Ruth Negga on the 'spirit of safeness' between her and Tessa Thompson on Passing set
"I think then we all do our best work," Negga tells EW's Brittany Kaplan of feeling secure on-set in the latest episode of The Awardist podcast. Fearlessness "isn't just something an individual generates in themselves. It has to be an environmental thing, and I very much believe in that."
Netflix's awards hopeful Passing is a film adaptation of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel about the unexpected reunion of two Black high school friends, one of whom (Negga's character, Clare) has been living her adult life passing as a white woman. The film, which is the directorial debut of fellow actress Rebecca Hall, has received positive reviews and awards attention, especially for the central performances of Negga and Thompson.
"Being open and vulnerable to one another as performers [and] individuals was key and crucial," Negga says of her connection with Thompson. "And I think we very much created that spirit of safeness between us and that spirit of connectedness. No performance can be really done individually... My performance was very reliant on her and I think vice versa."
Despite the serious subject matter, Negga says there was a lot of fun and laughter behind the scenes that helped create the aforementioned safe zone. "We laughed a lot on set, and I think that is a release, if you will, for the tension and the subject matter. I think that is crucial when you're doing things that are very emotionally trying, that is essential. And luckily Tessa is like that. We giggled an awful lot," she says.
Naturally, with Passing being an adaptation, the original source material was vital in helping the actress understand the character's motivations and struggles. But Negga did a lot of her own research, too. "It's very hard to access plentiful historical material on it because the nature of it was so secretive and taboo no one talked about it," she says. "Communities who lost their individuals to the practice of passing really lost them. It was a severance. When people went over, they had to often cut off all familial contact, all contact with their former lives, their communities, their friends, in order to survive in their new body. The irony is it's not a new body, it's just a new perspective, I suppose."
The stories she did find, however, were "striking." "The fact that this is a huge life upheaval and it happened so often and yet we know so little about it — the word 'passing' is not in the everyday lexicon. And it's interesting, and I think about it a lot now. I think passing as in a death, passing on into the next world, because it is like that and it does feel like this person is going onto a journey over the river Styx into an underworld because it's a world of secrecy. And that fascinated me," Negga says.
Passing is now streaming on Netflix.
Listen to the full interview on EW's The Awardist podcast below or available wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe for new episodes every Monday. Our new season covers the road to the 2022 Oscars with in-depth analysis and interviews with Kenneth Branagh, Mike Mills, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Halle Berry, and more Oscar hopefuls.