Tessa Thompson has received praise for her striking performance in Passing. The story about the inner world of Black women is a narrative that’s all too rare in Hollywood. With her new production company, the acclaimed actress is determined to upend the system by telling more of our stories and creating more diverse and nuanced lead movie roles for Black actresses.

Story by Wesley Lowery
Photography by Keith Major

Tessa Thompson was in London, years ago, when she got the text message. “You’re not available to do this movie,” Hollywood producer Angela Robinson wrote. “But I suspect you would want to make yourself available. You should read it.”

The movie, a project then in its infancy, was an adaptation of Passing, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, about two mixed-race Black women who had been childhood friends and reconnect in adulthood. Thompson was shocked that she’d never even heard of the book before. Even more so once she began reading it. The story is about Irene Redfield, an upper-class Harlem housewife, and Clare Kendry, who is passing as white and married to a racist white man. Initially repulsed by the life her friend has chosen, Irene soon finds herself reconsidering her own—her race, her marriage, her children, and perhaps even her sexuality. The women have set out on very different paths; but if happiness is the destination, it becomes clear, neither Irene nor Clare has reached it. “I’m beginning to believe,” Irene murmurs to her friend midway through the novel, “that no one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe.”

“I was haunted by it,” says Thompson, 38, who read the book in a single sitting. Robinson had been right. Thompson wanted to be attached to this story. “There was so much mystery inside of the pages,” she says. “The resolution, or lack thereof, prompted way more questions than it answered.”

Before long, Thompson was on the phone, and then meeting up in person, with English actress Rebecca Hall, who had crafted the screenplay, which is in part inspired by her own family’s story: Her grandfather was a Black man who passed for white. Thompson pledged to clear her schedule to play the role of Irene, a commitment that stretched on for years as Hall fought to get the project financed. 

After a limited theatrical release in October, Netflix’s Passing, which marks Hall’s directorial debut, made its way to the network—quickly becoming one of the streaming service’s most popular offerings. Sitting at home on the couch with her dog, Coltrane, next to her, Thompson says she’d been too busy doing press to read the reviews. But when her agent texted her to let her know they’d largely been glowing, she says she was pleased but unsurprised.

Tessa wears an Alexander McQueen suit, earrings and rings.

“Getting to watch a woman unravel, getting to watch that on-screen…I don’t think that Black women are allowed to exist in narratives like that very often,” Thompson says. “I just don’t think that Hollywood affords Black women the opportunity to do that very often.”

Nella Larsen penned Passing nearly a century ago, but for anyone who’s seen Thompson’s portrayal of Irene and heard the star explain the character’s inner workings, it would be hard not to imagine that the part was custom written for her.

After a TV stint on Veronica Mars, Thompson broke through on the big screen in 2009’s Mississippi Damned. Before long, she was everywhere: portraying Diane Nash in 2014’s Selma; Bianca, the hearing-impaired significant other of the title character in the Creed films; Detroit, the artist girlfriend of down-and-out worker Cassius (played by Lakeith Stanfield) in 2018’s Sorry to Bother You; and Valkyrie, a sword-wielding heroine in the Marvel film franchise. Yet the part of Irene presented a new challenge.

Getting to watch a woman unravel, getting to watch that on-screen…I don’t think that Black women are allowed to exist in narratives like that very often.

Both the star and her character are striking and cerebral. Neither expresses herself most fully through her spoken words. “Even though [the novel is] not necessarily in the first person, it’s intensely from Irene’s perspective. She’s someone who thinks and feels a lot,” Thompson says. “As treacherous as the territory [is for her psychologically and emotionally], I feel quite safe inside of her experience because I’m someone who thinks and feels a lot.” 

The actress has always been fascinated by identity and the way it’s performed. As a child, she would play with how she dressed, taking note of how the world would relate differently to her depending on her appearance. She found herself charmed by David Bowie and Prince: “I became aware that inside of their performance, inside of their music, there was a performance that had to do with identity. They were playing with gender; they were upending expectations. It’s the idea that, in a perfect world, we should be allowed to create, with real freedom and with flexibility, who we want to be.”

Tessa wears a Khoon Hooi gown and Fallon earrings.

In a perfect world, we should be allowed to create, with real freedom and with flexibility, who we want to be.

Raised by parents of different races—her father, the singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, is Afro-Panamanian; her mother is half white and half Mexican—Thompson had room to explore this issue while growing up in Los Angeles. In previous interviews, she has talked about how, in high school, she established a “racial harmony group,” a regular sleepover composed of 20 students of different races. One year, she joined as a Black student; the next, as a Mexican student. She tried to label herself as a white student the third year, but her classmates vetoed the notion. She wasn’t confused or conflicted, but rather she wanted clarity about the extent to which identity is a creation.

Tessa wears a Harbison gown, Melinda Maria and Sara Weinstock earrings, and Les Petits Joueurs shoes.
Tessa wears a Cong Tri coat, bralette and pants, MAM silver ear pin, Melinda Maria earrings, L’Atelier Nawbar stud earring and Versace shoes.

The issues of identity drew Thompson to the character of Samantha White, the biracial campus activist she portrayed in Justin Simien’s 2014 flick, Dear White People; it was a chance to creatively explore an inner turmoil she’d never experienced herself. “I was playing someone who was really conflicted and struggling,” she says. “[I got] to play with that tragic mulatto trope, but I don’t really relate to that.”

“A copy of Passing was my constant companion while we were filming.”

To play Irene, Thompson fully immersed herself in the character’s mindset and environment. (The film is set in 1920s Harlem.) She kept passages from the novel in the margins of the script. “I was reengaging with the words constantly,” she shares.
“A copy of Passing was my constant companion while we were filming.” When she wasn’t on set, she listened repeatedly to a slowed-down version of “The Homeless Wanderer,” by the Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Bright but longing, with the improvisation of jazz yet the constraint of a classic, it is the theme song for Clare (played by Ruth Negga), whom Irene can’t stop thinking about, says Thompson.

Despite appearances, Passing is not just, or even primarily, a film about race. Thompson’s character is torn about everything, not just her skin color. When Irene first encounters Clare, she’s deeply turned off, perplexed that her friend could have abandoned her racial identity, and offended that Clare now seemed to want her to serve as a tour guide of Black Harlem. But Irene soon finds herself captivated by Clare, who holds up a mirror that exposes the flaws in the life Irene has constructed for herself. While they can pass for a happily married couple, Irene and her husband, Brian (played by Andre Holland), are not. By the book’s closing pages, she isn’t even sure she has ever been in love.

“Irene is not the one necessarily who is passing racially; she’s the one who is passing in every other way,” Thompson explains. “My work in the film had to do with all of that murky territory. I was more interested in what the film was saying, more broadly and more specifically, about the human experience. That chasm between how the world wants to see you and how you see yourself.”

Or as Irene puts it in the film: “We are all passing for something or other, aren’t we?”

Thompson repeats the line and looks as though she’s in deep thought. The star is known for being very private. For years, her personal life has been a subject of intense fascination. In 2018, she told an interviewer that she is attracted to both men and women but has largely refused to entertain further public discussion of her love life. (In an interview this year, she noted that only Coltrane sleeps next to her.) She says that during quarantine, she reevaluated her relationship with social media in hopes of recalibrating how much of her life she lives in public and how much of it she keeps to herself.

“I’m still working through and navigating discomfort with being a public entity,” Thompson says. “There is this idea that if you’re a performer, you’re comfortable with or interested [in] being watched. For me, that’s not necessarily the case. My work has sometimes meant that I’ve had to pass as more of an extrovert than I am. That was one of the joys about playing Irene as well, to lean into the part of me that is introverted, to minimize the part of me that is an extrovert.”

I’ve had the opportunity to really understand and unpack my own measure of privilege inside of the industry.

Tessa wears a Christopher Kane dress, Melinda Maria black hoop earring and Dru Jewelry gold hoop earring.

Thompson’s upcoming projects will offer her the chance to retreat from the spotlight, while empowering others to step into it. In January, she launched a production company, Viva Maude, which has inked a two-year first-look deal with HBO and HBO Max. She says she is excited to tell stories “that really examine a part of our humanity” and open up the aperture about Americana. Our community creates many beautiful stories, she continues, ones that are of the same caliber, and just as impressive, as what the mainstream deems as classic—but they are often ignored. “The reception of Passing is impactful because it makes more room for these kinds of stories to be told.” With her production company, she’ll be able to spotlight Black narratives and make them canon.

Creating more stories means expanding the number and types of cinematic roles available for Black actresses. Thompson says she is aware of the doors that have opened for her because she is biracial and light-skinned, doors that may have been closed to a dark-skinned Black woman. “I’ve been able to play a lot of very different characters I’m not sure women who came before me—who I stand on the shoulders of—would have been able to,” she acknowledges. “I’ve had the opportunity to really understand and unpack my own measure of privilege inside of the industry, and as someone who hopes to be a changemaker, [I’ve asked myself] How do I contend with that? What do I do?”

Tessa wears a Christian Siriano cape, bralette and pants and MAM chain ear cuff.

There is the opportunity to put different kinds of Black women on-screen in parts that don’t get to be the love interest, that don’t get to be the love seeker, that don’t get to take up space in that kind of way.

Tessa wears a Harbison gown, Melinda Maria and Sara Weinstock earrings, and Les Petits Joueurs shoes.

In some instances, the star says, it’s about saying no to projects she doesn’t feel like she belongs in. In others, it’s about producing stories that feature the full spectrum of Black women and establishing a community network to get the stories made: “No one creates work in a bubble. I feel like the literary world is better at this. It’s embedded into the community that you will be in conversation with other folks who are making work.” 

“That’s the thing. It’s about reaching across,” she adds. “For so long, you can be really siloed and it’s hard to know how to seek out community, particularly as a performer. But as a producer it feels seamless—it’s much easier to want to do that, to reach across [to other creatives to see what kind of work they want to make]. The things that I’ve always loved about engaging with pieces of work—reading a beautiful piece of fiction or watching a film—is that it makes me feel less alone.”

With her production company, she’s been able to collaborate with a generation of rising Black literary talent. Among the projects in development are the film adaptations of Who Fears Death, the postapocalyptic 2010 novel by ​​Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor; Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a short story collection for which she was a 2020 National Book Awards finalist; and Raven Leilani’s hit debut, Luster. “There is the opportunity to put so many different kinds of Black women on-screen in parts that don’t get to be the love interest, that don’t get to be the love seeker, that don’t get to take up space in that way,” says Thompson, who’s determined to reimagine the portrayal of Black actresses as different types of protagonists.

“We operate inside of these systems,” adds Thompson. “But now, after having done it for a decade, I think I have a measure of clarity about it, and [I hope] a part of creating community is that we’re all intentionally trying to change these systems and start our own network so [that] we don’t have to ask for permission [to do the projects we want to do].”

Wesley Lowery (@wesleylowery) is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, author, and CBS News correspondent.

Tessa wears a Cong Tri coat, bralette and pants, MAM silver ear pin, Melinda Maria earrings and L’Atelier Nawbar stud earring.

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