Rebecca Hall says directing ‘Passing’ helped ‘unlock’ Black family history

EXCLUSIVE: "It really gave me an access point into the history of my family that otherwise would have remained hidden," the first-time director says

Writing and directing Passing has given Rebecca Hall a host of things: critical acclaim, first-time directing experience and award season buzz. One thing she didn’t expect, however, is the deep dive into her family’s own history that the film spurred.

The 39-year-old actress-director told theGrio exclusively that reading the 1929 novel on which Passing is based, and directing the film itself, helped her to uncover her own family’s history of passing and white assimilation. Hall, the daughter of Detroit opera singer Maria Ewing and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall, confirmed that her grandfather was Black and white-passing.

“I mean, the whole book was [triggering]. It was huge for me. The book unlocked—it really gave me an access point into the history of my family that otherwise would have remained hidden,” Hall explained. “It was enormous for my family. It remains enormous for my family. At the start of this process, I knew really very little about my grandfather, other than he was probably Black.”

She continued, “But now I know for sure that he was Black, he passed white. Moreover, his parents were Black. So he was raised Black, he was socialized Black. I [now] know things about the Black side of my family that are extraordinary, and things to be proud of that I would never have known had I not gone on this journey.”

Actor and director Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall attends The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Opening Gala at The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on September 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Hall revealed that she worked on the movie’s script for 13 years before it became the stunning film it is today. Shot in black and white, Passing tells the story of Irene, a Black woman who’s world is turned upside down when she’s reacquainted with Clare, a childhood friend who is now passing for white in 1920s New York City. The two friends must confront racism, identity, jealousy and more in the film, which is based on the novel written by Nella Larsen.

“I wrote the first draft of this script 13 years ago, and I’ve been tinkering with it sort of ever since,” she told theGrio. “At a certain point, I can’t even look at [Passing] as something that I can objectively see how I clearly did it. Because it’s almost become something that I’ve been in dialogue with for a large part of my adult life. So you know, it’s kind of a piece of me at this point.”

“Initially my adaptation was quite free, in a way. I think that’s because I was so overwhelmed by the brilliance of the book. I finished it, and I immediately started typing because it sparked so much in me. It sparked so many ideas that I saw images that I wanted to be in the movie [and] I could see how to do it. I was so outraged in a way that it wasn’t a movie already, because it felt so timeless, so universal. So all the things that great art is, and I couldn’t stop myself from writing it.”

Hall called on Hollywood favorites Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, as well André Holland and Alexander Skarsgård, to help bring the film to life. Thompson takes on the role of Irene, while Negga plays her friend, Clare. Skarsgård stars as Clare’s white husband, John, and Holland portrays Irene’s husband, Brian.

Actor Andre Holland and director Rebecca Hall
ANDRÉ HOLLAND as BRIAN and DIRECTOR REBECCA HALL. (Cr: Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2021)

The Moonlight actor, 41, told theGrio that Hall’s infectious enthusiasm and energy “permeated the cast and the crew, and allowed us to accomplish a really lovely film.”

“She’s a fantastic actress, and she brought a lot of her skills as an actress to the set as a director,” Holland shared. “She really understands, obviously, the acting process, and so she gave us enough space to do what we needed to do to prepare and to give our best performances.”

He added, “I think the fact that her father was such an accomplished theatre director, probably is part of what gave her a sense of confidence. You never for a second on set—I never thought, ‘Oh wow, this is a person making their first film. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ No, no, she was sure every step of the way.”

Passing is now streaming on Netflix and available to watch in select theaters. Fans can watch theGrio‘s interview with Hall and Holland above.

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