From circling potential gigs in Backstage during her shifts as a waitress to leading film projects as varied as an awards hopeful from Netflix to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest and greatest, Tessa Thompson has proven an unstoppable force in Hollywood. Sitting with us for this week’s cover story, she took a walk down memory lane and revealed just how she does it all in our acting questionnaire.
What’s one screen performance should every actor see and why?
One of the onscreen performances that I’m pretty sure is why I wanted to be an actor is Angela Bassett in “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Iconic. I can’t remember now, I have to ask my mom, she’ll know if it’s chicken or egg. I was a huge Tina Turner fan, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of the movie. Then I just listened incessantly to old Tina Turner music, I still do. There was like a five-year period where I would not let it go as a young girl. But [Bassett] in that film is just incredible.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done for a role?
[For] “Sorry To Bother You,” everyone was like, “Wear a wig!” But I had never really dyed my hair, so I stripped my hair—it took 18 hours—and dyed it five different colors. I never dyed my hair cool colors in high school, so it felt very wild to me, but relatively speaking, it’s not that wild.
What’s your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
You need to come into a room and sort of take over the room, in a way. I never really knew what that meant or how to do it, and then I started to do a very arbitrary thing, which is if there was a chair in the middle of the room, I would move the chair somewhere else. It was a way of telling myself for this limited time that you’re in this room, you’re allowed to be in it how you want to be. That was something that was really useful for me. Also, this idea of not dressing to look the part but dressing to feel the part. Just realizing that as much as they’re auditioning you, you are auditioning it. You’re seeing if you have something to say. You’ve done all this work in preparation, but when you come into the room, hopefully, it should be an exploratory time where you throw things at the wall, you let someone into your process, and you see if it’s a good fit for everybody. Starting to think about it that way really helped me change my perspective. I didn’t look at auditioning from a place of needing, it was from a place of flight.
“I look at things that were so paramount to me, so formative, and they wouldn’t have happened if something else did. That’s something that’s really hard to understand.”
How did you get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I got really lucky. This is a longer story, but I’m gonna make it short: I wasn’t a child actor, but my dad was friends with a casting director, and we were walking the dog in Hollywood. His friend said, “We’re auditioning for somebody, we’ll bring her in.” He brought me in, and I ended up getting this commercial. I only did one as a kid. I don’t remember what it was for, but I got my SAG card from it at the time, and I paid my dues for a little bit. Then, I didn’t end up keeping up with auditioning.
When I got this episode of “Cold Case,” they were like, “Are you SAG?” So I wrote a very heartfelt letter [to the union]. I was like, “Look, I was briefly a member a lot of years ago, over a decade and a half, and now I have this job.” But I was broke. I was waitressing, and I couldn’t afford to join SAG-AFTRA. They allowed me to pay a $74 reinstatement. So from my one measly commercial, I ended up getting into SAG-AFTRA when I finally got a television job.
What’s one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
It sounds trite, but it’s that thing of just enjoying the journey and the path that you’re on and trusting that things lead somewhere, even if it’s not immediately apparent to you. With acting, you can be so myopic, especially when you’re beginning because it’s just about getting that job. Sometimes you don’t even care about the job, it’s just that you need to get a job to validate your existence. As I’m older, I can see all of the things that said ‘no’ to me, and if that had said ‘yes’ to me, I wouldn’t be able to do this thing that actually changed my life! Not just because it was great for my career, but it changed my perspective, it changed the way that I move through the world. There are so many examples of that. I look at things that were so paramount to me, so formative, and they wouldn’t have happened if something else did. That’s something that’s really hard to understand, and when people advise you that, you’re always like, whatever, sure. But now that I’ve been doing this for a long time and can see it, I see that that’s true.
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