Tessa Thompson: What to expect from 'Creed II,' and why 'Black Panther' is the movie we need now

Since they last gathered in Philadelphia to shoot Creed, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and Tessa Thompson have been doing, well, Marvel-ously.

Coogler and Jordan have just released Black Panther — tracking to open with what ticket-seller Fandango reports are record numbers — and Thompson made her Marvel debut as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, still in theaters after making $853 million worldwide to become the most successful standalone Thor outing yet.

Thompson can’t wait to get a look at Black Panther, directed by Coogler and co-starring Jordan, who will join Thompson in Philadelphia soon to shoot the Creed sequel (Coogler is on as executive producer; Steve Caple Jr. will direct).

“I don’t think you can overestimate how important it is to see African culture celebrated in a mainstream movie, a superhero movie,” Thompson said. “Even to see natural black hair in a movie like that, it sounds like such a small thing, but it’s a game-changer.”

Thompson has her own game-changing movie on the way — the sci-fi epic Annihilation, opening Friday. Thompson plays one of several scientists, all women — Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez — who venture into an encroaching alien biodome to solve its chilling mysteries (written and directed by Alex “Ex Machina” Garland, adapted from the best-selling book by Jeff VanderMeer).

“I look forward to the day when this is not noteworthy, but right now it is — a sci-fi movie with an ensemble of women. And it certainly wasn’t lost on us. It’s something we talked a lot about, how different it felt. In the movies that I’ve done, I’m typically the only woman or one of two women on set at anytime,” said Thompson.

“And it’s just a great story — scientists inserted into this strange and really mysterious environment that’s evolving, or devolving, and they don’t understand what’s happening until the very end. I think it’s brilliant, and sad, and poignant, like so much of Alex’s work, and it says something about our relationship with the Earth, and where we could find ourselves if we’re not careful.”

Thompson, who made a head-turning starring role in Dear White People, appeared in Selma and who has been a vocal advocate of the #MeToo movement, likes being in the forefront of change.

Her Valkyrie got a bit of flak from the hardcore Marvel Taliban, who wanted the character to remain as blond as she was when introduced during the Nixon administration. Writer-director Taika Waititi, who wanted to energize the Thor franchise by reinventing it, cast the multiracial Thompson, who ended up having great comic chemistry with costar Chris Hemsworth.

“Chris is so wonderful. He was so excited about Taika’s approach to the material, such a fanboy of Valkyrie, he played huge part in making everything work.”

And work it did. The movie  made more than $300 million in North America alone, ranking as the eighth highest-grossing movie of the year, which seems to validate Waititi’s approach, and the new Valkyrie’s standing in the Marvel pantheon.

“I’m pretty sure the movie would have done OK without me,” Thompson said with a laugh. “But I’m really proud of what we did. I know what it’s like to grow up loving these kinds of movies, and I know how much it means to a little girl or a little boy who looks like me [Thompson is of European, African, and Latin descent] to go to a movie like Thor: Ragnarok and see a character who looks like them. I’m excited to be in business with Marvel, because they care about things like that.”

Thompson and other Marvel Universe actresses have made a formal pitch to Marvel for a  movie featuring the company’s leading female characters — Black Widow, Gamora, Scarlett Witch, Captain Marvel, etc. So far, it’s just an idea, she said, but Hollywood is waking up to the idea that women are a big driver of box office success.

“Look at the top-three movies [Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman] of this past year. All of them are starring a female lead,” Thompson said. She hopes that bodes well for Annihilation, and she believes Black Panther will put to rest once and for all the notion that movies built around black characters do not achieve international box office success.

“There’s this tired myth that black and brown faces don’t sell overseas. I see movies as analogous to music, and the music of black and brown musicians is popular all over the world and always has been,” she said.

Thompson, incidentally, is writing more music for Creed II. She wrote and performed three songs (“Grip,” “Breather,” “Shed You”) for the original, after co-developing her character, Bianca, with writer-director Coogler. He wanted Bianca to be a career-focused millennial, with ambitions and dreams to match those of her boyfriend, Adonis Creed (played by Jordan). Music is one of Thompson’s abundant skills — she’s been in the band Caught a Ghost for two years; her father, Marc Anthony Thompson, founded the group Chocolate Genius; and her great-grandfather Bobby Ramos was a bandleader who hosted the L.A. TV show Latin Cruise.

Expect Bianca to be developed further in the Creed sequel, which should start shooting in Philadelphia soon (the start date, she said, was pushed back to accommodate Coogler and Jordan’s post-production work on Black Panther).

Sylvester Stallone is cowriting the script with Cheo Hodari Coker, showrunner of television’s Luke Cage, another Marvel character, and thus part of Marvel’s full-employment plan for American film talent.

Thompson expects to be in Philadelphia soon, working on her music and her character for the sequel. She’s thrilled.

“I’m not just saying this because you’re a Philadelphia journalist. I love that city,” said the L.A. native. “When we were making Creed, I came in a few months early and just hung out with musicians, to kind of get into that space, and I just fell in love with it, and I truly did not want to leave. And I can’t wait to come back.”