‘Passing’ Q&A: Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, André Holland, and Rebecca Hall

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Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in ‘Passing’ (Photo Credit: Netflix © 2021)

Passing stars Ruth Negga (“Clare”), Tessa Thompson (“Irene”), and André Holland (“Brian”) recently joined actor/filmmaker Rebecca Hall for a special Q&A hosted by Netflix for members of the Critics Choice Association. Hall adapted Nella Larsen’s critically acclaimed 1929 novel and makes her feature film directorial debut with Passing, a story she’s been committed to bringing to the screen for over a decade.

Passing focuses on former childhood friends Irene Redfield (Thompson) and Clare Kendry (Negga) who are reunited as adults in New York in the 1920s. Irene discovers her friend has chosen to “pass” as white, married a successful white man, and has constructed a new life for herself built on a big lie. Thought-provoking and featuring incredible performances, the film examines the relationship between the women as they reconnect while living in two distinct worlds.

During the Q&A, Rebecca Hall discussed her special connection to Larsen’s novel.

“13 years ago, I was at a funny point in my life. I was 25. I was spending more time in America and I had a kind of what I can only describe as an awkwardly vague understanding of my own racial identity. My mother looked a certain way; she said things sometimes which would allude to a mixed-race identity. But even that wasn’t very stable or secure. She says, ‘Maybe we’re Black. Maybe we’re Native American. I don’t really know,” explained Hall, discussing her introduction to Larsen’s Passing.

Hall continued. “There certainly weren’t words like ‘passing.’ That wasn’t part of the family narrative even…it was that obscured. A friend of mine handed me this book after having overheard a conversation along the lines of many conversations I was having at the time where I frequently found myself in rooms where people were making assumptions about me based on how I look and saying things based on those assumptions. I found myself increasingly wanting to stick up my hand and say, ‘You’re sort of assuming some stuff which maybe is not accurate based on how I look.’

When I got the book, I’m kind of embarrassed to say I looked at the book and I went, ‘Passing? What does that mean? Why would you call a book Passing? What is that even referring to?’

I honestly had no idea. And I had seen Imitation of Life. I had watched Imitation of Life with my mother. I don’t think they use the language. They don’t talk about ‘passing’ particularly; it’s more sort of incorporated into the story – Imitation of Life. But it was something that I remember sitting there with my mother kind of going, ‘Are we…? Is this…? Isn’t this kind of our story?’

Anyway, I read the novel and it was instant historical context. It was instant emotional context. It gave me the language; it gave me compassion for my grandfather and it was clear to me on reading that book of course this is what he did. This explains the mystery. This explains why there’s much obfuscation, so many hidden things. Why there’s so much internalized shame around this subject in my family.”

The novel helped Hall address her own racial identity. “More than that, it gave me a framework from which to think about identity at large. Because I think what is so extraordinary about the book is, yes, it uses racial passing as its narrative jump-off point, but it then takes it as a metaphor and sort of uses it to expand into something quite universal which is, essentially, how do we negotiate our identity? How much freedom do we have to negotiate our identity? Where’s the tension between the person we think we ought to be or the person that we want to be versus the person that society is telling us we ought to be? And that’s true for everybody, even more true for people under structures of racism and patriarchy of course, but it’s true for everybody,” said Hall.

Hall admitted the book knocked her sideways. “I found myself thinking but this is – like every great work of art – this is so expansive. It’s tiny and yet it’s vast. Why the *** hasn’t this been made into a movie already? I was sitting there 25 years old thinking this. And also, I was sitting there 25 years old, I’m reading the book and it was like it just hit some kind of inspiration nerve in me. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about how the movie would be. I think I was 10 pages in when I started imagining it in black and white. And then a little bit further I was like, ‘Well, this is about categories and the limitations of that, putting people in boxes. I should put them in a box.’

I didn’t know about 4:3 but I was like, ‘What’s that thing when the screen is kind of small and they’re trapped?’ All the big ideas I had when I first read the novel… And so the first thing I did was close the novel and start writing a screenplay. I bashed out the first draft in 10 days. And then thought I was out of my mind to try and make that my first film, so I put it in a drawer and didn’t think about it for six years. And then I did…and then I spent seven years trying to get it made.”

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Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, and Rebecca Hall on the set of ‘Passing’ (Photo Credit: Emily V. Aragones © 2021 Netflix)

Tessa Thompson (Westworld, Avengers: Endgame) wasn’t familiar with Larsen’s novel before taking on a starring role in the film adaptation, and during the Zoom press conference she spoke about her knowledge of the term, passing. “I remember as a child seeing Imitation of Life, the one with the tremendous Fredi Washington, which maybe was the first time I’d seen a projection of it, I suppose. But embarrassingly I had not read this book and I didn’t know about this book until it came my way also with Rebecca’s incredible screenplay. And as much as Nella’s work in the novella is about passing in terms of race, I think it’s about so much more than that. I thought that Rebecca did such an incredible job being able to articulate that cinematically,” said Thompson.

“Thinking about it now actually, the idea of characters in stories with hidden origin stories…Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the wife in Jane Eyre in the attic which the Wide Sargasso Sea kind of interrogates which is super interesting…Jean Rhys. But in terms of sort of modern passing, I’m not really sure. It was through literature, definitely,” added Ruth Negga, describing her experience with the term.

Negga continued. “Because of the nature of passing…because of its taboo, secretive nature…I think we don’t have access to many actually true stories and that’s quite tricky because of records. What people put down in records isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that’s quite tricky for a lot of American history, and especially a lot of Black American history, is (putting together) people’s histories – people’s personal histories. That’s very tricky to do. I just found it fascinating, this concept of leaving your community and going to a sort of exile and severing a part of you in order to do what? To achieve fiscal freedom, social freedom maybe? To escape death? Danger?

The great thing about Rebecca’s adaptation is that danger that sort of permeates the novel is ever-present and that the tension that lends our film is that you have this feeling and it’s sort of delicious because tension is delicious but it’s also terrifying because you think someone is going to get found out and something terrible is going to happen. And that was a very real threat to people who had chosen to pass. I’m always sort of wary of the word ‘chosen’ because what do you choose when you feel you have no other choice. And I think for a lot of people it was that.”

André Holland (Moonlight, Selma) explained that having grown up in the South, passing was a topic that was discussed at home. “I was very much aware of it. Colorism was always a thing that was in and on people’s minds in my community. So, yeah, I think I came to it with a knowledge just sort of ingrained in me,” said Holland. “And yet, like Tessa, I hadn’t read this book. I wasn’t familiar with Nella’s work, so I feel like myself I got a bit of an education – a furthering of my education – by being a part of this process.”

Ruth Negga said it was the intensity of Rebecca Hall’s passion that drew her to the film. “That creative excitement – when you see it in someone’s eyes it’s intoxicating and addictive. I just thought, ‘I want to be part of this. I want to be part of telling this story, Passing, a novel that I love and adore with characters that I have rarely seen, regardless of color and era actually.’ That’s the extraordinary thing about this novel is she was ahead of her time and often I think she was ahead of our time. So, I was so thrilled to get a chance to spend time with these delicious women.

And also, what I love is…things that are neat and tidy sort of repel me. There’s nothing neat and tidy about this novel. It’s messy – I mean genuinely messy, not ‘neat and tidy’ messy. It’s a kind of mess that stains. And it does…it lingers afterward,” said Negga. “The novel leaves you with a residue that just lingers with you and you’re kind of in conversation with yourself. You know what I think it will do? What it did for me is I wanted to find more narratives like this and seek more connections to stories like this. It sort of begets curiosity, and that’s what I think great art does.”

Tessa Thompson agreed and added, “I knew she would play Clare so even when I was reading the novella and the screenplay I was thinking of Ruth and thinking of the majesty and electricity she would bring to it, which she did. Getting to work with Andre and Rebecca – whose work I’ve so admired for so long as an actor – I knew she would be able to help me take on this challenge. I felt so endeared to Irene. The novel is so slim but so much happens. It’s so dense. It’s not in first-person but it’s so much Irene’s perspective, it felt like there was this challenge because there’s was this restrain to her. There’s a kind of repression of feeling and yet the audience needs to be able to be inside of her experience in some way.

And some of that is done brilliantly by Rebecca’s work, by the sound design. I was just struck getting to see it because you realize only so much that you do and then the film does work for you too. So, the sound design helped me with the interiority. But that was certainly a challenge as an actor. I like to do things that scare me and that I’m unsure I can do. This was one of those things.”

André Holland found the fact that Nella Larsen was writing about this topic all those decades ago remarkable. Holland also appreciated that Larsen’s novel continues to feel relevant. “I think from my character’s point of view I was really drawn to the sort of intractability of the argument that Brian and Irene had around how best to raise and parent their children. It felt like a modern, complicated argument, so that drew me to it. The time period as well. It’s a time period that I’ve always been fascinated by. To think that in this period that we think we know so much about Nella is writing about, as you say, the sort of intersection of all these different things – class, gender, sexuality, race – was really, really, really intriguing.”

Passing was released in select theaters on October 27, 2021 and will be available on Netflix on Wednesday, November 10th.