Rebecca Hall: ‘Passing’

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Director and actor Rebecca Hall. Photo by Daemian Smith, courtesy of Netflix.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor, director and writer Rebecca Hall, whose directorial debut is the adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing,” about two Black women who can “pass” as white in the 1920s, but who make different decisions about how they live their lives, with grave consequences. Hall’s roles as an actor include those in “The Town,” “Christine,” and “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” Hall tells The Treatment how her own family’s history with passing led to her decision to adapt Larsen’s novel. She says she wanted to imbue the idea of passing throughout the film, which included the decisions to set it in black and white, choices about the costumes and the format. And Hall says she tried to mirror the economy and the modern feel of the novel in the adapted screenplay.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is actor turned director, Rebecca Hall, and I think as an actor, she's had an interesting career because she's had parts that have dealt with secrets and a kind of furtiveness. Her directorial debut is an adaptation of the novel "Passing," which she adapted and directed. I wonder if that's something that attracts you, as a dramatist?

Rebecca Hall: I think it is. I think I have a fascination with masks, I suppose, is the best way to put it. Someone like Christine Chubbuck [from “Christine”], as depicted in the movie, was someone whose social performance was almost too much for her psyche to accommodate. She had no capacity to be free. And I suppose that I've always been interested in the crunch point between the persona that we project to the world and the one that we actually are. I suppose a better way of putting that is: the people that we think we ought to be versus the things that we want, and how much freedom we have, and how much that performance is in itself, the truth and all of those fungible aspects of identity. 

KCRW: That's why I started off talking about forgiveness and secrets, and people in some ways, keeping secrets for themselves and refusing to see a kind of truth. All those things come to play in "Passing." You also have these two characters between Claire and Irene, where there's a determination to not see things on both their behalfs.

Hall: Absolutely. I think that the really radical thing about the book is that it telegraphs that it's about this one woman who's hiding her racial identity. But it's actually about the other one, who's not hiding her racial identity, but is arguably hiding every other aspect of herself from herself, as well as everyone else. 

Claire, who's hiding her racial identity, has a kind of freedom. She has a kind of truth, like, yes, she's walking around with a giant secret that is incredibly dangerous, that contains this seed of danger everywhere she goes, and that her life would be in danger were it to be found out. But within that performance, she's actually pretty true to herself. She says what she wants to say, and she takes what she wants, and she will be anything in order to get what she wants. And yeah, sure, she's adopting different sorts of personas, but that's also her truth. She is a little wily; she is a little manipulative. She is a little quixotic in that way, but that's her truth. That's who she is. 

Irene, on the other hand, is standing there saying, I am morally correct; I'm doing the right thing, and she's a powder keg. She's literally falling apart because she has repressed so much of herself that she's not even entirely sure who she is. And so I think the critique ultimately becomes about the societies that pigeonhole people and try and limit us with these rigid boundaries.

KCRW: There's a side of you interested in how honesty is defined, and also the definition between adulthood and childhood. If you go back to the book, the way Claire is described, she's almost like a child whose determination is to find pleasure in the moment. It almost feels like a heroine from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the time. And Irene is trapped in adulthood in the compromises that that asks.

Hall: I think that's really true. That's an interpretation of it that I haven't heard before. It was very conscious on my part to try and hold as many truths about [the book] as possible. And I do love that whatever your perspective is in life or whatever your projected identity even is in life, I think that interacts with the movie, and will be how you read it. 

There are people I've spoken to who think it's all about repressed homosexuality. There are other people I speak to that think it's all about adultery. There are other people that I speak to that think it's all about self hatred under the systems of racism and white supremacy and the patriarchy. So there are many interpretations, and they're all correct. They're all real. They're all parts of it, but I love that one. I think there is something very childlike about Claire. And I think that part of that freedom is to do with that she wants, she desires sort of like a toddler desires, unencumbered with consequence.

KCRW: There's an early scene where they're reunited, and we see Claire after it's been a while since Irene has seen her, but Irene has gone through a masquerade of her own. When the two of them are together, it's like watching two kids playing tea in the tea house.

Hall: Absolutely. That was very conscious. Something that we all thought about a lot, ahead of the shoot, during the brief rehearsal time that we had--and when I say all, I don't just mean all the cast and me, I mean, the crew, everybody, all the heads of department--we were always talking about how everything could be passing. Arguably, the film itself passes; it's in black and white. That's not reality; it has its own performance. It's in dialogue with its own sort of self consciousness in cinematic history even. I think that every detail that feels performative is actually pretty conscious. How are all the other characters passing? How is the look of the film? How are the costumes?  Are they strictly 1920s? No, they also reference the '50s and the '40s. In every possible way that we could make the film pass, we did.

KCRW: When Irene's husband is talking, that household becomes more and more tense. There always seems to be something cooking and about to burn in that house. I wonder if that was a conscious thing, too.

Hall: Oh, absolutely. This sort of prison of domesticity was something that we thought about a lot. The monotony and repetition of [Irene's] day, and her insistence that it's okay, that she's satisfied, that she's fulfilled. And yet what we're seeing is her walking the same patch of street without any other perspective again and again and again, giving the food to her maid who she doesn't know how to talk to. Waving the kids off to school again, going through the mail.

I threw in a scene, which isn't in the book. I imagined a day when Zerlina, the maid, is not there, and Irene is forced to be the full 100% figure of domesticity in her house, and she doesn't know how to function. She doesn't know where the flour is, and she's dropping things, and the food is practically burned. And she's really drowning in trying to hold it all together.

KCRW: When Irene's husband is talking to her, he could be talking about Emmett Till or any number of atrocities that have happened because Irene's attitude is actually a bit more modern than in the book, that idea of: how long do you keep your children innocent? Which is also a question that extends to not only people of color, I guess, but it's certainly felt more deeply in households of color these days.

Hall: Yeah, well, I think now it's like, finally, we're beginning to wise up to the fact that the families that are raising Black kids refer to as “the talk.” And the talk needs to happen to everybody, actually. I think that was very striking and sad, how still true the conversation is between Irene and Brian about how to raise their kids. Irene is stuck in this sort of place of denial of not wanting to admit how hard it is, and to exist only in a bubble of safety and to keep our kids in that place of innocence, and Brian is more of a realist, who's saying, We've got to prepare them for what's ahead.

KCRW: In reading the book, again, I was struck at how modern it seems in a lot of ways. It's very much in the moment, the way that a modern piece of fiction would be.

Hall: Yeah, I think I think it's much more in dialogue with modernist texts. It's very immediate. It's also incredibly economical and subtle, which is the thing that always shocks me. It was celebrated at the time, but there were plenty of critics who didn't get it and just took it at face value, and assumed it was a tale of moral righteousness with Irene being the moral authority and Claire being the the sinner who must get punished. And it couldn't be further from the truth of what Nelson was trying to do. I think audiences today have a more sophisticated understanding of intersectionality and the way that all these things cross and exist and combine and amplify. And I think in a way, the critique that Nelson is making, the themes that she's trying to push forward are as potent and fresh today as they were in 1929. 

Passing (L to R) Tessa Thompson as Irene, Ruth Negga as Clare and Director Rebecca Hall. Photo by Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2021

KCRW: What the book has going forward is there's a briskness to it that almost borders on impatience, and so much of that genre of fiction about passing has a kind of a tragic cast, about suffering for the person who's passing, which the book doesn't do.

Hall: There's nothing tragic about Claire. That's the great irony. I think Nella Larsen was very consciously talking to those tropes that were already in existence, these narratives that were already in existence, passing narratives, there were lots of them, actually. It's a theme that is so powerful in terms of highlighting the mutability and fictionality of race and all these things, and how race is a construct and the hypocrisy of society's need to pigeonhole everyone and put everyone in categories. So Nella Larsen was already aware of that, and I think she's already subverting those ideas because Claire isn't tragic. She goes through life actually, kind of radically desirous and fun loving, and she enjoys every aspect of her life. I mean, yes, of course, there is pain and longing there. But it's also that she wants to go back because she wants to go back. She wants to be with her people, you know, and she doesn't see any sort of problem with floating between all these fixed ideas. And that's kind of radical.

KCRW: Claire really feels like a heroine out of Fitzgerald to me in this rendering of her where it's about the pleasures of the modern world. And there's something about Irene that's stuck in the past, and these homes become these places where there is no escape. And even the use of the 4:3 format limits circumstance and means you can only see a few feet in front of you. 

Hall: It was very deliberate: the 4:3. It was very well put how you described it. It's dealing with putting people in boxes, so I literally am putting them in a box. I wanted Irene specifically because that's who we spend the most amount of time within the film. I wanted her world to feel completely bound. "Bound and yet free:" the James Baldwin quote that I thought about a lot. And actually even though Claire is free and has this tremendous capacity to be herself in a way that Irene really can't, of course, she's still operating in a system where that overrides all of the salient features of her identity and makes the most important aspects her race. 

KCRW: When did you find the book?

Hall: I found it 13 years ago. I didn't find it so much as I was given it. I was talking more about my grandfather, who was African American and passed as white his whole life. And I think I was becoming increasingly sort of obsessed with the legacy of that in a family. What it does to family dynamics, psychology, if you are raised in an environment where something as fundamental as a parent's identity is obscured. I just suddenly found myself musing on what that means, especially if we think about race as a social construct, which we must because it is, but it still means something. It's a powerful one.

For my grandfather to have been racialized, socialized, as Black as a child, and then to have raised his children as white, I'm just musing on that for a minute. The effect of it on the family is, I think, very large, and I'm still grappling with it myself, what it means, because my mother did what any child does: protect the parent's wishes. He didn't want to talk about it, so she didn't either. So she didn't grow up having access to her Black identity and then didn't give it to me either. And I suppose the long term effect of that is that I think that a family ends up inheriting an awful lot of the shame and none of the pride of being Black. And whilst I can't change how I present personally, I go through the world looking how I look, and people receive me how they receive me based on that, in large part, I can choose to honor and not be in hiding and honor my heritage. And that's in large part why I was drawn to this movie.

 When I read the book, I didn't have those words to talk about my grandfather. All I had was: maybe my mother's biracial. I'm not really sure. And that's sort of where it stopped. And then I started spending more time in America. And you can't spend time in America without appreciating or thinking about or factoring in how much of its own narrative is tied up in the history of enslavement, and it felt at a certain point, irresponsible of me to not understand completely how that story factored into my own heritage. 

When I read the book, I had language for the first time. I was like, Well, of course, this makes sense. Of course, my grandfather passed. That word: he was "passing." Of course, this explains why my mother doesn't have the language. It's not that she wouldn't confirm that we were Black. She couldn't. She didn't have the language because it wasn't given to her. And, of course, this explains why she didn't know her family on her father's side. And of course, this explains so many things. Also it gave me compassion and empathy for my grandfather's choice. Like the choice to do that is tough; to cut yourself off from your family to make those choices to live in hiding like that. And I will be forever grateful to the book for giving me all that context.

KCRW: As you were talking about those things, I was thinking about the way we started the show, which is talking about your interest not only in characters bound by social constructs, but also characters dealing with a kind of furtiveness and wondering how much of themselves so exposed, and I just wonder if that's really part of your makeup dealing with these questions that you're talking about.

Hall: Of course, it is. I think they're interconnected. They have to be. I think my interest in everything: in people's needs to perform a socially acceptable version of themselves in relation to how bound they feel by a society. And those structures, you know, can be sexism, racism, homophobia. There are so many different aspects to this, but that fundamentally is something that I think I've sort of lived in on some level.

KCRW: It goes to "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."

Hall: As an actor, I think it's also a space that's fun. I don't want to weigh it down too much. But I think there is also an element of this that I've always enjoyed as an actor, trying to find a way to express contradictory narratives of a character, of their inner truth and the thing that they're projecting out into the world. And every character I've ever approached as an actor, I've always examined the fights, the tension between those two things in anybody. And when I was directing, it's what I asked everyone to think about, for their own characters, too. 

KCRW: You've got two extraordinary actors in the leads: Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. I want to ask you about your early conversations with them. One is playing with a fixed ideal, and the other has a bit more-- I don't want to use the word freedom-- but is eager to explore. These are both two different sides of determination and willfulness. It's two sides of the same coin.

Hall: Absolutely, they are two sides of the same coin; they are repelled and attracted by one another's life choices and how they could have gone down each other's roads, so to speak. Something that I tried to do with the script was to echo the economy of Nella Larsen's book. It's only because it's so simple that it allows for just the enormity of the complexity. It is so complex. And I tried to echo that in the script. So when Tessa and Ruth and I sat down, I knew what the subtext had to be for every scene. But I also knew that it was kind of an open playing field. So the sort of alchemy of the three of us discussing all the possible avenues, all the possible interpretations was huge. But we ended up, like, you couldn't possibly play all those things in one scene, and I couldn't possibly try and show all those things, as a filmmaker. So we have to play the intention of it beat by beat, and we have to fill every breath, every look, every gesture, with intentionality and with longing for both parties. 

And also I think that feeds into the chemistry between them. There is also a sexual chemistry between them. The longing that's possibly coming more from Irene, but Claire is not afraid to flirt with everyone; she shines her light on the world. And when it's shining on you, you feel like you are God. And then, the difficulty is, when she's not shining on you, then you feel like your world is falling apart. The conversations we had were incredibly stimulating and brilliant and comforting for me to know that we were all on the same page, but so much of it was just the chemistry between the two of them, and then it was up to me to make sure I was catching it in the right way.

KCRW: “Passing” is one of those books where if you talk to people about it, everybody has a different interpretation of the ending. Those interpretations come based on one's judgment, finally of Claire, which if you go back to the book, or read the book, the book doesn't do. What you do is come up with a way to echo that, and it felt to me like it must have been the toughest part of the piece to do.

Hall: I had the benefit of knowing that I was going to direct it when I was writing the screenplay. When I was writing the script, I was essentially able to shot-list a little bit in my head. Certainly, when it came to the ending, it had to be very precise. I had to play out that scene in my head a million times.  But that last section was almost too scary for me. 

The thing for me was always, it's not so much that what happens to Claire happens, it's like the rest of the movie: it is what is the effect of that on everybody. And so I was sort of struck with this image of having Irene at the window, thinking about her. Even if she didn't do it, she has to think that she somehow did it in that moment. But also I wanted to feel that whilst not tipping it into that she was entirely responsible.

I thought about Hitchcock a lot, actually. These tiny subliminal flickers of shots that push you into making certain assumptions about narrative. And so hence, there's a lot of very quick cuts in that whole section. But if a cut didn't tell me that somebody was doing it, then I didn't use it. What I mean is, everyone had to be responsible. I don't want to do spoilers but I'm going to have to. It had to be true that Irene really did it, that John did it, that she did it, that it was an accident. It's all possible. And all true, because the society is responsible on some level. It's not about punishing her. It's about punishing society by killing her.




Rebecca Mooney