogler’s addition to the Rocky franchise, Creed. This headline-making move, combined with the recent release of the critically acclaimed and multi-award nominated Selma (in which Tessa portrays student Civil Rights revolutionary Diane Nash), sets her up for another stellar year. In 2014, Tessa created an icon in compelling campus activist Sam White for Dear White People, spurring the film’s international success and cult status. Issue caught up with her on the eve of the first day’s shooting for Creed to chat hashtag politics, Chris Rock, and making the “unconventional” choice.
Holly Grigg-Spall: So, right now you’re in Philadelphia shooting Creed, the Rocky sequel written and directed by Ryan Coogler. How is that going?
Tessa Thompson: We begin filming on Monday, but I’ve been here a couple of weeks wandering around Philly and preparing.
HGS: How did you come to find that role or how did they come to find you?
TT: I was speaking with Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington last night about this, actually. We were talking about how they’d gone to see Dear White People at Sundance last year and Aaron said something to Ryan about me back then. At that time, they were just starting to write Creed. Aaron followed me through the year. I auditioned, of course, but at the time there were a number of actresses they were interested in and also musicians. For a while, Ryan was keen on the idea of getting a musician without acting experience to play this part. I did the readings with Ryan and my co-star Michael B. Jordan, and after my audition I sent him a tape I had made of myself singing.
HGS: That’s right, because you are in fact a singer and you perform with Caught A Ghost.
TT: Yes, but until kind of recently I didn’t write any music. I co-wrote a song for the Dear White People soundtrack, and that was the first song I’d worked on. Ryan was looking for a female musician who wrote and produced her own work. I’d always been interested in songwriting—it was something I’d done in secret and had a few unfinished songs lying around. For the movie, though, I’ve had to write songs that will play in the movie, to a deadline. It’s been a big challenge for me.
HGS: Is there any cross-over between performing live with your band on stage and performing as an actor in movies and TV?
TT: I’ve always liked to sing. My father is a musician. A lot of my friends are musicians. But I was always more comfortable with the communal experience of singing. I used to sing in the LA Ladies Choir. I really enjoyed that process of singing with other women. The idea of singing on my own, with just my voice into a microphone, was daunting. I started performing alone reluctantly. I was worried too, as I think there’s a funny way of thinking about actors who want to make music. People tend to be more critical of that than if it’s the other way around.
The process of performing on stage with the band these past two years has been great because there’s a certain amount of bravado required. The experience with the audience is more intimate and direct in comparison to making a movie. It’s even different to theatre, I’d say. There’s usually a fourth wall. Plus the experience of being with an audience in a music venue, one that might have been drinking, one that’s packing punches you have to dodge and dance with, is very different. With Creed, because of performing on stage, I am now more apt to feel I can pull off this character—I now know more about that experience.
“When I started acting
it was in theatre and then television—
film was an afterthought in some ways.”
— Tessa Thompson
Los Angeles-based actress and producer known for the Sleepover LA, Fruits de Mer, and Revenge of the Bimbot Zombie Killers.
HGS: I interviewed a friend of yours, Nicole Disson, a few months ago and she mentioned that you met in the LA Ladies Choir. As you know, she’s very involved in the theatre, experimental and performing arts scenes in LA, and we talked some about how outsiders don’t see LA as a cultural city. What areas of the arts and culture, other than music and movie making, do you enjoy in LA?
TT: I’m an odd breed in that I’m a Los Angeles native. I’m very much an LA girl. I went to Santa Monica High School and, as a teenager, lived in Hollywood. I’m as LA as they come. I now work in Hollywood the industry, but to me Hollywood has always meant that kind of armpit of LA rather than the hills of Hollywood, the sign and that star-lined stretch of Hollywood Blvd.
I started acting in theatre. Los Angeles professional theatre is a community that doesn’t get its due from outsiders. I worked in theatre and then television – film was an afterthought in some ways. I never grew up watching movies thinking I wanted to be in them, but I always grew up doing theatre and I wanted to be on Broadway. So I still get involved in LA theatre and celebrate it and go to shows.
It was through the LA Ladies Choir that I met Nicole as well as lots of photographers, stylists, musicians, models, artists, directors—it was the beginning of my immersion in the LA arts scene and the experimental scene. It got me into the Silver Lake and Echo Park arts community. I’ve always been interested in subculture and in LA it’s harder to find, but I have managed to have love affairs with different subcultures like the late night DJ world that some of my friends are in and the bike scene, which is really vibrant in Los Angeles. In a city where everyone drives, there’s a great community of people who bike. I feel closer to those communities, in a way, than I do to Hollywood. It’s only because of my last few projects that I’ve become more integrated into Hollywood.
In fact, I have so many friends in the LA arts community who, until recently, didn’t even realize I was an actor. I would see these people out at nights like No American (which Nicole hosted at El Cid), where they wouldn’t play any American music. I studied cultural anthropology in college, so I’ve always been interested in music from different cultures. That was my scene, and for some reason it never came up that I was actually acting. Over the last year, these people have seen me in Selma and Dear White People, and they were shocked that I’m in Hollywood too.