With past credits including Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls and the cult TV show Veronica Mars, Thompson's face is likely already familiar to most. In the Sundance hit Dear White People, in wide release this October, we’ll see the 30-year-old in a brand new light. She plays Sam White, the fiery lead. "For me, it’s been characters that are a bit more vulnerable and going through crisis and people that are a bit softer," she says of her former roles, "And, Sam White is none of those things."
Of course, like any star on the rise, the best way to follow up one hit is with another. And, for Thompson, that means the Oprah and Brad Pitt-produced MLK, Jr. biopic, Selma due out in early 2015. Once again, she's taking on a powerful woman, portraying a young Diane Nash — a formidable member of the sit-in movement of the '60s. But, none of this seems to phase her. Thompson talks about the months ahead with a cool, calm, clear-headed approach. She's just riding this exciting wave and soaking in every possible experience along the way. Right into awards season, we suspect.
Professional actors are essentially professional auditioners. So, what do you think makes for a perfect audition?
“If I leave the room feeling like I had an actual experience, then it doesn’t matter if I get it or anything. Also, I think an audition is — and, it’s kind of cliché — it’s kind of like a first date. Everyone’s just trying to fall in love. And, you’re trying to fall in love with that experience and inhabiting this person and what it feels like on you — and they’re trying to fall in love with you. Beyond that, you’re really inviting someone into how you work, and that’s a really personal thing."
Tell me about Dear White People. Why is this project special to you?
"I just fell in love with it when I read. I hadn’t had that experience in a long time, of reading something and feeling like in my stomach that it was something that I would feel a pang of regret if I didn’t get to do. That’s exciting. Just to be a part of a project that has something to say or at least has some questions to ask. Also, as a woman, it’s hard to find characters that are not just the object of the narrative, but the subject of the narrative in a way. And, the character that I get to play in Dear White People, Sam White, is definitely that. That happening in Hollywood more and more is important, because it just changes the climate.”
How do you identify with Sam White? What did it take to prepare?
“That process was so fun, but also very scary. I had never worked on satire, and I haven’t done a lot of comedy. She, in her own way, is having an existential crisis, but would never tell anybody that that’s the case. She’s very rough around the edges, certainly an axe to grind and a chip on her shoulder. So, that was really fun. And, she’s really funny: She’s wry and biting. Then, also, I think as far as the iconography of the film, she’s just fun fashion-wise. She’s just really bold and has this crazy, really vertical, structural hair. So, it was fun as far as the process of finding her, to find her voice and how she sits and how she feels about things. But, also, just inhabit this person that had such a clear style and persona. And, the people that I love, like Mae West and Eartha Kitt and people that really live in that space of being — of having this persona which in some ways is created — it was fun to do that with Sam White.”
Were there any specific parts of her that really felt personal to you?
“Totally. The movie is about race in America, but it’s also just about identity. And, I think sometimes where identity intersects with race or conflicts with race, sometimes you have things that are true about yourself that you think can’t reconcile with how society sees you or what their expectation is. I definitely went through a period in high school where I couldn’t sort out, I think, because I’m multiracial, but also couldn’t sort out because I’m multifaceted — how some things that I dug could exist with other things that I liked. I really liked Wu-Tang, for example, but I also really liked Joni Mitchell, and I somehow thought that those were in conflict. I couldn’t figure out how to be fluid about my identity, and I think a lot of that has to do with the personal identity thing, but also with race. So, I definitely shared that with Sam White. The movie isn’t even out, but I’ve had so many people, especially young women, come up to me and be like, 'I’m so excited for your movie.' And, I think that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for a story that speaks to them, that tells their story.”
Who do you go to for advice? Do you have a mentor?
“The first professional play I ever did was a production of Romeo and Juliet, and I met my best friend, Ryan Spahn. He was across the table from me at the table read, wearing a shirt that said, ‘When do we get to have sex?’ And, he’s just incredible. He just graduated from Juilliard. He’s an actor, but he also writes. He and his partner Michael Urie and I (among others) produced a film together two summers ago, called Grantham and Rose. He’s just been my friend now for forever. He’s the person I go, 'Am I crazy? Do you like this? Is this good?' And, make audition tapes with him. Yeah, he’s my guy.”
Has there been a specific nugget of wisdom from him that stands out?
“I’m someone that’s really obsessed with the word ‘yes’ as a concept — I’m incredibly yes-oriented. I think that’s my next tattoo, somewhere on my body. But, I have a harder time with the word ‘no,’ and he’s helped me understand that there’s nothing wrong with the world ‘no,’ and that the word ‘no’ doesn’t stop anything from happening — sometimes, it allows other things to happen. So, I guess I’ve been in the middle of a ‘no’ year, and he’s been really useful — just realizing that, as much as you’re defined by the things that you do, you’re defined by the things that you don’t.”
What’s important to you about finding stories and roles that have a larger message about society as a whole? Is that something you look for in your work?
“It’s paramount. There are certainly actors that I admire and that I look at and go, 'Wow, you have in your way changed the world.' Like, Robin Williams. 'You showed us about humanity, about how fragile and how ugly it is, and that is incredible.' For most people, even to be a working actor is a gift, and you don’t necessarily get to affect people’s lives in that way, in the way Robin Williams did. So, for me, I was like, 'Well, what can I do that I know will have an effect on the world?' For me, it was, well, go into politics. Or, do something like urban planning, or become a lawyer or doctor. You do something where you get to contribute. So, when I decided to pursue acting, I had some issue with that — with the sustainability. If at one point I would feel like, 'What am I really doing?' So, I guess these sorts of projects — like Dear White People, or the last movie I just did, called Selma, about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — I mean, to look at these images from Ferguson and some of the images, just a still from our movie, and see the parallel is so striking. So, I feel a great sense of gratitude for being able to work on projects that I think have something to say and to offer to us now. I never even thought of the idea of legacy, but regardless of what we do, we’re here and we leave our mark on the world around us.”
What attracted you most to Selma?
“So many things attracted me to the project. I mean, Ava DuVernay — I’ve just been a fan from afar. She’s a woman that started out in publicity and wanted to make movies, and penned her first two scripts — again, stories with strong, central female characters, and also give voice to people that don’t necessarily have it. Then, she wrote this really beautiful script that tells a story that we all think we’re familiar with, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the historical events during the Civil Rights Movement. But, she tells them in a way that’s incredibly personal and deconstructs King in a way that you really get to see him as a human, and in a way that you realize that these people are not heroes. None of them were born heroes. They’re people that looked at what was happening around them and felt compelled to action, and through their combined efforts changed the world. And, to be in a movie that’s produced by Brad Pitt and Oprah is not too shabby. Basically, I was like, 'I’ll do anything. I’ll be a tree in this movie. Whatever you need';"
How are you preparing, with two movies out so soon, to be in the spotlight? This is going to be a huge season for you.
“Now you made me nervous, because I’m not doing anything to prepare for it.”
Have you not thought about it?
“I try not to. First off, I haven’t seen Selma, so I cannot wait to see what it amounts to. And, Dear White People, I’m just so interested in what the real audience, not the festival audience, makes of it. So, in that way, I’m really excited for both things. But, as far as anticipating how it’ll go, I try not to think all that far ahead. But, you just reminded me, as far as preparing for this busy time, I should get a full-length mirror. I don’t own a full-length mirror, and I go through periods where I’ll just dress myself sometimes, and I make very impulsive decisions. It’s been brought to my attention, by myself, because I had to look at some photographs of myself, and I was like, 'Huh, my shoes. Everything’s good until the shoes.' I think that might be because I don’t have a full-length mirror. So, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Look 1: Karen Walker top; Jil Sander skirt; Acne boots; Alexis Bittar cuff.
Look 2: H&M blouse and skirt; Topshop heels; Italia Independent Sunglasses.