Six Damn Fine Degrees #32: Tessa Thompson

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In Rocky, Talia Shire does a great job of depicting a character that is painfully shy and seems exceedingly mousey at first, but who reveals depths of emotion and loyalty as the film progresses. She’s a good fit for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, also a character who doesn’t fit the bill of archetypical heroic lead at first. Whatever the Rocky franchise turned into, both the movies and their leads started off at a point where they were downright antithetical to what they’d become later – not least in Rocky IV, in which the title character was pretty much the embodiment of Reagan’s America during the late stages of the Cold War. Rocky and Adrian were engaging characters, but as depicted by Stallone and Shire their charisma wasn’t readily apparent.

Fast-forward 39 years, to 2015 and to Creed, a quasi-sequel or spin-off to the original Rocky series. Yes, I can already hear you: did the world of cinema need to continue turning that particular dead horse into a punching bag? That’s pretty much what I thought – and then I saw who was involved: Ryan Coogler, pre-Black Panther but post-Fruitvale Station. Michael B Jordan, who has come so far since he played poor, doomed Wallace in the first season of The Wire.

And then there was Tessa Thompson.

I have to admit: when I first saw Tessa Thompson in Veronica Mars back in the mid-’00s, I didn’t pay all that much attention. Which, in hindsight, surprises me – because starting with Creed she’s become one of those actors I’m very much watching out for, and teaming her up with Jordan (as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the illegitimate son of the original Rocky‘s Apollo Creed) was a perfect way to boost her career. Michael B Jordan is one of the most charismatic actors of his generation – and Thompson is more than a match for him in that respect. The importance of her and her character to Creed‘s success is undersold by just calling her character Bianca the love interest, and the dynamic between the two actors and the characters they play in Creed is a large part of what makes the film work. This is not just a pairing off of young, attractive people: Thompson and Jordan are both so good and so perfect for the screen.

Thompson has been in a number of films that I really enjoyed, but that number was smaller than I had realised. As mentioned, she is great in Creed and still very good in Creed II, even if the sequel suffers from diminishing returns. She’s tremendous fun in Thor: Ragnarok, more than holding her own – and making a great case for a Valkyrie solo movie without even trying. She’s also fantastic in a quieter part in Alex Garland’s strange, sad, beautiful Annihilation. And that’s pretty much what I’ve seen her in to date. I very much want to see her in Sorry to Bother You, but I’ve not yet got around to watching that one.

Nonetheless, the point is this: I consider Thompson one of the most interesting young actors that are working in Hollywood at the time, and it’s not even necessarily because she’s been in that many films I liked. It’s that she comes to life on the screen like very few actors, pretty much regardless of the material. Don’t get me wrong: obviously she’s best in good material, with good directors and co-actors, but her charisma is palpable even if the rest of the film is only okay. Hey, she pretty much made Westworld watchable at a point in the series when there was little else doing this – okay, with generous help from Thandiwe Newton.

So, to conclude: I am very much looking forward to seeing Thompson’s future work, and I think I will want to go back and watch some of the things she’s worked on that passed me by for one reason or another. I suspect that I’ll find some gems there – if not the films, then definitely the performances, or indeed just Thompson’s live-wire presence.

Though… even with Thompson’s considerable charisma, I may give Men in Black: International a miss.

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