When veteran Men In Black producer Walter Parkes saw the crackling chemistry between Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok, he was blown away.
He’d been watching Hemsworth’s career with interest having met him during his early days in Hollywood and was impressed by how the Aussie heart-throb and director Taika Waititi had reinvented the hammer-swinging title character by injecting a freewheeling, absurdist comedy to the big action set pieces.
But he couldn’t quite place the pocket rocket actress who went toe-to-toe with the Asgardian prince as the hard-drinking, hard-fighting warrior woman, Valkyrie.
“I remember thinking, ‘who’s that amazing Australian or New Zealand actress that Taika Waititi found? She’s great!’,” says Parkes of why he sought Thompson out to play rookie agent M in Men In Black: International, the fourth entry in the much loved comedy-sci-fi franchise.
“And then I found out she has this amazing filmography and was this beloved actress who has done so much great work. Her talent is quite endless and her experience is quite great and she had already started to emerge into the universe of the big movie. But I can’t say we were aware until we saw her in Ragnarok.”
Parkes probably should have known better. Ever since she broke through on the second season of cult detective drama Veronica Mars in 2006, Thompson has been building an impressive resume both on the small screen, with appearances in Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes and Copper and the big screen, with For Coloured Girls, Dear White People and Selma.
But it was the twin successes of the Rocky reboot Creed, in which she played Michael B. Jordan’s fiercely-independent, musician lover Bianca, and her amoral, pragmatic, corporate boss Charlotte Hale in the HBO sci-fi hit Westworld, that paved the way for her Marvel Cinematic Universe introduction as Valkyrie in the Gold Coast-shot Ragnarok.
On the London set of MIB: International, Thompson reflects on her joyous time in Ragnorok and says she didn’t need much convincing to hook up with Hemsworth again to play mismatched agents M and H, thrown together to save the world from marauding aliens.
She says the pair first joked about remaking The Bodyguard, after Hemsworth let slip his love for the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston hit while making Ragnarok.
“We’ll do a modern retelling,” she says, “except this time I’m his security guard”.
But when the already-attached Hemsworth reached out to get her on board to play the straitlaced MIB recruit, M, to his “slightly unhinged” veteran agent H, it was a no-brainer for the 35-year-old Thompson.
We just had such a great time on that film,” says Hemsworth of the rollicking, rave-reviewed Ragnarok.
“Everybody did. So when Tessa’s name was in the mix it was like ‘God, yes, we can just pick up where we left off — this will be easy’.”
Both were convinced they could reignite a franchise that could easily have run its course in the same way Ragnarok breathed new life into Thor for the MCU.
“We traded a text message or an email in which Chris was like ‘hey legend, are we going to rock this?’ and I was like ‘yeah, we’re gunna’,” Thompson says with a laugh.
“I love the original films. They all hold up to me and there is something so cool about them and the world they occupy.
“You get a chance inside this fantastical world to have really fun character dynamics and to be irreverent and use satire. We had so much fun working together on Ragnarok and taking something and making it really fresh and original and new. Like Chris says, there are challenges inherent in that but it was something that excited both of us.”
Thompson’s Valkyrie was celebrated as being a “strong” female character in both Ragnarok and recent Avengers: Endgame and she’s determined to make M more than an accessory or love interest to Hemsworth’s character in MIB.
“It’s against company policy,” she says with a laugh of any potential on-screen romance. “He’s a friend from work.”
She says she was never deterred by the fact that the film’s title is MEN In Black, pointing out that Emma Thompson is reprising her character from the third film and that she gets plenty of action highlights herself, thanks to some elaborately-choreographed fight scenes with the main villain, played by Mission: Impossible star Rebecca Ferguson.
Nor, says producer Parker, was Thompson drafted in just to boost the female quotient to meet a perceived Zeitgeist in Hollywood post MeToo and TimesUp.
It was more that he thought Hemsworth and Thompson could recreate the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones that made the original films such a pleasure to watch in what were essentially buddy cop films.
“It’s not like someone said ‘we should make a choice to put a woman in’,” Parkes says. “It just seemed like an obvious thing to do right now. Gal Gadot has certainly proven that.
“Great big tent-pole franchise movies can be carried by women and that’s fantastic. It was true 20 years ago — we just took too long to realise it. It’s the right choice that didn’t take a lot of thinking.”
But for Thompson playing a strong woman character is much more than physical power and kicking ass.
In Thor I was obviously strong and literally playing a woman who was a warrior, but to me when I think about the idea of a strong woman, which we talk about a lot, particularly in Hollywood now in the cultural space that we are in, it’s really just that she is well formed, she doesn’t feel like a cipher and you know who she is and she’s relatable,” she says.
It’s really inspiring to me to be a woman in this space because for so long we have played parts where that’s not the case.
“I think there is something really cool about young women — and young boys — getting to go to the cinema and see a big film like this and root for the guy and the girl together. That’s a neat thing.”