The storyteller: Rebecca Hall on politics, podcasts and why she's definitely not a cat lady

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Helen Bownass
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Ahead of her magnetic performance as a troubled TV reporter, Rebecca Hall talks politics, podcasts and why she’s definitely not a cat lady

On 15 July 1974, 29-year-old news reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head while reading the news live on air in Sarasota, Florida.

This isn’t the Wikipedia plotline to a film that’s been plucked from the brain of a screenwriter; rather the true and shocking story of a woman in turmoil, brought to light on screen by British actress Rebecca Hall.

Christine, out later this month, is disturbing and upsetting – although with some surprisingly funny moments – confronting perennial themes of isolation, mental health, visibility and women in the workplace. It’s a brave exploration of a human trying to make it, but who ultimately fails to do so. Hall is startling as Christine, utterly embodying and humanising the socially awkward young woman, leading some critics to term it the greatest performance of her career – she laughs when I ask where the hell you go from a comment like that, saying it’s both “very, very nice” and “bewildering”.

It is a role that fits perfectly in Hall’s CV – in so far as there is no obvious pattern to what she has done before. Throughout her career, Hall has balanced theatre and film; light and dark. For every Vicky Cristina Barcelona there’s an Iron Man 3. After giving up her literature degree at Cambridge she was cast in her father’s – pre-eminent theatre director Sir Peter Hall (her mum is Detroit-born opera singer Maria Ewing) – version of As You Like It and has risen through the ranks, without too much glare.

Hall now lives between London and New York, with her husband, Boardwalk Empire actor Morgan Spector, who she met while co-starring in a Broadway production of Machinal. “I’ve always identified as half-American half-English despite what the British press have said about my jolly hockey sticks, headgirl Roedean background,” she laughs. This ability to self-mock is frequent, talking to her she’s like the effortlessly cool older girl you used to secretly worship as a teenager, someone who’s funny, smart and curious, not remotely jolly hockey sticks. She’s also “fighting remnants of some kind of flu” when we speak. Going on to inform me she’s in the stage “when your head releases itself of all the snot, and you’re really confused about everything”. If this is her confused, we can’t imagine what she’s like when she’s fighting fit...

The film isn’t an easy watch, what was the appeal?
As Meryl Streep said via Carrie Fisher last night [at the Golden Globes]. “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” that’s why we do [acting], we’ve got to make sense of these things. Christine left us with a frightening number of questions. If we don’t battle with it through art we’ll never make sense of any of it. Her act was a rebellion in many ways against things that are shocking or sensational for entertainment’s sake, to make the film for that reason would be a betrayal. I sensed an opportunity to show someone who was addled with serious mental health issues but also primal screaming about the world going in a way she couldn’t handle. We’re all on the precipice today; not knowing where politics or we are going. It’s really interesting talking about this film pre- and post-US election, I find it resonates very differently now. That notion of using fear to manipulate and control people was at the forefront and that hasn’t gone away.

Another thing that’s so interesting is that she so desperately wanted to be seen. The notion of how we perform ourselves and whether we increasingly doubt if anything we do exists if it’s not seen by the camera... there’s something in Christine I find poignant about that. The moment she was completely seen was also the moment she ceased to exist.

Did that change your feelings about social media?
It’s ironic. I’ve always been quite confused and perhaps holier than thou about social media, and the minute this film came I out I joined Twitter and Instagram because I knew I had to do whatever I could to help this film be seen. I’m not an idiot, I know there’s positive things these forums can give us but I’m also wary of it, this notion of what is true; and that opinion isn’t fact.

You’ve mentioned her already, I presume you support Meryl Streep’s speech?
I’m so happy she said that about the press. I thought her speech was absolutely correct both intellectually and morally. I don’t think actors and famous people have more right to their opinion or are more valid but the platform someone like Meryl Streep has is enormous and when she can use that to do good and say something poignant, then hats off. It’s galvanising. When things feel like they’re changing and under threat, the plus side is people feel more ready to speak their mind and I’m all for that. The time for being wishy washy on these matters is over.

This week sees the Obamas leave the White House. As someone who lives between the States and the UK, how does that sit?
Like everyone else I’m a little fearful because there are so many unknowns, but also I want to be hopeful that [Trump] will be challenged and criticised and there will be ways truth will come out. I think there’s a lot about the American system that is strong and set up to counter someone who might behave in undemocratic ways so I’m hopeful, but not blindly trusting.

How do you consume news?
I don’t have regular TV, I have Apple TV so I pick what I watch, which is perhaps not a good thing. I read all the big publications and also listen to a lot of podcasts. I’ve been listening to Chapo Trap House – they’re quite radical, every time I listen to it my brain feels opened up. I also like On The Media and stream Radio 4 – I find shows like Gardeners’ Question Time weirdly comforting.

Christine isn’t the sort of woman typically given a platform – she fails, she’s not particularly charming, she’s an anti-hero in many ways...
Yes. We can’t constantly tell stories of heroes, we have to hear the other stories too, about people in dire straits who make bad choices. It’s not often you get female characters who don’t fit into a box. I’m really proud of this film, I just want people to see it – it’s been an uphill battle getting people to see it.

Are roles like this coming up often enough?
I’m on the fence about this. There are huge strides forward all the time. I’m really excited by the fact that Marvel is allowing women to be the heroes of their tentpole movies – I think the trickle-down effect will be enormous. But what makes a great female role – and I kind of hate the phrase increasingly – is complicated. There are still clichés. If a woman is victimised and awful things happen to her, I’m not sure that makes a great role but they’re so often the roles that are sold to me; they’re not active, they’re passive. I want to see more roles that are active and complicated.

I know you write too, can you see yourself filling the gaps by writing those complicated women?
If I write I’m not going to set out to write characters I feel like there’s a deficit of. If I go in with an agenda I’m not sure that’s going to yield good results. I just want to write what’s true.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’m always writing something [laughs]. I’m still quite sheepish about it. It’s been something I enjoy for me for so long and I’m only just beginning to think it might be something for other people. In a way I’m beginning to process my life alongside acting. If a screenplay of mine gets made I want to direct it too, but I’m trying.

Living between New York and London, is it fair to say you’re a good traveller?
I think I’m really good. I’m not. I’ve only just worked out that I’ve been deluding myself for a long time. I always assumed I was a great packer with the perfect combination of outfits, but I spend five hours packing and take too much. I think I’m early for flights but I’m never on time. Maybe it’s a side effect of getting older and not wanting to travel so much and unconsciously destroying all my travel plans without realising it.

Does it bother you when other people are late, for example?
No, I’m remarkably accommodating. It takes me a lot to get riled but when I do it’s like tsunami levels. It’s probably masking a much more temperamental personality [laughs]. I’m easily moved by things, I probably present as being quite together and cool but I’m quite thin-skinned and sensitive. Show me any version of A Star Is Born and I’ll sob my eyes out. Or three minutes of Jenny Agutter saying, “Daddy, my Daddy” at the end of The Railway Children and I will cry.

Why that scene?
Talk to my therapist – I’ve got no idea [laughs]. I cry probably every couple of days, at all sorts of things, happy, sad. I’m a big crier.

Where did you visit that won you over in 2016, and is there anywhere you’re aiming for this year?
Anywhere off my radar. I know that sounds vague, but it’s true. I didn’t have a bloody holiday in 2016 and I’m so mad about it. I think I was working too hard but when you work a lot and go away all the time you want to spend your time off with your husband and your cats [Max and Vivi]. I miss them when I’m not with them, it’s pathetic.

Have you become a ‘cat lady’ then?
No, no, no, you’re a cat lady when you have three cats! Two is fine.

Christine is in cinemas and on digital download on 27 January