TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Rebecca Hall, wrote and directed the new film "Passing," which is streaming on Netflix. It's adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name, which is set in the 1920s. It's about two light-skinned African American women who run into each other after not having seen each other for 12 years. Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, lives in Harlem and is active in the Negro Welfare League. She lives in a spacious home with her husband, who's a doctor, and their two sons. She's surprised to find that Clare, played by Ruth Negga, is passing for white and is married to a white man. He's a prosperous banker who hates Black people and has no idea he's married to one. Their daughter passes for white, too. The movie explores the different ways these two women are dissatisfied with their lives, and the different ways race and class have shaped their options and their choices.
The movie has special significance to Rebecca Hall, whose grandfather passed for white. Hall had clues about this. But the past was something her grandfather wouldn't discuss with her mother, who was raised as a white person and lived her life that way. But recently, Hall has managed to learn a lot more about her family's past.
Hall was born into artistic royalty. Her mother, Maria Ewing, is an acclaimed opera singer who has performed with the Met and in the great opera houses of Europe. Hall's late father, Peter Hall, founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and served as director of the National Theatre in London. Rebecca Hall performed in Shakespeare plays under her father's direction. Americans were introduced to her in her starring role in the 2008 Woody Allen film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Let's start with a scene from "Passing." Soon after the two women encounter each other, Clare, Ruth Negga's character who's passing, has invited Irene, Tessa Thompson's character, to the hotel where Clare and her white husband, John, are staying on his business trip to New York. They're catching up on each other's lives. Clare has explained she was afraid to have a second child, fearing that the child would be dark-skinned. She wonders if Irene ever thought of passing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PASSING")
RUTH NEGGA: (As Clare) So you haven't ever thought to?
TESSA THOMPSON: (As Irene) What?
NEGGA: (As Clare) I'm asking if you ever thought of passing, Rene.
THOMPSON: (As Irene) No. Why should I? I mean, for convenience occasionally, I suppose, but no. I just mean, I have everything I've ever wanted, except, perhaps, a little more money.
NEGGA: (As Clare) Well, of course. That's all anybody ever wants, a little more money. Money is an awfully nice thing to have. In fact, all things considered, I think it's entirely worth the price.
THOMPSON: (As Irene) What have you told him of your family?
NEGGA: (As Clare) You know, I haven't had to worry as much as you think. They were my aunts, you see? They took me in after father died and gave me a home of sorts - very white, very respectable, very religious. I met John not long after. And as soon as I turned 18 and legal, we got married and, well, ran off and left for good.
THOMPSON: (As Irene) And you're happy?
NEGGA: (As Clare) Of course, Rene. As you say, I have everything I ever wanted.
GROSS: Rebecca Hall, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. It's terrific.
REBECCA HALL: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Did you know that your maternal grandfather passed as white when you first read the novel "Passing"?
HALL: I wouldn't say that I knew 100%. I certainly didn't have the phrase passed as white. When I was growing up - you know, my mother is an opera singer. And in the opera community, people would describe her as exotic (laughter). And there were some sort of question marks around her ethnicity that I was sort of aware of. And to me, she always looked Black. Certainly, you know, growing up in the English countryside and going to very sort of 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 - you know, I would ask her. I would say, what are we? What's our heritage? Where - you know, 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 or I don't really know.
GROSS: It sounds like, maybe, you were not really familiar with the whole concept of passing. Like, how come the concept was so unfamiliar?
HALL: When I read the book, you know, I literally remember looking at the title of the book and thinking, passing, you know? What an odd name for a book. Passing through what? Passing - you know, what do we - do they mean dying? Do they mean - what is this referring to?
And then, as I read the book, I, you know, had a real gasp moment because it made so much sense to me. Suddenly, those aspects of my family life that was tinged with so much mystery and obfuscation, there was a reason for that. Like, obviously, my grandfather was passing white. It explains why the story about his heritage, his background, wasn't passed down.
You know, my mother didn't know her grandfather's name. I mean, after I read the book, I remember I'd talked to my mother more about it. And, I think, maybe as a result of me being a little older, she didn't sort of brush it away as she had, I think, when I was younger. She said, look; this was incredibly complicated for me growing up. And she described incidents of racism towards her and her father by their neighbor. She describes moments when she was a very small child, when there were some people, who were probably relatives, 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 was never really explained why or what that meant or what the relation was.
And certainly, her telling me the story of being called, you know, an extreme racial slur when she was 15 really stayed with me because I thought, what? 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, (laughter) through that.
GROSS: Do you think it's fair to say that your mother passed because she was an opera singer? And she sang at the Met. She sang at all the great opera houses in Europe. I mean, she was an acclaimed opera singer. And there were very few opera singers of her generation who were Black. I think, it's fair to say that.
HALL: I think it is fair to say. But I wouldn't say that she passed of her own volition. I think it's sort of what she - it's how she was raised. So I think - you know, I think she very quickly - I'm not sure she had any other choice. But, you know, when I think about this, I always think that there is a world where she could have always identified as Black. And then I would have been raised with a very different understanding of that. And she didn't do that. So in that sense, I think she was passing or she could pass.
She certainly didn't correct - she didn't counter people when they said, you know - I remember there was some opera magazines that says African American singer Maria Ewing. You know, it's not like she was going to people and saying, actually, that's incorrect. She just sort of let it be whatever people chose to see.
GROSS: I'm thinking that, you know, her father kept his African American identity secret and didn't really want to talk about it with your mother. He died when she was 16, so she didn't really get to ask him as an adult about his background and, therefore, her background. But I get the impression that it was supposed to be kept a - that these were all hidden things that were supposed to be secret. And I'm thinking of what a burden that is to pass on to a child. Like, you can't really know about your past. We're not going to talk about it.
HALL: Absolutely. It's a huge burden. It's a huge burden. And then I think, when that child has a child - me - then, you know - then what happens? (Laughter) I guess you get inquisitive and start to bust it all open, apparently. But, yeah.
GROSS: Did you feel the burden of that secret?
HALL: I did. I think that there's - look, I don't know. 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 - you know, have a dimension that might be affected by this.
GROSS: What do you mean?
HALL: You know, you look at someone like Irene, who is played by Tessa Thompson in the movie, and she is - she's not hiding her racial identity, but she is arguably hiding everything else about herself. And there is certainly a sort of cautiousness around that character's social performance, you know? She's incredibly careful about her social performance in general. Am I doing the right thing? Am I respectable enough? Am I behaving as a good woman does, a good mother, good member of the Black community, good doctor's wife? I mean, am I OK? Am I OK? Am I OK? She's not free to behave in any way that would be true to her nature. In fact, her nature, as such, is obscured by the imperatives of her survival.
And I suppose what I see in Irene is this larger sense of, you know, being a Black woman in America at that time has this anxiety and caution around behavior. And I think I see that in my family, I see this sense of, what is the - or I have seen in the past, what is the correct way to behave? And I think about that.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Hall. She wrote and directed the new film "Passing," which she adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RED MITCHELL AND CLARK TERRY'S "SWINGIN' THE BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actress and filmmaker Rebecca Hall. She wrote and directed the new film "Passing," which she adapted from a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. The story is about two light-skinned African American women, friends from the old neighborhood, who haven't seen each other in 12 years. When they meet again, one is married to a white man and is passing for white. Rebecca Hall discovered that her grandfather passed.
There's some piano music, a theme that's kind of played through the film, that's really quite beautiful and evocative. I'd like you to say a little bit about it, and then we'll hear some of it. How did you choose this?
HALL: Well, I think I was redrafting the script about - probably about six years before it actually got made. I - you know, I wrote the first draft in about 10 days after reading the book, and then I put it in a drawer for seven years because I was a little overwhelmed by it. I didn't think I was quite ready. And when I came back to it, it then took another six, seven years to get the money together.
But around that time, I was redrafting it and I has - I had my, you know, Apple iTunes on shuffle or whatever. And I was thinking a lot about tone, you know, how difficult it is as a filmmaker to describe tone to people, especially when it's as gray as the tone of this movie. It's - you know, it's difficult to pin down and doesn't really abide by many rulebooks.
And I was thinking about it, and this piece of music came on, which is Emahoy Guebrou. She's an Ethiopian pianist, part of the "Ethiopique" (ph) jazz series from the 1960s, and she's been in exile from Ethiopia forever. She's still alive. She's 97. She lives in a convent in Israel, I believe.
And I heard this piece of music, and I just thought, oh, this is it. This is the tone of the film. Like, I - if this makes sense, I want - this is - this sounds how I want the movie to look. And I went to my iTunes and I looked at it, and I nearly fell off my chair because I realized that the track was called "The Homeless Wanderer," and it couldn't have been more apt, obviously.
GROSS: So let's hear some of this theme from the film "Passing."
(SOUNDBITE OF EMAHOY TSEGUE-MARYAM GUEBROU'S "THE HOMELESS WANDERER")
GROSS: That's really beautiful. That's music from the film "Passing," which was directed and written by my guest, Rebecca Hall. She adapted the movie from the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen.
So I want to get back to passing, you know, in your life - that your maternal grandfather passed, and he never really told the whole story to your mother. So she lived as a white woman who accepted ambiguity about her race and, as you said, didn't try to deny it when somebody said that she was African American. But, you know, it's not something she could really talk with you about both because I guess she didn't want to, but also because there was a limit to what she knew.
But now that you've made this film, things that were very, you know, private or unknown about your life - you're doing your best to investigate your life. I mean, you were even on - well, this hasn't been shown yet. It'll be shown next year. But you did an episode of "Finding Your Roots," which is the ancestry show that Henry Louis Gates hosts on public television where, you know, you do your DNA, but also, they have excellent ancestry researchers who dig up whatever documents they can to find out about your past. So how does that - how has that changed your relationship with your mother and her relationship with her family past?
HALL: It's enormous. I mean, there are things that I found out that are enormous that I couldn't have predicted in a million years - and so significant and so meaningful, but so significant because I got to, you know, talk to my mother and say, I know the name of your grandfather. He was a man called John Williams. And I know the name of his mother. It was a woman called Violet. 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.
And you asked me, you know, how can - you know, how has the conversation changed? It's still changing, but my mother has a source of freedom around this now that she didn't have. And she said to me - quite recently, actually, she said to me, 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.
GROSS: That's really great that she's so comfortable with it and so happy that you found out about it and that it's opened up your conversation. You know, I'm thinking about how her grandfather was all about, you know, like, uplifting the race. He was very - he was very racially conscious. He was very successful. He knew Frederick Douglass. But his son, your mother's father, passed for white. It just makes me really want to know, and I'm sure you want to know, like, why did he make that choice?
HALL: I look at it with complete compassion. Like, you can't even begin to understand how unsafe he must've felt to believe that this was the better choice for his family and his descendants. And I think - I mean, I know that there are events in my history and my family's history - there are events of violence. There's a - in particular, a family member whose life was taken was lynched. And I can't imagine that that doesn't affect the choice because, presumably, my grandfather saw his father as someone who was outspoken, and it caused him violence. It caused him harm. So the message becomes, to stand up and speak about this loudly puts your family in danger.
GROSS: Did you learn about the lynching from "Finding Your Roots"?
HALL: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: That adds something to the story - doesn't it? - to a story of your family past that was hidden before.
HALL: Yeah, yeah. It's huge. I mean, there are many revelations in my episode of "Finding Your Roots." I'm not - honestly, it sounds like I'm spoiling an awful lot. I'm not. There's more revelations than that. So there's a lot.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Hall, and she wrote and directed the new film "Passing," which she adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS' "FROM THE QUEEN SUITE: THE SINGLE PETAL OF A ROSE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Rebecca Hall. She wrote and directed the new film "Passing," adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. It's about two light-skinned African American women. Irene, played by Tessa Thompson, lives in Harlem, is a leader of the Negro Welfare League and is married to a doctor who is Black. Clare is passing for white, married to a white man who's a wealthy banker, hates Black people and doesn't realize he's married to a Black woman. And this is a very potent story for Rebecca Hall, who learned that her maternal grandfather passed.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your development as an artist. You're an actress as well as a filmmaker. And, I mean, you grew up, really, in artistic royalty. I mean, your mother was a renowned - is a renowned opera singer, Maria Ewing, who, like, sung with the Met, sung at the great European opera houses, played roles like Salome and Carmen. And your father founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and directed the National Theatre. I mean, that (laughter) - those are really big deals. So the lead usually dies at the end of the opera.
GROSS: So many operas are tragedies. You must have seen your mother die a lot on stage.
HALL: I saw my mother die again and again and again - like, most of my childhood.
GROSS: What was that like?
HALL: Now, specifically in "Salome," actually, she was - there was a production that my father directed where she would get, you know, crushed to death by shields with these spikes on. You know, and I knew - I went back - I was backstage. I could touch the shields. I could see that they were sort of rubber spikes and all the rest of it. But the way it was choreographed was that these guys would form a circle and crowd her, and then she would jump up in the middle of the circle and sort of throw her body back.
And I watched this happen night after night. I would run to the back of the auditorium and watch it inside the house, and sometimes I'd watch it from the side. But every night, I would be terrified. Every night I would be terrified that something happened to her. It was very, very credible (laughter).
GROSS: Did you tell your parents that?
HALL: I don't think I did, actually, funny enough. I think I told - I've told them now. I told them that when I was much older, but not at the time. I was a very quiet child. I spent a lot of time watching and not really saying very much.
GROSS: So you grew up with, like, two very important parents. Did you have a sense of their importance in the art world?
HALL: I mean, yes. It was a different time when I was growing up. I mean, my parents divorced when I was 5, and they were all over the newspapers. It was a very public divorce, you know? And it's weird now to think about it. It's like...
GROSS: Like in the tabloids? It was in the tabloid?
HALL: The tabloids, yeah. And I was - you know, now I look back on it and I'm like, isn't it odd that at that moment an opera singer and a theater director were so - their divorce was tabloid fodder? It seems completely surreal now, but at that time, (laughter) you know, it was very present in my life. And I was very aware of their stature in the art world. I mean, you couldn't not be. I mean, I'd - you'd walk into rooms with my father and everyone would sort of look, and there would be a sense of gravitas around him.
He was brilliant at countering that because he never made me feel that my opinions were not valid, and he always wanted me to express myself. There was no right or wrong answer, ever, you know? But he'd always want it. Like, we'd go and see plays together, and he'd be like, what did you think of that? And we'd have a discussion. But yes, I was very aware.
GROSS: Was it awkward for you when you started acting, being the daughter of a famous theater director? And especially being in your father's productions, did you fear that people would assume, oh, she's in it because it's her father who's directing it?
HALL: Of course. It was very - it was sort of inescapable, really. I mean, it's difficult - it's hard to underestimate how much of an institution my father was in England. You know, he was a really - he was a sort of very prominent figure.
GROSS: And the named Peter Hall might be familiar to many of our listeners.
HALL: But that came with it, you know, a whole set of assumptions. People had feelings about him, you know, especially different generations of theater directors. And those assumptions would often follow me, you know? They'd assume things about me that might not have been true about my father and certainly weren't true about me. But it's just - you know, this was par for the course.
GROSS: Like what?
HALL: I mean, I - it ranges the gambit of all sorts of things from, like, you know, entitled, silver spoon, upper class to, you know, (laughter) like - I mean, all types of things that always felt that I didn't have much control over how my identity was shaped, honestly, going back to that old chestnut, because so much was foregranted by my parents' reputation. So yeah, it was hard. It was hard for me to decide to be an actor, but there was never really - there was never much choice in it. You know, I wanted to do it from so small.
But the real kicker I'm finding these days is that the truth is I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I couldn't quite fess up to that until just recently. And I find that really fascinating that I should - that I could come from a family where it was so visible, this idea of being a director, and not really imagine myself doing it.
GROSS: And you chose something that had a lot of personal meaning to make your directing debut. But I'm interested in something that you just said; that the presumption - the assumption about your parents and therefore about you was upper class, silver spoon. And having learned what you learned about your mother's side of the family, it really wasn't that way at all.
HALL: No. And my father was equally self-made. You know, his dad was a station master in rural England. You know, he really - both of my parents - an enormous act of will to sort of make themselves into these figures. You know, they weren't born into that by any stretch of the imagination.
GROSS: So did they teach you about the importance of, like, hard work? Did you see them, like, working a lot...
GROSS: ...And not being on stage? Seeing all the work that got into - all the work you needed to do for a good performance?
HALL: Absolutely. I mean, one of the unequivocal things I could say about both of my parents is that they were - are perfectionists. Like, it was an obsessive, you know? Like, their art was the thing; to find the perfect way to tell that story was the driving force. And so much work was involved in that, so much commitment.
GROSS: With your parents being so obsessive about their art, was there room for you in that world?
HALL: Oh, who knows? Who knows, Terry? I'm still working that one out.
HALL: Yes and no.
GROSS: Right. When your parents separated and you were living with your mother, what would you do when she was on tour?
HALL: I mean, kind of all manner of things. There was boarding school. There was also - you know, I would be looked after at home. Sometimes I would get a taxi into school, which would be very unusual. I mean, I definitely was different to the other kids in the posh private school, so I never really fit into that mold.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rebecca Hall. She wrote and directed the new film "Passing," which is adapted from a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE GAIA WILMER OCTET SONG, "MIGRATIONS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actress and filmmaker Rebecca Hall. She wrote and directed the new film "Passing," adapted from a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. It's about two light-skinned African American women, friends from the old neighborhood who haven't seen each other in 12 years. When they meet again, one is married to a white man and is passing for white. Rebecca Hall discovered that her grandfather passed.
So let's talk a little bit about your movies. You've been in, like, independent films like "Please Give." You've been in a couple of Woody Allen films, including "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which is from, I think, like, 2008, before Woody Allen was, you know, basically exiled from the film world.
When Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen's daughter, who accused him of sexual abuse, wrote a public letter that was published, you were in the process of making one of his movies. You were acting in one of his films. And you decided to donate your money to basically the #MeToo movement and to not work with him again. And you were pretty public about that. The movie was called "A Rainy Day In New York." What went through your mind when deciding how you were going to handle it then? Can you talk about that, or is that too uncomfortable?
HALL: I thought 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, you know, 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, you know, right? 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, a movie - I can't even remember what the movie was - "Permission," maybe. But everybody kept asking me what my stance on Woody Allen was and why I was saying those things on the street.
And I was also pregnant, so I was - with a girl. And I found myself so moved by what Dylan 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. It's so complicated.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about actors not being held to task?
HALL: Because 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.
GROSS: I think a lot of Americans were introduced to you as an actress from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen's 2008 film. So, you know, and the film won a Golden Globe for best picture. I think you were nominated for your performance. So I'm sure you felt some kind of appreciation for the opportunity that he gave you. And then, you know, you did something to stand against him.
And that must be hard to do on some level even though you don't want to be associated with the things he's been accused of doing. So, like, how did you work that through in your mind? I think a lot of - this is something a lot - probably a lot of actors and people in other professions have been going through.
HALL: You know, he gave me, at that time, the biggest opportunity of my career. And also, I had a good experience. You know, like, the work was good. But in that moment, it felt like a choice that I had to make in that moment.
GROSS: So now that you know so much more about your family history and your family's racial history, when you're asked on, for instance, the census how you identify, what do you say now?
HALL: I tend to tick all the boxes that apply.
HALL: 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 that was a bit like, but hang on a minute, where it's just like - (laughter). No, I mean, I think it's - I've come on a journey. And I've ended up in a different place than where I started, for sure. You know, of course I'm a Hall 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 was - it'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.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on the film.
HALL: Thank you. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Rebecca Hall directed the new film "Passing." It's streaming on Netflix.
Beginning tomorrow on our show, we'll feature a three-day tribute to the brilliant composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died Friday. You can see him working with singers in the documentary about the making of the cast recording of his 1970 musical "Company." Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz will have a review of the new reissue of the film that's streaming and on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES PERFORMANCE OF WAYNE HORVITZ'S "HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.