A project that would take 13 years in the making is finally here, and it's certainly been worth the wait. Making her directorial debut, the actress turned filmmaker Rebecca Hall's journey to creating the film adaption of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing is a story of steadfast dedication and perseverance. After numerous rejections, the inability to receive funding for the project, and many more obstacles that challenged bringing this film to life, Hall's hard-driving ambition ultimately won.
The result: 5 Gotham Award nominations, acclaimed reviews following the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and stellar praises from Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, and The Atlantic, calling it "A precise and self-assured work from Rebecca Hall. Her directing style is reminiscent of Indie Legends."
Although the story takes place during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s, many of the central themes acknowledged are still prevalent today. Delving into the intersections of racial identity, class, culture, and gender dynamics, when speaking on racial tensions, actress Tessa Thompson said it best, "We know that Black bodies are still not safe in our neighborhoods. That's something that is real and happens. Lynchings have taken on another form where we all know that that's something that happens in this country."
We caught up with the film's leading cast in an exclusive virtual sit-down, with Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, and director Rebecca Hall. Read on as we discuss the integrated complexities of womanhood, relationships, race relations, both past, and present and gain a better understanding of an artist's role in society as "dispensers of the truth."
Dontaira Terrell: I want to first start by giving you a round of applause because this is your directorial debut, and it's been 13 years in the making. You never gave up on yourself, and you weren't willing to compromise. So what did this process teach you about yourself?
Rebecca Hall: I don't know whether this is something that a lot of women suffer from, but I don't think I've always given myself credit for as much bravery and perseverance I actually have. I think it's difficult even to see that from the inside. For me, I knew there was only one way to make this film, and I couldn't make it any other way. I learned on the other side of it that it can pay off to be as insanely stubborn as I was (laughs).
DT: In your opinion, what role would you say an artist has in society?
Andre Holland: Wow, that's a really good question! I had an acting teacher one time who said to me that "actors are dispensers of the truth," and that always stuck with me. I will never forget it. I think for me, it's an artist's job to try and get to the truth of any particular situation. To dig and find that truth and then find creative ways to share that.
Personally, I tend to be attracted to projects that have something to say about the moment that we're in. As a Black artist, I feel a responsibility to my culture to make sure the films that I do and the stories that I tell are told by people who love Black folks and put us in the right light. Showing us in all of our complexity and our beauty feels like a responsibility I have as an artist. To tell stories that matter and tell stories from the point of view of love for our culture.
DT: I read a couple of op-ed's and think pieces saying that Nella Larsen's Passing should be used in history education. I'm curious, what are your thoughts on that?
RH: I don't see why it shouldn't be; it is a part of history. She's writing about something that happened a lot and still does, although it's not necessary. People can pass like me, for example, but whether or not they are is another thing. However, it's a reality of our history. I think she gets inside particular class dynamics and particular aspects of being a member of the Black community in Harlem at that time. She really gets into that in a very specific way.
DT: Aside from the title itself of Passing, there are various dynamics tackled throughout the film. Can you speak to a real-life situation from any of the themes that inspired you two to fully embrace and integrate yourselves into the roles of Irene and Clare?
Ruth Negga (Clare): I think the idea of identity and who gets to define us for ourselves. Is it ourselves? Is it other people, or is it a mixture of that? And the limitations imposed by society defining individuals for themselves, whether it be through social mores or legislation. I think that's where passing comes in, in that in order to take the opportunity to benefit yourself or better your circumstances. Is that robbing you of a part of your identity? Yes. Quite frankly. It is.
Is that fair? No, it isn't. Is that the operating system some people use to navigate a deeply unfair, systemically racist system and socials? Yes, it is. So identity for me is at the core of the political, the universal, as well as it is for the internal and the micro.
Tessa Thompson (Irene): A real-life example I can think of is that although I'm not a mother, I have some friends that are. One thing that I hear them express is a lot of guilt and shame if they're away from their family because they have to work. I've heard friends of mine that are working mothers, asked, "How do you balance home life with work life?" They lament that that's not something their significant others are ever asked if their significant others are men. I think that has a lot to do with what society tells you you need to be as a mother. That's something I think Irene really struggles with.
It's something that Clare [Ruth Negga] can express that motherhood isn't the be-all-end-all. And to Irene [Tessa Thompson], while she secretly agrees and knows that that's true, she thinks, "Oh my goodness, how dare you say that out loud?"
DT: What would you say are the parallels between you personally and your character, Brian?
AH: I would say I see Brian as a man who has worked really hard in his life, a good father to a good partner, and aspiring to be an even better person. I think he is also experiencing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in his life and the society he is living in. He is looking to find spaces in which he can be more fully himself. Those are the things that I feel very deeply that we share. The sense of trying to do the right thing, working really hard, and trying to build healthy relationships and yet feeling, at times, unsafe, unsure, unsettled, and believing that there is a place where he can live in a more fully integrated way.
DT: And Tessa, this one is for you. What are some things your husband Brian got right and something he got wrong when trying to learn to support you as you navigated the ebbs and flows of motherhood, womanhood, gender dynamics, and the list goes on?
TT: From my perspective or Irene's perspective, which I think are very dissimilar in some cases (laughs). One thing I think Brian [Andre Holland] gets right, which is maybe not as delicately as Irene would, like, is that you need to prepare children, young Black boys, to understand the reality of living in this country. I think that's absolutely true and would be a conversation I would have if I were raising children right now.
I don't think he necessarily gets this wrong because he's a product of his time, but I think Irene is in the middle of a real crisis. She's unraveling and going through a bit of a breakdown, and he doesn't really see that. She pushes him away too, and that happens in partnership. We talk so much now with a modern sensibility around mental health, and sometimes I wish that Brian could ask, "Are you okay?" because she deeply needs to talk to somebody. She needs some support.
We've realized that we all, to a certain extent, are products of our time. But it really takes outliers and innovators to go and say, "We could be doing this better." And certainly, I think one thing they could be doing better is just clear communication and getting some real help outside of Zulena, their maid that helps them a lot.