Leave it to Tessa Thompson to wear a nipple-shaped necklace during her visit to InStyle last week. The actress is a pro at making a statement, and from her fierce stint on Veronica Mars to her real-life indie electro soul band, Caught a Ghost, she certainly isn’t one to hold back. For her latest role in Dear White People, Thompson takes outspoken to a whole new level of #nofilter. She’s brought her take-no-prisoners attitude to the big screen and channeled it into her new character, a black rights activist who makes waves on her college campus thanks to her radical radio show and complete candor.
“I wanted to talk about this space we’re in with digital interactions between people and what that does to us,” Thompson says of her role in the film, which premiered at Sundance and is in theaters now. She tells InStyle about her biggest on-screen surprise, her affinity for Taylor Swift, and what it was like to work with Oprah on her next film.
Dear White People tackles controversial social issues. What do you want viewers to take away from it?
I hope that people can see the universal threads—it’s more about identity than it is about race, and I think that that’s something that we all understand. It’s a film that wants to leave people having a conversation, but it’s a little awkward. It’s kind of a social experiment.
At its core, it's still a college movie. What did you love most about that aspect of the film?
It’s fun to watch people try to navigate through their sexuality and hooking up with people and saying stupid things, and the fashion is very fun. The world of the movie is so stratified, and there’s all these particular groups, so the fashion is a big expression of all of those different kinds of people in the film.
So where on the fashion realm does your character, Samantha White, fit in?
She likes the idea of being this radical person that is so different than the mainstream, and she loves the idea of buying vintage pieces because she doesn’t want to be wearing anything else that the basic bitches in her college are wearing! I think her style icons would be a mix between like, Solange Knowles and Annie Hall.
Does she wear any stand-out statement pieces?
I have a couple of bigger necklaces that I wouldn’t wear everyday, but they’re strong, weighty power pieces. Sam has one of those in the movie that’s this Ethiopian cross that I got in Harlem. As soon as I got the part, I just wanted to shop for her. She wears vintage jewelry, lots of leather, and creepers—that’s kind of her go-to shoe in the film. She wears afro-centric pieces and African fabrics.
My butt is in the movie. I did this television show Copper and there’s also a scene where you see my butt. My dad was so shocked and asked, "Why didn’t you warn me?" and I was like, "I’m so sorry." It’ll be a funny thing—just keep trying to get my butt in everything I do to mortify my father.
In the film, your character is a closeted Taylor Swift fan. Do you jam out to her, too?
I got really into her when I was in Los Angeles. I listened to a lot of Taylor Swift. I listened to Red, which was a different record than I expected.
You're in a band called Caught a Ghost. Does your music ever overlap with acting?
There are cool points of intersection—the music in the trailer is my band’s. And then they asked us to write a song for the movie, so that’s on the soundtrack, too. It was something that, secretly, we really wanted to happen, and then they called and said, "Hey, will you do this?" And I was like, "Well yeah—I thought you’d never ask!"
Your next movie, Selma, comes out in December. How was working with Oprah, who produced and acted in the film?
She wasn’t producing for those days when she was on set—she was an actor. So she’s eating craft services in Styrofoam, and she just gets to be 'Oprah Winfrey, The Actress.' But she’s definitely still Oprah—you’ll be talking to her casually, and then she’ll say something that’s so sound-bite-able, you’re like, "Oh my god, she's Oprah-ing me right now."
Check out the trailer below for Dear White People, in theaters now!