When Tessa Thompson arrived on the set of "Creed," director Ryan Coogler handed her a photo of a young woman stepping off of a train in Philadelphia. Thompson spoke of the unnamed woman with reverence, describing her style and quiet confidence.
"She became our muse for Bianca," Thompson said in a phone interview. "We wanted 'B' to feel like a woman you know."
Bianca is a Philly native and girlfriend-turned-wife of Adonis "Creed" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the lead character in the film expansion of the "Rocky" franchise. (Sylvester Stallone remains in the role of Rocky, a trainer and mentor for Adonis.) Thompson portrayed Bianca in 2015's "Creed" and is reprising the role in "Creed II," which will hit theaters on Nov. 21. The film is directed by Steven Caple Jr. with Coogler aboard as executive producer.
In the sequel, Adonis decides to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Ivan fought Adonis' father, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and killed him. This is Adonis' opportunity to honor his father and the Creed legacy. Boxing and sports culture are the film's central arcs. But Bianca shines -- as does Thompson -- in the way she defies traditional tropes of a sports wife and mother.
"When we talk about sports movies and the way that women are portrayed in them, I think Bianca is really singular in that she has autonomy," Thompson said. "The thing that's so exciting about building Bianca's character is her honesty and authenticity."
Bianca is a hearing-impaired musician who uses a hearing aid to communicate and sing. She has a full life outside of her relationship with Adonis. Her marrying Adonis and becoming a mother to their daughter, Amara, is part of her story but not the only storyline for her in this film.
In "Creed II," Bianca's music career is taking off; she's signed a recording contract. Her relationship with Adonis is defined by Bianca being her own person. She is Adonis' rock, but she doesn't sacrifice parts of herself to be supportive of her partner. Her character is a different take on strength, not just the backbone of a family but a woman with a dream. And that suits Thompson just fine.
"As a woman of color, I really relish the opportunity to play anything but strong," Thompson said. "It's woven into the DNA of black women to be strong. It's because we have to be. Fierce black women are inspiring and galvanizing. But I think in some ways we have also been boxed into a space where we are hypersexualized and 'strong' as opposed to all the other things we can be.
"It's not just enough that we get cast, it's what we get cast in," Thompson added.
One of the most memorable scenes from the first "Creed" film is Adonis taking out Bianca's braids. It's striking because such a scene is not often included in mainstream films, even those that do have black characters. It shows vulnerability and the tender side of love. "We were trying to settle on expressions of love that felt really black," Thompson said.
That level of intention is woven through Bianca's entire character. She had a scarf and cocoa butter on the side of the bed in the first film. These are things that may not matter to everyone, but to black women they can matter deeply.
"We all deserve to see ourselves," Thompson said.