Skip to main content
Got a tip?
Newsletters

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga’s Racial-Identity Movie ‘Passing’ and Why Rebecca Hall Was the “Perfect Person” to Direct

When the helmer was seeking financing for her directorial debut, producers worried that she wasn't the right person to adapt the novel about a Black woman who "passes" for white. Then they learned of her personal connection to the project, premiering at Sundance.

For three years, Rebecca Hall had been struggling to find financing for her directorial debut, Passing, when in 2018 she approached producing partners Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, who had backed the first feature films of Ryan Coogler, Chloé Zhao and Boots Riley through their Significant Productions. The pair were blown away by Hall’s script, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1920s-set novel penned during the Harlem Renaissance about two childhood friends — one “passing” for white — who reunite and become obsessed with each other, threatening their carefully constructed realities. They loved the two attached actresses — Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga — as the intertwined leads Irene and Clare. But as producers whose mandate is to champion multicultural stories told from an authentic perspective, they weren’t sure that the British actress was the right person to helm a film about the Black American experience.

“That was our initial concern, and when I met her in person, I brought it up and was really frank about it, how I’m nervous about having a white woman telling a story about passing,” Yang Bongiovi recalls. “And that’s when she revealed to me that her mother is actually African American. On the maternal side of her family, generations have passed because of light skin. So, Rebecca’s actually mixed race. And that was something that was extremely profound to me because that makes her the perfect person to tell this story. And that’s why we wholeheartedly signed on.”

The resulting film will have its world premiere Jan. 30 at the Sundance Film Festival, a virtual affair thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has made the typically packed Park City theater a distant memory as the indie movie mecca soldiers on in a strange year. The film is shot in black-and-white and in old-timey 4:3 aspect ratio, featuring two women of color as leads, and yet appears to be the hottest title for sale at the Sundance market. That’s because Hall’s stylized offering is about so much more than race — encompassing gender, class and sexuality and unfolding at times like a thriller, with plenty of Hitchcockian references.

“I think we all wear a mask of a kind, many masks, and sometimes we switch them in and switch them out. I think that’s just basic survival, really,” says Negga of Passing‘s universal themes.

It also marks a very personal story for Hall, who started exploring the background of her mother — Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing — about 13 years ago. The actress turned director, now 38, is curled up on a sofa in her home in Upstate New York, where she has lived for the past four years, and is ready to return to that moment when she began writing the Passing script.

“I was increasingly spending time in America as an adult and thinking more about my mother’s background and my family’s heritage that was very mysterious to me,” says Hall of her mother, opera singer Maria Ewing (left), who was born in Detroit. Right: Hall with her mother (left) in 2002.

“I don’t have any experience of being a Black person in America,” says Hall over a Zoom call. “I don’t know what that feels like because I present as white, I go through the world as white, you know. But what I do have an experience of is being raised by people who were also raised by people who made choices that were shaped by living in a racist society.”

***

Back in 2007. Hall had just finished shooting Vicky Cristina Barcelona and was spending more time in the U.S., bringing to the surface the legacy of passing inside her own family. As a child, Hall remembers her mother was vague about her background.

“Sometimes it was talked about as, ‘Your grandfather — maybe he was Native American. Maybe he was a little bit Black. We don’t know,’ ” she remembers. “But when I looked at my mother, I always, my whole life, thought, ‘That’s a Black woman.’ “

She found herself increasingly telling people about her lineage, determined to break the cycle of silence. Some responded to Hall — a Londoner and Cambridge alum of obvious privilege whose father was the late British theater legend Peter Hall — with wild laughter, which she found disturbing. “What does that say about you? What does that say about what you think about racial stereotypes, your expectation of what Blackness is?” she recalls thinking. But one friend turned her on to Larsen’s novel, largely overlooked during its time but newly embraced by scholars.

“I was flailing around. Identity is a hopelessly complex issue,” she explains. “But I read the book, and I was powerfully moved by it in a way that was really difficult for my 25-year-old brain to handle. I think much better when I’m writing than when I’m speaking, which is why being a public figure has always been a little bit problematic for me,” she laughs. “So, my solution to understanding was to sit down and adapt it into a screenplay.”

Rebecca Hall

Hall adapted the book, which is in the public domain, in just 10 days. Then she put it in a drawer and waited “until I gained some arrogance” to consider directing. “This is my dirty little secret: I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, and I’ve been going through life as an actor, quietly spying on everyone that I work with, thinking about how I’ll do it.”

For years, people marveled at the execution of the script. ” ‘What an incredible idea,’ ” she would hear. ” ‘You’ll never get it made.’ And I suppose that just gave me a little bit of a dog with a bone situation.”

But there were champions, namely Oren Moverman, who directed Hall in The Dinner, and Angela Robinson, director of the 2017 drama Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, which featured Hall alongside Luke Evans.

“I remember Angela called me up and was like, ‘It’s not a question. You have to make this movie.’ “

Tessa Thompson

In 2015, Hall enlisted producer Margot Hand, with whom she collaborated on such films as Tumbledown and Permission. Hand, who refers to Hall as “a somewhat annoyingly Renaissance woman in the fact that she can do everything,” was game to take on the project, even with its marketplace challenges.

“A first-time feature filmmaker is very difficult. When that first-time filmmaker is a female, it’s even more difficult. And when the two leads are not white it’s even harder still,” Hand notes. “And then it was also in black-and-white, which proved very challenging for the foreign film element that often dictates how films get valued and financed. A black-and-white film doesn’t really have what they call ancillary value, especially in the foreign market, because a lot of television windows won’t buy it.”

But that didn’t dissuade Hall, who first approached Negga in 2017. They knew each other socially via the tight-knit London theater scene. They also were promoting their respective films Christina and Loving on the awards-season circuit. (Negga landed an Oscar nomination for best actress for the latter.)

“I ended up cornering her at a party and said, ‘Would you read this please?’ ” Hall says.

Ruth Negga

Negga, who had discovered Larsen’s novel years earlier, read the script, and the two met in New York not long after to discuss it. The actress — who was interested in the role of Clare, a woman keeping her ancestry secret from her white husband — needed no convincing. “I’m on board. Sign me up immediately. Whenever you want to do this, I’ll clear my schedule,” Negga remembers saying.

Then Robinson, who wound up executive producing Passing alongside Moverman, reached out to Thompson to put the film on her radar.

“I was so struck by how faithful it was to the book and also how it made me understand the source material in new and deeper ways,” says Thompson, who was unaware of Hall’s familial experience with passing. “Then I had a conversation with Rebecca about her take about why this project was important to her, and it made me want to work on it all the more. It’s always exciting to work on a project with a director that has real skin in the game, that has a real personal connection to the story in some way.”

Despite having two A-list actresses on board, Hall couldn’t find an investor. Enter Whitaker and Yang Bongiovi, who are able to tap into an array of private financiers as they did with such films as Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Film4 out of the U.K. also joined the project as an investor.

In the meantime, Hall got older and bolder after having a baby in 2018 with her husband, actor Morgan Spector. She storyboarded the entire film before embarking on the 25-day shoot in October 2019.

Given that Thompson and Negga are both biracial, they found obvious parallels between their lived experiences and those of their characters. Thompson’s Irene never tries to mask her identity, while Negga’s Clare strives to repress hers.

“Practically speaking, I’m not someone who is white-passing. It’s something that I think happens for Irene circumstantially, but she’s living very much as a Black woman,” Thompson says. “And so, that means that I could pull that off.”

Adds Negga: “Being a mixed-race person, I think that it naturally informed Clare. Feelings of perhaps alienation, of being different, about trying to find your place. But it’s very hard for me to find distinct experiences. And even if I did, I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable articulating them because I think sometimes that’s one’s personal journey to a character, really.”

The two actresses had never worked together. “They’re normally up for the same roles and competing against each other,” Hand says.

But there was nothing in the way of on-set rivalry. The actresses say Hall created an intimate cocoon, with much of the action taking place in and around one brownstone in Harlem. “The support was extraordinary,” Negga says. “The three of us — myself and Tessa and Rebecca — were just so determined to do [this film] to the best of our abilities.”

As for Hall’s directing style, the actresses echoed each other about her specificity. Negga describes Hall as “a sculptress,” with every frame being “very deliberate” and “with such clarity.”

Thompson says that Hall constantly challenged her but never in a confrontational way. “What I was struck by is that even though she is somebody who is so talented as an actor, she didn’t sort of strong-arm me. She was very specific about certain things, more than any director I’ve ever worked with in terms of how every scene was shot. Everything had to be just right in terms of timing and where the bodies were inside of the frame.”

The film wrapped in November 2019 and finished postproduction during the COVID-19 lockdown. This past fall, Hall submitted it to Sundance, where it was quickly accepted. Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson, who had read Larsen’s novel about 30 years ago, says the film hit a nerve with her.

“As a British woman of Welsh and Nigerian parentage, I was struck by how resonant and contemporary the theme of Passing still is,” she says. “Even in this moment as some of the old binaries break down or become more fluid, others remain stubbornly resistant.”

This year, which marks Jackson’s first as director, the festival is facing its own challenges. Sundance canceled its in-person events in Park City and then scuttled its planned Los Angeles-area drive-in screenings due to surging COVID-19 infection rates in Southern California. Though Thompson is a Sundance veteran, Negga has never been to the festival. Hall has been as an actress but will miss out on her big moment as a director.

Rebecca Hall

“We really wanted Rebecca to experience that kind of sold-out Eccles, overnight dealmaking, afterparties with everyone in the city there. It’s a special thing,” says Hand. “Nina and I were so disappointed that she couldn’t experience that as a filmmaker, but I think everyone’s just making the best of it.”

As audiences and critics converge online for the first Passing screenings, Hall is holding her breath, just like many first-time directors. Endeavor will be handling worldwide rights.

But the most important feedback will come from Hall’s mother, who has not yet seen the film.

“This is a terrible reason, but it’s partially because she doesn’t have a good-enough watching situation. Like, I’m not willing to let her watch it on a laptop,” she says with a laugh before growing more serious. “But I’ve spoken to her a lot about it. The legacy of passing is in part one of internalized shame, and that’s complicated. That doesn’t mean we can’t get over it or find a way to move on from it.”

The Hollywood Reporter Issue 4

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.