Everyone will be talking about Sorry to Bother You, the new dystopian drama about one man’s success and its dire consequences. The real hero? His girlfriend, Detroit—played by Tessa Thompson—an artist who sees through the BS.
Marie Claire: Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant, consciousness-raising acid trip of a film. How do you describe it to people?
Tessa Thompson: It’s a piece of magical realism set in Oakland, California, and the film explores what it is to keep your own integrity inside a space that pushes us toward this idea that we have to be something other than who we are to gain success. It sort of defies categorization, which is something that I found so exciting when I read the screenplay. I’d never encountered anything like it, and I’m not sure I will again.
MC: First impressions of your character, Detroit?
TT: I just love Detroit. She is an artist and a performance artist and somewhat uses herself as her canvas. She really feels like you’ve got to walk the walk that you talk, and I think particularly in this era where activism is so available to us with a retweet or a “like,” she is someone who thinks you have to live with the ideals that you are behind. She challenges Cassius [her boyfriend, the film’s protagonist, played by Lakeith Stanfield] to do that. And the screenplay was so singular and unique that we tried to create a look for Detroit that felt like it hadn’t been done before. Although Oprah in A Wrinkle in Time gave me a run for my money.
MC: We have to ask, did you get to keep the earrings? [Detroit wears flashy oversize earrings in the shapes of electric chairs, penises, and more.]
TT: First of all, I want to be totally honest— they are not the most comfortable to wear because they are really heavy. But something we were aiming to do was create an iconography around this woman that people would want to participate in and wear, so I didn’t keep the earrings because they needed to make prototypes for them to be re-created. Our hope is that people upon watching the movie will want to own these pieces. We see the intersection between fashion and activism, and it’s the right time for people to be interested in using what they wear as a way to speak about their beliefs. Detroit uses the way she dresses as real, true self-expression.
MC: One of the film’s loudest messages is the slyness that systems of oppression possess. You don’t notice you’re being oppressed when you think you’re benefitting in some way; you’re unaware of the harm being done.
TT: We can enslave ourselves to things that we think give us freedom. Social media and technology, for example. We have everything at our fingertips, and we think that it makes us more free, when in fact there are days where I feel way more free when I shut all of that off. Certainly, talking about big business and how it can be exploitative of us, particularly for black artists and artists of color not having ownership—that’s something that is sort of thematically inherent in Sorry to Bother You. Cassius literally effects this old-white-man voice [as a telemarketer] and makes it to the top of this corporation only to figure out that he’s basically in servitude of something that is totally exploitative of not just him but all humans. It’s a really fun summer movie, but if you can walk away thinking about those things too, then that’s great.
This article appears in the July issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.