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Tessa Thompson on Her Abiding Love of Shakespeare and Y2K Lip Liner

The sense of restraint is thick in Passing, Rebecca Hall’s luminous directorial debut, set in 1920s Harlem. The palette is stripped to black and white; a quietude hangs in the air, with slips of jazz filling the gaps between hushed conversations. For Irene Redfield, a mother of two played with crackling sensitivity by Tessa Thompson, her strictly held mores prove more confining than her drop-waisted dresses—particularly once she learns that her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), another light-skinned Black woman, is living her life passing as white. It’s a revelation, then, early in the movie, when Irene (momentarily passing as well) bursts out in laughter for an uncomfortably long beat, upon hearing Clare’s husband explain the racist pet name he has given his wife. For Irene, the irony is searing, in a darkly absurdist way. Within that fissure of composure, it’s hard not to marvel at Thompson onscreen.

The feeling continues over Zoom earlier this week, the actor holding court in a white blouse with a cartoonishly exaggerated collar, prim but in on the joke. Thompson is talking about the joys of transformation: in films, on the red carpet, and in her newest role with Armani Beauty, announced today. It feels preordained, given Thompson’s longtime love of the brand’s foundation. (Finding an exact match inspires that kind of devotion.) But signing on as a cosmetics face didn’t necessarily trigger childhood memories of this or that aspirational spokesperson, she says, “because I didn’t see many growing up.” Thompson, 38, remembers tagging along with her mother to the supermarket in Santa Monica, where the draw was the chance to flip through fashion magazines. “Anytime I would see someone remotely my shade, I would feel seen, in a way, and feel validated in my beauty.” Even now, she finds herself moved to see the images of friends or colleagues, especially women of color, in airports or on billboards—“and I’m someone that has visibility,” she says. “It’s always felt huge for me.”

Thompson in a campaign image for Armani Beauty.

Courtesy of Armani Beauty.

Thompson, currently in Atlanta to film the upcoming Creed III, opposite Michael B. Jordan, likes to cultivate that community support—in this case, cheering on Jordan as he makes his directorial debut. Here, she talks about the Y2K beauty codes worth reviving, the reward of real-life character play, and the musical icon on her mind.

Vanity Fair: It’s been a pleasure to see you in this press cycle for Passing, in part because your looks are so striking—from curl sets to hip-length braids. Did you have references in mind for the hair and makeup?  

Tessa Thompson: I really love red-carpet moments and fashion shoots. They feel, in a way, like playing a character, but you have a shorter lifespan with them. And so many of the artists I work with are really close friends of mine, so it’s a time for us to play together too. For the press tour proper, we invited a lot of black and white. I wore Rodarte to two of the premieres, and those shapes really made sense for the film. They were borrowing from the ’40s, the ’20s. With Lacy [Redway], we designed a lot of hairstyles that [drew from] those silhouettes that you would’ve seen during that time. Irene, the character, is a woman who doesn’t feel glamorous at all, doesn’t feel beautiful. I thought those red-carpet moments were a chance [to show] Irene as she might imagine herself. 

From left: Thompson in Rodarte at the Passing premiere in New York, with hairstyling by Lacy Redway. A moiré dress for the 2021 Gotham Awards. Wearing Giambattista Valli and a rolled faux bang by Kim Kimble.

From Getty Images.

Irene is also a character who is so stuck in her head, who is rigid in a way, who has all these ideas of what is right and proper. So the editorials are exactly what her alter ego would do if she allowed herself to be daring, if she didn’t care what anybody thought. I felt like Irene is someone that is afraid of some of the darker corners of the Black experience, so I love the idea of wearing these sort of exaggerated versions of very common Black hair, whether it’s braids or making the silhouettes really huge and really editorial.