Rebecca Hall came across Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” at a time when she was grappling with her own family history.
She’d become aware that her maternal grandfather was “white passing,” and it might have gone back even further. Then someone handed her this book, from 1929, about two light-skinned Black women, Clare and Irene, who live on opposite sides of the color line. That began a lengthy journey to making her first film, “Passing,” starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson. It premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival to wide acclaim.
The Associated Press spoke to Hall about making the foray into directing. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Did your interest in directing start with watching your father (Royal Shakespeare Co. founder Peter Hall) direct theater?
REBECCA HALL: I was never particularly interested in directing theater, I’m not sure why. But the moment I started watching film, I became very preoccupied with how it works. It’s like anyone who becomes obsessed with film. I had an experience as a kid of being transported and I was like, well, how does that happen?
AP: What did you grow up watching?
HALL: My mother had a real interest in in the Golden Age of Hollywood and she had tons of black and white films, especially the Warner Bros. ones with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. I would sit at home and watch them on a loop. There was a point in my life when I was 10 and I literally wouldn’t be put to bed until I watched at least 20 minutes of “All About Eve.”
AP: It sounds like you’ve been preparing to direct for quite some time.
HALL: I’ve always been an actor, obviously, but I don’t really entirely define myself as an actor forever. I’ve always loved it and it’s a huge part of my life and will never, ever stop being that but I do other things and have done other things. I play music. I paint. I’ve always felt that being a filmmaker actually holds all of those things in one place. It’s storytelling, it’s writing, it’s visual art, it’s music, it’s rhythm, it’s tempo.
AP: Was ‘Passing’ always going to be your debut?
HALL: I wrote it having zero intention of making it. But the first draft of the adaptation just came out of me very quickly along with a visual language for the film. I knew then, 13 years ago or whatever, that it had to be black and white and formal looking film with composed shots. And I wanted the film to be as performative as the subject matter on some level. I thought this would be tremendously arrogant to make this my first film and I would probably not be able to pull it off because it’s just too complicated. So it went in a drawer for years. I suppose it just took growing up enough to realize that filmmaking is an act of arrogance, so you might as well make the most arrogant one you got.
AP: How did you get Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson?
HALL: Ruth was the first actor to come on board. I was sort of stalking her in my brain for a while. But I didn’t really know her and then fortuitously we were on a similar press round. We were at a couple of the same parties and on a couple of the same panels. Eventually I cornered her at some party and said, look, I’ve got a script, please, will you read it?
She said I want to be part of it, but I have to play Clare. Up until that point I just assumed she would want Irene. And I know that when an actor tries to explain something to a director that the director can’t see, you can bet your life it’s going to be really exciting.
AP: What went into casting Irene?
HALL: I knew it would be hard. It’s a very, very complicated part and requires someone who could be warm and trustworthy to the viewer and then utterly inaccessible and a little bit frightening. It’s totally enigmatic. It’s totally repressed. It’s totally confused. It’s a woman having a breakdown who has no idea she’s having a breakdown. I’d seen Tessa in that first “Creed” movie and thought, wow, that’s a movie star. I started thinking that she could do it. Is she available? No, Tessa Thompson is never available. But Angela Robinson, who is one of the producers, managed to get me on the phone with her. I’d really gone down the rabbit hole thinking about her in the role. I was utterly convinced that she was perfect for it and there was no other option. I was terrified to get on the phone and then she said, it’s brilliant, it’s so up my alley. But then it was just scary, will we have the money, will they be available in the same window? Then the money fell apart and we had to wait a year. I have no words for how indebted I am to those two women for just sticking by this project for two years of their lives.
AP: Was directing what you hoped it would be?
HALL: I’ve been dreaming about my first day on set as a director for my whole career and so I had fairly high expectations of how much I was going to love it and it actually exceeded it.