'Dear White People' Star Tessa Thompson Spills About Her Secret Music Career

Tessa Thompson, 2014
Ben Miller

Fans of Tessa Thompson, the rising actress, might unknowingly also be fans of Tessa Thompson, singer in the under-the-radar electro-soul Los Angeles band Caught a Ghost. The 31-year-old has had a busy 2014 for both of her careers: Her group's debut, Human Nature, arrived in April on +1 Records, and she stars in the upcoming film Selma (out Dec. 25 through Paramount and produced by Oprah Winfrey). But music and movies came together for Thompson in Dear White People (out now through Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions), a Sundance prize-winning satire about race relations on a college campus, which features her as an outspoken DJ and includes two songs from Caught a Ghost on the soundtrack.

Oprah's Favorite Things 2014 Include Just One Music Item And It's...

How did you become a part of Caught a Ghost?

I was singing in a choir and all of my friends were musicians. I was part of this vibrant community of L.A. bands, but on the periphery of it. Caught a Ghost happened just by being friends with [bandmate Jesse Nolan]. I was really doing it for fun and then it became sort of supplemental.

25 Movie Stars Turned Musicians

Is it hard to balance acting and singing?

On tour there have been moments where I had to make a last-minute audition tape. I did one in a venue's bathroom stall, literally in between soundcheck and the show. So there have been points when they conflict. But we're going to shoot a video with [White People director] Justin Simien, so there have been lovely points of intersection too.

Thompson in a scene from Dear White People.

Do you prefer music or acting?

I've been acting longer, so [music] still scares me. I love the sensation of taking a deep breath and jumping; when I perform with the band that's what it feels like.

James Marsden & 5 Other Actors Who Should Have an Album

You play civil rights icon Diane Nash in Selma. Is there a musician you'd like to play?

Eartha Kitt. She was an actress and a musician and really created a character. I've always been fascinated with those: the Marilyn Monroes, the Mae Wests -- [stars] that really adopt a persona.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.