Don’t be fooled by her measured tones, theatre credits and English rose reputation – Rebecca Hall tells Stylist why her latest role redefines her
Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Daniel Jackson
Charles II is looming over me. So is his brother, James II, and a few other kings and queens of England. Surrounded by panelled wood and ancient trestle tables, I’m sat in London’s home to the legal profession, the Inns of Court, built in the 13th century. It feels like I’m either about to argue reformation with Cromwell or start my first term at Malory Towers.
Considering who I’m actually here to meet, it seems quite an apt setting; Rebecca Hall, Roedean head girl, Cambridge-educated, serious actress, whose roles to date have matched her seemingly clean-cut nature and former characters – brainy Rebecca in Starter For 10, straight-laced Vicky in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, sensitive Claire in The Town. The Inns of Court is the location of her latest film, Closed (working title), where she plays a barrister opposite Eric Bana and Ciarán Hinds. Serious stuff.
“Have you looked around?” Hall asks as she folds her 5ft 10inches frame into a chair in a private study. “Middle Temple Hall is where the first performance of Twelfth Night took place in 1602. Just a little bit of history then.” But we’re here to talk about a film that couldn’t be further removed from where we are now. Set mostly in Las Vegas, Lay The Favourite, out next week, is directed by Stephen Frears and sees the 30 year old play Beth, a stripper-turned-gambler. Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones also feature in the cast but Rebecca is absolutely the lead. From her costume (beachwear) to her voice (nasal West Coast) and her energy (boundless), Rebecca is almost unrecognisable. She spent three months before filming hanging out with the real Beth Raymer [the film is based on her autobiography] preparing herself for a role she fought hard to get.
She was told, “You are everything I am not looking for in this role and I will never cast you,” by Frears. But Hall says she knew began a six-month campaign of phone calls to get Frears to see her. “I was like a dog with a bone,” she tells me. The director finally relented and was wowed by Rebecca’s audition.
Prep nights out with Beth were never boring and frequently ended up in “drinks with randoms” or “dancing around a piano until five in the morning”. It sounds like a lot of fun.
And that’s what Hall really is. Fun. Five minutes in, I’m probably enjoying the interview too much. She has an infectious laugh that comes fast and frequently. She considers her answers carefully but there’s a naturalness to them that makes the conversation flow easily. Yes, she’s well-educated and has a respected theatre pedigree – her father is director and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall – but her parents divorced when Rebecca was eight and she was brought up by in the UK by her American opera singer mother Maria Ewing. She won a BAFTA for her role in Channel 4’s Red Riding in 2010 and has balanced her countless theatrical roles with movie work. Screen co-stars, from Scarlett Johansson to Ben Affleck, rave about her. In her personal life, she’s said to be dating director Sam Mendes – happily too.
With only a short break for lunch, she’s happy to spend it talking and apologises for the frenzy when, after 15 minutes, we’re moved to the Grand Hall where the rest of the cast and crew are having lunch. She offers me some frittata and admits her favourite movie (apart from almost everything Dudley Moore was in) is the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. “He’s number one film crush of all time in that movie,” she says. “Completely. Kind of. Not really. Don’t quote me on that.” Sorry, Rebecca…
Your role in new film Lay The Favourite was a departure for you…
You sound quizzical…
"I love reading and am very studious and probably very nerdy…"
Well, the first scene is you standing on your head in your underwear. I thought, ‘This is different’…
[Laughs] It was more than fun. But there’s a kind of… not assumption, but miscomprehension that doing something light and frivolous is actually easier. It’s not. It was incredibly hard work. Beth is by far the most energetic character I’ve ever played. It was exhausting. But I loved every second of it.
What are Beth’s best qualities?
The real Beth is intoxicating and there’s nothing fake about her. She has an enduring capacity to make something out of nothing. She’ll turn any situation into a positive. It’s not in that slightly sort of affected way that you come across with people who’ve read too many self-help books; she’s realistic. She has a great sense of adventure. She is utterly courageous, reckless, and exuberant.
Is there anything in you like that?
Probably. I don’t know. No, there is… If I get a bee in my bonnet about something, I will definitely go after it and not give up.
Like this role? You had to lobby fairly hard for Stephen Frears to see you…
Well, yes. It felt like one of those roles where I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, I could run the risk of being pigeonholed for the rest of my life’.
As a serious, intelligent brunette...
[Laughs] Yes. I don’t really do this [profession] to play versions of myself. I do this because I’m curious about all different ways of life.
What kind of actor are you?
It really depends. If I have any method, it’s that I’m adaptable to the circumstances. Whatever works at any given time to investigate the truth or find something interesting in the character, I will do. So that means occasionally I go full on down the rabbit hole and stay in character all day. Other times I’ll be cracking jokes before the camera rolls and behaving desperately unprofessionally. I loathe talking about it too much because I think you have to preserve a little bit of mystery. There is a weird alchemy that goes on when actors do their job and it should stay that way; a little bit magical and odd.
How do you make your decisions about what films to take?
It nearly always comes down to the role. Do I want to spend some time doing this, in this person’s head? Do I think it’s going to be interesting? Am I going to learn anything? I mean, I slightly took this job [Closed] because I thought I’m going to have time to read loads of nerdy books about the law. I’m always doing a bit of self-educating. And I love that!
So, head girl at school, Cambridge educated, it’s all true; you are a studious brunette…
I’d just like to point out that I dropped out of Cambridge! But I’ll admit; my most defining characteristic probably is that I am very curious about people and things. I like to travel; I love all those things my job makes me do. I love going to alien places and finding out about new things. And I love reading and am very studious and probably very nerdy…
ABOVE: With Bruce Willis in Lay The Favourite, the role Rebecca says has changed her career
Which role so far has changed your life the most?
Lay The Favourite, without a shadow of a doubt. I don’t mean in terms of, it’s going to be a huge success and I’m going to be really famous. I don’t mean that at all. I’ve got no idea. And actually, you have to divorce the experience from the outcome because otherwise you’d go completely crazy. But what I can tell you now, the position I’m in now, is that that job made me realise I am capable of things I never thought I was capable of. And it gave me a confidence and strength and changed the way I look at the parts I want to play in the future.
You’re about to start filming Iron Man 3. That’s a guaranteed blockbuster. There’ll probably be a doll made of you. Is that daunting?
I will definitely be freaked out by that. I think I put blinders up because all of that stuff is completely insane making if you actually think about it.
Can you remember the time when you decided to become an actor?
I can’t remember an exact moment. I remember being surrounded by it a lot as a kid. I think I must have been quite little because I was only eight when I acted professionally in The Camomile Lawn (1992) which my dad directed.
I remember that being a bit rude…
What? ‘Camomile Porn’? Yes! [Laughs] It was also brilliant TV. I’m not sure I was even allowed to watch it because it was so racy, despite being in it. That’s not true actually, my parents never believed in such shit. But for whatever reason I didn’t really watch it. But it was on television recently and thought, ‘Wow, nobody really makes TV like that anymore’.
You’re regarded as ‘quintessentially British’ but your mother is American. Is that a defining part of your character?
It just is. I vote in the American elections as well as here. I pay tax in both countries so I might as well. I feel very at home in American culture, just as I do in English culture. Well, some aspects of American culture... New York [Laughs]
How would you say your upbringing has shaped you politically?
My father was and is very political. He’s always lobbied for Arts Council funding and that’s been a huge part of his career and his legacy. My parents encouraged me to be politically engaged but they also encouraged me to be culturally engaged. I’m indebted to them for giving me such an education in that area. It’s a big gift to know a lot about films and theatre when you’re working in them.
Do you call London home?
"One of my favourite things is to just sit at my computer and make playlists of pretty much anything"
Do you feel like you have roots here?
As someone who works and travels as much, you could feel… A bit rootless? [Laughs] Go on, say it how it is. Yes, I’m a complete itinerant. I keep making attempts not to be but then circumstances make me uproot and go somewhere else again. It’s not the worst thing in the world at all; I love it. In fact, I’m probably horribly addicted to it.
There’s a rumour you’re a total music geek…
Yes, that’s true. This is how much of a music geek I am; if I have a day with nothing to do, one of my favourite things is to just sit at my computer and make playlists of pretty much anything. If I could be a musician, I’d do it. I love singing.
Should we expect an album?
No, because I don’t write music. If someone asked me to collaborate on something and I thought they were brilliant, then that would be kind of fun. But I mean, it’s a big if.
Is there one song you think everyone should listen to?
That’s a really tough question. Do you mean the song or the version? I always go back to Ella Fitzgerald singing My Man at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1977. It’s not necessarily the song, and it’s not even necessarily her, it’s that particular recording. For some reason, it always gets to me. And I’ve got a bunch of those but that's the first that comes off the top of my head.
What books would we find on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading The Baroness [by Hannah Rothschild] about Nica Rothschild, because I like a lot of jazz music. I just started The Sisters Brothers [by Patrick deWitt]. And I loved Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. She properly brought feminism into our time in a good way. It really did clear a lot of shit up.