Why Tessa Thompson Was ‘Really Terrified’ of Playing Irene in ‘Passing’ (Video)

Sundance 2021: Ruth Negga and André Holland also star in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut

Last Updated: February 4, 2021 @ 6:59 AM

Tessa Thompson plays one of the lead characters in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut “Passing,” based on Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, and she said the idea of playing Irene “really terrified” her.

“I think we learn over the course of the book that maybe she’s not the most reliable narrator,” she told Steve Pond during TheWrap’s Sundance Studio presented by NFP and National Geographic. “I found trying to understand her really fascinating. I guess my experience of the book was so intertwined with living inside of her skin already. Just, I think, because the way that the book is, in a way, and it scared me, truly — the idea of playing her really terrified me. So I thought, that’s probably a good thing to do then.”

“Passing” follows two women — Irene and Claire, played by Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. The duo pass as white as they reconnect after they were friends in their childhood, and they become obsessed with each other’s lives. Hall had a personal connection to racial passing and was able to access her own family history through Larsen’s novel, set in 1920s Harlem.

“I came to it around 13 years ago, around a time in my life when I was beginning to ask more questions about some aspects of my family history on my mother’s side,” she explained. “My mother’s from Detroit, Michigan and her father was African-American white-passing and probably his parents were also white-passing … And when I read this book,  I think I had, for the first time in my life, a historical context and an emotional connection to these things. I didn’t know my grandfather, I know my mother and it’s a complicated legacy and this book gave me an access point that was very moving to me. And I knew that it could make an extraordinary film.”

Negga said she met Hall a few years ago in New York, where she learned that Hall was adapting this novel that she loved.

“I found [Claire] beguiling and mysterious and just her sense of longing really resonated with me,” Negga said. “It just broke my heart that she felt that she had to make this decision to separate herself from her community in order to survive and maybe thrive.”

André Holland stars as Irene’s husband, who wants their kids to learn the history of racism in America, while Irene wants to shield her children somewhat from it.

“That was one of the things that really grabbed me about the project is that this man really wants to keep his kids safe and see them grow up, period,” he explained. “I think for me, the thing that attracted me to it, in addition to getting to play this character and to speak these words, I mean, so much of filmmaking is about being in community with people who you admire. For me, these three fantastic women on this call right now are three people who I really greatly admire and who I learned about. So it was really meaningful to me.”

“Passing” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.

TheWrap’s Sundance Virtual Studio is sponsored by NFP and National Geographic.

Watch the full interview above.