Tessa Thompson On Creed, Playing a Character With a Disability And Her Superhero Aspirations

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(Photo: Russ Burlingame)

When Creed opens in theaters nationwide today, one of the most interesting elements of the film is not the action, but the love story.

Tessa Thompson's Bianca is a musician with whom Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Johnson develops a relationship in spite of coming from very different worlds. She has a thriving career, her own set of personal and professional concerns that set her apart from Rocky Balboa's wife Adrian, and a progressive hearing loss condition that threatens to take much of that away from her eventually.

ComicBook.com sat down with Thompson during the recent Creed junket in Philadelphia to talk about her character, the challenges of creating original songs for a movie while also playing a lead role, and what it was like playing a strong woman in what she called a "very male movie."

Creed is in theaters today.

My first experience with you was Veronica Mars, and there are some simliarities there. Like Jackie Cook, Adonis Johnson is the child of a famous athlete who is hiding a lot of himself from the people he cares about.

Oh, right! Totally, totally, you're so right. I hadn't made that connection, but you're totally right!

I think actually the big thing for this film is that there was a lot of implied stakes for your character because of the hearing loss that aren't explicitly spelled out onscreen. How did you use that to inform your performance?

Hmm. Yeah, that's interesting. I think you run the danger, and it's easy to run the danger when you're playing the girlfriend or the spouse or the friend in a movie like this, of feeling like you just function to move the narrative forward for this person but you don't exist as a fully fleshed-out human being.

I think the challenge is being able to fill in all the gaps for yourself so that you understand what they are and you can bring that richness to your performance and to your presence, so that even if the audience doesn't know everything that's going on with you, they can sense that you have a rich emotional life, that have a history, you know? And so that was really important to me and really important to [director Ryan Coogler].

And also, it was easier to do with a filmmaker like Ryan because he's so interested in doing that. So we had conversations about funny details. Like for example, Bianca went to a Quaker school and that was her first exposure to alternative music that was different than the soul or hip-hop or R&B that she grew up listening to. So we had fleshed out with such specificity where she came from, who she was, what her point-of-view was, and also her disability, that I just felt like it was endlessly interesting to play her. I felt like I was operating with way more than what was on the page or would even be on the screen, but it lived in me.

I think they did a great job both with Bianca and with Mary Ann, of developing female characters who were three-dimensional. I love the Rocky movies, but Adrian often had very little to do except to be disapproving. Did you kind of come in and say "I can do this, but only if the character is human?"

Yeah, it was important to me, but I didn't have to make that imperative because that was Ryan's imperative. He was like, "I want you to do this, but she has to be dynamic. How do we make her dynamic?" That was a question that he asked me.

And to be asked that by a filmmaker -- and also to be asked that by a male filmmaker in a very male movie, I was like, "Are you kidding?" So that was his imperative. It came from him and we had a lot of conversations about how to do that.

And he's someone that, while he's expansive in the kind of stories he wants to tell, he also always likes to start with what he knows. There always needs to be a thread of something that he understands, I think, in his storytelling. Maybe tomorrow he'll want to just tell comic book stories, but even then, I think that he would try to find a seed of something he understands to anchor him in the project.

And so, we had a lot of conversations about what could be something that was challenging in Bianca's life, to give her something that she's not just fighting for, but fighting against, or stands in conflict of her dreams or where she's going. We had tons of ideas, but Ryan's fiancee is a sign language interpreter. So she works with the deaf community in a way that's really personal and Ryan, becuase he's been with Cindy for years, has been so exposed to that, so that was something that he understood.

And he thought, "How interesting would it be to see a character who loves music and at the same time is in danger of being able to lose the ability hear it and maybe consequently to make it?" I thought that was such a beautiful, poetic thing to get to play. And also, I thought it was so cool that here's a filmmaker that wants the lady in the movie to really stand her own and to complicate the movie and sophisticate it. She's not always going to be happily ringside; she might be somewhere else, because she has stuff to do. [Laughs]

That's also, by the way, what it actually looks like in the world. That's really what it actually looks like to be in relationships -- particularly now, in this day and age, I think.

I think there was something -- and this was a small moment in the film, but it resonated -- in the idea that Donnie wanted to come and support her at the show.

Right. And that's huge for her because this is something that's not said explicitly, but she comes from a family where they don't support what she does at all. And so that was another thing, too: a component of the movie is talking about finding family in non-conventional places, and the three of them kind of find it in each other.

That's what those scenes are about when we're all sitting around the table, eating dinner or making breakfast in the morning. It's about these three people who find each other and need each other, and I thought that was so cool because also not everybody in the country and in the world has a relationship with a family that they're related to by blood. Sometimes our families look really varied. So that's also a cool thing to talk about, but I'm glad you picked up on that.

Backtracking just a little bit: you talked about how Ryan came to you for input. This is the second time in like a year and a half that you've done music for a film you're appearing in. Does that change your level of engagement, or force you to interact with the film in a different way?

It really did for Creed. For Dear White People, that was sort of an afterthought. The filmmaker, Justin Simien, really liked the band I was singing in at the time and so that became a conversation about being on the soundtrack and then we decided to write inspired by the movie and the people I met making the movie, and we wrote this song sort of about them, as a celebration of friendship, and then the studio was liking it, but that sort of happened after I made the movie.

But in this case, it was Paramount. Truth be told, I was fighting for this role against musicians, some of which I was a fan of and I really liked, because Ryan, like I said, is so into authenticity that there was a period where he said, "Well, maybe I'll just cast a musician." I also think he's interested in some cases in working with non-actors.

I think what he found in the end was that he needed someone who could kind of hold their own with someone like Mike and like Sly, and they're both such really good actors that it made sense to cast an actor and I was grateful that he saw that in me.

But it was a new challenge. I got the role -- he called me on Friday and I started working the very next day in the studio with Ludwig Goransson. For two weeks, we had people come in who were, you know, celebrated artists who would hang out in the studio. And I don't have Grammys! [Laughs] And suddenly there's Grammy Award-winning artist in the room. But I'm really attracted to things that kind of scare me in some ways. I love doing projects that I feel like I'm going to stretch and I'm uncertain if I can pull it off and part of the interest for me is discovering that hopefully I can. So I really liked that about this.

You did say earlier that you had recorded I think nine tracks.

Yes! We have like a record, basically.

Any chance the audience will get to hear some of that?

We talked about it! I don't know. We got so excited because we had all these songs that we had recorded and we were like, "We'll put out a mix tape before the movie, and we'll introduce this new artist Bianca; we won't say it's you and we won't say it's in connection with the film, and we'll just see if people like it and if it catches fire, it could be really interesting."

But when we made those plans, Ludwig had forgotten that he had to score the movie! Which became by the time I was done shooting and ready to work with him in the studio, he was scoring this massive, massive film which is different than anything he's ever done.

So our plans for the mixtape in anticipation of the film got derailed, but we do have these songs and we've recently went back and listened to them and got excited for them again.

One more question. I remember hearing your name in connection with a comics-to-film role at one point. Is that something you would be interested in pursuing?

I do! I have a lot of interest. I didn't used to, and I think recently I've gotten really into the genre and also realized some of the challenges it presents.

When I go see those big superhero movies or tentpole movies, you forget -- especially when they're really well-done -- that so often, the actors are working in a green room and having to create this whole reality around them. And...it's so cool. it's so cool!

So I've gotten really interested in that. Right now, I'm working on a show called Westworld, which is in the sci-fi space and for whatever reason, there's a lot of really cool sci-fi movies that are about to be made, so I've been reading those and meeting on some of those and really interested in that. I've been steeped in genre. I used to only want to watch sweet, human dramas and now I'm like "No, give me animation and CGI and something big and creatures." I've been really into genre, so hopefully something is right.