Acclaimed actor Tessa Thompson joins us at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up initiative, which is pushing Hollywood studios and actors to commit to work with women directors in its new #4PercentChallenge. Time’s Up is about “addressing safety in the workplace,” says actor Thompson. “It’s really looking at imbalance of power.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we broadcast from the Sundance Film Festival. Earlier this week, I caught up with the acclaimed actress Tessa Thompson, who starred in two films last year: the sci-fi horror film Annihilation, as well as Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley. She also played Diane Nash in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. I asked Tessa Thompson to talk about the Me Too movement and Time’s Up.
TESSA THOMPSON: Time’s Up is addressing safety in the workplace. Obviously, it came out of this watershed moment post-Weinstein about this gross abuse of power, but, more than that, it’s really looking at imbalance of power. When we have more women in positions of power in the workplace, workplaces are just safer. And in a real robust way, Time’s Up has been trying to address issues of inclusion behind the lens and across industry lines.
One thing that came out of studies that Stacy Smith has done at the Annenberg is that in the last decade—literally, last decade—10 years of filmmaking, that the top 100 films, only 4 percent of those films have been directed by women. So, in response to that, Time’s Up has initiated something called “The 4% Challenge,” asking people to pledge to work with a female director in the next 18 months. I’ve taken that pledge. A lot of other people, like Franklin Leonard and Angela Robinson and Eva Longoria, Kerry Washington, Jurnee Smollett, Reese Witherspoon, Tracee Ellis Ross, some other gentlemen that I think are going to announce shortly, are taking that pledge. So that’s just sort of one way to address, and obviously there needs to be a lot more work done.
AMY GOODMAN: You starred in Sorry to Bother You. Talk about that film. Talk about where it stands in the awards season, this season.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But also the importance of who was included in Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s amazing film.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah, Boots Riley, I just like am so incredibly proud of him. He’s on the mountain somewhere. I feel like he’ll probably walk in here at any moment wearing some fabulous coat.
You know, I think, in a way, the awards—what we acknowledge in terms of awards season, to me, they’ve always struck me as being sort of a postcard to the times, in a way, that you see what films are really resonating with people. But the truth is, you know, there’s a lot that goes into getting films on those stages, you know, on those global stages. And I think Boots Riley recently took to Twitter, because, luckily, we’ve had so many fans say like, you know, “You’ve been snubbed. You’re left out of this conversation.” But the truth is that I think—
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning not nominated for an Oscar.
TESSA THOMPSON: Meaning not nominated. But the truth is, I think the film has had an incredible impact. It’s a film that, for my money, wants to really break rules. And for so long, when we talk about inclusion, I think people of color have been mostly ignored in the space of magical realism, in terms of that kind of filmmaking. And it certainly was an impediment to getting the film made. But I think what we see with films like Sorry to Bother You, with films like Get Out, is that they really sort of break down those barriers, and they help sort of do away with this old mythology that we can only be seen in one way. And we’re not a monolith. So I feel like it’s been hugely successful, never mind what awards we get or don’t get.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your role in Sorry to Bother You, how it allowed you to expand, and then also Little Woods, another film you starred in.
TESSA THOMPSON: Well, I played Detroit in Sorry to Bother You, who is an artist, activist, a performance artist. And I think, for me, I’ve been trying to answer this question, you know, in terms of my work. I’ve always been attracted to projects that have something to say. For me, if you’re an artist, how can you not reflect the times that we live in? And also, inside of media, we have the power not just to reflect the times, but also to change them in ways, to change culture. So, I was so inspired by Detroit, because she really figures out this with the intersection of art and activism. And that’s been something that I’ve like felt deeply inside my heart, but been sort of unsure how to do and embarrassed to really talk about it, to say, like, I’m not—my responsibility as an artist is also to be of service. And so, I think, with playing Detroit, she helped me really step into that more boldly.
And I think we’re also in this moment where you saw, for example, that the launch of Time’s Up happened on a red carpet with women all in black. And that’s something that Detroit does so seamlessly, is to use herself as a canvas to try to really be of service. And that’s something that I’m really stepping into in this year, in a real big way.
This film Little Woods, that I have coming out this year, is really exciting to me. It talks about reproductive—the access to reproductive health in this country, which obviously is something that continues to be something that we don’t know if we’ll have. And Planned Parenthood was so kind in helping us sort of do that research. And it started with this idea, the writer/director Nia DaCosta, of looking at the country and really understanding that—you know, I live in Los Angeles, she lives in New York, so we live in a bubble.
AMY GOODMAN: And she also an African-American female director.
TESSA THOMPSON: She is. And looking at certain places in the country and seeing like how long would you have to drive to get a safe abortion. And that was sort of the genesis of this film Little Woods, which is a modern Western about these two sisters that have to travel from the Dakotas to Canada to get a safe abortion. And it’s a beautiful film. I’m really proud of it. It comes out this year. Neon bought it. And Refinery29, who has also helped hosting this brunch, is helping us spread the word. So…
AMY GOODMAN: So, Tessa, let’s see, last year I saw you at the women’s rally here in Park City, though you live in Los Angeles.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The year before was the Women’s March here, which, by the way, Harvey Weinstein took part in. But that Women’s March was in response to President Trump just having been inaugurated.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re two years in. The State of the Union has been postponed for the moment, but President Trump will be giving it. Talk about the state of this union as you see it.
TESSA THOMPSON: Oh, my goodness. Well, I feel like one thing that has happened is I feel like there’s been such—how terrible things have been has really been a catalyst for people to wake up and to be more active. And I think that inside of times that are really dark, we’ve also seen, you know, in the last election, that we—you know, historic firsts, with women really coming into power in real, palpable ways. And I think, just as citizens of this union, I feel an engagement that I have never felt before. And I think that that’s something that is—if there’s any silver lining, it is that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about the Congress that was just elected?
TESSA THOMPSON: I mean, come on. That’s incredible. And also, the AOC doc is here. I can’t wait to see it, yeah. So, you know, I think we—
AMY GOODMAN: This is the documentary about the newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other Congress—three other people who are running for Congress. But—
TESSA THOMPSON: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, she was supposed to be here today.
TESSA THOMPSON: I know.
AMY GOODMAN: But, because of complications from the government shutdown, was not able to come out.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah, she won’t be here. But she’s here in spirit. And also, just—I think what she’s been able to do, in terms of invigorating particularly a younger generation, activating, making us feel like the people that represent us are us, and that’s really powerful. And I personally haven’t felt that in a really, really long time. So, I don’t know. I feel—I feel hopeful.
AMY GOODMAN: And Westworld? Your role in Westworld?
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah, we’re coming back, season three. We start at the end of March. And we’ll continue to, you know, try to pose the question of what the nature of humanity is.
AMY GOODMAN: And describe the villainess you play.
TESSA THOMPSON: I play the villainess Charlotte Hale, who’s sort of the overlord of this corporation. And I think something that she speaks to, actually, is when corporations really put a premium on the bottom line over humans. In this case, obviously, they’re robots, so she doesn’t feel like it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence.
TESSA THOMPSON: Yeah, artificial intelligence, AI, so she doesn’t feel like it’s too bad a thing to do. But the truth is, we’re living inside of times where some of the things, in terms of tech and science, that the show explores, we’re not that far away from. So, the show is a constant education for me in terms of engaging with really where we are.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of art and activism, what responsibility you feel as such a prominent actress, playing such an important role, a kind of cultural ambassador, whose work travels the world, the message you want to send to people here in the United States and beyond?
TESSA THOMPSON: I think any artist should just be able to make art and not actually have to be the ambassador of anything. You know, I’m a woman. I’m a woman of color, never mind all my particulars, my other particulars. I have a lot to say. And I think when you’re a part of any group that’s marginalized or your voices have been maligned, art is a really impactful way to be able to really tell your story and help other people be seen and heard in that space. But I think, you know, for me, it’s like I’m of that mind, like my favorite artist, like Nina Simone. You’re like, “How could you not reflect the times in which you live?” But the truth is, I think people should also be able just to make movies and do—you know, and make content, and not have to be the spokesperson or the poster child for any one thing. It just seems to be something that I’m interested in. And I think before I thought about acting, I thought about politics. Now I can just play a politician.
AMY GOODMAN: Actress Tessa Thompson at a Planned Parenthood event here at Sundance attended by writers, actors and directors.