Tessa Thompson plays Sam White in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” out today.
Read our exclusive interview with her below:
How did you become involved with the movie? Was it a simple audition?
Tessa Thompson: I became involved sort of in a very orthodox way. I got sent the script and asked if I was interested in the movie and wanted to audition and I did. I loved it. I felt really in love with the script and also with Justin Simien, the writer, and his voice. But I was in Canada making this TV show called Copper, and I couldn’t make an audition, so I just sent some tapes to him. Then, I got sort of nervous. He’s seen so many people in Los Angeles. So, I sort of insisted, I asked if he would Skype with me for about five minutes before he went into callbacks since I couldn’t be there for callbacks. We had a conversation via Skype, and then I was still nervous. You know maybe he wasn’t going to make the leap of faith and cast me from so far away. So, I wrote him a letter. But I guess it was kind of simple in the sense that I just sent a tape, I met Justin maybe two or three days before we started shooting when I flew to Minneapolis.
Could you speak a little bit more about working with Justin?
TT: Yeah, you know I think [that’s] one thing that has been a little overshadowed because the film has such really strong thematic things happening and this subject is frankly kind of a hotbed of opinions and feelings, but Justin is really a cinephile. He’s obsessed with films. He was pulling from some very specific references, so there would be moments when he just had the frame in his mind so clearly that if you were off by sort of and inch he could see it. It was his baby he’s been working on this screenplay and had it in his heart as something that really burned a hole in him for about eight years. So, he was just, you know, as prepared as you could be and as passionate as you could hope for in a director.
So what were your thoughts when you first found out about what your character was like?
TT: I guess, you know, my thoughts and my feelings were that a part of Sam White’s story reminded me of a younger part of myself in high school when, I was trying to sort of figure out who I was, and I felt kind of a pressure to be certain things depending on what group of people I was in front of. I think that’s something the movie really explored more than just talking about race in America. The film is about identity and who you know yourself to be, and trying to reconcile that with what people expect of you, or what people assume about you. Sometimes that can be made, you know, more difficult and murky with the introduction of race. So I guess I just felt like it was a love letter to a previous part of myself. I also think that Sam White is the resident firecracker, fire starter on campus, and I think people that are really necessary. People who want to shake up their surroundings. Whether or not she’s always right is another story, but while I was playing her I really got to see the joy in somebody who is daring enough to speak up.
So, would you say your character is the one you relate to the most in the film?
TT: No, I wouldn’t say that necessarily. I could really see myself in all of the characters, which is a thing that really attracted me to the script. I felt like the characters are all so layered. There’s so much going on with them that there are things you can really recognize. That’s one of the things that is striking to me, because we’ve played the movie all over the country at this point and at a lot of film festivals, and I remember at the first screening I went to the Eccles Theater, which is the biggest theatre there about 1,200 people, and there were people that came up and they were women that looked like housewives in Utah. They were saying I related so much to Coco’s character, or I related to you or to Troy and that’s incredible. It showed us that who we assumed that this movie is for is not exactly who the film is going to resonate with the most necessarily. Yeah, I could see myself in all of them.
At one point in the movie your character’s actions are compared to Malcolm X, do you think the comparison is justified? Being seen as an extremist.
TT: I don’t think she’s an extremist I think she is radical in her own way. I think what makes her radical is her complexities and contradictions which she kind of tries to hide. I mean she says herself, “I’m not Malcolm X,” towards the end of the movie she says “I’m tired of being everybody’s angry black chick,” and in light of what was just said about Shonda Rhimes I think that’s not a great position to be boxed into because there’s this trope. If you’re a person of color who has something to say about what’s happening in the world then you are militant, but if you’re a white person you’re a liberal. So no I wouldn’t say that she’s an extremist. I think she toes the line actually.
Do you think the movie accurately portrays the life of black students today especially at predominantly white colleges?
TT: I will say that when the credits roll we show images of black face parties and racially themed parties that have happened all over the nation. When Justin was first writing the script that wasn’t happening in the same way so he was like am I going too far in the satire? Will people be able to relate to this and believe this? Is this too extreme? And then the culture kind of caught up with him, frankly, which is unfortunate. I think in that sense it is speaking to things that are true about what’s happening. The movie also exists in a space a little bit outside of reality. I think why that’s necessary is it’s really hard sometimes to internalize things when they’re too real. I think the movie sits in a sweet spot of making us laugh and at moments being sort of like ‘oh that’s ridiculous’ and at the end you realize oh no that ‘s actually a really observant, sharp look at what’s happening around us.
Are you a little bit worried about people being lost because of the satire of the film and people being offended by it?
TT: Yeah I think that that might happen. I’m trying not to spend too much time anticipating how people are going to react. Truthfully, I think the aim certainly for Justin Simien making the film and my biggest hope is the hope I think I also share with my character, Sam White, is just to start a conversation. There are going to be people that are maybe offended. I had a woman of color come up to me in the street and asked me about the trailer and she felt that it was making fun of black people and asked me if that was the intention. I felt that was so interesting and I was so grateful that she asked me that question, because we got to have a really honest conversation, and I got to explain our intention of making the film. She said she so excited to see it now that she understood contextually what it means. I think people might be upset or off put, but frankly I think any piece of work that has a really strong point of view, and is fresh and is trying to say things that are important and frankly a little hard to say is going to turn some people off and some are going to misunderstand it. I think that’s a credit to the film.
Do you think the film will start a trend of talking about being a minority in this day and age?
TT: Like I said Justin’s been writing this script and trying to get this movie made for eight years, so it’s interesting when people say this movie is coming out at the perfect time, or this movie is so of it’s time. I mean the truth is it’s a resurgence of a type of film. The film has been compared to Do The Right Thing and Hollywood Shuffle and Higher Learning, but those films were made in some cases 25-30 years ago. I think it’s continuing a conversation that we’ve been having for awhile, and continuing it in a fresh way. I think also, in the context of Hollywood, it’s just the case that now we’re so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s really hard to make a movie that Hollywood can’t look at and say I know what this movie is, this kind of movie made money the year before. So, if this film is successful yeah I think it will open the doors for other films like it, certainly with interesting portrayals of people of color. I think that’s the hope. That’s the best-case scenario, if that happens.
What is the one thing you want people to take away from this movie?
TT: Like I said, I think it’s a movie about identity versus yourself and I think we’re in a time where we’re pretty identity obsessed. We live in sort of the age of the selfie where were constantly trying to project images of ourselves and an idea of who we are to other people, and sometimes I think that that can distract us from having an honest conversation with ourselves about who we are. I hope that people take away that the sort of self-reflective honest space is really important. More than that I just hope it starts conversations with friends and families and enemies. Get together and talk about what the movie brought up for them.