Sarah McColgan

Thompson plays Sam White, an outspoken college radio host, in the satire Dear White People (out today).

Clover Hope
Oct, 09, 2014

Tessa Thompson has always been an avid people watcher.

“I used to hide in the closet at my grandparents’ house,” says the L.A.–based actress. “I had a clear sight line to their bedroom. I loved the idea of being a fly on the wall.”

Such voyeurism may sound slightly creepy, but consider it acting preparation: Years later, Thompson, now 30, brings that observational nature to the big screen as Sam White, an outspoken college radio host, in the satire Dear White People (out today).

“Beyond being a film about race,” says Thompson, “it’s also about trying to figure out who you are in relation to what people expect you to be.” A Denise Huxtable of sorts, Thompson dabbled in quirky and diverse fields, including anthropology and singing. Theater always stuck, though, ever since she broke in her acting shoes; she remembers playing a dancing wolf in a school production.

From her first pro gig (a 1930’s lesbian bootlegger in TV’s Cold Case) to her part as Nyla/Purple in For Colored Girls and now DWP, Thompson stays focused on feeding her curiosity while also dishing food for thought. “I’d like to make projects that have some lasting effect,” she says. “I think you can tell a story and help people understand what it is to be human.”

This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.