Ruth Negga Leans Into the Discomfort of Passing

A mix of love and disgust drew the Oscar nominee to her character in Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photographs by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Ruth Negga wears a Miu Miu jacket.
Ruth Negga wears a Miu Miu jacket.

For proof that Ruth Negga has the range, look no further than her recent awards season track record. In 2017, the 40-year-old’s performance in Loving earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, establishing her talent for Hollywood in addition to theater. These days, Negga is up for a best supporting actress Golden Globe for a role that couldn’t be more different. Passing, which marks Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, stars Negga as Clare, a light-skinned Black woman who has embraced “passing” as white. Her childhood friend Irene (Tessa Thompson), also a Black woman with light skin, is shocked to encounter as much when they run into each other in 1920s-era Harlem. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Negga shares how the character marked a first in her career and waxes poetic about feather boas.

Tell me how Passing came into your life.

It was via the amazing and astounding Rebecca Hall. We'd been doing press tours for our films a few years ago—she was doing Christine, and I was doing Loving—and we meshed. We really liked one another. She said she was working on this project, and when I went to New York and we had a drink in the Carlyle hotel, I said I'd do it and I couldn't wait. We had to get some money, and when we eventually did, we made it.

Had you heard of the original novel, by Nella Larsen, before that?

I read it in my early 20s. It had a profound effect on me. The book isn't that well known, but there are lots of female writers of color who aren't well known and should be. And she, Nella Larsen, is certainly one of them.

The story is a two-hander: There’s Irene, a light-skinned Black woman, and her old friend Clare, a light-skinned Black woman who decides to “pass” as white. Did you always want to play your character, Clare?

Always. I don't know why—I just was drawn to her. I think I was half in love with her, half repelled by her. That curiosity about my own reaction to her interested me and compelled me to want to play her. Clare is very mysterious—I think she's a mystery even to herself. And I think that's okay. I think life is more about the journey to understanding ourselves rather than to a final destination [of understanding oneself]. And I do love mystery.

Negga wears an Alexander McQueen dress; Bulgari necklace.

Did you like her from the jump?

I loved her, and I liked her, but she irritated me. You know what? For the first time, a character who sort of embarrassed me. She had no filter, and the things that came out of her mouth were sometimes uncomfortable-making. That says more about me than it does her, I suppose.

There was something childlike about her in that she wanted to be loved so much.

Definitely. I think there’s something there that has to do with her childhood. Definitely something about “Rene,” or Irene, played by the amazing Tessa Thompson. She fulfills a sort of weird maternal role for Clare. She represents the Black community that Clare left when she decided to pass. I think [their reunion] is a sort of homecoming for Clare.

Were you a theatrical child?

You'd have to ask my ma. [Laughs] And she'd say, yeah. Loud. Loud. Very loud.

Really? Because you don’t have a loud personality now. I mean, you’re not like [wearing] feather boas…

Oh, I love a feather boa.

You have something like one in Passing, I believe.

I have the most fabulous outfits in Passing, but I also have feather boas at home, of course. Everyone needs feathers.

When was the first time you wore high heels?

Oh, definitely when I was [doing] dress-up, dancing around the living room to Top of the Pops or something. I loved dressing up as a kid, floating around the place in various cobbled-together, fabulous outfits. Well, I thought they were fabulous at the time. [Laughs]

So you dreamed of this life?

You know what? I did. And for some reason—God love me—I thought it was entirely possible.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set coordinator: Sarah Hein; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click