Rebecca Hall at Sundance: Hollywood is scared of 'ugly' female characters
The actor on starring in an acclaimed Sundance drama about Christine Chubbuck – the news anchor who achieved notoriety in the 70s for killing herself on live TV – and why she’s rarely offered parts this complex
Nigel M Smith in Park City, Utah
Friday 29 January 2016 12.02 GMT
Hi, Rebecca! How are you?
Full of a head cold, but otherwise fine.
I think so. I think it’s just travelling and generally being over-adrenalised and happily pulled in too many directions. But yes, cold!
The last time you were in Park City was with the broad comedy Lay the Favourite(1).
It’s a completely different thing to go with a film that doesn’t have distribution(2); it’s a really different animal. I had no experience of that. The two I came with before both had distribution; premiering them there was more like just having a coming-out party. There were stakes with Christine. It was also playing in the competition, which was a different thing as well. There was a lot more nerve involved. You wait for reviews, for buyers to circle it, and then you wait for the juries. It’s a nerve-racking process.
I was at the Sundance premiere of Christine: did you sit through the entire movie?
I did, yes! I saw a cut, but it wasn’t with music. And I think there is a difference when you see something with an audience, so I wanted to sit through it. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. I found it really hard.
It’s a tough watch for anyone. Watching it took me back to the space I was in when I was doing it. I wasn’t really conscious of it while I was watching, but halfway through I thought: God, I’ve got this really bad tension, and why is my shoulder seizing up? My posture was changing in my seat as I was watching.
Then you had to face the audience after for a Q&A.
I’m happy to talk about this film, because I think it needs talking about. Part of the reason I wanted to do it is because I wanted to portray some sort of empathetic version of a mental-health disorder, which often doesn’t get portrayed truly. I wanted to do it with no filter or worrying about being liked – but also for the audience to sympathise with her on some unimaginable level.
Getting up and doing a Q&A after people have just seen it is not exactly comfortable. You’re looking at a group of people who have the expression of: what did you do that for? And there are always people who are going to ask: why did she do it? I don’t know. None of us will ever know. I can make a guess as to why my version of Christine did it, but we will never know what was going on inside her head.
That’s not the focus of the film, solving the riddle that is Christine.
Absolutely not – exactly.
Before learning of your film, I was totally unaware of her story. Had you heard of her?
No, I’d never heard of her. It’s a funny one, because when I talk to people about it, lots of people have an odd reaction, like you have towards some urban myth or legend. People say they’ve seen the footage, and I’m always thinking: no you haven’t, because it doesn’t exist (4).
But there’s something in the consciousness that people vaguely understand the story, or the way in which it’s been filtered down through films such as Network(5).
Given that you had so little footage of her to play off, how did you prepare and feel you were sufficiently ready to embody Christine and do her memory justice?
I felt that I had to be faithful to the script, above anything else, to bear in mind always that this was a piece of art, that I wasn’t trying to re-create someone who existed – and in the process, capture the spirit of someone who did something tragic. I thought it was important not to glorify the act, not to turn it into some sort of macabre act of heroism, leaning into the political statement of what she did. It’s first and foremost a tragedy. She should have led a good career and died of natural causes.
I had 20 minutes of her on TV, and that was incredibly informative because it was 20 minutes of her presenting a show that was in no way indicative of how she walked or talked throughout her whole life. To do an impression of that would have been a mistake, but it did give me a jumping-off point in the same way you can have a first impression of someone you meet and how often that gets misguided the longer you know them.
The script alleges she was a virgin her whole life. How did you factor that into your performance?
In my head, she was someone who got stunted at the point when most of us are developing who we are and how we are: in adolescence. It was a conscious choice for all of us – it’s why she had a pink bedroom and an interest in romantic songs. Behind this severe exterior, there is this adolescent little romantic girl, who’s not developed really. That was very informative.
What do you make of the irritating fact that often, the best roles for women are found in smaller films?
I really think that Christine is one in a million, in terms of independent or studio. But I know what you’re saying: that there are many more opportunities in independent film for women. But I do think that Christine is unusual, in that I was allowed to be bold and not be concerned about being liked.
I think that female roles: they can be victims, they can be sympathetic, they can be in pain, they can be in suffering – but they can’t be ugly. I think there’s so much fear surrounding that, that it makes a film unlikeable, that it won’t sell. If I’m going to be honest about it: I think men get to do this sort of thing all the time. You look at countless performances by great male actors who get to play the whole gamut of human emotions. Women aren’t regularly allowed to do that, and I don’t know why people are so frightened by it. The moment you do, I’m struck by how many people come up to you. Since Christine started screening, I’m overwhelmed by the response from women and men – that it’s so rare to see something like this. We’re just not given the opportunity so much.
(1) In the Stephen Frears-directed comedy, Hall played an ex-private dancer turned gambling prodigy. Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-starred.
(2) Christine is still seeking distribution in the US.
(3) The footage of her suicide is untraceable on the internet.
(4) It’s believed by some that the 1976 newsroom satire was loosely inspired by Chubbock’s suicide.