Tessa Thompson owes a lot to the Bard.
Ten years ago the star of Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls and BBC America’s new Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana series Copper made her professional stage debut at 18 in LA Women’s Shakespeare Company’s 2002 production of The Tempest. Thompson’s female colleagues encouraged her to attend an open-call audition for the Theatre @ Boston Court’s inaugural 2003 Romeo & Juliet set in 1836 in antebellum New Orleans. She got the role of Juliet, and Hollywood took notice when the glowing reviews poured in alongside an NAACP Award.
Two television series (Veronica Mars, Hidden Palms), numerous guest star and film roles later, Thompson has become a hot young talent as well as a respected theater actress. A member of Antaeus Company, she has steadily honed her stagecraft in local LA productions ranging from Summertime at Boston Court to Pyrenees at the Kirk Douglas, Stupid Kids at the Celebration Theatre to Blues for an Alabama Sky at Pasadena Playhouse.
Not to mention brushing up her Shakespeare as Olivia in A Noise Within’s 2004 production of Twelfth Night or as Cordelia opposite Harry Groener and Dakin Matthews in Antaeus Company’s double-cast King Lear. The latter helped land her the leading role of Rosalind in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ outdoor summertime production of As You Like It, opening July 14 at the Japanese Garden on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center Campus. Like LASC’s 2010 staging of Much Ado About Nothing featuring Helen Hunt and Lyle Lovett, this one also features original music by Brian Joseph.
Directed by Royal Shakespeare Company’s Kenn Sabberton, Thompson stars opposite Peter Cambor (NCIS: Los Angeles) as Orlando; Michael Dorn (Star Trek) as both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior; Diane Venora, who played Hamlet for the New York Shakespeare Festival, as Jaques; John Lavelle (The Graduate) as Touchstone; and Tony Abatemarco as Adam and Corin.
What a difference a decade makes.
No High School Shakespeare Fan
It’s Friday afternoon at the Shakespeare Center’s downtown offices and studio space. Thompson takes time out from rehearsal to be interviewed during her lunch break. The 28-year-old wears cross-dressing apparel for this modern day adaptation — an army jacket over a black-and-red-checked shirt, skinny blue jeans and brown ankle boots. Her long curly black hair is tucked up into a black hat.
Thompson has an openly engaging style that radiates self-assurance partnered with youthful playfulness. She clearly takes her work seriously but not herself. There is always so much more to be learned. Soulful reflections mix easily with gleeful wide-eyed laughter. Her African-American, Mexican, Caucasian, and Central American ancestry make for a compelling beauty that transcends race and nationality. She could just as easily play Helen of Troy as this beloved Shakespeare heroine.
The Los Angeles native admits her high school relationship with the playwright was a rocky one.
“I didn’t like Shakespeare,” states the Santa Monica High School graduate. “I just didn’t get it. I was one of those kids that would read the CliffsNotes and sort of knew the plot points. When I was a freshman, we read Romeo and Juliet and then as a sophomore, Julius Caesar. I had lovely teachers, but for some reason there was nothing immersive about the experience. It felt really archaic and foreign.”
Then Thompson decided to audition for a high school play, which happened to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was cast as Hermia. “It was challenging, but fun. I don’t even know what time period it was in but when the lovers were introduced, we were sort of in these very iconic costumes. I think Demetrius came in with the theme song to Happy Days? He was wearing a leather jacket and he’s a greaser. I came in to a song that goes, “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way.” We played her as a Jewish American princess.
“I didn’t get Shakespeare for a long while, at least not in high school.”
After graduation, Thompson attended Santa Monica College to study cultural anthropology with her sights set on UC Berkeley. She took acting classes as well but had missed a few. To help make up the credits, she attended a lecture given by members of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company led by founder Lisa Volpe.
“They blew me away,” she recalls. “They brought in scenes from The Tempest and did this process with Shakespeare, which they called dropping in the text. It’s a way of familiarizing yourself with the lines, but also with having a relationship with the words. I thought it was so fascinating. I was just in awe of these women. So I went up to Lisa afterward and asked her if she needed an intern or help with anything. She said why don’t you come and read for me? I went to her apartment and I was so nervous. I did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and forgot lines that any fifth grader would know. She goes, why don’t you just come down and we’ll see.”
The group asked Thompson to read the part of Miranda at the first table read when the actress cast to play the part was delayed. “It was in First Folio and I just remember sitting there. It was the first time I had ever read Shakespeare aloud, apart from Lisa’s apartment, and it was in this circle of very, very talented female Shakespearean actresses. I don’t even remember what happened but that was sort of my beginning.”
Volpe cast Thompson as Ariel along with two other women. “We played Ariel as three parts, sort of an organism of three women moving together. I think I spoke 10 lines. Lisa was very wise. She had me speak the least of anybody. All those women were really gracious and sweet. They said, “˜you must go audition for this production of Romeo and Juliet. You’d be really perfect.’ And I thought, there’s no way. I didn’t even have a head shot at the time. I had like little clips from a couple of nice mentions I had gotten in newspapers. But I went to an open call and that’s where I met Michael Michetti.”
Falling in Love with Acting in Antebellum New Orleans
As co-artistic director of the Theatre @ Boston Court, Michetti not only cast the unknown in a lead role of the $5 million theater’s inaugural 2003 show, he went on to direct her in two other subsequent shows there — Charles Mee’s Summertime and Pera Pelas, a co-production with the Antaeus Company. But he refuses to take credit for launching Thompson’s stage career.
“I wish I could take credit for Tessa’s theatrical start, but she dropped in my lap,” he says via phone. “She came in with the goods and I can’t take credit for that. Tessa showed up with some high school credits and completely knocked me out. One of the great discoveries about that was while she did not yet have impressive credits, she was such an impressive young woman.”
Michetti called Thompson back several times for the role and went to see her performance in The Tempest. He decided to give her the part. “While Tessa did not have an enormous amount of experience, she had the skills coming in. She knew how to use her voice, work with text and take direction. She was not just raw material. I think she was astonishing in the role. To me, she’s the real deal. I can’t say enough good things about her as a person and an actress. I love the fact that Tessa has a career in film and television and is doing really well, but still keeps coming back to the theater.”
Thompson is humbled by Michetti’s praise and smiles. “That’s so sweet. I love him. He’s the best.” She admits that before R&J, she thought of acting as one of many possible pursuits. Getting the part changed all that.
“It was a fast education,” she explains. “Right after I got that part, I needed to really know about Shakespeare, so it meant reading tons of books and watching everything I could find. It actually felt like the experience I longed for, which was to be in an acting conservatory. It felt like this really condensed, really intense weighty period. I remember when my mom came to opening night and the first thing she said to me was, ‘I had no idea.’ That was a turning point. It was the beginning of realizing that acting was something that I really love to do.”
Thompson also had her first experience of understanding and conveying a passage from the Bard to an audience. “It’s Shakespeare,” she elaborates. “So when you have little glimpses of unlocking something or being able to execute a passage in a way that feels really right, it’s exciting. To send it out to people so they can receive it and understand what you mean. It feels like some communion with something really essential and human in a way that a lot of other text doesn’t feel. I was just incredibly swept away by the experience of being in that play.”
And like Juliet, Thompson fell deeply in love with her new passion — acting. “I was young enough for it to still be complete make-believe. It was very exciting to be playing someone in love because I really felt like at that point I was falling in love with what it is to be on stage. And to be on stage in really great works. I was so deeply falling in love, just taken by storm, you know? Really and truly. That’s what Juliet is for Romeo, and so it was just kind of a perfect thing.”
From Hollywood to Harlem
Thompson’s acclaim as Juliet led to numerous Hollywood meetings with potential agents and managers. The industry vibe did not appeal to her at all. She stuck with theater and worked at a number of odd jobs but was broke. A friend suggested she reconsider her options. So she looked up some of the same industry people and was sent out on TV auditions. Thompson booked a Cold Case episode two weeks later, playing a 1930 bootlegging lesbian.
“I was dressed like a boy doing Rosalind but I was in love with a girl,” she laughs. “But I was fooled because it was a film director who liked research and characterization. I was still so in the theater mode that I spent like three days making hand-made wrapped gifts! I remember standing in the parking lot wanting to give them out and everyone had gone.”
The very next job she booked was a series regular on Veronica Mars. She had been doing Pyrenees at the Kirk Douglas, then Indoor/Outdoor at the Colony Theatre. She booked Veronica during that show’s rehearsals. “I would just commute back and forth. There were a couple of times I would literally take the shirt off my understudy’s back at like 8:05 or a quarter to because she was intending to go on!”
The television series gave Thompson her first exposure to fan adulation on public streets, something she would come to experience in a much bigger way when she was later cast in the 2010 film adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls (Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf).
“It’s funny, coming from the theater, I think,” she offers. “Being in the room with people where they’ve sort of taken you in and have these experiences that are not just about your performance but also about the material in the play. So it’s different when it comes to people recognizing you for your work in TV and film. It seems to be more sort of centered on like you! They’re excited to see what you might be wearing or how you are and that used to make me very uncomfortable. Now it depends on what they recognize me for because I’m very proud of several projects.”
One of those was playing Delia in Pasadena Playhouse’s acclaimed fall 2011 production of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, directed by Sheldon Epps and starring Robin Givens, Kevin T. Carroll, Kadeem Hardison and Robert Ray Manning, Jr. Thompson had previous performed in a Playhouse Hot House new play reading of Pastoral with Angela Bassett, which was set to have its world premiere last fall. But Bassett got cast in a Broadway show and Blues took over the slot. Ironically, Thompson was up for the same part.
“I’ve been seen for some incredible projects in New York and gotten close and heard really nice things,” she explains. “I was up for The Mountaintop, so it was fun to get a phone call from them to say, “˜you lost to Angela Bassett,’ which was great. I’ll lose to her any day.”
Director Epps had nothing but praise for Thompson’s work in the 1930s Harlem-based drama, a role he gave her without an audition. “I was so happy to have a chance to work with Tessa on the wonderful Pearl Cleage play,” he wrote via email. “She’s lovely and charming on stage to be sure, but I love the fact that she challenges herself in rehearsal and never settles for the easy route. This can lead to unexpected and frankly sometimes ‘quirky’ character choices that make her work fresh, alive, and unexpected. The best compliment that I can give her is to say that I came out of our work on that play thinking about other projects that we can do together and hoping for another collaboration.”
“I couldn’t even tell you what he means by that!” she says with a laugh, regarding the “quirky” comment. “I just really like exploring choices. I think that’s what’s so fun about rehearsal is to just take it a bunch of different ways, see what you can find and what feels good. What’s so nice is just to be able to stop when something feels icky and explore it. It’s a license you don’t actually get in life that often, to adjust the way that I’m speaking or taking this news. The really divine thing about getting to act out life is you can tweak it and adjust it and make it what you want to be. So I appreciate him indulging me and letting me do that. The truth is I just think that the character of Delia is quirky. Or anybody that is really set in their ideas or dogmatic about things or too tidy. They’re really the weirdos.”
Thompson also got to work with her father, singer/songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, of the New York-based band Chocolate Genius, on Blues. A film and theatrical sound designer, he won a 1997 Obie award in sound design for A Huey P. Newton Story.
“I was shameless,” she confesses. “I wrote Sheldon and sent him all my dad’s stuff, which is something I’ve never ever done. I really wanted my dad to work on it because he happened to be here in Los Angeles, which doesn’t happen often. And he knew so much about the period. It was a perfect fit and Sheldon was so sweet. It was just so great to have my dad be able to be there and be in the rehearsal process. He’s been there along the way for scattered milestones. But this was a really big one because we got to experience it together, which was really a gift.”
Cordelia to Copper
Thompson thought you needed to attend a major acting conservatory to be taken seriously on larger stages, especially New York. What she’s learned is that working alongside venerable veteran actors has been its own valuable school — whether it be Shakespearean scholar Dakin Matthews in King Lear, Phylicia Rashad in For Colored Girls or Diane Venora in As You Like It. Thompson had to leave Lear to film the movie but returned to play Cordelia long enough to get noticed by the Shakespeare Center’s casting people.
“I’ve been really lucky to stumble in with people that have given me the education that I so wanted,” she admits. “I had this idea about going to school to learn everything you need to know and then you’re thrust into the real world of getting to work. The truth is you can just sort of piggyback on lots of people that have gone to school. And just be eager to learn from them. I feel like that’s something I’m always doing. If you’re lucky enough to be in the company of really talented people then you always have the chance to learn and to grow.”
The For Colored Girls experience was particularly meaningful because Thompson had owned a copy of the play since she was a teenager. She had been called in for various readings of it including a Broadway revival. When she heard that the stage production had fallen through and Tyler Perry’s film adaptation was announced instead, Thompson approached her agents. The film was cast but as fate would have it, the part opened up again and she was able to submit a tape to him doing two monologues she would later perform in the film.
“Aside from it being just an incredible experience, I learned so much in working with those women,” she emphasizes. “Getting to speak to women like Anika Noni Rose or Thandie [Newton] as mentors and Phylicia [Rashad] was just really amazing.”
Thompson was in Toronto shooting 10 episodes of the Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana creation Copper, BBC America’s first original series (it’s about an Irish police detective in 1846 Manhattan and premieres August 19), when she got a call asking whether she wanted to read for the Shakespeare Center’s Rosalind. She did but was still in Canada.
“It’s an incredible team of talented, collaborative people,” she explains about the TV show’s creators. “It reminded me of being in the theater. I haven’t worked on a set where there’s been that kind of attention to detail in the production design and the costumes. I mean they get these dresses from the period and then recreate them with the same sort of patinas and stains and stitching. The specificity of their work is really inspiring and beautiful.
“The show is super-theatrical because that’s the period,” she continues. “So we’re dressed in corsets and I haven’t worn a corset since I was at Boston Court! Ato Essandoh, who plays my husband, is an incredible NY stage actor. Our language is very heightened and classical and really fun to speak. Most of the guest stars are Toronto actors who were theater-based and trained. So they’d come in and really know their text with these fully formed characters.”
Though her Copper work was nearly done, the Shakespeare Center’s dates for an in-person audition kept shifting, so she let it go. The Center’s search for Rosalind went on and circled back to Thompson a second time. She was asked to send a tape if she couldn’t make it, but she had another idea.
“I’ve only sent tape twice for theater and it’s a strange process,” she explains. “So this time I said, do you think I could Skype with Kenn beforehand so we could meet and have a sense of each other? That way I could hear him talk about what he imagines and also what has been challenging about finding someone. What’s been missing?”
The conversation went “really well,” so Thompson sent a tape, then came back to LA to read with other Orlandos while he continued to consider other actresses as well. She then read with Peter Cambor and was offered the role.
“It was great that we could work it out,” she laughs. “The truth is at the time I was thinking, ‘I’m going to do Shakespeare this summer.’ I read for the Public and it went really well [for the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which brings the Bard to other boroughs]. It was close but no cigar. That was the first place I started thinking about when I thought about being an actress. There was no other place I wanted to work.”
But Thompson also believes that when one door closes, another opens for the right reason. “To have longevity as an actor is being able to understand that the things you don’t get lead to the things that you need. What I’m doing now makes more sense. Either I needed to sharpen these skills or I needed to meet these people or I needed to say these words at this point. So I’m just constantly trying to remain open to whatever that is.”
As You Like It, presented by Shakespeare Center of LA. Opens Saturday. Plays Tues-Sat 8 pm. Through July 29. Tickets: $25-50. Tickets for active military, veterans, and their guests are free of charge (while supplies last; reservations required.Â Call SCLA at 213-481-2273.) The Japanese Garden on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., 90073 (adjacent to the Brentwood Theatre). www.shakespearecenter.org.
***All As You Like It production photos by Ed Krieger