How ‘Passing’ Star Tessa Thompson Explored the Many Layers of Identity

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This story about “Passing” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Tessa Thompson has been working in movies and TV for nearly two decades, so she’s well acquainted with bringing a project into the world and hoping that the public will treat it with care. And between “Thor: Ragnarok” and the “Creed” movies—not to mention HBO’s “Westworld”—she’s certainly familiar with passionate fan bases. But her experience with her latest film, Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” is new.

One of the best-reviewed movies of 2021, “Passing” has earned the actress an IFP Gotham Awards nomination and recognition from a dozen critics’ awards groups. The Netflix film (which Thompson also executive produced) is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name and explores questions of racial and sexual identity, as well as gender and class conventions, through the prism of two former childhood friends whose fraught reunion upends their lives. Reserved Irene, played by Thompson, is a well-to-do wife and mother, proud to be a member of the Harlem community during the Renaissance. Vivacious Clare, played by Ruth Negga, is a free-spirit socialite married to a bigoted white man (Alexander Skarskgård) who doesn’t know she’s Black. Shot in lush black and white, the film is the directorial debut of actress Hall, who wrote the screenplay from a deeply personal place: Well into her adulthood, she discovered that her grandfather was biracial and passed as white.

“It’s funny, making the film felt like a secret,” Thompson said. “It felt kind of surreal, even when we first screened at Sundance, albeit digitally, just the idea that people were seeing it. For Rebecca, it’s the culmination of a 15-year journey that Ruth and I are a small part of—but still, getting so close to her as a collaborator (and learning) how much it means to her, it feels momentous in a way that I’m not sure I have felt with any other project before.”

During a break from shooting “Creed III” in Atlanta, Thompson connected with us via Zoom to talk all things “Passing.”

You signed on to this project years before it finally went into production. What made you stick with it?
I was blown away when I first read the novella. Then when I read Rebecca’s adaptation, I just knew that she was the right person to make this film. And it was a challenge that I had long wanted: something that looks at the internal lives of women and, in particular, the internal life of a woman who is becoming untethered from herself and reality. And the chance to do it as a Black woman performer—I haven’t seen myself in those spaces a lot. I haven’t seen a relationship between two women like that on screen before. I thought it was unique and confounding and haunting.

Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap
Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap

The theme of “passing” has so many layers: There’s race, first and foremost, but also sexuality, via the attraction between these two women, and then personal identity as a kind of construct. Irene presents herself as a devoted housewife, but she’s repressed so much and her facade starts to crumble.
Yeah, Irene is passing in so many ways. I found it an interesting challenge, this idea that someone who is repressed — it’s not as if they don’t have a depth of feeling or thought or emotion, it’s just that it doesn’t have anywhere to go. I really was so struck by that, that the performance would require a certain amount of restraint, and that would probably give me a certain amount of turmoil. (Laughs) Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment, but I was really interested in what that would feel like. How do you both hide from the audience, because you’re hiding from your scene partner, but how do you also communicate a depth of feeling and thought? That was such a puzzle for me and so fun.

Irene is very restrained, but there’s an energy shift when she goes to the Negro Welfare League dance with Clare, her husband, Brian (played by André Holland), and her friend Hugh (played by Bill Camp). A lot happens very subtly. The women briefly hold hands. Irene and Hugh discuss “passing” and how the white guests are gawking tourists. Was it fun shooting that scene?
It felt so good because it felt like the first time that you could see Irene open. And it was so layered. Her friend feels the fetish around her community. That back-and-forth with Bill Camp, who is just so gifted, you get a sense that there’s a lot of love there. Someone who feels as lonely as Irene does, that scene felt like a hug. We had two days shooting that dance scene and they were our second-to-last and last day. It felt like a perfect wrap gift because we shot in 23 days, which is a small amount of time.

Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap
Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap

That is an amazingly small amount of time!
Incredible, right? I’d spent all of these days in very dark emotional spaces, holding tension, and this felt like a bit of a sigh. And then just to see all of these beautiful Black people moving through space in these period costumes, that was really a tremendous feast for the eyes. It was really beautiful and moving. It made me think of all of the films that would’ve been made if Hollywood wanted to make films that centered Black people during this time.

If that was the most fun scene to shoot, which one was the most difficult?
The end of the movie was difficult because among the many things that haunted me about the novella and Rebecca’s script was this idea of what happens at the end. Rebecca and I had so many conversations — we charted every moment of this film together, and this was the one scene she wouldn’t tell me how she planned to shoot. And I didn’t know what she thought, in terms of what Irene had done or hadn’t done. That was really important.

The ending is ambiguous. (Spoilers to come.) You’re at a party, Clare’s husband arrives, he’s figured out that she is Black. Then, in a flash, she falls out a window and we don’t know if Irene pushed her or not. I found it less ambiguous in the novella, but what’s your read?
That’s interesting. I read the novella, and maybe because I was reading it thinking about playing this part, I didn’t immediately think that she had pushed her, necessarily. I read it feeling that there’s a world in which she might have, maybe, ideated around the disappearing of this woman in one way or another. The way that I was able to understand it is: What if you actually didn’t know what you had done or did not do? That was the way I played that. The thing that I have found really satisfying is everyone’s read is so wildly different. For some people, it’s a film about infidelity. And for others, it’s a film about repressed homosexuality. We’ve had screenings where we’ve spoken to audience members after, and there’s been, like, a cluster of people that came to the film together and then they’re arguing because one thinks for sure I pushed her, the other thinks she jumped. I love that.

Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap
Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap

Your scenes with André Holland are also so layered — and sometimes quite tense, like when he wants to tell the kids about recent lynchings of Black men and Irene wants to shield them from that. Were those tough to shoot?
When we’re talking about whether or not to be honest with our children, that felt easy in a way. Not that it’s not painful. I mean, especially as a Black American, we are often in conversations like that. André and I were so struck by how you could put that language into modern characters, and nothing would feel odd about it. And that is painful, to really take in the reality of this country and the reality of being a Black American. But we were just excited to shoot that scene. We just approached it like two performers excited to spar.

You’ve done projects of all sizes, but how did making an intimate project like “Passing” compare with some of your bigger films, like “Thor: Ragnarok” and the upcoming “Thor: Love and Thunder”?
I would say that the universe of 23-day filmmaking and tiny rooms is probably the world that I feel most comfortable inside of. I feel really lucky to work on things that are big in scale and scope and to get to go between the two because fundamentally the work is always the same. The moments where I feel I’ve done my best inside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is when I really can believe in what my character is after, as absurd as sometimes it is. (Laughs)

André Holland and Tessa Thompson in a scene from “Passing.” (Netflix)
André Holland and Tessa Thompson in a scene from “Passing.” (Netflix)

Speaking of Valkyrie, she was the MCU’s first openly LGBTQ character. Is that exciting?

It’s totally exciting. We talk so much about representation and obviously, in terms of the LGBTQIA community, there’s still so much work to be done. But if you look at the comics in the canon, there are so many queer characters! It’s hard because Taika (Waititi, who directed both of Thompson’s “Thor” films) and I would’ve even liked to go further, but in the context of the movies, there’s only so much we can do. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time invested in love stories in Marvel movies in general. I think that will be a little different on the new “Thor,” which is exciting. And getting to play a character that historically is not written for somebody that looks like me, all of that felt exciting.

You’re shooting “Creed III” now. You are a part of some seriously beloved franchises.

(Laughs) I hadn’t seen the first and second “Creed” (films) since they came out, so I went back and watched both those films because Mike (star and director Michael B. Jordan) and I have been working a lot on the scenes. It was such a trip to watch them because I didn’t think of them, even when we were making them, necessarily as contributing to the “Rocky” franchise. I mean, when we made the first one, it was Ryan Coogler’s second film? Third film? He’s an independent filmmaker. When I made “Thor: Ragnarok,” Taika came from the indie world. So even inside of these franchise spaces, I’ve typically worked with people that make it feel pretty small.

Your production company, Viva Maude, has a deal with HBO, where you’re developing several book adaptations, including Raven Leilani’s bestseller, “Luster.” As a producer, do you plan on juggling projects of all sizes?

Yeah. Part of the reason why I feel at home on some of these smaller productions is it feels more producorial. My experience has been when things are a bit smaller, you can come in and really be a part of the totality of the project. Our slate (spans) television and film, and much of it centers people of color. It’s taking a page from what I thankfully have been able to do in my own career, which is buck expectations in terms of what I might do next and say that we should be allowed to play in any and all of the spaces that are of interest to us.

Do you have a dream project?

I have a couple of dream projects. Eventually I’d like to direct something that I adapt. But I’d really like to play Eartha Kitt. That’s been a dream for a really long time.

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

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