Tessa Thompson: On Rediscovering and Reentering Bianca for Creed II
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Tessa Thompson is one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood these days. Between her entertaining turn on the big screen in Thor: Ragnarok as the enigmatic Valkyrie to her attention-grabbing performance on the small screen in HBO’s Westworld as the scheming corporate operative Charlotte Hale, not to mention her provocative appearance in Janelle Monáe’s music video, “Pynk”), Thompson could be called the embodiment of female power on and off screen.
Now she’s reprising her role as Bianca, the singer/songwriter of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) in the upcoming Creed II. Thompson’s portrayal of a talented and struggling musician facing increasing hearing loss was universally praised, but many desired a deeper examination of Bianca as a character outside of the relationship with Adonis and more screen time for Thompson.
When Fandango visited the Creed II set earlier in the year, Thompson spoke at length about her relationship to Bianca, about her growth as an actress and a person and the character Bianca’s growth in the years since the first film.
Reunion with Mike
Thompson obviously loves working with Jordan again and talking about the changes that have occurred, as they are a little older and more experienced. “I think it’s different just in the sense of like, wow, we’ve grown up a little bit. Even Mike and I were looking at some playback the other day and we were like, ‘We got older.’ You know what I mean?”, she laughed.
In a separate interview, Jordan said basically the same thing. “It’s fun, it’s like a family reunion for us. Coming back together, and always staying in touch since the first one, being able to go off and do huge films that were very successful, then come back together and do something that you’re familiar with. It was the first time I’ve ever done a sequel to anything and I think it’s the same thing for her. We already know the characters, so it’s a rekindling a relationship between two people, and it’s fun to evolve our relationship personally and professionally and just diving into the story years later. I think it’s been fun.”
Life Imitating Art Imitating Life
Thompson, like Jordan, spoke of the similarities between their career paths and those of the characters they play. “We’ve just grown, and this film oddly parallels where we are in terms of artistic journey of just grinding, really loving something, and then hitting a space where you suddenly have more pressure and you’re doing your work on a different scale – a different level. I think that’s happening for Bianca, certainly for Adonis, and it’s happening for Mike and me. So, it’s that interesting thing where life sort of imitates art, and you’re still within that space where you have more eyes on you, and yet you have more resources and are still trying to find like what your truth is – what you really want to say, what you really want to do. I certainly think both Mike and I are in that space and look to each other for guidance in that. So, it’s interesting to come back this time around and be like, ‘Well, yeah, things are a little different but also the same exactly the same.’”
Doing the Emotional Work
As far as her approach to playing Bianca this time around, Thompson said, “I don’t think it’s changed that much. Even when I was playing Valkyrie, it was important for me to get the physicality and the action and the comedy, but the thing that I feel like I understand and I can do the best is what is happening internally for a character. So that’s always where I start, because otherwise I have such bad ‘imposter syndrome’ – that’s the thing I always connect to.”
So, Thompson was happy when the filming finally got to the point when she could, in fact, work on what was happening emotionally with Bianca, both with her career and with her relationship with Adonis. “For us, the boxing was so front-loaded, we spent three and a half weeks just with boxing. So, by the time we were done with that, I think everybody, not just Mike, certainly because it’s exhausting to work those days – but we’re all like, ‘Let’s get to the drama, let’s get to the scenes.’ Because, to me, I think that’s the heart of the films, even in the long history of the franchise. The first Rocky film is a love story, so that’s, to me, that’s always the strength of these films is the interpersonal relationships and what’s happening inside the character’s life.”
Amplifying Bianca’s Voice
When she finally got to work on the internal life of Bianca, Thompson unintentionally brought a little of the toughness she acquired playing hard-hitting characters like Valkyrie and Charlotte Hale to the table. “For example, we were shooting a scene the other day in the nightclub and you know, they’d been working on the lighting rig for weeks they showed me sketches of it. But I walk in and I just, it didn’t feel right to me. It just felt too bright. Four years ago, I would’ve walked onto a set and been like, ‘Hey, I don’t know…’ But they were so collaborative. They were like, ‘You’re right. Okay. So maybe it’s darker here’ and ‘What do you think about this?’ But so I do think there’s something about playing those characters like Charlotte Hale that just will not mince words have shifted the how I think.”
Thompson credited the writers with giving Bianca a stronger presence in this film. “We’ve just had a lot of conversations around how we continue to give this character Bianca her own agency, and how we make sure that her voice is really present in it and that even if she doesn’t occupy tons of page space, that the page space she does occupy feels really vital.“
She also credited director Steven Caple, Jr. with being open to that kind of input. “Working on big productions, frankly, is sometimes a less than ideal situation, and you do give up a certain amount of agency because there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. And I think that’s what so nice about particularly working on these bigger films, but with indie film directors that come from that world that are used to collaboration, that are hungry to really all be in the trenches together and allow you as an artist to have a take on every part of it.”
Sound and Silence
Though Bianca’s role as Adonis’ love was the focus of the character in Creed, indications are that this relationship may have to share equal screen time with Bianca’s career as singer-songwriter, and Thompson is definitely here for that. “Yeah, it’s exciting. I wrote the songs the last time around and performed them, but we really wanted Bianca to grow. So, this time around I worked with some really talented top-line writers that helped me, like James Fauntleroy. People that write hits, frankly. That was so cool to get to work with them on these songs and just make the sound just bigger and catchier, frankly, and more radio friendly and all those things.”
Bianca’s progressive hearing loss is also a part of her story. Explained Thompson, “Her hearing loss has progressed further, so, she’s dealing with that and trying to work as an artist, and how she’s going to navigate that in a workspace. It’s made sort of a ticking clock in her heart around her music.”
Discovering the individual nature of a person’s hearing loss has been a journey for Thompson, not only for Bianca’s character development, but for herself personally. “I’ve so taken for granted hearing in general. I knew nothing really before making these films about how hearing even works. So just during research about the nuance, I think there’s an assumption for a lot of people that you either hear or you don’t hear, but the truth is for a lot of people that have hearing loss, they’ll hear something, but it’s about comprehension and what they understand. My brother’s nineteen and he’s had hearing loss his whole life and working on this film this time around, the conversations that I’ve had with him about it and really understanding it, I realized that there’s so many questions I had never asked him – even though I was so close to him – about his own experience.”
She continued, “There are all sorts of people that hear in varying degrees and that there’s a whole world of very rich community inside the deaf community, for example. Also, I had the occasion to meet this really incredible woman who’s nominated for a Tony, Lauren Ridloff (Wonderstruck, The Walking Dead), who’s in Children of a Lesser God on Broadway. She was born deaf, and I was talking to her and she said she just wanted to make sure that I knew that, like, she’s really happy and leads a really rich life. The truth is, there are tons of people that don’t hear anything or, or do experience hearing loss and they live really rich, awesome lives and it’s not actually the center of their universe what they hear or don’t hear. And it was really important to her for me to realize that, yes, it’s important for me to understand that there’s pain and confusion that this character might be feeling, but also, that she’s good. I think it’s important, particularly in media, to reflect that it doesn’t have to be a pained experience – that she’s good.”
Given Bianca’s complexity and Thompson’s talent and popularity, there has been low-key buzz that it would be great if there is a “Bianca” film at some point. Thompson herself laughed a bit, and gently demurred at the suggestion. “Oh, goodness. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask MGM. I mean, to me, that’s what’s cool about creating characters that you feel have enough of a rich inner emotional life that you’re curious about them when they’re not on screen. That’s the mark of a strong supporting character. My hope is, if we make five more of these movies, that after every one, audiences would say that. And you only are able to hold that space if there’s also things that you’re withholding – if there’s mystery around the character, if there’s something that the audience has left wanting. So, for me, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the trick I think of playing a supporting character. We’re certainly after that and I think we do a pretty good job.”
From what I’ve seen of her performance so far, I tend to agree. But I still put the suggestion to do a Bianca film to director Caple, who smiled and said, “A Bianca film? Who said this one wasn’t a Bianca film?”