It would be easy to assume that Rebecca Hall has never had to fight for anything in her life. Now 39, she made her screen debut at the age of 10 in The Camomile Lawn, the 1992 TV series directed by her father, the British theatre grandee Sir Peter Hall. Her stage debut came a decade later, in his production of Mrs Warren’s Profession. There followed 15 hugely successful years as an actor, working with Steven Spielberg (The BFG), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige), Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and many more. But for more than a decade she has been struggling to build a second career, as the director of a movie that some would say she has no right to make.
That movie is Passing, which Hall has adapted herself from the 1929 novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It is an emotionally resonant study of racial identity, seen through the eyes of two Black women, Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), both of whom, to varying extents, “pass” as white. Hall remembers first encountering the book in her early 20s and feeling a rush of inspiration: “I was sat there reading and I could just suddenly start seeing it: their two faces, seeing each other in that tea room, and I had that idea of looking from Irene’s perspective and panning through someone staring at you and then coming back. That was really there, and very potent, in black and white in my head.”
If you’re in a Black family and a member leaves and crosses the colour line, you don’t ever see them as white
The phenomenon of “passing” is, in many ways, historically specific. It made sense only in a time and place when the oppression and segregation of American “negroes” (defined, according to the “one-drop rule”, as anyone with any African ancestry) coincided with the severing of community ties, making it both possible and desirable for people of European appearance to “cross the colour line” into white society. And yet, what Larsen’s book revealed – and Hall’s film further elucidates – is the universality of the passing experience. Nobody fits entirely comfortably into the identity categories assigned them by society; every human is more complex than any label can account for.
Take Hall herself, whose personal connection with Larsen’s novel may not be immediately apparent. Her mother is the opera singer Maria Ewing, who was born in 1950, in a white, working-class Detroit neighbourhood, to a white mother and a father of mixed African and European heritage, who habitually “passed”. Hall was vaguely aware of this family background growing up, but none of it was discussed openly. “I think in any family that has a legacy of passing, it’s very tricky, because, sadly, you inherit all of the shame and none of the pride,” she says. These feelings were further intensified by Hall’s sense while growing up of being an outsider within the elite class to which her parents’ artistic success had afforded access: “I was in these fancy private English boarding schools and everyone gets picked up in Range Rovers, y’know? I’m going to and fro in a taxi and everyone looks at my mother and it’s like, ‘Ooooh! Isn’t she exotic!’”
Hall is also a mother now. She met the actor Morgan Spector when they appeared together in the Broadway play Machinal. They married in 2015 and now have a three-year-old, who, she says, “loves the television”. Parenthood has given her a fresh perspective on the sometimes unconventional way she was raised: “I didn’t always have the greatest childcare,” she says. “I was left alone quite a lot, but I had access to drawers of VHSs of the old Hollywood movies my mum loved.” She has memories of watching Douglas Sirk’s 1959 passing-themed melodrama, Imitation of Life, with her mother. “I remember it being like, ‘But wait a minute! This is also slightly your story! So it’s weird that we’re sitting here, watching this, and not commenting on that …”
Covid has so far prevented mother and daughter from also watching Passing side by side. “She watched it in not ideal circumstances, from my perspective, on her laptop,” says Hall. “But then she called me and she was very emotional and very proud.” Hall also sounds emotional, recounting that conversation. “She said that she felt that it was like a huge release for her father – of what he could not say – and, in turn, her, and it was like being given a late-in-life gift.”
History, race, class, gender: Passing explores all these big themes through the small but ever-so-telling details of women’s domestic lives in early 20th-century Harlem. Here, Irene exists in comfortable, apparently contented domesticity with her two sons and her doctor husband (Moonlight’s André Holland), waited on by her darker-skinned Black maid, Zulena (Ashley Ware Jenkins). That is, until disruption arrives in the vivacious form of her old childhood friend, Clare, a blond bombshell with explosive potential.
The film is shot in black and white, with the monochrome palette obscuring subtle differences in skin tones. This, says Hall, is essential to how Passing reveals the subjective, socially constructed nature of race: “I think I probably only retroactively understood, intellectually, why it needed to be black and white. It was initially like an instinctive decision.”
Her choice of cast was equally bold. With the exception of John M Stahl’s original 1934 version of Imitation of Life, which featured mixed-heritage Fredi Washington as Peola, every previous Hollywood film on the topic has cast a white actor in the passing role. “Those films are white-gaze-y,” Hall says, “in the sense that they centre the white experience of receiving someone passing, like, ‘Oh yeah, they look white …’ and I really didn’t want to do that.” Casting Thompson and Negga, “women who people broadly understand to be Black women, or biracial”, meant redressing cinema’s history of whitewashing, but also served a dramatic purpose: “It puts the audience in that position of looking at them and going, ‘Oh no! Are they OK? Isn’t everyone seeing what I’m seeing?’
“The most articulate way I can describe it is that if you’re in a Black family and a member leaves and crosses the colour line, you don’t ever see them as white, even if all the white people see it. And that’s the perspective that I wanted the audience to see it from.”
While everything about both Passing and Hall’s own background makes a nonsense of the Black/white racial binary, Hall is still a white women in the eyes of the world and that raised an important question: was she really the right person to bring this “Black” story to the screen? Hall’s completed screenplay “sat in a drawer for six years” while she grappled with that, and even after she arrived at her evident conclusion, Passing spent another seven years in financing and production. The whole process has given her a long time to think deeply about identity and representation from several professional angles. She now takes a different stance from her former Vicky Cristina Barcelona co-star, Scarlett Johansson, who said in 2019: “As an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal, because that is my job.”
As actors, says Hall, “our tendency is to be like, ‘Well, I can play everything! I can make myself shorter!’ But it’s not really true. And it’s not always right, and I don’t think it’s really actors’ responsibility [to make that decision]. Actors are probably the last people that should ever be asked about this!” She knows that there is nuance in the discussion, though. “I wouldn’t want to say that I can only play, like, the daughter of a theatre director and the daughter of a mixed-race opera singer. That would be fairly limiting.”
Clearly Hall has not been limited as an actor. But even within a career of diverse, stage-and-screen-spanning roles, her 2017 film, Christine, was an impressively stark turning point. Her performance as Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV news journalist who took her own life during a 1974 broadcast, was widely proclaimed the best of her career. The film’s direct confrontation of the patriarchy, media exploitation and mental health also seemed to herald a more forthright era in Hall’s public life. Notably, in 2018, after the re-emergence of sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen (which he denies), she apologised for working with the director and donated her fee to the Time’s Up campaign. “My actions have made another woman feel silenced and dismissed,” she wrote. “That is not something that sits easily with me.”
As a female film-maker, Hall herself represents an underrepresented minority, but the numbers are growing and, notably, many of the first-timers have followed a similar path. Actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kristen Stewart and Taraji P Henson all have upcoming directorial debuts, while Greta Gerwig, Olivia Wilde and Regina King have already successfully made the transition. “There are quite a lot of actresses turned directors at the moment,” Hall agrees. “And I’m championing them all, obviously. But it would be nice if there were other routes too. The access point to getting jobs in film is often as a PA [production assistant], and the truth is, being a PA on a film set in America is … it’s impossible. Like, the hours are impossible, you don’t get paid anything, which means that it’s purely the privilege of somebody who’s got the financial resources.”
Hall would be the first to point out that she is among the privileged few, but even with all her advantages, she has felt discriminated against – as a woman and, more specifically, as a woman wanting to make films about women. Part of this, she says, is the kind of internalised sexism that makes becoming a muse to male directors seem like the path of least resistance: “It’s not like I don’t love acting and didn’t get an awful lot from it. But I was always just interested in film.” Other forms of sexism she encountered were very much external: “It’s like, ‘Was that a tiny aggression? I can’t quite tell …’ I deal with it all with a very ‘kill them with kindness’ vibe. But it still means you’re managing something that a man wouldn’t have to manage.”
Perhaps the most important lesson she learned on other people’s sets wasn’t any single technique or skill: “The thing that you can’t learn is your relationship to your gut, and your relationship to the frame. That’s what it ultimately boils down to. You’re looking at a frame and it’s like, ‘Is this my taste? Is this the feeling that I want?’”
After years of being gazed upon, Hall is doing the gazing, and it seems a more comfortable position. To read interviews from her earlier career is to find yourself transported back to the bad old days of celebrity arts journalism. She always seemed to get the sharp end of that pre-#MeToo profile sub-genre, in which the (usually) older, male interviewer seems unsure whether to patronise his subject or perv on her. “Yes! I’m really glad you said that!” says Hall with a slightly bitter laugh. Understandably, she can still come across as guarded. Those emotions and opinions to which she does eventually give voice represent only a tiny fraction of what passes across her face while she is forming a response.
Still, she says, “I’ve definitely entered a slightly ‘fuck it’ stage of my life.” If she hadn’t, this film would never have been made. “When I first started showing [the screenplay] to people, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s extraordinary! It’s really wonderful! So, so delicate!’ And then there would be a pause, and then someone would say,” – she adopts a tactful half-whisper – “‘I think you’ll have a very hard time getting it made. Maybe come back to this one?’” Nevertheless, she persisted: “A lot of people saying ‘no’ just increased my desire to do it. That was the missing ingredient: people saying, “Great, fantastic – but can you make it in colour?’”
To Hall’s knowledge, there have been no other attempts to adapt Passing for the screen in the near-century since it was written. This, despite the richly visual nature of Larsen’s prose and the continued relevance of her themes. “It’s a point that I muse on quite a lot: why the hell wasn’t there a film of this?!” Showing her film at various screenings since its Sundance premiere, seeing how powerfully it connects, particularly with the chronically underserved female audience, has helped her come up with a theory: “I think it just took the world – well, not the world, the people who control the purse strings in Hollywood – a really long time to realise something: the emotional lives of two Black women is actually, incredibly, potentially mainstream.”
Passing is released in the UK on 29 October.