Tessa Thompson Is the Superhero Hollywood Has Been Waiting For

Eliana Dockterman
Tessa Thompson Is the Superhero Hollywood Has Been Waiting For

Two years ago, Tessa Thompson said something controversial on Twitter — even if, to people outside Hollywood, it might not have seemed that radical. She simply reminded fans that Valkyrie, the Marvel superhero she plays in Thor: Ragnarok and again in this summer’s blockbuster juggernaut Avengers: Endgame, is bisexual, at least according to the comic books that inspired both films. Thompson, who herself identifies as queer, wrote that she believes the onscreen Valkyrie is bi too.

But since a scene making Valkyrie’s sexuality clear was cut from the film, Thompson found herself in the position of having to speak out about representation — in a way that a risk-averse behemoth like Disney, which released both films, hasn’t done. And so, with just one tweet, she made Marvel’s first onscreen queer superhero real.

Thompson, 35, has yet to headline her own blockbuster. That will change when she co-leads her first big studio film, Men in Black: International, this summer with her Thor scene partner Chris Hemsworth. It’s likely that Valkyrie will return to the big screen too: Thompson can’t divulge the details of her Marvel contract but says that it’s typical for an actor “with the potential to be a main player” to sign onto five movies.

But even now, her stature as a queer woman of color in tentpole films and an outspoken feminist on the red carpet means she’s a more potent political force than many of her A-list contemporaries. She’s famous enough to pressure studios into doing the right thing, but early enough in her career that to do so is still a risk.

I hoped to talk about these weighty topics — queerness, race, feminism, and of course, that tweet — in a stately museum on New York’s Upper East Side the day before Thompson was to attend the Met Gala. But when we discover that the museum is closed, Thompson suggests we share my bright red umbrella and wander toward the zoo instead. As we skip over puddles in Central Park on a rainy Sunday morning, Thompson reflects on the incident with the eloquence of an actor and the confidence of an activist.

“You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you,” she says. “But I think a friendly bite is okay. Inclusion doesn’t happen by mistake. You have to push people. Sometimes shame is a powerful tool.” She pauses. “That wasn’t necessarily my intention, but I don’t mind it being a dare.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of a black Panamanian father, and half-Mexican, half-white mother, Thompson began to challenge other people’s notions of her identity early on. She helped found what she has called a “racial harmony” club in high school that involved planning sleepovers for kids of different backgrounds. Starring in school plays, she craved a thoughtful “hmm” of emotional recognition from the audience more than applause. When she watched movies, she saw few people who looked like her in her favorite genres: magical realism like Being John Malkovich, or sexy adult dramas like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

She acted for 10 years before her breakout performance as a biracial student leading the protest against a frat party encouraging black face on her campus in 2014’s Dear White People. “Before I read that script,” she says, “I felt so diminished by what was available: the sassy friend, the slave, the sexy cypher.”

She has assiduously avoided such parts since, starring in the capitalist critique Sorry to Bother You, a recent indie called Little Woods that dealt with abortion and dressing up as an actual vagina in a Janelle Monae music video. Somehow, simultaneously, she’s subverted the tropes of typical action fare.

“I’ve been really lucky,” she says, “to work with filmmakers like Ryan Coogler who, when they’re trying to write the female experience, empower the women they work with to help them where they fall short.” In Coogler’s Creed, she played a boxer’s singer girlfriend with her own ambitions. When she signed on to play Valkyrie, she and director Taika Waititi worked to introduce the character as more of a drunken mess than sex symbol.

Thompson’s unwillingness to compromise her principles even in these major films has won her a rabid fanbase. We’re stopped seven different times on our walk through the park for selfies before we take refuge from the rain, and fans, in the zoo cafe. The Internet loves her: There’s an entire account dedicated to juxtaposing pictures of Thompson next to goats. (She loves goats.) When Thompson tweeted a riff on the “I’m not a snack, I’m a whole meal” meme by calling herself a “meal replacement supplement,” a thread filled with pictures of Tessa next to meal replacement bottles popped up an hour later.

But mostly, her Instagram and Twitter mentions are filled with people thanking her for her work. Fans around the world have written to Thompson that seeing a queer person playing a superhero helped them come out. “I don’t think any artist has the responsibility to be the ambassador, especially when it comes to who you love,” she says. “I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to keep that separate from their professional life. There’s not just a perceived risk of coming out in Hollywood. There’s a real one.”

Thompson understands that all sorts of moviegoers are desperate to see reflections of themselves onscreen, but she also argues for the power of the movies to create empathy. When she was on the press tour for Thor: Ragnarok, plenty of journalists praised the character as a strong role model for little girls. She would always correct them: “Little girls, little boys, and little people who don’t know what they are yet. As women or people of color we grow up having to identify with white dudes.” It’s time to flip that around.

Thompson is one of the most outspoken leaders of Time’s Up, a movement to end workplace sexual harassment and promote diversity in Hollywood and beyond. The organization has had tremendous symbolic significance in Hollywood, but Thompson and her colleagues are also determined to find more concrete ways to create change.

The past two years at Sundance, she has hosted an event called In the Intersection to find ways to address discrimination within the industry. “I want to get past complaint and into context,” she says. The 4% Challenge, launched in January, is one major initiative to come out of those meetings. Women have directed just 4% of the top 1,200 studio films since 2007: Thompson is asking studios and actors to commit to working with one female director in the next 18 months. Major studios like MGM and stars like Armie Hammer have committed to the challenge.

More women and people of color in the director’s chair will lead directly to a more diverse array of stories. “Every big opportunity I have been provided has always been with people of color,” she says. On those sets, she knows that she and the director share an unspoken goal to break barriers. But that’s not entirely by choice. “There is a long list of white, male filmmakers I would love to work with,” she says. “But they just don’t see me. They just don’t.”

Progress can feel slow. “This last Oscars makes you think maybe things haven’t changed all that much,” she says, nodding at the controversy surrounding Best Picture winner Green Book. “But I think there’s always going to be things that are celebrated that feel simplistic and derivative and tired, and there’s always going to be work that’s pushing boundaries that’s not celebrated at the mainstream level.”

Thompson continues to find ways to assert her worth both in the studio system and outside it. She’s noticed that she’s often called “honey” or “sweetie” on set when her male co-stars, like Hemsworth, are not. Recently she’s begun telling people to call her by her name. “If Chris is ‘sweetie,’ I can be ‘sweetie,’ too,” she says, laughing. “But if he’s Chris, I’m Tessa.”

Photograph by Gizelle Hernandez for TIME
Tessa Thompson in Los Angeles, April 28, 2019. | Gizelle Hernandez for TIME