Actress Tessa Thompson knew there would be major challenges taking on the role of Bianca in “Creed,” the “Rocky” spinoff that opened last week to glowing reviews and strong box office.
For one thing she would become part of one of Hollywood’s most popular franchises, costarring with rising star Michael B. Jordan in the title role and “Rocky” himself, Sylvester Stallone. For another she would be playing a musician losing her hearing.
For “Rocky” aficionados, she is the Adrian to Jordan’s Adonis. Playing the part was daunting and exhilarating at the same time — just the way the 32-year-old Thompson likes it.
“My favorite thing to do is get a phone call that I have a job and feel like I have to have a panic attack thinking about how to do the job,” she said before “Creed’s” release. “I kind of get bored if I have a call that I know I can handle.”
Thompson’s acting philosophy is summed up by something once told to her by a good friend: “You’re as much defined by the things you don’t do as by the things you do.” She looks for parts that have meaning for herself and contemporary audiences.
“The altruistic answer is that I think if you’re making art, it should reflect the times that you create in and that if you ask people to sit in a dimly lit theater and pay money to be there, you should have something to say to them,” Thompson said. “The less altruistic answer: I feel dead set on carving a space that is specific.”
In “Creed,” Bianca is a budding singer-songwriter in Philadelphia’s music scene making her debut album in her apartment. Wearing a hearing aid, she’s preparing for the eventual loss of her hearing.
She’s a serious actor who, within an industry that gives young women of color very few choices to do quality work, has sought out and been determined to fight for the quality work.
“Creed” director Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) knew that whoever was cast in the role would need to have acting and musical chops. Thompson fit the bill, having sung lead in the band Caught a Ghost for two years and co-writing music for the “Dear White People” soundtrack (which she also starred in), but songwriting was never a serious pursuit, she said.
Nonetheless, Thompson hopped in the studio with composer Ludwig Goransson, who has worked on the sitcoms “New Girl” and “Community,” the day after nabbing the job. After a couple of weeks, 10 songs were created, three of which made it to the film’s soundtrack.
Playing a character representative of the hard-of-hearing community was also difficult, considering the actress is “a proponent of people in their communities being able to tell their own stories.”
“Hollywood has an inclination to sometimes take stories and be exploitative, but that certainly wasn’t our intention,” added Thompson, noting Coogler’s relationship to the deaf community through his fiancee, who’s a sign language interpreter. “There is a rich history of disabilities being something that we know stirs emotion and feels Oscar-baity. That is not the spirit with which we told this story.”
Thompson’s attention to the intentions of the work she’s part of is what separates her from others in the industry, said Ava DuVernay, who directed her as civil-rights strategist Diane Nash in “Selma.”
“In her own personhood, she’s a focused sister and is determined to refine her craft,” DuVernay said. “She’s a serious actor who, within an industry that gives young women of color very few choices to do quality work, has sought out and been determined to fight for the quality work. I applaud her.”
That quality work has also included starring roles in Tina Mabry’s “Mississippi Damned” and Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls.” Known mostly for deeply emotional and dramatic roles, Thompson demonstrated her versatility as the lead in Justin Simien’s Sundance comic breakout “Dear White People.”
“To be a dramatic actress who can also headline a satire is very tricky and difficult to do,” Simien said. “That says a lot about what an actor can do. She can exist in a lot of different worlds and genres.”
As for what’s next — aside from filming the television series “Westworld” and her off-Broadway debut in “Smart People” in February — Thompson is looking forward to taking advantage of the industry’s recent shift toward greater diversity.
Though her dream role would be to play actress Eartha Kitt, Thompson wants to cultivate her own productions and characters that, like Rocky Balboa, stand the test of time.
“That’s something I think about a lot, being a part of film iconography,” she said. “What Rocky means culturally not just in America but globally, I am interested in that.”