The Roles of Rebecca Hall


If you meet Rebecca Hall, she might ask you about your family history. “It’s always something I do when I meet people,” she says with a laugh. “Alright, tell me about your family, what’s the deal?” Though she’s just one in a household full of performers (her mother is an opera singer, her father a director, and her half-siblings scattered across a variety of theater and film disciplines), she’s adamant that most families have as intriguing a story to tell as hers. (She concedes that hers is “more externally colorful.”) She mentions Sarah Polley‘s recent documentary Stories We Tell by way of example—the film is premised on the idea that every family has its own story.

Her excitement about family narratives is part of a deeper cultural curiosity—she’s also a self-professed music nerd (currently deciding whether she likes Chilly Gonzales‘s latest effort) and a consumer of films of all descriptions. She’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite genre, even. “I’m a fan, at the end of the day,” she says. “I’m a real geek in this department.” She tosses out a list of what she watches regularly, from Golden Age American films to French cinema, to the latest blockbusters, comedies, and drama, foreign and domestic alike. Her openness to experience also defines her choices of roles. This year alone, she appears in the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, the Antonio Campos biopic Christine about a young Floridian newscaster who committed suicide on live television, and Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the term.

The Gift follows Robyn and Simon, a young couple played by Hall and Jason Bateman, shortly after they move to a Chicago suburb. A chance encounter reunites them with Gordon (Edgerton), a schoolmate of Simon’s who was known once as “Gordo the Weirdo.” Gordo’s overtures at friendship become increasingly aggressive, and while Simon refuses to discuss his past with Robyn, she senses something more at stake than rekindling a high school friendship. Hall approached The Gift with rigor—when Edgerton sent her the script, recommending her for Robyn, she returned to him and asked, “Is this just the wife who sits at home and then gets brutally victimized?”

“He wanted to make all three of those characters human and have faults and be complicated and real,” she recalls. We caught up with her during a lull before she begins work on her next film, Codes of Conduct, to talk gothic horror and mental health—and the violent reactions some viewers have encountered during The Gift.

KATHERINE CUSUMANO: How are you doing?

REBECCA HALL: I’m doing good! I’m in L.A., so it’s slightly earlier. I only got here a couple days ago—I’m slightly jetlagged, waking up today.

CUSUMANO: Where were you before then?

HALL: New York.

CUSUMANO: I feel like comparisons to the gothic thriller are pretty inevitable with this film, where the woman slowly starts to believe she’s losing her mind because the men around her assure her that everything’s fine.

HALL: And that she’s crazy!

CUSUMANO: It’s very Yellow Wallpaper, in a way.

HALL: It’s so interesting that you say the Yellow Wallpaper—I love that book. What a great book. I tried to turn that into a terrible one-act play when I was in high school. [laughs] It really wasn’t very good, my idea, but I really wanted to do it because I loved the book. I think that’s exactly what it is. That’s what appeals to me about it. As much as the film is a thriller and has a lot of conventional tropes of a thriller, if anything, I always thought it was a kind of indictment on the sort of alpha corporate male of America, the effect that they can have on women and the suppression of women.

CUSUMANO: You got your start in theater, right?

HALL: Yes, I did. I never think of it as getting my start. I always want to carry on stage acting. Right now, films seem to be taking up a lot of my time. If the parts weren’t so good right now, I think I’d probably be doing a lot more theater. But suddenly I’m excited by what’s coming my way, so I don’t really want to stop film acting right now. And I love film acting—I’m not snobby about it. I don’t think that theater acting’s a more noble profession. I think they’re both very important. I love both. And in my dream world, I’d get to do both forever.

CUSUMANO: So what is your take on the end of the film?

HALL: I think it’s very clear, actually. I think if people watch it more than once, which they should, because there’s lots of rewards to doing that, there are several clues. If you just think about the film in terms of the moral world of the film, it’s quite straightforward. People say things like, “Good things happen to good people.” That’s really the big clue. You can ruin someone’s life with just an idea, and I think that’s all sort of a clue.

I have a question for you—did you hit yourself in the face? [laughs] I heard from several people who saw the film who had their hand up to their face for quite a lot of it because of the tension that we’re talking about, and then in one scene in particular just whacked themselves in the eye. I heard of three people doing that.

CUSUMANO: I didn’t hit myself, but I saw the movie alone and the scene where the dog comes back I covered one eye entirely. Just had my hand over one eye. Other than that, it’s just really tense the whole time.

HALL: Exactly!

CUSUMANO: Did you have a process for getting into character?

HALL: No, not really. [Laughs] Sometimes you can incubate a character and that can take me a month just sitting on it imagining it, doing everything from sketching it to taking long walks, but sometimes you can see the character immediately. Robyn was just one of those, really. A lot of it is instinctive. Sometimes I can spend months doing things to make sure that my instincts work correctly, but ultimately it’s still instinctive.

CUSUMANO: What is your first memory of wanting to be an actress?

HALL: That’s a really tricky one for me, because I think loads of people see acting, when they’re kids, as these magical stories that just happen within the context of the film or the play or the cartoon or whatever they’re seeing. They don’t imagine that there are actually people that go and do that for a living. But I did, actually, from very young, because I was always in my house watching actors or musicians work. But I think ultimately it’s the same as any case—it’s a vocational job. Often it’s just an extension of that feeling everyone has when you’re a kid, playing make-believe. There are some in the playground that just really take it very, very seriously, and you know they’re going to carry on doing it forever. [laughs]

CUSUMANO: How would you describe the kinds of films that you like to make? Can you describe a role that attracts you?

HALL: It usually falls into one of two categories. It’s either a kind of film that I would like to see, and I don’t understand how the films works. I’m curious about how you make a film like that and I want to watch the film. That incorporates directors that I want to work with, actors that I want to work with, all that kind of thing. The other choice would just be in a character—is it going to be a journey to understand this person? It’s probably completely self-involved, but I think ultimately the further away a character is from myself, the more I end up finding out about myself by the end of it. It’s always a sort of journey to go on.

CUSUMANO: Can you think of a film that you’ve really aspired to work on? A wish-fulfillment kind of role.

HALL: I did Iron Man because I was curious about those massive movies that were taking over the summers every year, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I was like, “Okay, good stuff,” [but] I don’t think I could do that all the time. I felt very fulfilled after doing Vicky Cristina Barcelona because I’d always wanted to work with Woody Allen. That was like a lifelong dream, and that was thrilling for me, to enter that world. Nobody engages in a film, regardless of what your job is in it, to make a bad one. Even if the film doesn’t come out quite as you’d hoped, the process can also be very rewarding. I feel that way about a film called Lay the Favorite that I made with Stephen Frears. I did that because the character was a real leap for me. The film doesn’t quite all add up internally, but I feel very proud of what I did on it.

CUSUMANO: Do you have a role or a film that you’re really proud of or that you’re happiest with the outcome?

HALL: Yeah, I loved Please Give that Nicole Holofcener directed, because, those two categories of film that I like to be involved with—that’s both. The character was fascinating to me because she was quiet and internal, and that’s a real challenge on screen and a challenge that I find really interesting. It just shows someone who wants to be invisible and make them visible on screen. It’s a really interesting contradiction and one that I really enjoyed playing. I like everything about it. I thought it came out brilliantly. It’s probably my favorite film of anything that I’ve done. Probably. I feel that way about Christine, too.

CUSUMANO: I wanted to talk about Christine. It’s a pretty dark role, so I wanted to talk to you a bit about getting into that head-space.

HALL: Yeah, it was hard work. It was the hardest work I think I’ve ever done on anything. The script is really brilliant. It’s about a very dark subject matter, but actually what the film ends up being about is someone who’s desperate to live, and trying really hard to find ways to survive and to find ways to exist in the world, being someone who’s at odds with the world and who’s different in many, many ways. I suppose in the end I had to think about it through my lens, as someone who exists in 2015 and not someone who existed in 1974, because in 1974 there weren’t so many ready diagnoses of mental health issues, and I have to sort of look at it and try and work out probably what the issues were—related to borderline personality and depression. I read a lot about those things and tried to understand them. It was a very rigorous process of internalizing a person and doing her justice, because I think she’s actually quite admirable and wonderful. It was really tough. From the moment I read the script I thought it’d be a very important one to do, and a very scary one to do.