London-born Rebecca Hall has long been on my list of the most talented actors working today. In fact, I maintain that her 2016 portrayal of reporter Christine Chubbuck in the biographical drama Christine was the finest dramatic performance of any actor that year. More recently, her work in psychological horror film The Night House is one of the best I’ve seen this year (or in 2019, when I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival). But her list of great film performances goes back many years (preceded by years in the British theater), with early notable roles in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, followed shortly by memorable turns in Ben Affleck’s The Town, the award-winning British drama series “Parade’s End,” Iron Man 3, Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, and earlier this year in Godzilla vs. Kong.
But none of her acting roles quite prepares one for her debut film as writer/director/producer, Passing, which also had its world premiere at Sundance, this time just earlier this year. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Passing concerns two mixed-race childhood friends who run into each other as adults and become increasingly intermingled in each other’s lives. Tessa Thompson plays Reenie/Irene, who identifies as African-American and is married to a doctor (André Holland), while Ruth Negga plays Clare, who “passes” as white and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård).
Shot in black-and-white and using the deliberately claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, Passing might seem like a strange choice for Hall to make, until you discover her journey into discovering her own heritage, which includes father and noted theater director Peter Hall (who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company), and opera singer mother Maria Ewing, who is American and of Dutch and African-American origin. In looking into her own family tree, it became clear that some of the family members on her mother’s side likely had passed as white as well, and it opened up for her a wellspring of curiosity about identity and the dangers of passing at a time when being discovered could have meant death. But it wasn’t until she discovered Larsen’s novel that she found the language she needed to discuss her family history with relatives and eventually dive into the years-long journey to writing this screenplay and making the film.
I got the chance recently to sit down with Hall in Chicago to discuss both the film itself and how she prepared to direct her first film, never having directed anything before. It’s a fascinating journey, and Hall was as open and honest as one would hope. Please enjoy our conversation….
When I saw this film during Sundance, my first thought was that, between the aspect ratio, the black-and-white photography, and the fact that it was a period film, that you were trying to also make it feel like a film made in the 1930s.
It was never my intention to make a museum piece, because it does have a relevancy to today. But what you’re talking about is a nice byproduct, and that is something that is evoked because I do think there is something significant to and something I’m nodding to, which is that this movie should have been made a long time ago. The book was written in 1929, and there were so many movies in the 1930-’40s that centered on the emotional lives of women, but never women of color. It’s a little bit of a nod to that, but at the same time, it was much more about the metaphorical significance of both black and white and 4:3 that led me to those decisions. I needed to abstract reality so that it became symbolic, which allowed me to cast Black women in the roles and to play with the fluidity of their faces from one scene to the next, through shadow and light play.
Also, this is a story about the limits of categories. It says it’s about this one woman who’s hiding her racial identity, but the real truth is that it’s about the other woman who isn’t hiding her racial identity but is arguably hiding everything else about herself. And she’s constrained by her own social performance, her own rigid ideas about being the right kind of woman, the right kind of wife and mother, the right kind of member of the Black community—all of these performances that she’s undertaking in her life in order to do the right thing are destroying her, and she’s far less safe than Clare, who is walking around with this imminent threat. But to get back to what you were asking, using 4:3 literally puts them in a box and it restrains them and makes things feel more claustrophobic, and black and white—we call it that, so we’re drawing attention to the categories, but it’s thousands of shades of grey, so it has that metaphorical significance that is much more important. And yes, it looks beautiful, and that’s also deliberate, because I kept saying to everybody, “Everything has to be passing in this film, including the film itself, which has its own performance.”
Going back to what you said about who’s in more danger, I wondered that at the end: who is in more danger? A Black woman being herself, or a Black woman pretending to be white, especially in that time period? And the anxiety of being either might impact your mental health.
Absolutely. I will say, there were many other passing narratives that existed at that time, and most of them have a figure who is the moral authority, and then the person who’s passing gets punished for doing something as terrible as betraying her race and becoming a white person. But that isn’t true of this story. Irene looks like the moral authority, but she’s not; she’s a powder keg. And Clare looks like the one who’s doing something terrible, but within that, there’s nothing tragic about her. She is joyful in her approach to life; she’s like a child who takes without any kind of consideration about the ripples or effects, and someone like that can’t exist in that society because she’s so transgressive. She disturbs everyone’s idea that things are getting better and “We’re getting through.” That speaks more about the broader system that they’re both operating in, because it’s a hellscape existing as two women of color in a racist society and a patriarchal one.
What came first for you: a desire to direct something at some point? Or did that not enter your mind until this story entered your life?
When I was a little kid, and I realized I loved film above anything else, which is a little taboo in my family given that everyone were theater people. I dreamt about being a filmmaker, an auteur. This is when I was a teenager or maybe even younger. When I was 12, I’d watch old Hollywood movies obsessively, all the time. And I would write stories and figure out how to tell them. The path that it has taken me is the one it has taken me; I read this book, and it unlocked something in me, both personally and creatively, that I couldn’t hold back the tidal wave of the need to adapt this immediately. I couldn’t stop the idea—I immediately thought about black and white, 4:3, shots, ideas of sequences and staging that were all there in the first draft. I couldn’t hold it back. But even then, 13 years ago, that I was going to make it into a film, and I don’t know what accounts for that. By all accounts, in relation to most people, I have access to the rooms where these things happen, how these dynamics work, how filmmakers and directors become that, and I still didn’t imagine myself as one. It pains me to say it.
It pains me to hear it.
[laugh] And this is not to diminish acting because acting was huge for me, and I got a lot of reward from it and I was good at it and I loved it and felt like a way of being part of the movies. But I was sitting on film sets, approaching acting like I was a director. I was sitting there imagining how the whole thing was going to cut together and how the film was going to be and gaming out all the scenarios, and then I’d sit down and watch all these movies I was in and think, “Well that doesn’t look anything like how I’d imagined it.” You do that long enough, and then you go, “I could be making the thing that I’m imagining, and I don’t know why I’m not.” It took growth; I had to grow up and realize that making a film is an act of arrogance, so you might as well make the most arrogant one you’ve got. It certainly was. This always felt so ambitious to be someone’s first film.
A lot of people who are considering making a film will make some shorts or television episodes. I don’t think you did any of that, let alone go to film school, so what practical things did you do to prepare to make your first feature, other than observing these great filmmakers you’ve been watching for so many years?
I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, because I hadn’t done it before. But I didn’t not know what I was doing. I knew how it worked, and I’d been in editing rooms before. I sneaked into editing rooms of films I’d acted in, just to sit and watch. I’ve edited things myself on the computer for personal things, and I loved that process. For me, storyboarding and shot listing was something I did even before [director of photography] Edu Grau came along. For complicated reasons, Edu was a very last-minute hire, and thank god he’s a genius and was able to adapt himself and was able to do something extraordinary. We didn’t have that glory days of director and cinematographer dreaming about the landscape that they were going to create. I found that storyboarding it was my way into it. Just playing the movie in my head, I try to break it down “I’m seeing this angle, so we have to have this shot. And this is the coverage I need for this scene in order to achieve that.” I was a bit like doing a puzzle in my head, but it felt very natural to me and not something I needed some sort of rulebook for. I don’t think there is a rulebook for that, honestly.
I’d read that part of the reason that the book was so important to you was that it gave you a language that you didn’t have about things that were going on in your own family that weren’t really talked about. Did making this film achieve the things personally that you’d hoped it would in that regard?
Absolutely. It took me 13 years, but the last pieces of this puzzle slotted in to place in the last year. I found out a lot about my great-grandfather’s history; I found out his name, John Williams; where he was born, what he did, more about his mother. I found out a whole history on my mother’s side that had been completely erased. That is actually very extraordinary.
I don’t think you could have chosen two better actors for these lead roles. Tell me about those first conversations with them. Did you have to convince them, or were they in as soon as they saw what you wrote and told them where you were coming from?
They were in, quickly actually. I sent it to Ruth first because it was always my intention to cast Irene first, but I didn’t say what part, but I just assumed she’d pick Irene as it is technically the larger part. And I went to a meeting with her, and she said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do in this movie, but you have to let me play Clare,” which was so surprising to me and exciting. I’m not a fool; if someone tells you they want to do something, I’m going to let them do it. Tessa was interesting because she wasn’t technically available, but I really fell in love with her for the role, and we had a conversation that was kind of illicit on some level. We weren’t really meant to be having a meeting or talking about it, but she was like “I love it and really want to do it. I’ll make myself available and sort it out.” They both stuck with me for two or three years until I got the rest of the money.
What do you hope people take away from this? What conversations do you hope this film sparks?
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in being prescriptive about the kind of conversations I want to spark with this one, but I do want to spark conversations. I think they are happening; I think you have to work for this one. I think that that’s the truth. In the first three minutes of the movie, that’s why there’s silence and you can’t really hear the conversation, because I’m trying to signal to the audience that you have to lean in and pay attention, because if you don’t, you’ll take it at face value, and it will feel like not very much happens. But if you interact with the movie and bring the parts of your identity that feel appropriate, then you’re going to get a lot out of it, as much out of it as you put in. I do think that there’s an interaction that has to happen. For some people, the whole thing is going to feel like a story about repressed homosexuality, for some it’s going to be a story about marital complications, for some it’s going to be about adultery, for some it’s going to be about internalized self-hatred, racism, the patriarchy—and all of these things are true, and whatever you feel strongly about coming out of it, somebody you sat next to isn’t going to feel that strongly about your aspect of it. And that conversation that happens between those two people is the one I’m excited about.
Has the journey of making this forced you to re-examine America and the part of you that is American?
[Long pause] Yes. That’s a huge question. I don’t even know where to begin. So much hasn’t changed since 1929, and that saddens me. I think we’re in a place where we can be more nuanced and more sophisticated about our understanding of what defines people, instead of trying to stick them in one box. I think there is a lot more discussion around what it means when we say “race is a social construct.” And I think this film and book really call attention to that. The sheer gall of someone floating between two definitions does make a mockery of the distinctions.
I want to ask you a couple of questions about a couple recent films of yours. Christine feels like an all-timer to me, something that you will never forget, the importance of it in your life may never be diminished, something you took home with you in an uncomfortable way. Is any of that true?
Yeah, it was really painful [laughs]. It was really hard. My husband had to buy me a kitten for an emotional support animal.
I saw The Night House at Sundance two festivals ago; I rewatched it right before it came out recently. I’m a big horror fan, but I’m particularly liking this newer wave of horror films that are actually family dramas couched in the horror construct. Was that the reason you wanted to do this one? What I especially loved about your character is that every time something scary happens, she runs toward it.
Yeah, yeah, that was my favorite thing about her. I just thought it was so smart and fresh, and I really loved her. She was odd, enigmatic, a slightly brittle, acerbic character, and it was so fun in a weird way to have someone who was the hero of a horror movie who is as reckless as she is, because I think it’s more frightening to watch someone who is willing to be terrified. I was excited about that, plus it gave me a ton of challenges as an actor that you don’t always get, so I was broadly thrilled for those reasons.
I feel like in going through the list of the films and series you’ve done, that mixing things up is critical for you, not repeating yourself. Why is that so important to you?
I think it’s really basic: I just get bored otherwise [laughs]. Sorry, but it’s the truth.
Does fear play a role for you in selecting a new role? As in “I’m not sure I can do this, therefore I must try.”
Very, as an actor and director. I don’t really make the distinction at this point. It’s all part of the same thing, really. It does play a role, but I’m not necessarily sure I’m that conscious of it. Sometimes I’ll step back a bit and say, “You just did that because you’re terrified of it.” It’s a little bit crazy, maybe a masochistic impulse to do something that’s going to be really hard.
Do you think you’ll direct again, and will it have to be something this personal?
Definitely will direct again, but I hope it’s not quite as personal because this took 12-13 years. It has to be personal, but when I say that, I don’t mean it explicitly as it pertains to my life. I would never do something that I didn’t feel a kinship with or relate to in the feverish way that I did to this. That doesn’t mean it has to exactly map onto my life, but it does have to contain some sort of seed that fascinates me and inspires me.
All right, thank you so much.
At times elegant and tragic, Passing in now playing in select theaters and begins streaming November 10 on Netflix.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!