Performer of the Year (2018): Tessa Thompson

Tessa Thompson was everywhere this year and we couldn't be happier about it.
Rewind Performer

This essay is part of our 2018 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2018.

Note the title of this article: “Performer,” not “Performance.” As such, we sought someone who represented the best of what 2018 had to offer, start to finish, and found a clear answer—Tessa Thompson. From movies to TV to music to internet memes, Thompson forms a connecting thread between a truly astounding number of our favorite things this year. While her performances are of consistently impeccable quality, they are equally remarkable for their range. From boundary-pushing razor-edged satire to crowd-pleasing popcorn fare, her 2018 filmography demonstrates the artistic, political, and entertainment potential of film, and she takes to all these incredibly different contexts like a fish to water. With all this in mind, let’s celebrate our favorite performer of 2018 by breaking down the year in Tessa Thompson.

The calendar year might begin in January, but the year in Tessa Thompson really kicks off in February with Annihilation. Loosely adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Alex Garland’s poignantly terrifying tale of grief, self-destruction, and facing the unknowable is one of our favorites of the year. It might not have universally well received by critics or done well at the box office, but upon initial release neither did its spiritual predecessor, The Thing, now regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time. We have every faith time will prove similarly kind to this one. Thompson’s Josie might be a supporting member of the team of scientists who undertake the journey into the Shimmer, but she’s the star of one of the film’s most remarkable scenes. A team of explorers getting picked off by some monstrous unknown one by one is a staple of sci-fi horror, but Josie’s fate is ultimately incredibly unique. Instead of resisting until a bitter, gruesome end, Josie chooses to meet the Shimmer on her own terms, calming embracing the unknown and transforming into a flowering tree of sorts.

The scene, which ranked high on our list of most memorable screen deaths this year, was actually not in the original script. It’s unspecified when and why it got changed, or who was involved in the making of that decision, but we’re very glad it happened. It might not be as viscerally shocking or in-your-face as many of the other scenes in the film, but it lingers in your brain long after, sold not just through winning visuals but Thompson’s compelling performance.

Not much happened in March as far as Thompson making an appearance on the big screen, but on Twitter the account Tessa as Goats (@tessasgoats) got its start. Not as self-evident as Chris Evans as Golden Retrievers, the account actually taps into Thompson’s pre-existing love of goats. Thompson is a prime supporter of the meme, frequently retweeting and engaging with the content and otherwise endorsing her goat association, which of course only makes enjoying the account more wonderfully wholesome.

Thompson also guest-starred in the season finale of Portlandia as a fitness trainer hired by Fred and Carrie to help them kick their news alert addiction and get in shape for their decidedly ambitious goal of running a marathon. I’m not even normally one for Portlandia—I tend to find it overly wordy in a very static way—but Thompson’s dynamic delivery adds enough dimension to make her character actually funny.

If March was something of a lull, it was the calm before the storm that was April. Thompson returned to the small screen as Charlotte Hale in season two of Westworld, culminating in a twist-filled finale that required Thompson to act like the consciousness of Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) implanted into a replica of Hale—the sort of high-concept scheme that needs to be handled flawlessly or risk turning into an unintentional joke. But it’s in safe hands with Thompson. By the end of the season, the Hale-replica is basically a skin free to be occupied by other minds. “Hale can be used in any which way,” Thompson told The Hollywood Reporter back in June. “I hope that I have the chance to get my Tatiana Maslany on!” Now that’s something we’d definitely be down to watch.

April also marked the release of Janelle Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, which is now consistently being ranked among the top ten albums of the year by music critics at publications ranging from Time to Rolling Stone to NPR, who named it the #1 album of 2018. A 46-minute short “emotion picture” released to accompany Dirty Computer features Thompson as Zen, who helps Monáe’s android character Jane 57821 escape from the repressive clutches of a repressive totalitarian society and reminded us that she is infinitely cooler than we could ever hope to be.

Another thing that happened in April was Avengers: Infinity War, which in spite of having 10,000 characters suffers from a distinct lack of Thompson’s Valkyrie, the hard-drinking no-bullshit badass introduced in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, the best Thor film by at least a mile if not a league. Rumor has it that next year’s sequel will correct this error, but this remains speculation. So fingers crossed.

In May, Thompson popped up on the small screen once again in a small but critical role in the Netflix series Dear White People based on the 2014 film of the same name in which she played the protagonist, Samantha White (now played by Logan Browning). As Rikki Carter, a controversial political pundit, she goes head to head with the character she once played as the voice of the opposition.

July got started with a bang with Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a burning hot critique of capitalism and modern society on the whole wrapped inside one of the most artistically daring and original films of the year. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) may technically be the central figure of the film, but if any character truly embodies the boundary-pushing artistry of Sorry to Bother You, it is Thompson’s Detroit, a radical performance artist and basically the antithesis of Rikki Carter.

While Cassius struggles with his role in the bigger picture and whether or not to fight for a greater cause at the risk of his own personal success and general wellbeing, Detroit is a woman with a mission. It takes serious skill not only to pull off such an intense character but also to do so in a way that doesn’t feel one-dimensional, which Thompson does with aplomb. When you’re sharing your close-up with giant earrings proclaiming “MURDER” and “KILL,” for example, it takes some serious screen presence not to get upstaged. Tessa Thompson never gets upstaged. Not in Sorry to Bother You, or anything we have ever seen her in, really.

After a busy spring and summer, there was something of a lull in the fall, but Thompson returned last month to end the year with a bang with Creed II, reprising her role as Bianca Porter. A musician dealing with degenerative hearing loss, she enters a relationship with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) in the first installment that hits some major milestones in the sequel, namely marriage and the birth of their daughter, Amara. While in some regards the most “conventional” character Thompson played this year, Bianca is nonetheless remarkable in important ways—namely, she’s not just there to be an emotional support system to Adonis, but has her own aspirations and career goals and agency. Thompson also put her musical talents on even greater display than in the first installment, performing two songs in the film that she also co-wrote with Moses Sumney. As with Detriot, Bianca serves as a reminder that “love interest” need not be a dirty word—that the fact that romantic partners of a film’s central character are so often flat, passive, and tangential is the product of shoddy writing and not a narrative necessity.  According to the film’s director Steven Caple Jr., Thompson was emphatic on this point, telling the online publication Remezcla,  “Tessa is definitely avid about making sure women are portrayed in a way that is not clichéd.”

It’s a point that comes up repeatedly in interviews both with Thompson and featuring others discussing Thompson—an important reminder that we consistently see her in challenging, complicated, and boundary-pushing roles not through luck, or just because she is excellent at selecting projects, but because she actively fights for it. Thompson was everywhere this year, and whether she was plotting a corporate takeover, stepping forward calmly into the unknown, or challenging us through performance art, she defied stereotypes and displayed incredible range across several of our favorite releases of 2018, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Ciara Wardlow: Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.