ABOVE: REBECCA HALL AS FLORENCE CATHCART IN THE AWAKENING.
The Awakening is Rebecca Hall’s first venture into leading lady territory. She’s already a familiar screen presence—serious but simmering in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), desperately vulnerable opposite Ben Affleck in The Town (2010)—and a familiar name due to her family (her father is the revered theatre director Peter Hall, her mother is opera singer Maria Ewing) and her relationships. The Awakening, however, is the first time that Hall has helmed a film.
Set in England in 1921, when the country is still reeling from WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the film revolves entirely around Hall’s character, a writer and professional “debunker” of spiritualists named Florence Cathcart. Mourning a lover lost in the War, Cathcart searches for ghosts and spirits. She clearly wants to believe and is envious of those who do, but if she can’t convince herself, she’s determined to bring everyone down in the doldrums of her misery. The cast is sparse; for much of the film there are just five characters: Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran in Game of Thrones), and a muttering Joseph Mawle who creepily lurks throughout the film. It’s a ghost story, a thriller, set in a creaky, British country estate turned boys’ school. But most importantly, it is Hall’s film.
We recently spoke with Hall, who is returning to her ensemble roots and currently filming Iron Man 3, about the film, if she believes in ghosts, working with Stephen Frears, and the pains of auditioning.
EMMA BROWN: Hi Rebecca, where are you?
REBECCA HALL: I’m in London.
BROWN: Oh, I was told that you are currently filming Iron Man 3 in Beijing.
HALL: I am doing that, but I’m on a little hiatus and Iron Man 3 is filming in North Carolina. I wish I was in Beijing, that sounds much more exciting. [laughs]
BROWN: Did you feel like the new kid in school when you started filming Iron Man?
HALL: Yes, I did feel like the new kid. But everyone was quite nice to the new kid, so it was all right.
BROWN: I saw your new film, The Awakening. Do you think that what Florence is doing—exposing these people who claim to be psychics as frauds—is important?
HALL: In the specific context—no—and I think the film makes that clear. The film is set in a period of time  where 80% of the country was in mourning, and there was an increase in spiritualists holding these séances, and I think the people who went knew it wasn’t real, but they wanted something to hold on to. In other circumstances, yes, it’s always important to expose fraud, but I think what Florence is doing is not entirely humane.
BROWN: Dominic West’s character invites Florence to investigate a ghost at his school. Why does Florence accept?
HALL: She can’t turn down a job and she’s passionate and all those things, but she’s also drawn to it in a more spooky way.
BROWN: And is she drawn to Dominic’s character?
HALL: Yeah, definitely.
BROWN: Did you ever believe in ghosts?
HALL: I don’t know. I always wanted to, but I’ve never seen one. As a child I loved ghost stories. Anything’s possible, I suppose.
BROWN: Do you feel like there’s increased pressure for actors to do everything—to write and direct their own films?
HALL: No. I think acting can be very frustrating, and there’s no experience that doesn’t make you a better actor. So people may choose to explore their other talents. But I don’t think there’s any pressure.
BROWN: You recently did another indie film, Lay the Favorite, directed by Stephen Frears. I heard that you really campaigned for your role.
HALL: Yes, I had to campaign just to read for it.
BROWN: And Stephen Frears’ concern was that you weren’t American?
HALL: Yes, he didn’t want to read anyone who was not American for the part. But I told him that I was—I am—half American, I have an American passport.
BROWN: Do you feel American?
HALL: I don’t know, I think you just feel like you. I had Halloween and Thanksgiving sometimes. If pressed, I would say I feel British. It’s where I grew up and where I choose to live, the culture that I love, but I feel perfectly at home in America, I don’t feel like a tourist or anything.
BROWN: Were you just so confident that you were right for the part?
HALL: No, I thought I was completely wrong for the part.
BROWN: Do you generally pursue what you want like that? I’d imagine it takes quite a bit of courage to pressure a director like Stephen Frears into letting you audition.
HALL: No, I don’t know where I got the balls to do that, to be honest. I’m usually very deferential and British and polite about these things, but something just kind of went off in me and I thought, “I’ve got to play that part, it’s too nuts and looks like too much fun and I understand it, I don’t know why I should understand it, I don’t know why I am better for it than anyone else,” but I just knew I had to do it. It was a curious thing. [laughs]
BROWN: Is that the first time that you felt that way?
HALL: Yeah! It was, it really was.
BROWN: What’s the last thing that scared you?
HALL: The last thing that scared me… it was probably something stupid, like when someone jumped out at me or I thought my new dog had gone to the toilet underneath my piano. Lots of silly things. I saw a mouse recently, that gave me quite a fright. Terribly boring, sorry.
BROWN: Do you get nervous before auditions?
HALL: Oh yeah. I get all those sorts of fears, but that’s different. That’s sort of anxiety.
BROWN: What’s your worst audition experience that you’re willing to share?
HALL: It’s probably Lay the Favorite with Stephen Frears—it ended up as the best, but it started off as the worst. I sat in the room and he just told me before I’d even started the scene: “You’re everything that I am not looking for for this role and I will never cast you. You know that you’re wrong for it and I know that you’re wrong for it, so go on, let’s get it over with.” Which might have to be the worst thing that anybody’s ever said to me. [laughs] But it turned out to be the best, because I probably respond to wanting to prove someone wrong. [laughs]
But I also had a terrible audition experience when I was a lot younger, with a strange director who didn’t say anything for a really, really long time, and had an enormous bowl of boiled sweets—like thick gobstoppers, in a bowl, next to him—and there was an awful deadening silence for about 10 minutes or something excruciating where he just sort of looked at me. Then he offered me one of these sweets and I, out of politeness, accepted it and the moment I put it in my mouth he started asking me questions and it’s very difficult to negotiate and eat a sweet—trying to form articulate sentences at the same —and it was awful.
BROWN: Do you think that he did it on purpose?
HALL: Yes. [laughs]
BROWN: When did the audition with Stephen Frears turn into a good thing?
HALL: It turned into a good thing after I’d done one scene and he said, excuse my French in advance, “Oh, fuck, you can do it.”
BROWN: Did you have a “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” moment?
HALL: Yes. [laughs]
BROWN: Has that given you the courage to pursue what you want more fiercely in the future?
HALL: I don’t know. Doing that job has given me a kind of confidence that I am capable of doing something as nuts as that and that’s a good thing to know about yourself, I didn’t know that about myself before and I think I’m probably a lot more courageous now having done it.
THE AWAKENING COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE FRIDAY, AUGUST 17.