[EXCLUSIVE] Tessa Thompson on varied dreams and effecting change

Tessa Thompson is one of those actresses you just have to watch whenever she’s giving you a performance. Whether it be on television or on the big screen, she most certainly brings it. I call her versatile because she doesn’t stick to one thing that she does best; her career is always evolving. Tessa has far exceeded her character on the popular show, Veronica Mars, moving on to emotional and thought-provoking performances in noteworthy films like For Colored Girls and most recently, Dear White People. The film has received a great amount of positive feedback during its run at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and will grace theaters in the fall. Check out the dramatic clip below and continue to learn more about this inspiring lady:

Welcome Tessa. Where are you from and was acting always a dream of yours?

I was born in Los Angeles and raised there and spent winters and summers in Brooklyn, New York. I always was acting as a child in school productions and home videos, but that was no indication that it was a real dream, I think all children act when they play.  My dreams were really varied, and continue to be. I actually thought I would go into some sort of social work or into education. I think my broadest dreams were to perform in some way, to effect change in the world, and to travel. As I got older I had trepidations with the idea of pursuing acting for a living, I always assumed that the intersection of commerce and creativity was a crossroads I wouldn’t want to navigate. And I still have periods where that is tricky, but the more I work- the bigger my dreams get in scope.

Who are some of your influences, whether in film or life itself?

In life I am influenced by a very loving, creative, and daring family. We are, I suppose from an outside glance, unconventional. I also feel a part of a community of people who make things and have their hands in many mediums and I’m constantly taken with that. I find myself in awe of people who can master a persona. Those who are bold or hard are tricky to classify. I have found myself dazzled by David Bowie, Mae West, Lucille Ball, Tilda Swinton, Joan Rivers and Prince, to name very few.

Tessa as Jackie Cook in Veronica Mars

 You were in quite a few television series and movies, but a lot of people, like me, remember you from Veronica Mars and more recently in Copper. Was there any role in particular that was challenging for you and how do you prepare yourself to embark on a new one? Where do you draw inspiration?

Veronica Mars was challenging in the sense that it was my first big job–I had only really done theater before then. So the technical aspects of filming were new to me and I was learning in a fast paced environment with people who were more seasoned than me, but that time was invaluable. Copper was emotionally taxing because some of the circumstances were dark, and it required me to face the appalling reality of our Nation with regards to the lives of people of color. Every new job has its challenges, and I am always feeling like a beginner after each one is over. It’s always a new process when I’m getting the trappings of a part together, and I’m not sure that I know the way.

Dear White People garnered positive feedback and was widely received at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Tell us about the production, in regards to its message and what you’d like viewers to take from it.

The film is one that asks questions, and doesn’t give you so many answers. I love to be left thinking about and grappling with a story, and by all accounts Dear White People accomplishes that. Sure, the film is about race in this new America we live in, but at the middle it is about identity versus the self and that is something that resonates with us all.

Dear White People

What was the experience like for you, working with the cast on a film of this premise?  

When I read the script, I fell very much in love with my character, Samantha White, and the voice of writer/director Justin Simien. I loved how irreverent and sharp he was and how clear the world of the film felt. I felt very strongly that I wanted to make this film and I fought for it, so making it felt like a dream come true.

I read that you studied Cultural Anthropology in school. How does that impact you as an actress and as an individual who comes from a diverse background?  

I did. I have always been interested in people, love to watch them and make educated guesses about who they are and why. When I was 13, I joined a Baptist church down the street because I had often stopped to watch the services from the outside and I wanted a closer look.  I loved reading about the creation myths of tribes and I became especially interested in linguistics, which eventually brought me back to acting. I went to a workshop of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company and they demonstrated a technique called “dropping in” that was created by a long time collaborator of Kristen Linklater named Tina Packer. I become so interested in the way they were using words to invoke feeling that I asked to intern and soon was performing in my first professional production. Looking back, it all feels like a happy accident.

Stepping away from acting a bit. You’re the daughter of a musician; have you ever done anything musical wise?  

Yes, my father is the singer/songwriter of the band Chocolate Genius Incorporated. I grew up in his basement studio and watching him perform. Apart from being a really original and gifted storyteller lyrically, I always found him to adopt a character on stage that was separate sometimes, and an extension other times, and that was influential as a child. He was also interested in light and composition of film, so he would use me as a subject in home videos and that I think made an impression of me. I liked that you could capture a moment and replay it.  Now I sing in a band called Caught A Ghost and I’m also involved in making almost all our video content, which is good fun. It’s beginning to feel more and more natural being on stage singing.

What’s next for you?

The band will tour with another group called Wild Belle throughout the US starting May 7th.  Some other exciting projects on the horizon, but too early to say. Also, Dear White People will hit theaters in the Fall.


Thank you for taking the time. Please leave a message to aspiring actors.

Thank you for having me. I’m not sure I have a gem to share. I suppose I would say that there isn’t a reason to be ‘aspiring’ for too long. Maybe don’t wait to be given permission or be paid to work, invent ways to begin and always stay busy, reading and watching and doing. Oh and, please do live a full life in your pursuit, it will only make you better.


Visit the following sites to learn more about Tessa:








Images credit: Tessa’s instagram

Clip: Film Society of Lincoln Center

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