How the actress made sure Bianca would be “no sidekick or cheerleader.”
Tessa Thompson is a superhero. In the past year alone, she’s starred in Sorry to Bother You, Annihilation, and Creed II, she has a Men in Black reboot on the way, and she literally played a superhero in Thor: Ragnarok.
For Creed II, she’s also written and performed her very own original music, redefined the role of the stereotypical boxer wife with strength, independence, and unapologetic blackness, and dealt with a “hangry” Michael B. Jordan on set.
And what does she ask of us? To let her be mediocre. Let her be average. “For me, the mark of true equality will be when we get to be mediocre,” says Thompson, the “we” here referring to black actors. “I feel like we are all exceptional because you have to be. It will just be nice when you get to be average.”
While Thompson probably won’t be pulling an “average” any time soon, the actress is finding the balance between roles that challenge her and providing some much-needed representation in Hollywood. And with boxing blockbuster Creed II, Thompson has done just that. She plays Bianca, a “fiercely” strong musician who can and does, go toe to toe with Jordan’s strong-willed boxer Adonis. Bianca is no sidekick or cheerleader—a choice that Thompson influenced while shaping the role with director Steven Caple Jr.
Below, Thompson opens up about her special connection to the characters she plays, her undying passion for acting, and Michael B. Jordan’s secret (he eats pizza in sweatpants).
You’ve said you felt a connection with Bianca even when you weren’t filming and have mentioned that you look for roles that are parts of yourself you haven’t been able to explore. How does Bianca fit into that?
Well, we’re actually really dissimilar in a lot of ways, but I can relate to the fact that she’s a musician and that’s really tied to her identity. I can relate to that. It felt like acting was always this compulsion in school; I would try to do other things and went to school for other things, but always came back to acting. It felt like something that I could not not do. In the first film, Adonis asks her why she does what she does, and she says it makes her feel alive. In this one, it’s something they talk about a lot, that they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t do the thing that they burn for. I think I can really relate to that.
Who do you feel most like, Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok, Bianca from Creed, or Detroit from Sorry to Bother You?
They all mean a lot to me, for a multitude of reasons. I feel really lucky to get to make work at this time and be part of the conversation around representation for women and particularly women of color; our ideas are becoming more expansive. Detroit means a lot to me because I felt like it was the first time I had the chance to play inside of a magical-realism narrative. So many of the films that I grew up watching that made me want to make movies, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—all of these incredible sort of mind-bending, hyper-imaginative stories—just felt really not terribly inclusive of people of color, so that felt monumental to me.
Obviously, to get to play a superhero—again, you don’t see a lot of women of color in that space, but particularly queer women, and to get to play a character that’s queer, that felt significant to me.
Bianca feels significant to me in the sense that she’s a really well-rounded female character inside a sports narrative, which is really rare. We hadn’t seen that since the first Rocky, and so to continue that tradition with a character that is also unapologetically black and independent felt significant. I couldn’t really pick one. It’d be like having to kill one of my darlings. They all mean a lot to me.
Michael B. Jordan recently talked about selecting movies with bigger cultural aims for black people, and becoming a movie star, without the descriptor “black” first. Do you look at it through a similar lens?
I’d be hard pressed to look at something objectively, because I’m me. I feel like, yes, selfishly I want to be breaking new ground for myself. So it’s like, “What have I not done?” I came from the indie world, so the idea of getting to do a big ol’ giant movie and work on green screen felt attractive because it mildly terrified me. It felt like something new. Then in a macro sense, I feel like it’s deeply significant culturally. For me the sweet spot is when those two things align. I want to make work that I’m proud of, so that’s the first thing. And then inside of that is also, “Is this a good way to contribute? Is there something to say in this that the culture needs?”
I feel so tethered to stories that center women and center women of color, because I happen to be both of those things. But I feel like where we really can break ground is when there are too many of us for one of us to be exceptional. That’s what’s exciting about this time. Playing Valkyrie was cool, but then when Black Panther came along and suddenly there’s all these other women of color in this space, that’s cooler. That feels better to me. I would prefer to be one of many than to be just one. Similarly, getting to work with women directors. We just don’t get those opportunities nearly enough. For me, the mark of true equality will be when we get to be mediocre. I feel like we are are all exceptional because you have to be. It will just be nice when you get to be average.
“FOR ME, THE MARK OF TRUE EQUALITY WILL BE WHEN WE GET TO BE MEDIOCRE.”
The role of the boxer wife has been done before, often as a stereotypical anxious woman behind the scenes, but that’s definitely not Bianca. How is Creed II rewriting this narrative?
That was super important to me because it’s what we established in the first movie. A part of the reason why Bianca disappears from the third act of the first movie is because Michael’s character messes up and she’s like, “Look, I have a world that’s too big and I’m trying to do too many things to have you mess with it, so goodbye.” I loved that about her. I loved that she just had her own agency. Even though they become far more intertwined in this one, and they make a commitment to each other and they’re beginning a family, it is really important to honor that the woman we’ve established is fiercely, fiercely independent.
I had some measure of hesitation when I knew that she was going to be pregnant, and some worry that she might end up being the dutiful wife. I expressed those concerns to Steven Caple Jr, our fantastic director, and those concerns made it into the movie—when she says to him: “I’m not gonna be this barefoot wife making you sandwiches.” That was literally something I expressed to Mike and to Steven and they were like, “Let’s put it in the movie.”
Michael B. Jordan is perfect and wonderful, but can you give us the dirt? Does he have bad breath? Does he clap when the plane lands?
I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this, but he’s really irritable when he hasn’t eaten. He gets really angry. It’s not just sort of like, “Okay, get him a sandwich.” I think it might have also been exacerbated by—when he’s training, there are certain days where he wouldn’t drink water all day and he was going through very intense training. So he was allowed some irritable days.
Also, when he’s having a cheat day, he really goes in and it feels like being at a college dorm room, but a really nice one, where the kid has a lot of money because he just has everything from Chinese food to pizza. Every kind of junk cuisine he’d want. He’s in basketball shorts just gorging himself. But he only had a couple of those days, so he’s allowed.