Tessa Thompson: “I don’t want to be the woman behind a great man. I want to be in front”

The actor talks to Emily Baker about toxic masculinity, the idea of women as “rocks” and how, when it comes to inclusivity in film, it’s all about attention to detail.

A traditional boxing film might be the last place from which you’d expect discussions of disabled representation, toxic masculinity and the merits of the strong female character stereotype to arise – but that’s what makes the Creed franchise so compelling. Born out of the Rocky films, and still featuring Sylvester Stallone himself, the movies successfully marry the macho world of pro boxing with the more relatable aspects of an ordinary, everyday life. Like its predecessor, Creed II focuses on a man, first and foremost – after all, Creed is the one risking his life in the ring – but it’s how the film treats the boxer’s girlfriend, Bianca, that confirms its worthiness of attention.

And who better to take on a well-rounded, complex, forward-thinking woman in a man’s world than Tessa Thompson? Depending on who you ask, Thompson is either best known for her role as bisexual, biracial superhero Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, or for her “maybe it’s just friendship, maybe it’s more” relationship with pop star Janelle Monáe. But away from the celebrity gossip columns and film reviews, she’s proven herself an interesting person in her own right, unafraid to talk about the urgency of racial representation and the tight boxes Hollywood is keen to keep women in. We sat down with the actor to discuss how serious topics like this can manifest in a film about men punching other men.

The Pool: How was coming back to Bianca for a second round? Has she changed in any way?

Tessa Thompson: It was exciting! Mike [Michael B Jordan, who plays Adonis Creed] kept in touch in the years past so it feels like no time has passed at all. Bianca has changed in tons of ways. In the first movie, she’s an independent artist and, now that she’s signed with a major label, she’s inviting a pop sensibility into her work and wanting it to reach a bigger audience.

TP: What do you think Creed II says about masculinity? When Creed is with Bianca and Rocky outside of the boxing world, he’s a very different man to when he’s inside the ring.

TT: I know it was important for Mike and [director] Steven Caple Jr to really say that a part of being a man is the ability to be vulnerable; to be able to admit when you’re wrong; to not always have the answer; to access those parts of you that are softer. It was an intentional choice and there are certain moments that speak to toxic masculinity. It’s something within some men that wants what it wants and can hurt others – it isn’t the most conscientious way to be as a human.

Tessa Thompson: “I don’t want to be the woman behind a great man. I want to be in front” 1

Tessa Thompson as Bianca in Creed II

TP: This is a film created by black artists, directors, writers, actors – how does that affect your comfort within a role and on set, as opposed to a white male director who can’t understand the character’s, nor your own, experience?

TT: It’s a “chicken or the egg” situation, because this film wouldn’t have happened without a filmmaker like [director of the first Creed] Ryan Coogler – it’s in the movie’s DNA. With the first film, we wanted to show a portrait of young black love – which, by the way, is like any love – but inside of that space, you can have some real specificity. For example, the scene in the first movie when Creed is taking Bianca’s braids out, there were so many young black people who told us that scene meant so much to them, simply because it felt like a love that they understood and know. When there is something made for us, by us, there’s a sigh you can release – you’re working with people you don’t have to teach. There’s a sensitivity that exists already because they understand. Their story is your story.

There are small details in areas like set decoration, too – there are silk scarves at the side of Bianca’s bed, because if you’re a black woman with braids, that’s the way you protect your hair at night. Those are the details that, when people can go into the cinema and see themselves reflected, are hugely powerful, especially when you’re not operating from a place where you see your true self on screen a lot.

When there is something made for us, by us, there’s a sigh you can release – you’re working with people you don’t have to teach. There’s a sensitivity that exists already because they understand. Their story is your story

TP: Do you think a woman would ever be at the helm of a Creed film? How do you think that would change the dynamic?

TT: I hope that, if we’re lucky enough to make more movies, that’s something we can explore – the director of photography on the first film was a woman, Maryse Alberti, and that was incredible. I’m always keen to work on a set where there are more women, but I do think a female director would also have an interesting take on the world of Creed.

TP: Part of the disabled community is represented in both Creed films – Bianca has a deteriorating hearing disorder and we learn that her baby is also born deaf. It’s something that doesn’t have a huge impact on how the story plays out, but it adds so much texture and background to the characters.

TT: I think to normalise that and to be able to watch films where you can recognise the world you live in is really exciting. For filmmakers, that means that there has to be women represented, there has to be people of colour, there has to be folks with disabilities. It’s really important to normalise that.

TP: There’s a line in the second film when Bianca is questioned about her decision to stand by Creed when he decides to take a potentially dangerous fight and she replies, “He’s a grown man; he can make his own decisions.” Do you think the idea that men need to take more responsibility for their actions is something we need to adopt more as a society?

TT: Yes, oh, my gosh, yes. We really wanted to try to have Bianca buck convention. I get asked so much about playing Bianca and I loathe the question: “What’s it like to play this supportive woman who stands by her man and is his rock?” She’s not – she’s a woman who has her own agency; to me, one of the most exciting things about Bianca in the first film is that she disappears from the third act because Creed messed up. He’s done something that could be potentially damaging to her career and her ambition, and she decides, “I’m going to do me, I’m going to work on my music, I’m going to concentrate on the things that make me happy.” I hate the preoccupation with women being a man’s “rock” and the notion that “behind every great man is a strong woman”. I don’t want to be the woman behind a great man, I want to be alongside him – or in front, living my own full life.

Tessa Thompson: “I don’t want to be the woman behind a great man. I want to be in front” 2

Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson in Creed II

TP: The phrase “strong female character” comes to mind watching Bianca – a trope over which there has been a lot of debate. How do you feel about that label?

TT: I get asked about playing a strong female character all the time, but strong to me means a character is finely drawn; that they’re not painted in broad strokes; that they have dimension and complexity. The character I played in Annihilation was arguably the weakest character – she wasn’t physically very strong, she was very emotionally fragile, but the character to me was strong because she felt like someone we all know and have seen before. She had that complexity. I just hope we can get to a space where it’s just less noteworthy because we see it all the time – no one ever asks a guy what it’s like to play a strong male character.

TP: There are a lot of scenes in Creed II – the pregnancy test, the engagement, giving birth – that are hallmarked as classic “women’s film” moments. Do you believe in that binary? Do you think it still exists?

TT: No – I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right, I guess a lot of those things code as female. I don’t personally believe in those binaries, but I guess they exist. I wonder if this film presents a binary in and of itself: when the men are in the boxing scenes it’s a very specific movie, but when we’re in the scenes with Bianca and Adonis – where the heart of the movie lives – it’s different again.

TP: Do you think we limit what women are allowed to be on screen?

TT: Wildly so. It’s something Viola Davis has spoken a lot about – she’s been working for decades and finally we’re able to see the breadth of what she can do; that she can be empowered, sexual, vulnerable and messy and all that things that we are. We’re not a monolith.

Women get boxed into a lot of spaces, and a lot of that has to do with the Hollywood myth that audiences don’t want to see us do things or even see us at all, unless that audience is made up of women. It’s just patently untrue, just look at the success of female-driven content like Wonder Woman. And even if you look at a film like Black Panther, some of the most exciting parts of that film are to do with the women – the film is called Black Panther, but it would be nothing without those performances specifically. I think a lot of that has to do with some really antiquated ideas that I hope we’re really getting out of now.

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