The world may have come to a complete halt for a good portion of 2020, but Tessa Thompson didn’t. Like many in the industry, the actress and now active producer spent a good deal of the pandemic on development zoom calls. She saw the third season of “Westworld” arrive on HBO and found time to shoot Rebeca Hall‘s directorial debut, “Passing,” which debuts at Sundance next month. And, as anyone who follows Thompson knows, she continued to advocate for social justice and encouraged voter participation before the November elections. But, her year ends where it began, with the period Hollywood romance “Sylvie’s Love,” which debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 23. Almost 11 months to the day from its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
The directorial debut of Eugene Ashe, “Sylvie’s Love” follows the Sylvie in question (Thompson) as she aspires to become a television producer in late 1950s and early 1960s New York. Her love life is complicated by her passion for Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, also a producer), a jazz artist, and their divergent career paths. When Robert shows up in Manhattan years after their initial separation, the pair rekindle their love affair, but can it last?
Thompson jumped on the phone earlier this month to discuss the importance of “Sylvie’s Love” in her career, her thoughts on the industry’s diversity push following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and reuniting with Taiki Waititi for another Valkyrie adventure (oh, sure, and that Thor guy).
The Playlist: Hi, Tessa, how are you doing?
Tessa Thompson: I’m good. You’ll have to forgive me, I haven’t eaten all day, so I’m eating lunch. Otherwise, I won’t get it in.
It’s O.K., go for it; I’m having a shake while we talk anyway.
Congratulations on “Sylvie’s Love.” When this project came your way, what made it a priority for you?
So many things, I had long wanted to make a love story, the classic Hollywood romance. I grew up watching those and have enjoyed them throughout the years. And then I also really wanted to make a period film, and the experience of getting to do both in one fell swoop, particularly as a black actor or an actor of color, felt really rarefied. And it felt like a way to make a film in the tradition of films that just excluded us a little bit from those narratives. I thought about all the little stories that maybe would have centered on black people if there was more filmmaking like that at the time these films were really in vogue. And I really wanted to work with Nnamdi. And when he shared the script with me, I thought there was something really special in it.
Did Nnamdi reach out to you?
I knew Nnamdi was attached as a producer and wanted to star in it. And he asked if I would sit down and have a conversation with Eugene, and I did. And I really liked Eugene’s take, and I told them that I was interested in making the film, but only if I could also come on and executive produce with Nnamdi because I was looking to do that in my career. Frankly, the script was beautiful, and I also thought that there were things that I could offer. And so it’s been satisfying to get to work on it and to see some of my ideas inside of the DNA of the project; it’s been really very satisfying and rewarding, certainly.
In Eugene’s statement on the film, he says photos of his family inspired the movie during that era. Was there anything he talked about in terms of cinematic references or other films that he wanted to evoke?
Oh yeah. I love to ask for points of reference when I’m working on something, and I think Eugene takes the cake for sending the most references of any filmmaker that I’ve worked with. Typically, you’ll get a couple. You’ll get one that seems dead on stylistically and another, just maybe an odd choice. I think Eugene sent me something between 50 and 60 film references, a lot from the time [period]. Everything from “The Way We Were,” every single “A Star is Born” and more modern love stories, like “Love & Basketball” and even more moderate in terms of when they were made, a film like “Carol.” So, his references were all over the place, and it was a joy to get to watch all of these old films. In terms of references for me personally, I really listened to a lot of Diahann Carroll. She was really a north star. Eugene really wanted when you first see Sylvie for it to feel like the first time you see Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which obviously is no small feat to capture the kind of presence she had. But I think that was another reason why I wanted to make the film is it scared me. I’ve gotten to work over the decade, and I feel fortunate for all the opportunities I’ve had. And still, the opportunity to be the leading lady is far and few in between. I was still worried if I could do that and certainly capture the, I don’t know, glamor and beauty and mystique of the bygone era of Hollywood starlets.
The film’s look, the glamor, the production design is absolutely incredible, especially for an indie film. As someone who was involved as a producer, can you talk about the depths that everyone went to, to make this happen?
It’s a testament to how incredible our team is, from Fabrice Lecomte‘s music to Declan [Quinn], who shot it beautifully on super 16, to Phoenix Mellow, who designed the costumes. And so much of what we pulled was actually from the period, so you really did feel like you were stepping into the shoes and the life of people that had been alive during that time. And not for nothing, some days we’d have to move between 1957 and 1963 and go back to ’57. I had something like 46 costume changes, almost 50 costume changes in the film. Sometimes, I would be changing seven times in a day, representing a tremendous amount of work for hair and makeup to move seamlessly between those periods and keep track of everything. It was definitely a labor of love, certainly a love of cinema, which I think everyone involved in the project really had. I think, particularly as a producer, you want to make everyone feel pleased to be there at work. There were challenging days, but I think people were really excited to be doing something that felt really special.
The fact the movie is on Amazon and could be perceived as a hit based on how many people see it or if Amazon tells us. Do you think that this can help get more of these types of films made? And by that, I mean traditional romances with people of color in the leading roles. I feel like we don’t see films like this at all in any way anymore.
Movies about love were really in vogue, and they’re not as much anymore. And I think of movies and television shows as postcards of the time, and so what does it say about our time that just in general, it’s harder to make a more straightforward film about love. And that’s just true, and certainly, it was even harder to make this film because one impediment was at the studio level, certainly. And even if that’s private financier level, there was this idea that a period love piece, a period film centering love and had two black leads, that there wasn’t an audience for it. Or if there was an audience for it, the audience was too niche because it was just a black audience. And I think that that made me want to make the film even more. One of my aims as a producer, in general, is this idea of creating new comps in Hollywood because, unfortunately, Hollywood still plays the game of they have to see that something can be successful in understanding that it could have a place. And so of course, I think a film like this , it just makes room for more films like it. And certainly, we’re in the Wild West now with streaming platforms in terms of thinking about new barometers for success. But for me, I feel like the stories that we tell, as much as they are a reflection of culture, create culture. And I think we’re in a time again, and we have been here before, and we probably will be here again when we’re talking about the value and dignity of black life. And one way I think to talk about the value and dignity of black life is to show it in all its humanity, and a big part of who we are as people is how we love. And so to minimize and say that black people don’t deserve to be able to tell our stories about how we love, how we have loved throughout time, is one way of diminishing us as humans. So, I hope that people respond to it, and by the way, I hope that all people respond to it, not just black folks.
Interestingly, you bring up the comps in the industry. Because of the pandemic, not everyone has been able to go back to work on set, but for months development and pitching were as busy as it’s ever been. As someone who is trying to produce, did you feel like there were genuine conversations? Or did you feel a lot of it was lip service?
I mean, you remember at the beginning of this resurgence of Black Lives Matter and protest in the wake of George Floyd, every single streaming platform had some Black Lives Matter collection. Every single one of them. Something that I think is lost in the conversation around diversity, is the diversity of thought and presentation and ideas. And so when I’ve been having conversations, which I have in building up this company and in my producorial ambition, there certainly is a real hunger. There’s a mandate across Hollywood for “diversity,” I think is yet to be seen. I’m sure that folks clamored to buy “diverse ideas” to buy black creators and producers’ ideas. What’s yet to be seen is if those things actually have a pathway to getting into theaters and people’s homes. And so I don’t know how many buys happened just because of the optics of it in the same way that in Hollywood, they’ll do diversity programs or they’ll do mentorship programs for female directors. Still, then they won’t actually hire those folks when it comes to crewing up. And so that’s the thing that I have yet to see, but I have certainly felt a real appetite and warmth when I’m having conversations with folks at the studio level around telling stories for and by people that have been on the margins for too long. So we’ll see, I’m hopeful. I’m really hopeful.
I feel like there’s been so much announced that, in theory, has been acquired. You hope most of it gets made.
Yeah, exactly. We have to see if it gets made.
I think you’re still here in the States, but are you heading to Australia soon for “Thor: Love and Thunder”? Can you even say?
I think I can. [Laughs.] I hope I can say because I’ve certainly been talking about it today. Yes, I am in the new “Thor” movie; I’m officially in the film. I’m very excited, I travel to Australia at the top of next year, and then I’ll quarantine. Thankfully we can shoot because Australia’s under control; their administration has been able to figure out a way to keep everyone safe so we can safely make the film, and we’ll make it this year. And Natalie Portman, who is also a good friend of mine, has been there for a couple of months, Taika’s there, everyone’s working and really excited.
Can you tease anything about what’s in store for Valkyrie this time around?
Yeah. I can tease that she’s definitely King of New Asgard when we find her. And as was the case in the last four, I would say that she’s a part of an adventure that involved Thor, in the sense that it’s called “Thor: Love and Thunder.” And I’d say there’s some cool stuff going on. We have some new characters; we have some folks potentially from other pockets of the MCU. And then we have some folks, maybe, that we’ve seen before.
“Sylvie’s Love” debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 23.