Tessa Thompson Says 'Sorry To Bother You' Stripped The Nudity To Avoid Male Gaze

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Tessa Thompson stars as Detroit in Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You. (Photo courtesy Annapurna Pictures)

Tessa Thompson says "yes" to a lot of interesting projects that don't easily fit a category. She'll act in Hollywood studio movies like Thor and Creed, prestige TV dramas like HBO's Westworld, and indie movies like Dear White People and Sorry To Bother You. It's one of the most inventive movies this summer.

Thompson's also in an extended music video from actress/musician Janelle Monae. That "emotion picture," a sci-fi feminist futuristic narrative, is called Dirty Computer. Thompson says it's helped people come out and has even helped her have more nuanced conversations about herself with her family.

"I've always had the freedom to bring home who I bring home and my family has always accepted whoever I want to love."

In Sorry To Bother You, Thompson plays "Detroit" opposite Lakeith Stanfield's Cassius. The comedy is part satire, part social commentary, part magical realism. It was written and directed by The Coup lead singer, filmmaker Boots Riley. It's his first feature film.

Tessa took a break from shooting Creed II in Philadelphia to talk with John Horn from KPCC's The Frame. (Read the interview below or listen to it on The Frame podcast.)

How did Boots pitch you the idea for Sorry To Bother You?

He had a lot of big ideas that he wanted to talk about it, and with this backdrop of telemarketing in a reality that's just a scosh away from from our own and set in Oakland, and it's a project that has been in his heart and in his mind for a long time, and made a record by the same title Sorry to Bother You to entice people to make the film. And it's been a labor of love for him, and it's like a little weird pretty baby that I was so excited to be a part of.

It's a great conceit. For people who haven't seen the film, there's a sales pitch voice that a lot of people in this telemarketing firm adopt, and it's a white voice where people who in the film are African American sound like they're incredibly Caucasian.

I think what's so delicious about when you see my character, who's called Detroit, affect a white voice, is that it's not in the space of telemarketing. It's actually when she's doing a performance art piece, she's an artist.

So there's this idea that, yes, as black Americans, we feel like sometimes we have to code switch, particularly if we're trying to occupy space of power. It's like what Donald Glover talks about getting his show [Atlanta] made on FX, you have to learn how to speak "old white man." And so, as black artists, we also do that.

And I think Detroit is a character that can be very righteous and feel like she has a moral high ground in terms of Cassius using this white voice, but then she turns around and does it in her art. So the idea is, it's not just we don't as black Americans do that.

But just as humans, sometimes we try to get in where we fit in. And we affect a version of ourselves that we think is going to get us what we want.

Do you think there is code-switching in Hollywood, especially for people of color and women?

Absolutely. I've done my fair share of it without even knowing that I was, certainly. For example, when you work inside of productions that are inherently misogynistic, or when you happen to be a woman on set — and there are very few of you, so you're in a position of being other other-ized just by the virtue or vice of being one of the only women on set — you're like, the girl.

That was the remarkable thing in working on Alex Garland's Annihilation and working with a primarily all-female cast is, you realize the ways in which you've been positioned on other productions. And sometimes it means that you're not allowed to, or you don't allow yourself to take up space in the same way.

So there's some code-switching. And certainly this is changing more and more, and I feel so incredibly lucky that I've stuck around in Hollywood long enough to see the change. But certainly early on in my career, the kinds of parts that get offered that just use a fraction of what you actually have to offer — it feels like you have to diminish a part of yourself in a way.

We talked to Boots about a conversation that he had with you about how he was going to shoot nudity in the movie. What did that conversation ultimately come down to?

Well Detroit, she is a visual artist, and also a performance artist. He had conceived of a scene in which Detroit gets on stage and, nude, she gives this performance piece.

And obviously in the history of performance art, there is precedent for that. A lot of performance artists use nudity as a way to evoke feeling, to be provocative, to get attention.

And so we had a conversation about the merits of that just in and of itself. And then also for me — as the performer, as the actress — what I felt comfortable [with] in terms of nudity. And we had a lot of conversations.

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Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You.

And what it came down to — this was Boots' mandate — there was also separately a scene in which Cassius [played by Lakeith Stanfield] would appear nude, not in a performance space, but it made sense in the course of the scene.

And so he said to me, it only makes sense for you to appear full frontal nude, if Lakeith does as well. And I think what we settled on — A) because Lakeith didn't really want to appear nude, and frankly, neither did I — I think we settled on something in terms of the costume design and conceit of the scene that I think is visually far more striking.

This isn't a spoiler alert because you can see it in the trailer. I'm nude apart from three strategically placed leather gloves. And I think it's visually super, super striking.

And certainly for me, as the performer, I had so much to do in that space — not having to also appear nude and deal with what that is in a public space and on film, I felt a lot more empowered. So I'm really grateful to work with a filmmaker like Boots that is just conscientious and not interested in perpetuating male gaze or any sort of problematic representations of women.

Tessa Thompson on Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer:

There've been so many people that have come up to me or written me a text message saying that when they saw Dirty Computer it allowed them to come out to their family. I certainly was able to have more nuanced conversations with my family about myself. And so I think if these things start conversations and also help set people free, it's important.

Is there something that you can say in a video that you can't say in other ways? Does one beget a different kind of conversation — how does that work out?

I think there's something really just unifying about music, in general. There's just something so immediate about the way that a song can hit us.

Also in terms of what Janelle is doing at this phase, in her career. She's been someone that's created a character. I think, with this record, it is letting fans into her a little more, and giving herself the freedom to really express things that are more personal. I feel like whenever you do that, as an artist, when you take that freedom, which requires, in most cases, bravery, you set a lot of people free.

Because the Dirty Computer — the whole sort of emotion picture — is a more succinct idea than just a music video, there's been a narrative that people can really latch on to. And for a lot of people, that's their narrative — that they don't want to be boxed into a space, that they want the freedom to love who they love, and to still be members of society and be inside of their family and have that be harmonious.

And I'm someone who's been really lucky inside of my family. I've always had the freedom to bring home who I bring home, and my family has always accepted whoever I want to love — but that's not the case for a lot of people, so it's important.


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