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Tessa Thompson and Lily James Get ‘Emotional’ Talking About Playing Sisters

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Little Woods, the first feature from writer-director Nia DaCosta which premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, uses the majesty of wide open spaces to tell a panicked, grueling emotional story. It’s a Western with fresher stakes, centered on two sisters and their strain to pull together the money for a legal abortion. Tessa Thompson and Lily James play Ollie (short for Oleander) and Deb, adopted sisters traversing their now-deserted North Dakota oil boomtown, selling illegal drugs and working long diner shifts to pool cash to terminate Deb’s pregnancy.

Ollie is the rational, thorough thinker, winding down her last days of probation; Deb is a single mom skilled at self-sabotage. Both sisters love and spar fiercely; they’re the only family each other has. “I have sisters, and I’m really close to them. It’s complicated — there’s always stuff there,” Thompson told Vulture, tearing up. “This movie broke my heart. Every time I would think about these two sisters, and think about a reality in which they don’t figure out how to come together, just killed me. Because I just think of my sisters, and what those relationships mean to me.“ James and Thompson talked with Vulture about sisterhood, and making a movie that personalizes today’s politics.

Tessa, this is a project you’ve been attached to for some time, right?
TT: Nia and I met at the Sundance Lab. She was in the writing program and then the director’s labs, and I came just as an actor — a hired hand, basically — to read the scenes and play them so she could shoot them. I just fell in love with her and with the script. What I found so striking about Nia is she has such ambition, really incredibly elaborate ideas about stories to tell, but they’re so specific. There’s a complete convergence between what she wants to accomplish visually and the world that it’s set in, and also ideas that she wants to communicate that are essential.

In Little Woods, she wanted to talk about poverty, the gendered experience of poverty, and that was the seed of the movie. She’s like, “I want to make a Western, so I want it to feel like a modern Western.” I was so struck by that in her, and I just knew that I wanted to do it immediately. I just thought, She’s gonna be a special filmmaker, and I’ll be sad if I get to watch someone else get to do her first movie with her.

You play a set of adopted sisters, Ollie and Deb, who are selling drugs to make ends meet and pay for Deb’s abortion. Can you talk to me about building that relationship?
LJ: We had three brief rehearsals because we were coming from different places, but I feel like it’s so beautiful in the script. For me to be directed by a woman, and for us all to be of a similar age and really be talking about it and discovering what it is and sharing something that felt so honest — I felt so assured that there would be a shared experience, that we would get to something that felt really truthful and real. What do you think?

TT: It was so finely drawn in the script, so we were really lucky.

This relationship between two sisters is really the core of the movie, and that’s so unique for a Western. Plus, it really zeroes in on access to abortion and reproductive rights.
TT: Plus, all of the producers are women, many of the department heads are women. I think that feels like a breath of fresh air, because that’s not always the case. Particularly in a movie that’s about sisterhood in a familial way, it’s really also cool just to be working inside of something that feels like a sisterhood, on set.

I have sisters, and I’m really close to them. It’s complicated — there’s always stuff there. This movie broke my heart. Every time I would think about these two sisters, and think about a reality in which they don’t figure out how to come together, just killed me. Because I just think of my sisters, and what those relationships mean to me.

It was really heartbreaking to watch these two women spend an entire movie trying to figure out how to pay for and get an abortion. It’s absolutely insane that something legal is this hard!
TT: The movie felt deeply personal and exciting for me, because I think we also have the chance to humanize things that are often politicized. You know, like the opiate crisis in this country, or access to health care, or reproductive rights. The movie sees people inside of that, and not just ideas. To me the fact that it’s centralized: The heart of these sisters’ dynamic is that you really feel like you’re on a journey that’s deeply personal. Wow, I’m getting emotional.

Lily, do you have sisters?
LJ: I don’t, I have two brothers. But like Tessa said, my girlfriends mean the world to me. This idea that both of these sisters save each other, that they rescue each other is so key. That last scene we did outside the motel where they just sat, there was such a peace to this newfound bond. The clutter of everything just was brushed away, and it just felt so centered.

There are so many unsettling scenes where you never knew how the men would react to your characters. There’s the threat of male violence constantly, which felt very true and timely, especially to women’s experience of poverty. Did you think about that as you were shooting?
TT: I thought about that a lot. I took a trip four or five days to North Dakota to do research before we started shooting. I went alone to this tiny oil-boom town where the jobs just aren’t there anymore. I was talking to locals there, who told me that women were raped in the parking lot and inside of that Walmart at the height of the boom.

LJ: Yes, and when you interviewed a people, a girl spoke about getting the gun from her boyfriend —

TT: Her boyfriend gave her a handgun for her birthday. I Airbnb’d a place because I felt a little weird about staying in a hotel, and I also thought it’d be so cool to do research because they came there as a family and lived in a trailer for a year. I asked the mother if she felt safe going to Walmart, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I have no problem,” and then a couple exchanges later she was like, “Well, I mean I have my gun in my purse.”

That sense comes through in the movie: the physicality of wide-open spaces and the American West, but also these cramped interiors where you’re talking over each other, on top of each other, around each other.
LJ: And then for me having a son, having this child I felt like I needed to protect … everything felt like it was closing in on my character. I felt that space as well.

A question for both of you: Is there a character that you want to play that you don’t think you’ve gotten a chance to play yet?
LJ: I feel like I’m just starting and all I want to do is keep trying to find different people, different … explore different parts of myself, I think

TT: I haven’t gotten to do much period stuff, so doing something that is period, I just really love lots of … something that requires a lot of research. And then playing someone that is — you know, I got to do it a little bit with playing Diane Nash, but just playing someone that was a person.

Lily, you’ve done some period-piece work. Any advice for Tessa?
TT: Yeah, please, I need it all.

LJ: I know nothing! [Laughs.] I can tell you the order of when you eat, like, what knife and fork goes with each course. I learned that, but that’s it.

TT: When I watch Cinderella, you get to play all sorts of emotions. But to able to — not to play it, because you can’t play it — but, to be able to project majesty and the effervescence a princess, I was like, “Hey!”

But Tessa, you do that too!
TT: When have I played a princess?

Okay, so you weren’t a princess in Ragnarok, but you definitely projected majesty…
TT: It is not the same vibe! When she puts on that dress and spins around and look, you’re just like, “Holy hell.” I mean I know she’s doing that with a green screen —

LJ: Yeah, on a spinning platform. The dress did that though, to be honest.

TT: No, no, but you communicated it in your eyes and in your being, that’s hard. Those archetypes are hard to do, and have it feel honest and not feel like you’re playing at something, you know?

LJ: The thing that I do like about being period, like you said, is researching and finding yourself in a totally different world. How you convey your emotions is so determined by etiquette or time. You have a conflict as an actor, because you can’t just express in a completely natural way.

Right, I’m thinking about how a lot of period acting plays with repression, almost — everything you can’t do with your performance because of the social codes of the time.
LJ: Exactly, and also just how you fit into history and what it means.

TT: I felt that with Selma, too. It was the first time that I really considered in a real way what side of history I would have been on. It’s really easy to be like, “Well, I wouldn’t have been a racist,” but as a black American, would I have been the person that would be able to live inside of a segregated space and be like, “Well, this is just the way it goes,” or would I have been as radical a thinker as Diane Nash? Where would I have been? So it is interesting to consider yourself in different times and question how much a product of your time you are.

Tessa, Janelle Monáe’s album and “emotion picture” comes out this week, and you’re playing a lead role in the visual. What can we expect?
It’s a portrait of sort of a dystopian future, in which the government is capturing people that are labeled as sort of dirty computers — many of them in the emotion picture are black and brown and queer people — and erasing the things that make them who they are. It was exciting to work inside of a space that was narrative, but also like a music video, and to get to support not just Janelle, but everyone at Wondaland. This project is such an ambitious thing for them, and the record is so beautiful. I think it marks a time when Janelle is really coming into her own in terms of the intersection of her work and activism — and also not necessarily playing a character, but allowing her fans and “fandroids” and people to get a real window into who she is. I’m really proud of her for that and really happy to be a part of that in the way that I am.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tessa Thompson, Lily James on Sisterhood, Little Woods Movie