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Rebecca Hall, Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga & André Holland – Explore Lives in Passing

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Rebecca Hall, Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga & André Holland

Veteran Actor’s Directorial Debut Passing Explores the Lives of Two Mixed-Race Women in 1920s New York

by Brad Balfour As the film Passing opens, two childhood friends run into each other while “passing” as white women shopping in midtown Manhattan. Both are living in middle class adulthood; in the course of the narrative, they become increasingly involved with each other tapping into their common insecurities. While Irene "Reenie" Redfield [Tessa Thompson] identifies as African American and is married to a black doctor Brian Redfield [André Holland], Clare Bellew [Ruth Negga] "passes" as white and has married prejudiced, wealthy businessman John Bellew [Alexander Skarsgård] who is unaware of his wife’s origins.

Based on American author Nella Larsen’s novel – first published in 1929 – it’s set primarily in 1920s Harlem. The story centers on this reunion and their increasing fascination with the practice of "racial passing.” Clare’s attempt to pass is the novel’s most powerful depiction and a catalyst for the tragic events that follow once the two enter each other’s circle. Larsen was informed by her own racially mixed heritage and won praise for the book’s provocative narrative. Now celebrated for how it addresses race, gender and sexuality, all capably presented in this sensitive and subtle film as well.

The 39-year-old Hall’s initial directorial effort is already garnering critical acclaim for her Netflix release. From her first onscreen appearance at age 10, Hall’s been racking up breakthroughs since she appeared in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's noted thriller. In 2008, she received a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for playing the lead in Woody Allen's romantic comedy-drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Hall then appeared in an array of acclaimed films including Ron Howard's historical drama Frost/Nixon (2008), Ben Affleck's crime story The Town (2010), the superhero film Iron Man 3 (2013), and the monster film Godzilla vs. Kong (2021).

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, cast member Negga grew up in Limerick, and received Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations by playing Mildred Loving in the controversial historical drama Loving – she won the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actress. Negga also appeared in Isolation (2005), Breakfast on Pluto (2005), and Warcraft (2016) as well as television projects such as the BBC’s Criminal Justice, RTÉ's Love/Hate, E4's Misfits, and ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She’ll be on Broadway with Daniel Craig in an all-new production of Macbeth directed by Tony Award winner Sam Gold (A Doll’s House, Part 2; Fun Home).

In her 30s, Thompson has also established professional acting credits through the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company while studying at Santa Monica College. She appeared in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, earning her a NAACP Theatre Award nomination. Her cinematic achievements were established through leading roles in Tina Mabry's independent drama film Mississippi Damned (2009) and Tyler Perry's drama For Colored Girls (2010). She also gained favorable notices for her work in the comedy-drama Dear White People, and as civil rights activist Diane Nash in Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma (both in 2014). She also took on more mainstream roles as she co-starred as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan)’s love interest and eventual wife Bianca Taylor in Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018) and played Valkyrie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero films Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).

On a Broadway stage, Holland starred in August Wilson's play Jitney in 2017. In 2020, he played a lead role on the Netflix musical drama series The Eddy, directed by Damien Chazelle. Before that he was widely known for his 2016 performance as Kevin in the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight.

In The Paris Theater, this Q&A was conducted with Hall, Thompson, Negga and Holland, who explored what it took to bring this project to fruition and how it felt to wrap themselves in what life was like in those days. New York City has always been a place where life happens, and it has shaped who we are today – something that was revealed in this film and poignantly discussed after this preview screening.

When did you realize there’s something here that you wanted to make into this movie?

Rebecca Hall: I remember specifically seeing the book in the window. Then I finished the book, loved it, opened my laptop, and started writing the screenplay. It was suddenly like being possessed. I think that I had freedom to do it because honestly, I didn’t think it would end up like this. Or I talked myself out of it.

I just was struck by the modernity of this: how it speaks to so many aspects of humanity, in this tiny, tiny book. Now it’s not just racial passing, it’s all the ways in which the thing that you think you believe in doesn’t match up with the thing that you want. The ways in which we all put ourselves into containers or let other people put us into containers, and then we’re massively spilling out of them because nobody can be defined by one thing. That is a very contemporary idea.

We have words like intersectionality or something [like that]. I was blown away by that, so when I arrived to work, I just thought I wanted it to look a certain way. I came up with ideas that shocked when [placed] in the movie. I got really attracted to the screenplay, thinking, “I’m going to get into this because I’ll never make it. So it’s fine, this is just for me.” Then it was a 13-year process, maybe not quite 13 years. It was about a six-year process of me getting the nerve to take it out of the drawer, and then another six years of actually trying to get it made, which is normal.

What was one of the early shots that you had in your mind?

Rebecca Hall: Of the feet. Also I had the idea of the meeting between the two of them. I committed self-matching at that scene. [That was] in my head. I look at her playing the central character and is she in a place where she was being observed – and you didn’t know why she was hiding from something – to a place where she was taken in this room and was feeling safe. Then she’s looking around and suddenly there’s this other person looking right at her.

In an interview you talked about bringing Tessa and Ruth to your house for a weekend before going into production because you felt that it would be imperative to have that time together. So tell me all about that: what did you do?

Rebecca Hall: Well, I’m an actor so I understand rehearsal very much, so I just kidnapped them [laughs].

Was it like a rehearsal at the house or was it bonding time connecting everyone?

Rebecca Hall: There was some. [They] and I sat down and did a lot of work. We’d sit down and go through scenes a lot. Mostly it was just time for the two of them to be together and explore each other’s [thoughts].

Tessa, you said that you were terrified to take on this role. But you did it with such grace and depth. It was a beautiful performance. What ultimately made you say yes? What intrigued you about diving in?

Tessa Thompson: I guess I like being terrified. In the sense that when I am approaching work, there’s something that is central to the thing that I’m not sure that I can do. In this case, it had to do with being in the character and also that there was this – so much is expressed, as Rebecca said, with her example of that panning shot of their passage. It focused squarely on Irene’s obsession with staring at her. Without the movie looking away, and looking back, there is no cinematic journey. So Rebecca was able to tease that out, and so I felt very comfortable. If she could do it…

What I was worrying about for myself is, there’s this incredible document in Nella’s words. There was a wealth and a depth of feeling that this woman has inside, when you don’t have a lot of dialogue to express that. Also in that she’s playing someone that’s quite restrained, the moments when she’s feeling strongly is whenever she’s around this person and that stirs things in her – [which I had to express]. She’s a feeling person. How do you say that without saying that? That terrified me. Then also other stuff terrified me, but I won’t go into that. But the easy thing is that she just needs to be really beguiled and blown away by this woman and look at her.

Ruth, in bringing this really complex woman to life, what compelled you to play her?

Ruth Negga: I love the word “haunting.” I love it. I was haunted by this book. I was haunted by these characters. I think what struck me most is I never really read a friendship like that. The full, deep complexity of female friendship with all the usual attractions, and also repelled by one another at the same time. That push and pull. We have all combatted the disease of UJE: the ugliness of it, the jealousy, the envy. I was bewitched by these women.

For me, for Clare, I was so curious about this woman – her intention of living so fully and authentically. It brings to mind a Mary Oliver quote: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Clare, for me, she embraced it fully and deeply. I guess after reading it, I found – I don’t know, this atmosphere of sense of ending somehow that haunts the book and that lingers way after the final frame. I think Rebecca shocked us, and that’s a terribly hard thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen film writing that captures the feeling, the emotion, having read it, onscreen, sufficiently.

Had you read the book before anyone suggested you read it?

Ruth Negga: Yeah, I’d read the book. I had wanted to work with Rebecca for a long time. We met up in New York and she said she was adapting this, and I [said] I’d do it anytime, anywhere.

André, your character is so complicated and so rich. There are so many scenes that jump out at me when I think of them. But I ask you what I was asking them: what was it that intrigued you about this character, and do you want to explain it to the audience?

André Holland: This character gave me a chance to explore this world. I think that’s one of my favorite things about this job: getting a chance to learn about men I didn’t know before. I didn’t know about Nella [Larsen]’s work, I hadn’t read that.

In the dinner table scene, there’s an argument that you have with the other characters. It’s very much of that era, but also very contemporary. Black parents have had these conversations all the time. What was it like preparing for that and diving into that performance?

André Holland: Well, I was really looking forward to that scene from the very beginning. Which is exciting.

Tessa, how was that exciting for you?

Tessa Thompson: What struck me is just that: how modern it felt. And this was before the events of last summer. But it’s like forever and always in this country, right? I think that’s the negotiation you make as a parent to black children and in particular, I’d say, to black men. So there was that on one hand, and to activate that which would do him a favor even now. On the other hand, I think the scene has a uniquely important physicality that it felt like we were playing a piece of music together. To me there was a real specificity in rhythm. That was what I liked.

Something that I really enjoyed about this project is the precision, because of the precision of every angle. If you were off your mark by a little bit or just objectively not in the right place, Rebecca would come and be like, [gestures] “Once again.” But I don’t know – I like that. I didn’t do sports and I’m not into doing anything else. This is just something I like, so I’ll do it right.

Ruth Negga: You did, you know?

Tessa Thompson: And inside the form is such freedom when you know what the form is. When I was in Shakespeare and the Classics – she knows, go see her in Macbeth.

Ruth, you talked about the precision of the technicality of the camera. How did that stretch you as an actor? How did you get that joy of finding freedom?

Ruth Negga: In order to play you have to have rules because it just tightened everything up. I felt a great comfort and relief in it because I think the way Rebecca works is a very lavish process. We were let in on this. This wasn’t a proletarian office. We knew that there was a goal as we were playing, and we were recruited. And that’s a lovely thing, I think, about Rebecca and especially her being an actor as well. There’s a gift in ensuring trust. That’s a lovely thing for an actor to have, a director’s trust, and to let us in on it. We had freedom to discover within the scene, working with Tessa and Andre.

The framing is so beautiful. There is such a precision, there is such a beautiful stillness in every shot. How did you arrive at that framing for the visual language of this film?

Rebecca Hall: It’s as I said earlier. An inherent problem adapting this book for the screen is that if you were unable to show the inside of your protagonist’s mind, it would be lies because she’s not truthful to herself. That’s the whole point of this story. She doesn’t really know who she is. She’s so bound up in the idea of this respectful, proper, erect life – wife, mother, everything – that there is no room for her expression of herself.

So this was the bottom of that problem: How do you get you guys in on that? How do you show that? And I think the formality of it felt to me, finally, correct, that there should be a way of slowly giving signals to the audience that this person is unreliable, and finding the visual language to do that. You slowly start to see what you are saying or she is saying it, maybe it’s not real. It’s fuzzy, it’s blurry, and you literally use lenses that compressed the image, but were soft on the top and bottom. That creates that there’s a sense that her world is dissolving around her.

Also, it occurred to me of what I thought about this novel a lot. The 20s are famous for being loud – the Jazz Age, color, photographs. This book was so simple and held so much in because it allows you to do the work. So I can’t help thinking about what is the simplest version of this? That comes down to shot-by-shot. I don’t want to have to cut away, so let’s see how long I can contain the two-shot. Let’s use a mirror if we have to. So let’s play a two-shot in the mirror with that person as well.

That formality also literally puts them in a box, it puts them in this place of restraint – Irene, specifically. It should feel claustrophobic. The music is deliberately beautiful, and haunting. It’s deliberate. So I was very specific about everything.

I was curious as well.

Rebecca Hall: Yes. Correct. Well, she was an exile for most of her life. That song that you hear all the way through the movie, I heard it when I was doing a rewrite at some point. Not right from the beginning, somewhere in the middle. I remember hearing that piece of music and thinking, that’s the film. That’s the time, that’s the feeling, and that’s the sensibility, that’s what we’re looking for. If I can make this film sound like how this sounds, then it’s worth it.

The house [which was used in the film] was a character as well.

Rebecca Hall: Well, the house was pretty bright. I did want the feeling that the house was meaningful. It was meaningful to be there in Harlem, in that house, in a brownstone like that. Knowing that these houses and these spaces, and the apartment that’s at the end of the film was a historic building. There were probably parties in the ’20s that took place in that building.

Ruth Negga: Yeah, I think so. The house, the residence, we learned a lot and we would use the bedroom as the place where we were all sitting.

Tessa Thompson: We’d all be sitting in this bedroom together. It was a little claustrophobic. Which was helpful for me because Irene was supposed to feel very claustrophobic. [I would go] “Irene would love this.” But the bathroom was open, and I could go in there. I was very happy for you except when I had to pee.

Ruth Negga: And it’s the set you want to work in…

Rebecca Hall: There were things that weren’t right.

Ruth Negga: I believe that when I’m not working, I’m haunted. I think bricks and mortar and molding carry memories. I am living there. All the memories that one would have in Harlem are so vibrant and so, of course, it has its own costume. I love that. So yeah, I definitely felt that. All that for a lot of nothing [in the end].

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: November 3, 2021.

Photos ©2021 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

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