AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tessa Thompson is one of Hollywood's fastest-rising stars. With big parts in "Thor: Ragnarok," "Creed" and "Westworld," she's gone from that actress you know from somewhere to the kind you stop on the street.
TESSA THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah, it also doesn't help currently that I'm on the side of a lot of buses.
CORNISH: And part of what got her to this strange place is a sci-fi movie that came out in 1997, when she was 14 years old. It was called "Men In Black."
THOMPSON: I was - I still am, but then - was a massive Will Smith fan. I grew up watching "The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air." And it's easy to take for granted now, but what Will Smith did at that time, becoming sort of the global movie star that he did and bringing his identity, his black male identity to those spaces and being so loved is hugely impactful.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEN IN BLACK")
WILL SMITH: (As Jay) So hand over whatever galaxy you might be carrying, and step away from your busted-a** vehicle. And put your hands on your head.
VINCENT D'ONOFRIO: (As Edgar) I'll put my hands on my head.
THOMPSON: I'm not sure that, if I didn't grow up watching him on television, I would have thought it would even be possible for me to do what I'm doing now.
CORNISH: What Tessa Thompson is doing now is starring in "Men In Black: International," the latest installment in the franchise. She plays Agent M. And together with Agent H, played by Chris Hemsworth, she travels the world fighting intergalactic invaders.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL")
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Agent H) Come on. The world's not going to save itself.
THOMPSON: (As Agent M) I'm driving.
CORNISH: The role brings her back together with Hemsworth, her scene partner in "Thor: Ragnarok." And like "Ragnarok," it's got aliens and explosions and all the trappings of a Hollywood action movie.
Tessa Thompson, though, first broke through with more subtle films - the racial satire "Dear White People," the civil rights drama "Selma." When I caught up with her, I asked her what she liked about working in big movies.
THOMPSON: I really just wanted to work in those spaces because they present real challenges as an actor, particularly when you're working with green screen, and you're talking to things that don't exist. It's pure imagination, so I kind of wanted to see if I would be up for the challenge.
CORNISH: Can you give an example of that, like, the kind of green screen moment? I don't know if in "Men In Black"...
THOMPSON: Oh, my God. There's so many. So for example, in "Thor," when I have these great scenes with the Hulk, who's played by Mark Ruffalo, I can't look at Mark Ruffalo. I have to look at a tennis ball that is affixed to this weird sort of thing that is maybe, you know, four feet above his head - so just the mechanics of doing that.
You know, there's sort of a steep learning curve with some of that stuff or the stunt work. You know, I'd never done that because I'd come so squarely from these, like, tiny movies that I'd almost paid to be in (laughter) because they were made on such a shoestring.
And then also, you know, bless, but the crew is working so hard. Sometimes you're playing these very emotional scenes or intense scenes and, you know, all these big fans are on to create wind. And you see people off in the distance just eating sandwiches. I mean, you really have to suspend your own disbelief and...
CORNISH: (Laughter) That does undermine the idea of the wind blowing in your hair. Now you've really taken me to a different place now with those scenes.
THOMPSON: It does. I mean, the truth is that what you do as an actor is you make yourself believe first. And thereby, you convince the audience. And it's hard to do when you're in a room that's just green.
CORNISH: You are a calming space in a sea of craziness a lot of times in these projects.
THOMPSON: Is that true?
CORNISH: Well, I mean, for someone who's been in a lot of funny things, you are not Will Smith, right? Like, you are not...
THOMPSON: I'd like to be, even though I'm not.
CORNISH: You'd like to (laughter). I don't know how to explain it. How do you think about how to bring any kind of realness to, I don't know, the wackiness around you?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I guess I don't know how to do it any other way. I sort of work from a place of just trying to find the truth and trying to find something that I can anchor myself, you know, in and make sense of.
In terms of this, you know, "Men In Black: International" and looking at the old "Men In Black" films, I love the stillness of Tommy Lee Jones. I mean, of course it's fun to be the live wire of Will Smith. And you sort of, you know, people love that and are attracted to it.
But I think what Tommy Lee does in those films is so brilliant. And you can't - there cannot be a Will Smith without Tommy in terms of tone. They have to foil each other in a way. And I like being the straight man.
CORNISH: And you have a partner. I mean, it's actually pretty rare to have any kind of comedic or, I don't know, partnership of any kind in Hollywood. The last thing I thought of was maybe Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
THOMPSON: Yeah, that's true. They've been able to do it a lot. And it used to be the way in Hollywood all the time. It used to be something that you could watch two actors over the breadth of their career work together. And I love that you sort of have a rapport. And what I think is dissimilar to what Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do - I would have called them by their first names, but I don't actually really know them (laughter).
CORNISH: It's OK.
THOMPSON: It's always funny in Hollywood when people do that.
CORNISH: We do think it's a big high school and that you all know each other. So I appreciate that.
THOMPSON: We don't all know each other. We don't all know each other. I'd like to know them. But dissimilar to what they have done, Chris and I never - we're not romantic, you know, counterparts. And I think it is actually really rare. So I sort of love that about what we've been able to do.
CORNISH: I think one thing that's key to that is you have to have someone who respects you as an actor as well, right?
THOMPSON: True, yeah.
CORNISH: And has to be willing to share billing. And I've talked to actresses who are on the A-list who say it's actually not that easy to find someone who even will be in a movie with you, right?
THOMPSON: That is true. Yeah, that is true.
CORNISH: Is it changing a little bit? Is he unusual? Help me understand.
THOMPSON: I think it is changing. I think he is unusual, but I think there's plenty of men that are up for the challenge. And I think also they just need to be asked, you know?
Something that we were able to do inside of Time's Up this past year is issue this challenge called the 4% challenge that has to do with the fact that, in the last ten years, some of the top-grossing studio films that have been made, women represent only 4% of the directors in that space, and so asking people to make a pledge to work with a female director in the next 18 months.
And I got on the phone with, you know, some big sort of Hollywood stars that are men, and some were a little reluctant because they didn't want to sign up if they didn't feel like, you know, if they weren't going to work for a bit or they couldn't commit. And others like Armie Hammer were like, of course. I can't believe, you know, I'm just working with a female director now, and I've been working as long as I have.
But I do think it requires people to make a concerted effort. I don't think that inclusion happens by mistake. It doesn't just happen.
CORNISH: What are some of the obstacles for those of us who don't know the business?
THOMPSON: Well, there's this idea, for example, that they don't exist in the pipeline. So me saying that, you know, only 4% of those films are directed by women, there's a misconception for some people in Hollywood that that's the pool of talent. And you see that in the indie space, women represent maybe 28% of films that are made. So it exists in the pipeline. People are making a conscious decision not to hire those women or not to put them up for projects.
Also, there's still this language that I really hate, which is - with the studio movie - that we took a risk. And I don't think that that language is used, you know. I mean, you look at someone like Taika Waititi on "Thor." He's a brilliant filmmaker who had made all indie movies, and then Marvel said you'd be fantastic for this film. And they were right. And I think we just need to see more studios doing that with women.
CORNISH: So you're saying the language around that though wasn't, look at the risk they're taking with this little-known director.
THOMPSON: Yeah - because it wasn't a risk. He had made so many brilliant films. And there are plenty of women that have done the same.
CORNISH: Well, Tessa Thompson, thank you so much - much appreciated.
THOMPSON: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEN IN BLACK")
COKO: (Singing) Here come the Men in Black.
CORNISH: Tessa Thompson - she stars in "Men In Black: International," out today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEN IN BLACK")
SMITH: (Singing) Here come the MIBs...