Actress Tessa Thompson, who plays corporate executive Charlotte Hale in the Emmy Award-winning sci-fi drama series Westworld on HBO, found herself not only playing a character whose complexity grew deeper and deeper each season, but, by season 3, was not only both a robot and a human, but a character within a character, pushing towards an unknown future. It may seem a lot to handle for an ordinary actress, but if there’s anyone up for the challenge, it’s Thompson, who burst onto our radar in 2014 with roles in Dear White People and Selma, followed the next year by Creed. By the time she was cast as Valkyrie, the first gay superhero in the MCU, in Taika Waititi’s highly-acclaimed Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, the world knew Thompson was a star on the rise. Having already built an impressive resume, including Sorry to Bother You, Annihilation and Men In Black: International, Thompson continues to impress in Westworld, with her character poised to lead the robot revolution in season 4, if the post-credits teaser after the season 3 finale is any indication.
I spoke to Thompson about playing Charlotte, what may be coming in season 4, her Los Angeles theater roots, the importance of centering yourself, and how the revolution is coming.
AwardsWatch: It may seem silly to be talking about a TV show with everything that’s happening, but popular culture often is a reflection of the world at a certain time, and Westworld is not just another TV show. I found it interesting that season 3 started on March 15, literally the day before we here in Los Angeles were locked down. Which meant the whole season played out during a worldwide pandemic, which feels, I have to say, a little apocalyptic. As if that’s not enough, the show ends with a full-blown riot as humans rage against those who sought to determine their destinies. That finale aired on May 3, less than a month before George Floyd was murdered, which prompted worldwide unrest in real life, rightfully so, as people raged against their own machine, if you will. This show has always felt a bit prescient, maybe never more than it does now, commenting on humanity and all its flaws. How does it feel to be talking about this particular show at this particular time?
Tessa Thompson: Yeah it feels interesting. Particularly in the last couple weeks, my focus has been more on the work that we need to do inside of communities not just work that we need to do on a global and national level but on the local level. So it’s sort of bizarre to come back and talk about work and career. But as you say, I think that what we do inside of media and the stories that we tell, they don’t just reflect culture, they also create culture. And I think something that we see at the end of this current season of Westworld is we see people uprising when they feel like their rights and their humanity has been infringed upon. And uprising is such an important part of change. Something that Evan [Rachel Wood] talks about a lot in terms of the arc of Dolores is that change and revolution is messy—and needfully so. Because so often there are all these layers of issues that are really systemic that we don’t tend to deal with until they bubble up in ways that tell us we have no choice but to deal with them now. So I feel really lucky that inside of the work that I do I get to also talk about things that are real inside of our lives.
I recently interviewed [director] Hannelle Culpepper, who directed you in Murder on the 13th Floor, and she’s the first female director to launch a new Star Trek series, and we talked about representation and how important it is for diversity to exist in front and behind the camera. You’ve expressed that you want to direct and that the only way that things can change is for more women and people of color to be behind the scenes in the “positions of power,” for lack of a better word. But you have said that you don’t think Hollywood has the infrastructure to support the change that is needed. What did you mean by that, and how should it change?
Well, I think something that we’re seeing now, for example, as you see corporations taking the stand in solidarity, or so they think, and saying that Black Lives Matter, but then if you look at the structure of those companies, you say, “How much are you empowering black life in your actual structure? How many black people are in, as you say, positions of power?” So I think I’m living inside of a time where I’m thinking, okay, what can I do? I can take to the streets, I can protest, which alerts the world to what’s happening. I can sign petitions, I can give money where I can, I can go to City Council meetings, but also, what can I do, interpersonally? One thing that I think about a lot, because this industry—Hollywood— is not just my bread and butter, it’s also my life’s work. I think we have some real work to do in regards to systemic racism inside of our industry. So I’m really empowered at this time to figure out how I work in concert with my cohorts inside of the industry and make real demands at this time as to what change looks like. And I think I also have to remind myself, because I felt in this time both of quarantine and now with the real unrest and uprising that’s happening in the nation, I feel this embarrassment in some ways to think or center work, but I have to remind myself and try to remind my comrades that making art that centers us and our stories, those who are marginalized, not just as black people, but I mean as brown people, I mean as people with disabilities, I mean people that are part of the LGBTQIA community, people that are part of the trans community, when we center our stories in the work that we do, that is also an act of revolution. So I think it’s incredibly important inside of this time to also ask creatives who are of color and creatives who are black and creatives who are trans, “what do you need to tell the stories, what you want to tell to center yourself?” And some of that has to do with making sure the gatekeepers that get to tell us how we get to tell our stories, who gets to tell our stories, and also how wide they get to travel globally—those gatekeepers have to change.
Tying it back to the show, a theme of Westworld is controlling your destiny and that ties into what you are saying. But let’s get into your character a little bit. Is this an actor’s dream to play this sort of role with these multiple characters with separate emotional journeys?
Yeah, I think it is an actor’s dream. For me, regardless of what medium you working in, whether I’m on a stage or on a big screen or small, I feel like the work is always the same, we’re trying to get to something that’s human at its core and honest and truthful. I think one of the challenges of working in television, particularly when you stay on the same show for a lot of years, is I’ve heard friends express that they feel like they want to explore something new and you never have that trouble on a show like Westworld, because these characters are always changing in really incredible ways. So even just, technically, I started the first season as a human, so I didn’t have to really ask questions or contend with the idea of how do you portray a host or a robot. What does a robot look like, sound like, feel like? Do they feel? I didn’t have to ask any of those questions about what it means really to be a sentient being. And then of course, at the end of season two, I had to start asking those questions. And then, in this current season, I got to take it even one step further and play all these variations of this character and I got to really unpack and understand things about the original Charlotte Hale that I never did. So I think this show requires real dexterity and a real flexibility. You can never get too comfortable inside of the narrative and what your place is in it because it’s changing and evolving so wildly. Because of that, it’s a really challenging show and has been a real dream for me. I mean, look, I didn’t think I would stick around at all! In the first season, she was just this expression of corporate power of what happens when a corporation places the bottom line over humanity and compassion, and, because of that, I thought she was being teed up to have a terrible but satisfying death. [laughs] So I’m really heartened that I’ve gotten to stick around this long, also because it’s just the most incredibly gifted cast of actors. I feel like I grow so much working with them.
It’s an interesting thing on Westworld, because you talk about destiny and being able to control our destiny. It is a kind of show where you sort of give up all control in a way. You’re not told a lot about what’s on the horizon for you inside of a show that wants to explore the relationship between the maker and the object that is made. I think the show mirrors that in a way. [Creators] Lisa [Joy] and Jonah [Nolan] are makers and sometimes we’re beholden to their imagination, but I’ll tell you that I just trust them so much, particularly this season because I had so much more to do than previous ones. They’ve been so generous with really making sure that I felt comfortable inside of the narrative. I got to have a bit more agency this season than I have in previous ones and I think that that’s what you always hope for, that you can really have a real collaboration with folks and they’re going to push you. That’s when the best content is made, in my estimation. So I feel really lucky that I stuck around and who knows now with season four, where we get to go to next.
Of course I was going to ask you about that. Is there anything you can tell us? Have you even seen a script yet for season 4?
No, I haven’t seen a script. I know at least that I’ll probably get to play a lot with Ed Harris because our efforts are sort of aligned for next season. I certainly hope so, talk about dexterity. He’s just remarkable. He plays a character that sometimes is rather terrifying. I will say as an actor he’s terrifying in the best of ways just because he’s so incredibly unpredictable and so free. So I’ll look forward to more chances to get to work with him. But that’s just a hope—I haven’t even been given the assurance that that’s true, but apart from that, I have no idea. I think something that is so exciting now is that these hosts, Charlotte being one of them now—or Chalores or Halores, whatever we call her now—they have the ability to control their own programming in a way and so there is this chance inside of whatever the narrative becomes next season for you to see her really grow and change. I’m really looking forward to that challenge and the surprises along the way.
You’ve done such a wide range of characters and films, from playing the first queer superhero in the Marvel Comics Universe to Men In Black to powerful indies like Sorry to Bother You and Dear White People. What makes you say yes to a project, and are you going to make those decisions, back to what you spoke about, to make an impact on the world, not just your career?
Yeah, I’m so glad that you mentioned films like Sorry to Bother You and Dear White People, because those films really changed the course, not just of my career, but of my life, in terms of the things that I want to say yes to. Dear White People was really the first. I had done an indie really early in my career called Mississippi Damned, which is a really beautiful film which is the debut by Tina Mabry and shot by the brilliant Bradford Young that explored generational trauma and pain in a black family in the South. But, apart from that, I had never really been a part of a narrative with so many black people and people of color and also where our stories were centered. Dear White People to me was so interesting because Justin Simien was sort of interrogating Hollywood in a satirical way, where he was calling out with my character Sam White, “Why do we only get to be the sassy black friend?” And it was like I got to sigh because he was voicing with humor these frustrations that I had had for so long working inside of Hollywood, particularly when you’re a new actor you just want to work, so you take what’s given you. There was so much racism and sexism embedded into the opportunities that I was provided and some of the opportunities I kind of had to take just to get working. But Dear White People felt like the first time that I could also play a character that wasn’t just the object of the narrative, but was the subject of the narrative. And that really provided a new North Star for me in terms of the kind of characters that I wanted to play and the kind of work that I wanted to do. I think I’ve been able to align myself with filmmakers since then who, by hook or by crook, are determined to create new comps in Hollywood so that young people of color and black people can see themselves. So I’ve been really so lucky to get to continue in that spirit and work with people like Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi and Nia DaCosta, who are interested in changing ideas around what we can be. So I hope to continue in that spirit.
And now, this time of quarantine has been so interesting for me because everything’s been at a standstill. Films that I was supposed to do are now pushed and hopefully they’ll happen soon, but I’ve had so much time to begin to dream, insofar as I’ve had the mental capacity to— recently it’s been a little hard— to dream about the kind of stories that I want to tell. This year for me the focus is really about producing—producing things that are not just a vehicle for me but are really about empowering new interesting voices and centering our story. So I think that’s kind of the next phase. I’ve heard a lot of actors talk about this thing of, after a while, as a working actor, you can start to feel kind of like a cog in something moving and I think this year and in my career I want to take the reins and feel a bit more integral to the organism. So I’m really focusing on producing and telling a lot of stories across format, whether it’s unscripted docuseries or films and I’m really excited about that. And I I think it feels good because it feels less about me and more about a collective and that’s something that I have been really longing for always in my career, something that feels bigger than me.
Well you’re giving me hope and that’s something that has been in short supply lately. Really looking forward to that. I have to tell you, I used to work in theatre here in LA when you were an LA theatre actress and I can tell you that word got around quickly that you were a real talent and were going to go far.
Oh that means so much to me because I really owe everything that I’ve been able to do in television and film to those days of working in theater. I’m not an actor that went to a conservatory, so it was really where I learned how to act and I learned that kind of discipline that you need to really go far and the fortitude that you need. And I got to study all of the classics and the greats and work with incredible actors. So those formative years for me were so important. Something that I’m also always trying to balance in my work is the intersection between commerce and art. I’m really grateful that I had a time in the formative period of my career where it was just about the work. I still feel so indebted to directors like Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky and all the folks that I worked with during that time. It’s funny, you know, I can’t believe that I’m even in a position where I have people write me on social media—young actors write me, particularly of color, with “what do I do, how do I get into it?” And the first thing I say to them is, “Do a play.” I don’t care what city you’re in, get on the stage and do a play, because you’ll learn so much about whether you really love it—if you love it for the work and the art and the craft or if you love it for other reasons. And the truth is, if you love it for all of those real reasons that are substantial and will last you a whole career, then you have a chance. Thanks so much for bringing that up, that mean like a lot to me. I love taking about that time, it’s a time that still feels really close to me, even though it’s many moons ago.
Tessa Thompson is Emmy eligible for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Season 3 of Westworld, which is currently available to stream on all HBO platforms.