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In 1955, Moses Wright stood by helplessly as white men abducted his nephew, Emmett Till, threatening to kill Wright and his family if they interfered. When those men were brought to trial, Wright testified against them with quiet dignity, despite knowing that white men were unlikely to be convicted in Mississippi and that he and his family would have to leave their home or again face possible death. 

To convey the gravitas and emotional depths of Wright in “Till,” director Chinonye Chukwu needed an actor who could play tragedy. She turned to John Douglas Thompson, who was a computer salesman until his mid-30s when he took up acting; in the past two decades, he has become perhaps one of America’s greatest classical actors.

Thompson has earned acclaim and awards for his star turns in “Othello,” “Richard III,” “Macbeth,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Tamburlaine,” while also excelling in more recent dramas from Eugene O’Neill and August Wilson, and even a one-man show about Louis Armstrong.

“He has a gravitas and a depth of complexity,” says Chukwu, adding that she’d seen a clip of his Shakespearean work that had been recorded “and he was so watchable and he commanded the screen so that solidified him for me as the right choice.”

Shakespeare’s title characters are not the reserved and reluctant types, but Thompson sees a connection. “Moses is quieter and may not have all the words but he’s a Shakespearean character in the size of his situation,” he says over breakfast in Brooklyn. 

Thompson had been looking to expand more into television and film but his stage success allows him to be selective. “I never want to be accepting something just because it’s out there,” he says. “I’d rather just stay and do theater.”

He was seeking stories “that will be there for the ages,” especially a historical film such as “Till.” 

“Any Black male has an understanding to a certain degree of what Moses Wright went through,” he says, while emphasizing that in that time and place “the psychological effects of systemic racism ran so deep that every encounter between whites and Blacks was a life-and-death situation. I tried to connect with that idea and the psychological effects of being emasculated like that.”

Like many Americans, especially Black Americans, he grew up knowing the basics of the Emmett Till story but not all the details. He dove into the research, watching documentaries and reading FBI transcripts of the entire trial, plus books by Till’s mother, Mamie, who became a civil-rights force after her son’s murder, and by Wright’s son Simeon. 

“I did all this research and allowed it to simmer in me but then trust in the fact that it will show up without me forcing it,” Thompson says. “You have to surrender to the moment.” 

While he’s still learning the technique of paring down his acting for the camera, Thompson says he sees his characters “from a theatrical perspective, giving them a full life and backstory.”

For a heart-wrenching conversation between Moses, who was a preacher, and Mamie Till in which she asks why he didn’t use his gun to protect her son, Thompson brought a Bible and had it earmarked to Psalm 23, Wright’s favorite. “He is dealing with feelings of shame and guilt, and you may not even see the Bible in my hand but to me, it reflects on what he had been doing while wracked by these thoughts,” Thompson says. He feels fortunate to have filmed that after the abduction scene in order to have “the full experience of the helplessness and shame and grief.” 

He praised Chukwu for never rushing scenes: “She holds the camera on an actor, which allowed the emotion and depth of situations to be expressed.” Even when he was doing multiple takes he drew on his theater experience. 

Chukwu recalls that during the abduction scene she wanted to change the blocking to make Thompson stand alone, adding an emotional power to the moment. “I said to John, ‘I want to stay on you in real time’ and he said, ‘OK, just give me a second,’” she says. “He played it with heart-wrenching quiet. And he was able to dive into that at the drop of a hat.”

Thompson says that even in cinematic moments like that, which relied more on his eyes than projecting his powerful stage voice, he drew on his theater experience.

“In theater, I’m always making choices that work toward a better performance — I may feel off on Tuesday, but I’ll say, ‘You have two shows on Wednesday to improve upon it,’ and I looked at each take the same way,” Thompson says. “That way I can just be in the moment and allow something organic to happen.”