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'Passing' filmmaker Rebecca Hall shares the personal story behind her movie

Rebecca Hall (right) works on the set of <em>Passing</em> with actors Ruth Negga (left) and Tessa Thompson.
Netflix
Rebecca Hall (right) works on the set of Passing with actors Ruth Negga (left) and Tessa Thompson.

Actor/filmmaker Rebecca Hall had what she describes as a "real gasp" moment when she first read Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing.

The book centers on two light-skinned African American women who run into each other after not having seen each other for many years. One of the women is an active member of Harlem's Black community. The other is married to a white man and is passing as white.

Reading the story of these fictional women, Hall realized that her maternal grandfather had also passed as white.

"Suddenly, aspects of my family life that were tinged with so much mystery and obfuscation, there was a reason for that," Hall says.

Hall's mother, acclaimed opera singer Maria Ewing, also passed as white, though not necessarily by her own volition. Instead, Hall says, Ewing tended to "be whatever people chose to see" — which sometimes meant being described as "exotic" by members of the opera community.

Hall was so moved by Larsen's novel that she drafted a script for a film adaptation — and then she put it away until she felt ready to do something with it. Now, 13 years later, her adaptation of Passing is available on Netflix.

For Hall, making the film — and researching her own past on the PBS show Finding Your Roots — has lifted the burden that her mother had been carrying all her life.

"My mother has a sort of freedom around this now that she didn't have," Hall says. "She said to me quite recently, 'What you have given me is a kind of liberation. You've liberated us all and you've liberated my father. What he could never speak about, you have done for him. And he would be so proud.' "


Interview highlights

On keeping a family secret about heritage

It's a huge burden. And then I think when that child has a child, me, then what happens? I guess you get inquisitive and start to bust it all open, apparently.

This is all stuff that I'm still grappling with and I think the process of making this movie, and living in this space, and thinking about this an awful lot over the last 13 years of my life has made me see how many things, many family dynamics, have a dimension that might be affected by this.

On her understanding of her mother's racial identity

To me, she always looked Black. Certainly growing up in the English countryside and going to a very white private schools, I was aware of her difference. But it was a thorny subject matter, not because she wouldn't give me answers. She couldn't. She didn't really have access to the information, either. So I would ask her, I would say, "What are we? What's our heritage? Tell me about your father?" And she would say, "I don't really know. It's possible that he was a bit Black or a bit Native American. I don't really know." ...

<em>Passing</em> filmmaker Rebecca Hall says she had a "real gasp" moment when she first read Nella Larsen's 1929 novel<em>.</em>
Rich Fury / Getty Images for LACMA
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Getty Images for LACMA
Passing filmmaker Rebecca Hall says she had a "real gasp" moment when she first read Nella Larsen's 1929 novel.

She describes moments when she was a very small child there were some people who were probably relatives who came around to visit and they would come around the back of the house. This was in Detroit, Mich., by the way, in the '50s, and they would come around the back of the house with the curtains closed. And she never really explained why or what that meant or what the relation was. And certainly her telling me the story of being called an extreme racial slur when she was 15 really stayed with me, because I thought, what an extraordinary thing for one's psychology to experience that abuse, but not have any context for defining yourself in relation to that. Like to find out almost through that.

On learning about her great grandfather, John Williams, through the PBS show Finding Your Roots

I know that John Williams was born enslaved in Virginia, that he somehow managed to get to Washington, post-abolition. He got a job in government. He ended up being a very prominent activist. He ended up toasting Frederick Douglass at an event at the White House for the uplift of the race. My mother didn't know any of that, and it's incredibly moving to know those names to know that history, to know how much resilience and extraordinary stories there are in our family, so much to be proud of.

On working with Woody Allen (Vicky Christina Barcelona, A Rainy Day in New York) and her reaction to Dylan Farrow's public letter accusing Allen of sexual abuse

I felt I was in a very odd position, because the day that the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, I was shooting exteriors for that movie, and I was shooting a scene where I'm screaming at Jude Law's character about his predilection for finding 15-year-old girls attractive. Although that wasn't the plot point, it was the women that look 15. But I was surrounded by paparazzi who could hear me saying these lines and were photographing me, and then people were coming at me, because I happened to be promoting a movie at the same time. ... But everybody kept asking me what my stance on Woody Allen was and why I was saying those things on the street. I was also pregnant. So I was [pregnant] with a girl and I found myself so moved by what Dylan [Farrow] had wrote in the Vanity Fair article, and I felt it was important to try and amplify those voices in that moment. I think in retrospect, I have a lot of confused feelings about it because I don't think that the actors should be held to task for this, and this particular story is so complicated.

Actors who work with these figures are in a very public place. It almost becomes that we become the judge and jury of these events because we are publicly visible. And so we are asked to have an opinion and then that opinion becomes significant. And I don't think that's fair. We're not judge or jury.

On how learning her grandfather's racial identity has changed how she identifies

I tend to tick all the boxes that apply, and I'm very grateful that you can tick all the boxes that apply now. I remember there was a moment when you could only tick one, and I was a bit like, "Hang on a minute!" I've come on a journey and I've ended up in a different place than where I started, for sure. Of course, I'm a Hall [her father, Peter Hall, ran the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre], and everything that comes with that and the theatrical lineage and the heritage and the British heritage, but I'm also a Ewing. And that's my mother's name, and her father Norman's name, and his father, John Williams' name, and his father's name, who was the farmer who owned his mother. And I can't ignore that. I can't deny it. And I can't forget it.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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