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Tessa Thompson on Time’s Up, Science Fiction, and Representation in Hollywood

The ‘Westworld’ actress joined the ‘Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air’ podcast to discuss her roles in futuristic films and TV shows, and how Time’s Up got its start

Tessa Thompson has had a busy few months. The actress starred in the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok in November, wrapped filming on the second season of Westworld last month, and her latest film—Alex Garland’s Annihilation adaptation—is set to come out next week. Away from the screen, she’s also helped create Time’s Up, a legal defense fund dedicated to promoting workplace equality. This week she joined the Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air podcast to discuss her advocacy efforts as well as the science-fiction genre, and representation in film.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Time’s Up and Equity in Hollywood

Wilmore: You’ve been very out front and center in the Time’s Up movement. Tell me what’s going on with that and [about] your involvement in that.

Thompson: I think we’re in a time of a real big cultural conversation in our industry, certainly. A real seismic shift. There’s been a watershed moment in the wake of Weinstein, as it were, and so much of these conversations ... have been started long, long ago. The #MeToo movement [was] started by Tarana Burke in 2006, so it’s been on deck, it’s been on the turnip truck for a while just waiting to drop.

And Time’s Up … [is an] idea that was launched of course with the Golden Globes, but it started with a letter that got sent from an alliance of women, farm workers, to the actress community saying that they stood with us and they understood what we were going through with these gross abuses of power because they face it in their industry. And it felt—to receive that letter and to read it with other actors in my community—it felt so incredible that these women who put food on our table should want to write to us to tell us that they stand with us. It felt like there was a lot of work that needed to really be done. Not just for us and by us, but also for women across all industries. And that’s the spirit with which Time’s Up got created, and the focus is now on equity and safety and equity in the workplace. Not just in our industry but across industries.

Wilmore: And equity is part and parcel of the safety, right?

Thompson: Yes, in some ways because you find when there are more women and in particular, more women in positions of power, instances of sexual assault and harassment go down wildly. There just needs to be more women in the workplace. Which is why you see folks like [Transparent creator] Jill Soloway and others that I work with—Lena Waithe and I mean, actually there’s too many to name—but [they’re] starting initiatives to ask for 50-50 by 2020, which means our workplaces should be half [populated] by women because we’re half of our population.

But beyond that, I think equity—it’s not just about these gross abuses of power perpetrated by Harvey and others. It’s about real imbalance of power, and equity also speaks to folks that are still on the margin, to people of color, to the LGBTQ+ community, to people that are not able-bodied. I feel like this industry is still in a real white cis male stronghold. Which means that stories that are reflective of all of us, the mechanisms by which to make those stories—the business structured around making those stories, and the crews—they’re not representative of the world in which we live.

Wilmore: Yeah, it’s funny because I’ve been fortunate enough to be behind the scenes for a long time. ... I remember when I was doing The Bernie Mac Show years ago, [I’d get asked], “So Larry, how many black writers do you have?” and I’m like, “Motherfucker, ask Friends and Frasier how many black writers they have.” I said, “By me being there by myself, I already have more than them.” Like, you’re asking the wrong person. … But even back then I realized how important it is that you just have to do things. You can’t even wait for somebody hoping and wishing for other people to do it. ...

Thompson: It’s so funny. I feel like sometimes I want to do my head in because I have these conversations with people around how we create change and what we do and sometimes I’m just like, “Just hire people. Just hire them.” Like it’s so simple.

Wilmore: It is. I agree.

Thompson: It should be so simple.

Wilmore: “We need to have studies, and—”

Thompson: Right, “And we need a mentorship program, and we need this, and we need to figure out…” Well, why? Just hire them.

On Representation and Creating New Futures in Science Fiction

Thompson: Young people of color deserve to see themselves reflected on screen. But it’s also important that everyone else sees us reflected as the nuanced beings that we are so they understand that we’re not a monolith—so that their ideas around what black and brown people can become more expansive. … And that’s why, particularly in this big tentpole space, my being cast in Thor, and Black Panther [being released this week], that’s why those become real things that to me, hopefully move the needle forward a bit.

Wilmore: And ... a lot of these things happened in science fiction first.

Thompson: I know, isn’t that funny? In make-believe.

Wilmore: Because for people—it’s gotta be science fiction for us to believe it. At least that’s my opinion on it.

Thompson: Yeah, I guess you’re right.

Wilmore: Yeah, like straight drama—“Ehh, we’ll see.” Comedy—”Well, of course, the comedy!”

Thompson: Get Out is a comedy, apparently.

Wilmore: Exactly. Well to some people it’s a horror film, and to some people it’s a comedy.

Thompson: And [for] some people it’s a documentary. I loved when Jordan said that.

Wilmore: It’s all of those things all at once, which is amazing. And it’s funny because you’re kind of carving a niche in the sci-fi fantasy world. I was a huge fan of the original Westworld, and a big fan of [director Michael] Crichton himself.

Thompson: Yeah, same. ...

Wilmore: It’s funny how the idea of Westworld is still an interesting idea today, and your guys’ take on it—your character, you splash on the screen when you come on. It was so much fun to watch you in that role. And you’re doing dark things that are unexpected. [Your character is] the boss of the place and she’s making [a host] her sex slave, and you talk about not giving a fuck.

Thompson: Well she runs a pleasure amusement park, so you also have to try the goods and understand the merchandise, you know what I mean? You won’t sell wine you don’t taste. Or you don’t sell jaffles you haven’t eaten. So some of it is just business for her, straight business.

But yet, I had a lot of conversations with Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, who are the cocreators, about Hale, my character coming in and really changing the energy. Because there’s something sort of lyrical about the show and there’s a lot of these sort of esoteric, really serious moments, particularly between Jeffrey Wright’s and Anthony Hopkins’s character[s], and they really wanted something that came in and really felt like it stood to threaten what we understood tonally about the show. …

Also, I just wanted to get out of these ideas about power and what it looks like—and those conversations with Lisa, in particular, were so cool because one of the fantastic things about working in the space of science fiction and speculative fiction or anything that deals with the future is you get to decide what the future looks like. And how cool if there’s a world in which a young woman of color is at the very head—or one of the few people at the very head—of this company and no one has to talk about it. It’s never addressed in the narrative. And it wasn’t written necessarily for someone like me, and I think that was a part of the intention to buck that convention. … You often see, if it’s a young woman [shown in a position of power], like, “She graduated top of her class early. Can you believe it, Bob?” Like they always have to spin this thing about how remarkable this person is, and our idea was: What if in the future, that’s just true? …

Wilmore: I would always clap when [your character came on screen]. But it was because of those reasons—because to me, it’s kind of resonant with the whole idea [that in] Westworld they say nothing will go wrong, and here’s someone who’s just this wild-card coming into the mix.

Thompson: Yeah, and also on a show that wants to ask questions about what we as humans do when there’s not an emotional cost to our actions. I feel like that’s how the humans are sort of positioned on the show, particularly in the first season. It’s nice to see a woman that has power and is wielding it, and maybe not in a way that everyone thinks is the best way.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.