Tessa Thompson: ‘I remember my grandfather rating his siblings in terms of how fair their skin was.’
The BAFTA nominated actress sits down with actor and producer Nnamdi Asomugha to discuss her latest film for the next iteration of our Awards Season Picks series
Friday 4 February 2022 By Abigail Hirsch Video by Adrian Roup and Paulo Berberan
In just 23 days, Tessa Thompson immersed herself into a character that she spent her whole career building. Passing tells the story of two childhood friends in 1920s New York, one of whom is passing as white. Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, the film explores the notion of identity and limitations that the societal constructs of race, class, gender and sexuality hold.
Here, Thompson sits down at Soho House West Hollywood with actor and producer Nnamdi Asomugha, who starred alongside Thompson in Sylvie’s Love. The pair discuss Thompson’s relationship to her character, Irene, seeing herself in a film from the audience, and being drawn to roles engaging with identity exploration.
NA: ‘How is awards season?’
TT: ‘It’s so nice to have the movie out. Like anything you make, when it’s out in the world it no longer belongs to you. Particularly for a film like this that wants and craves an audience. Their take on the film have been so varied.’
NA: ‘In what way? Is it confusion?’
TT: ‘There's a certain level of ambiguity in Nella Larsen’s text from which the film is based. For some, the 1929 novella is a story about the woes of domesticity or about infidelity. For others, it's about repressed feelings of lust or jealousy, or a complicated story of two women reuniting, or even thanklessness of motherhood. I would argue it's about all those things.
‘Then, of course, there is the practice of racial passing, which we know there are stories about in people’s family's history, certainly in Rebecca Hall’s, our writer and director.’
NA: ‘When you saw the script and title for Passing, did you know what story it was trying to tell?’
TT: ‘I was familiar with the idea of passing, but not with Nella Larson’s work, which felt criminal to me because it makes me think of who gets to be canon and how.
‘I don’t have a legacy of passing in my family necessarily, but I remember my grandfather rating his siblings – he's one of 11 – in terms of how light they were, how fair their skin was, and what their hair looked like. Inside was this idea of who could pass and who couldn't, and that had a certain amount of currency.
‘Nella is asking how free any of us are to construct our own identity. Add the parameters of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and under any of these systems, how free are we to design who we want to be?’
‘I’m really taken by things I don’t understand at all; that real challenge of trying to get inside of the role so there’s less distance between that person and myself’
NA: ‘What was your preparation for getting into that character?’
TT: ‘I've been preparing my whole career for an opportunity like this, in terms of what the role asks. It asks: how do you track a character? How do you have a wealth of feeling in emotion, without any clear release or language to express it?
‘My favourite thing is to get a role where there’s one thing in particular that scares me. With this job, everything scared me in terms of the emotional landscape. Also, shooting in 23 days entirely out of sequence. When you’re doing that there has to be real preparation to understand how to communicate with limited time and resources.’
NA: ‘What is one of your stronger qualities and how were you able to infuse that quality into Irene? Or into acting in general?’
TT: ‘I have always been preoccupied with the idea of justice or having a moral centre. Irene has one idea of what she would like to project, and it’s very different from what she internally desires. There’s a schism. I can relate to that idea of wanting to do good by your community. I also sympathise with Irene in that sometimes that is like a prison.’
NA: ‘Is that what you look for in roles; that aspect of justice in a character, or does it not matter at that point? You just want to understand the character and then once you’re in it, you try to find that?’
TT: ‘I’m really taken by things I don’t understand at all; that real challenge of trying to get inside of the role so there’s less distance between that person and myself.’
NA: ‘What led you to being a producer?’
TT: ‘You probably feel this too – you look at storytelling in a macro way, right? I’m integrated, and curious. I’m interested in the sum, and I love the collaboration and problem solving.
‘As a producer, you have that agency – as opposed to as an actor, big ideas can be meddling. I wanted to be able to be substantive enough to the project that I know how to execute these big ideas.’
NA: ‘Back to Passing, I want to discuss the dynamic between your character, Irene, and Ruth’s character, Clare. There’s a confidence on one side, a discomfort on the other, and messiness in between. Did you rehearse that together beforehand?’
TT: ‘We did have some rehearsal time. There was an unspoken certain amount of mystery that we retained. Their relationship is so complicated that they each needed to feel like they had a secret from the other.’
NA: ‘Were you conscious of that before shooting?’
TT: ‘With building character, once you’re actively working, the work is over in a way. I don’t know that it was conscious, but the performance is doing two things. It’s a misdirect, because when you meet Irene she is effectively passing. She is obscuring identity because she doesn't have the same fluidity of passing that Clare does, but you spend the rest of the movie watching her as a Black woman in Harlem and she is still passing. There was an awareness of having something to hide; I wasn't prescriptive about how that was going to manifest physically.’
‘I’ve thought more about iconic fictional characters that contribute to Hollywood iconography. It’s not to say I don’t love the idea of playing people that exist – but, particularly for actors of colour, that ends up being the role that we get tasked to do’
NA: ‘And now, how do you let that character go and move on?’
TT: ‘It took me some time.’
NA: ‘Does it always take you time?’
TT: ‘No, not always. Recently I just spent six months with Charlotte Hale in Westworld, and I said, good night. Halfway through the wrap party, she came with me, and I said, go home.
‘This one was a little harder. It’s a slow untethering, a conscious uncoupling.’
NA: ‘Is there a real-life character that you can see yourself playing?’
TT: ‘One of the reasons I wanted to make Passing is it’s a film about identity. So many of my favourite artists or musicians growing up were masters of identity creation, whether it’s Prince, David Bowie, or Grace Jones. One of my favourites is Eartha Kitt.
‘I’ve thought more about iconic fictional characters that contribute to Hollywood iconography, which is not to say that I don’t love the idea of playing people that exist. But I think, particularly for actors of colour, that ends up being the thing that we get tasked to do, it ends up being the easier thing to make. ’
NA: ‘Are you able to watch yourself objectively, enjoy it, and move on?’
TT: ‘The answer is no, but I don’t watch any film objectively. It’s a subjective medium. When I’m immersed in a story, if I’m thinking objectively about the values of it, then I’m not inside the story itself. My dream is to be in a film, to watch it, and to feel inside of a subjective experience.’
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