Why Making Little Woods Was A Huge Step For Tessa Thompson

Lily James and Tessa Thompson talk in Little Woods

In the years since she made her professional acting debut in a 2005 episode of Cold Case, Tessa Thompson has seen her star rise to incredible heights. Recurring roles on television shows like Veronica Mars, Heroes, and Detroit 1-8-7 eventually led to leading parts in impressive features, and now she's at a point where she is concurrently starring in three different major franchises. Thanks to years of dedicated and outstanding work, her name now carries a significant amount of clout in the industry – and it’s something of which she’s not only aware, but using responsibly.

This brings us to her new film, Little Woods: the feature debut from writer/director Nia DaCosta. It’s an example of a smaller production that’s garnered more attention because of the cast involved – the ensemble also including Lily James, Lance Reddick, and James Badge Dale – but it should also be noted that Tessa Thompson’s involvement goes beyond just her part as the story’s protagonist. The movie also sees her credited as an executive producer for the first time, and as I recently learned during an interview, it’s a reflection of her desire to become more hands on with the projects that she chooses. Thompson explained,

[Nia DaCosta and I] got on and had a familiarity really quickly, and she was very generous because I was sort of at a point where I wanted to be more than just a cog in something moving. If I was going attach myself to projects and I was passionate about them, I'm someone that sort of looks at the whole picture and thinks really macro. So it became clear to me that I wanted to start producing, and really be integral to the project.

Following its world premiere last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Little Woods will be getting a limited theatrical release this week, and in advance of the screenings I recently had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Tessa Thompson and Nia DaCosta together to talk about the film. Through our conversation I learned that Thompson was actually one of the first people to sign on to be a part of the movie, and what started as a simple leading role opportunity eventually expanded and led to her debut as an executive producer.

Continuing, Tessa Thompson acknowledged that she is currently at a place in her career where she can help support projects that might otherwise not have the opportunity to be made – and that very much includes movies like Little Woods, which is a dark, original indie drama with a female lead that tackles many prescient issues and themes (I can guarantee there aren’t too many of those currently playing at your local cineplex). At the same time, though, she also noted how important it was to let Nia DaCosta make the movie she wanted to make and not invade the creative process too much:

Particularly when you get to a place where you can help finance a thing, then you want to be able to talk about what the thing is in real robust ways. So [Nia DaCosta] and the producers were really generous letting me come on as an EP, so we continued to work through that. It was really cool through the cut, and at a certain point I was like, 'It's yours.' I can't give notes. It's not my movie, and I see myself and I'm like, 'I don't know - just do another take where I don't have a double chin.' Like, ‘I can't talk about this movie in an intelligible way, so it's yours now.’ (laughs)

Obviously that’s dripping with humorous self-deprecation, but Nia DaCosta followed up by stressing the reality of Tessa Thompson’s impact as a collaborator on the movie – particularly when it came to her specific role. The filmmaker noted that she puts a lot of stock in the perspectives of her actors, and through the production relied on Thompson to make the character as authentic and consistent as possible. Said DaCosta, talking directly to her star,

You also asked lots of questions, and there's always a moment for me personally where you kind of hand the character over because it's like someone checking your work, you know what I mean? It's asking questions like 'What's this?' and tracking the character - who this person is, who this person was before, and who they might be afterwards.

Based on an original screenplay by Nia DaCosta, Little Woods tells the story of two sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), living in North Dakota trying to make ends meet and take care of the people they love. Unfortunately, things start to snowball in a bad way when they learn not only that their mother’s house is facing foreclosure, but that Deb is pregnant. While Ollie is still on probation following a past arrest, she finds herself forced back into the business of illegally running pills across the Canadian border in order to make the money that she needs, and in doing so risks everything that she has and wants in life.

Distributed by Neon, Little Woods will be playing in limited theaters starting this Friday, April 19th – and you can be sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about Tessa Thompson productions and new Nia DaCosta movies in the years to come.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.