Ruth Negga on her complex, heartbreaking performance in Sundance drama Passing
Filming wrapped on Passing long ago, but Ruth Negga is still haunted by her character, Clare: "I've played her, and she's stuck in celluloid, and I'm thinking, 'God, I'm not really sure,'" the actress admits to EW as she reflects throughout an interview on Clare's choices and motivations. "I'm actually using you to figure out who she is!"
Negga's performance as the complex, "confounding" woman is sure to stick with viewers just as long. An adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 Harlem Renaissance novel, Passing stars Negga and Tessa Thompson as two women in 1920s New York, childhood friends who meet again after years apart. Thompson's Irene lives in Harlem with her husband, who is also Black, and their two sons; Clare, who has passed for white throughout her adult life (and whose white husband is ignorant of her background), is thrilled for the chance to spend time with Irene and join a community that she gave up, dangerous though it may be for her to switch between these different visions of her life.
Rebecca Hall makes her directorial and screenwriting debut on the delicate adaptation, which will premiere this weekend as part of the Sundance Film Festival (which is going digital for 2021). "I felt like she was a sculptress of this film," Negga says of the actress-turned-filmmaker, for whom Larsen's novel was deeply personal, relating to her own family history. "She knew what she wanted for every single shot. She knew the tone, she knew the timbre, she's very vivid in her vision," Negga continues. "She has the ability to transmit truth in a way that it's so elegant and really rare. For her, I think everything is about truth, everything."
Few ideas are more elusive in a text like Passing, which is about "the shadows that haunt the truth," as Negga points out. That especially applies to Clare, whose true self exists somewhere in between the starkly divided spaces in which she lives. The actress was deeply inspired by Larsen's own approach to her characters, about whom the author writes with a sharply perceptive detachment. "She manages to talk about these two women in a way that doesn't love them or hate them, but she presents them as who they are," Negga explains. "And she doesn't judge them, either."
That matter-of-fact treatment spoke to the actress as she searched for the character's truth herself. It was important to her to convey, as Larsen does, that Clare's identity is not defined by her race, nor her life by the trauma of passing: "What she did was an act. It was a physical act, it wasn't an emotional act. It wasn't a racial act. It was a physical act to survive," Negga says. "But in the meantime, she hasn't lost her joie de vivre; she hasn't lost her personality. What Larsen does is she goes, 'Oh, this girl had a f---ing personality.'"
In Negga's hands, that personality bursts brightly out of the black-and-white frame, simultaneously maddening and heartbreaking, neither victim nor heroine — a woman with nothing to lose. "Listen, it's not the choices I would have made," the actress says. And she may not exactly endorse Clare's sometimes unaccountable, often dangerous behavior, "but I don't think, in order to play someone, you have to go, 'two and two equal four.' It's not math," she says. "I don't always understand completely the characters I play. And I think that's what keeps me ever more fascinated with human beings, that 'who knows?'"
In Negga's experience, it's "really rare" to find a script that explores human nature with such nuance and insight that also revolves around two Black women; "When I was growing up, it felt like women of color were this sort of reluctant ingredient in the bigger recipe of a film, you know: 'We have to have one. Who will we have? Pick one!'"
Far from "reluctant ingredients," she and Thompson give Passing its heart, its power, and its complicated truth, which resonates beyond the arresting finale and for which Negga keeps returning to Larsen: "She's saying, 'Look, these are the choices. And these are the women who made the choices, and look how complex these women are,'" she says. "'Look how complex and human and wicked and beautiful and lovely they are. Just like you.'"
Passing premieres as part of the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 30.