Having been raised by a black Panamanian father and half-Mexican, half-white mother, Thompson has spent her entire life probing the kinds of identity questions that confront so many of her characters. She was born in Los Angeles and spent her childhood shuttling between school in California, where her mother and older sister live, and holidays in Brooklyn, where her father, a musician, once lived with Thompson’s younger brother and sister and her stepmother. “My family’s really open,” she says, cradling a cappuccino in the corner of the bar. “It wasn’t the sort of family environment where, ‘You’re the kid, go to bed,’ or, ‘You’re the kid, so you can’t hear this part of this conversation.’”
As a child, she bounced from public elementary school to being homeschooled for a time by her mother — who, among having other jobs, worked in administration at UCLA — to attending alternative charter and private schools. Though she grew up without a television, she was fascinated by filmmaking, and once produced a homemade show with her dad about hunting for lizards in the Hollywood Hills. She left voicemails as different characters on her dad’s answering machine and, on at least one occasion, went to the park dressed in drag. “I stuffed all my hair into a baseball cap just for fun and I pretended to be a boy,” she remembers. “I’ve always been someone that’s really fascinated by identity and really aware that it’s a creation.”
It’s the type of bohemian, bicoastal upbringing one might expect of a budding performer, but it wasn’t free of obstacles. Thompson’s family paid nothing for her to attend private school in eighth grade, where she was, in her own words, there “to fill a quota”; and her thrifting habit, for which she’s received fawning fashion press, was born partially of necessity. “We were broke,” she says. “At the time it was horrifying because everyone’s back-to-school shopping and you wanted the new things. It wasn’t until later, once I had a knack for it and liked it, that it actually became sort of signature.”
Growing up in liberal locales also didn’t shield her from the realities of being multiracial in America. Thompson was around 7 when she was called a “nigger,” by a younger girl on a playground in suburban LA. She begged her mom to transfer her to the public Santa Monica High School after feeling trapped in private school. “I was one of four kids that were anything but white,” she says. Though the public school had 4,000 students and was incredibly diverse, it was also plagued by self-segregation, which she responded to by helping found a “racial harmony” club with older classmates her freshman year. “It was a weekend sleepover where 20 kids from each racial group would come together and dialogue over racial stereotypes,” Thompson explains. Her first year, she joined the club as a black student, the second as Latina. “I tried to do it my third year as a white person and they wouldn’t let me,” she says, laughing.
“I’ve always been someone that’s really fascinated by identity and really aware that it’s a creation.”
Thompson enrolled in community college with the intent of later joining the peace corps, but she quickly abandoned her plans to pursue acting. Her first paid role was in a 2003 theater production of Romeo and Juliet set in Antebellum New Orleans (the Capulets were Creole, the Montagues were American Protestants).
“Everything, even in the theater space, felt race-specific at the time in a way that I was sometimes the benefactor of in a great way,” Thompson says. “My counterpart as Romeo was a recent Juilliard grad, and I was completely untrained. But that happened because I looked the part and had a natural aptitude at Shakespeare and could be directed. So, in that case, I was lucky that they wanted a girl like me.”
Two years later, Thompson landed her first TV gig as a 1930s lesbian bootlegger in an episode of Cold Case. For the next near-decade, she picked up roles in dozens of television shows and movies, learning early on she had an affinity for characters whose race was central to the performance — whether she wanted it to be or not. On Season 2 of Veronica Mars, she played Jackie Cook, the title character’s best friend’s girlfriend, a role that was ultimately written off the show due to poor reception from fans. “Even on that show, a show that was so smart, I felt like my character was still boxed into a space of being the black girl,” she says.
It also wasn’t long before Thompson was forced to confront the palatability having light skin affords her as an actress of color. Following her feature film debut in 2008’s Make It Happen, a poorly reviewed dance drama, she co-starred in Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned, a markedly heavier movie that explores intergenerational trauma within a rural black family. It’s a film Thompson comes back to often — when discussing directors she admires, when lamenting the lack of distribution for black films — and one she’s clearly proud of. Thompson played, as she puts it, the “light of the movie,” an aspiring pianist who ultimately breaks her family’s cycle of addiction and abuse. However, she also recalls the moment a filmmaker at Slamdance — a festival for indie films and emerging artists — pointed out that there was something “rotten” in the movie. “It was the casting of me,” she says. Specifically, the filmmaker believed it was irresponsible to cast the lightest-skinned character in the movie as its heroine.
Though Thompson defends Mabry’s decision on account of the fact that the movie was autobiographical, the interaction made her more conscientious of the implications her casting can have in films; one filmmaker later admitted to her that he was worried she was too light for a potential role, but that it could be “cool” because her character was indeed, again, “the light of the movie.” “And I remember being like, ‘Oh, nope, not interested,’” she says. So, what did she think of Zoe Saldana being cast as Nina Simone?
Thompson considers the question, the cursive “yes” tattoo on her right outer wrist peeking out from the sleeve of her blouse. “I’m not sure she would have been the first person that I would have thought of to play Nina,” she says, her words measured. “To me, Nina is someone that was so seamless, she couldn’t separate her politics from her work. She was an artist that said to us, ‘How could you not reflect the times that we live in?’ And that’s not something that I’ve necessarily seen in Zoe’s work in the same way.”
“I don’t begrudge anyone that doesn’t decide to make choices based on that, because I think the way that we move through the world has everything to do with what has been handed to us,” she continues. “I’ve been dealt a very different hand.”