Tessa Thompson on ‘Passing’: ‘It’s a portrait of a woman who is becoming untethered’

“I’m endlessly fascinated with identity in general. And certainly I like to do work that I feel can contribute in some way to cultural conversations that are important,” says Tessa Thompson about starring in Netflix‘s film “Passing,” about two Black women in 1920s New York City and their very different relationships with race. Watch our exclusive video interview with Thompson above.

Thompson plays Irene, who is married to a doctor and has a comfortably middle-class life in Harlem. Then she reconnects with a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), who is living her life as a white woman, and both of their lives are upended. The film is written and directed by Rebecca Hall based on a 1929 novella by Nella Larsen, but the book was written with such “modernity,” that Thompson “couldn’t believe that it had been written so long ago.”

But while the story focuses on racial passing, the book and film also explore how we all “construct our own ideas about who we are. … None of us fit too squarely in the boxes that we try to put ourselves in.” In taking on the role of Irene, “I found it really challenging and interesting to play a woman that is passing in a lot of ways.” She is a pillar of her community, but that itself is a role she’s playing. And when she catches a glimpse of the life Clare is living, “there’s longing. There’s jealousy. There’s the want to be close to. There’s the want to destroy. It’s a relationship fraught with a lot of complicated and conflicting ideas and feelings.”

“It’s a portrait of a woman who is becoming untethered in some ways,” Thompson adds. And much of that is happening under the surface, so “I felt really helped by a brilliant screenplay that Rebecca wrote,” as well as the book, “because it was helpful for me to be able to trace the thoughts and feelings that Irene was having, particularly because so many of them don’t get expressed.” So it was like “a piece of music that I felt like I was getting to play.” But hopefully now, a century after the story was originally written, “the strict constructs of race, gender, and class are eroding,” giving us more freedom than Irene and Clare had to “create identities for ourselves that really match our inner world and inner life.”

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