Actress Tessa Thompson’s hypnotic performance powers gripping ‘Mississippi Damned’

Actress Tessa Thompson’s hypnotic performance powers gripping ‘Mississippi Damned’

At some point with actress Tessa Thompson, you just let go.

You’re not even consciously aware of when it actually happens, when Thompson has you firmly within her artistic grasp. But you willingly surrender as she straps you in and takes you on a journey through a character she embodies so well, you fail to know where reality ends and begins. Such is the case with Thompson’s lead role in the riveting Showtime drama Mississippi Damned.

Written and directed by first-time feature film director Tina Mabry, Mississippi Damned is a jolting and disturbing yet ultimately empowering probe into a young woman’s disentanglement from intergenerational curses born of impoverishment, domestic violence and sexual abuse. It has left Thompson’s character mentally misshapen and searching for detours to a place of psychological freedom and emotional tranquility. Set amidst the backdrop of Tupelo, Miss., this film that has inspired nationwide praise also stars D.B. Woodside (“24”, “Hellcats”), Malcolm David Kelly (“Lost”, “Saving Grace”), Jossie Harris Thacker (“Private Practice”), Michael Hyatt (“The West Wing”, “The Wire”) and NAACP Image Award nominated veteran of stage and screen Tonea Stewart (“In the Heat of the Night”).

In Mississippi Damned, much like her role as a troubled daughter, Nyla, to Whoopi Goldberg’s Alice in For Colored Girls, Thompson brings an unmistakable realism and naked honesty to her role that penetrates the hard walls surrounding her audiences’ souls. Moreover, she’s able to transport moviegoers into and through those uncomfortable, even frightening, dilemmas we sometimes find ourselves entangled in — even without uttering a single syllable.

“Funny you mention that scene [about her abortion opposite Macy Gray] in For Colored Girls, because that’s the scene where I speak the least. And so, I think sometimes we don’t think we can transmit as much emotion or making an audience understand what we’re going through when we have little to say,“ Thompson said. “I like not having words when I’m working. I think that in Mississippi Damned, [my character] is the observer and she watches everybody and everything that happens. I think that what really struck me working with Tina was her ability to trust that she could tell a story without having to tell the audience what they should feel or what they should think.”

How Thompson, who has mastered stage, TV and movies, is able to overcome these often devastating obstacles in Mississippi Damned — despite having never visiting the Deep South before being cast in the film — is the basis of this film’s universal praise. Now that she’s gotten a taste of this type of moviemaking, Thompson is ravenous for more.

“Since Mississippi Damned, I’ve just had more of an appetite to tell more of that,” she said. “I can only hope that there are more directors like Tina who are willing to do that type of work. I think I’m more interested in making independent films. The project you get is oftentimes more authentic than the big-budget films.”

With Mississippi Damned, Thompson not only dove fearlessly into the nucleus of intra-familial strife and quest for rebirth, she has also perhaps found that special place of artistic bliss — she referred to it as “tortured pleasure” – that all thespians search for but oftentimes cannot find.

“I’m so grateful. Just the experience of working on Mississippi Damned was the most pleasurable experience I’ve had as an actress to date. I hope to have an illustrious career ahead of me,” she said. “But I feel relatively certain that Mississippi Damned will remain a very special project to me. I mean it.” –terry shropshire

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