Tessa Thompson On Her Panamanian Grandmother & the Lack of Afro-Latino Stories in Hollywood

Courtesy of Neon

In Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, opening this weekend, Tessa Thompson plays Ollie, a woman trying to survive the last few days of her probation after getting caught illegally selling prescription pills in a rural North Dakota town on the Canadian border. When Ollie’s younger sister, Deb (Lily James), faces mounting financial and personal crisis of an unexpected pregnancy, a deadbeat ex-boyfriend, and a mortgage that is past due, Ollie is forced to decide if she’s willing to return to a way of life she thought she’d left behind for just one more score – this time to save her family. The feminist indie drama is gripping, tightly paced, and full of thrills.

Ahead of its theatrical release, Nia DaCosta and Tessa Thompson chatted with Remezcla about Little Woods and being women of color working to make lasting change in Hollywood.

Little Woods opens in theaters on April 19, 2019.

Nia DaCosta On Writing a Film Set in Rural North Dakota

I wanted to explore my reality away from New York. I know what it means to be a woman, and to be a woman who isn’t really well off. I wanted to explore women born in similar circumstances, but living a rural part of America. I wanted to explore that more. Then it became about me wanting to tell the story of two women in Northwest North Dakota, and in particular, how they experience poverty. So being poor would have to include what healthcare looks like for them, what reproductive care looks like, and other things that particularly influence women.

You know, the more research you do for anything, the more you actually feel the people who live in these places and who live the lives you are trying to portray, the more real your film and your characters become. This came from my experience of poverty, but from a different geographical place, I came into it from that relatable point of view. It was about writing what I know, but writing what I know emotionally.

Tessa Thompson on the Time’s Up “4 Percent Challenge”to Work With a Woman Director

Inclusion doesn’t happen by mistake. Actually, Nia [DaCosta] said something brilliant earlier, which was that exclusion does happen – if not by mistake, then sort of intentionally. So what we’re looking at in Hollywood is that there are a lot of women inside of the pipeline as directors, and that’s evidenced by the amount of independent films that are made by women, but then only 4 percent of those women go on to make studio movies. They’re just not in the room.

The idea then is that we create a mandate – that people create a mandate for themselves – by saying, “I will commit to doing this, and I will do it for 18 months.” It’s a call to action. And it’s been incredible to see all the people who have signed on to the challenge. It’s been incredible to watch people finally unpack and realize that this has been an oversight for them. Until we decide to fix this systemic issue, then nothing will change. For me, working with women directors has been something I’ve been doing naturally along my career.

One of my first films was written and directed by a black woman director, Tina Mabry. It’s important that I’m on a set that looks like – in terms of the crew and the people I’m collaborating with – the world in which I live. I also think that it’s just… it’s just lovely to be in an experience where you don’t feel otherized. Getting to make the film Little Woods with not only Nia at the helm, but also women producing it, and the story was really centered around two women, has been exceptional. I hope that we can get to the place where that is what normal will be, but certainly for me in my career right now, it feels really important.

Courtesy of Neon
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Tessa Thompson On Her Character, Ollie

I’m always starting with myself and then dealing with the circumstances that are given. Nia wrote a really beautiful screenplay in which it was very clear what Ollie wanted. I understood what was in her heart, what really mattered to her: protecting her sister and her nephew. They were all she had. She had nothing to lose, apart from them. This was a performance where I could concentrate on what this woman needed without any pretense, because she didn’t have any. Ollie’s a woman who doesn’t seek approval. She’s a woman who has been wounded by trauma; she doesn’t want to need anyone. The only person she needs or wants to be liked by is her sister. It was liberating.

Tessa Thompson On Being an Afro-Latina in Hollywood

I’m someone who talks a lot about representation. It’s important that we see more black women on screen. Sometimes there isn’t necessarily a conversation around the nuance of, “what kind of black woman?” I mean, we are not a monolith. I feel heartened when a young woman sees a film that I’m in and says that she can relate to me. I’m also sympathetic that there are women of color and black women that see me in a film and don’t feel seen. That’s real and true.

In Hollywood, I don’t think there’s enough real representation and nuance in that space. I see a lot of incredible Afro-Latinas working, but I’m not sure that there are enough stories told that speak to that particular experience. I’m really interested in telling stories like my grandmother’s.

You know, my grandmother came from Panama – from Colón – to the United States for an education when she was a young woman in her twenties. She met my grandfather, who’s a black man from Oklahoma. They had my aunt, and then they had my father. Then she lived essentially as a black woman in the United States – because, well, that’s who people assumed that she was, but her first language was Spanish. She didn’t learn English until she was in her twenties and already in the U.S. She had a rich cultural experience that was really full, but was erased in some ways, because she came to this country and needed to assimilate.

Those stories are fascinating! My grandmother died when I was sixteen and she had Alzheimer’s. I didn’t get to speak to her about what her experience was – of being inside her skin, and then leaving her home, and then being in America, and then having to also deal with race here. Those stories are beautiful, and interesting. They are the kind of stories I would love to see more of.