|Rebecca Hall |
Photograph by Jake Chessum for the Guardian
Who, me? Why everyone is talking about Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall is used to people always wanting to talk about her dad, but now the Bafta-winning actor is having to get used to another line of questioning: her role in the break-up of a Hollywood golden couple. She talks gossip, girls' schools and growing up
Saturday 12 June 2010 00.02 BST
Rebecca Hall is a fine actor who starred in the best Woody Allen film in years, but she's better known now for her role in a recent tabloid splash, after she was cast as the femme fatale, or deadly English rose, who could, possibly, have destroyed the marriage of Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet. After all, she had worked with Mendes, they were friends, and apparently she was his type of girl (brainy, arty, good-looking).
We meet in a Manhattan cafe. She arrives on foot, alone, long, black dress, no make-up, flat sandals, sore ankles from where high heels have been rubbing. I look for Sam Mendes hiding round a corner with his high-art posse. Nothing doing. Does she live round here? No, she says apologetically, she's not been here before. So where is home these days? "That's a good question."
There is a quietness to Hall, and to her acting. Perhaps the most obvious example is Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Whereas Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson burned up the screen, Hall made her impact with a sober intensity. It may be the stage of her career, but often you remember her characters by their relationship to others. So in Starter For 10 she's the bright girl who eventually getsJames McAvoy's studious geek, in Frost/Nixon she's Michael Sheen's jet-set girlfriend, and in Einstein And Eddington she's David Tennant's devoted sister. Even when Hall does shocking, she does it with subtlety, notably in Red Riding, in which she plays the traumatised mother of a missing girl seeking solace in casual sex; last weekend, that performance won her a TV Bafta.
Hall sits down, orders avocado on toast, and talks about her new movie, Please Give. It is classic Hall territory. Ostensibly, it's about a couple who buy furniture on the cheap from relatives of the recently deceased and sell it on in their trendy vintage shop, but really it's about growing up and learning to make the best of your lot. Hall plays Rebecca, a dowdy mammogram technician who looks after her vinegary grandmother. She is beautiful, but in a rather unadorned way – a few freckles here, a couple of dimples there. Whereas it is too great a leap of the imagination for, say, Cruz or Johansson to play plain, Hall can pull it off. As so often, her character here is melancholy, uncomfortable in her skin – she stoops uneasily, her mouth seems overcrowded with teeth, and when an elderly patient tries to fix her up with her son, she blushes and bites her lip.
It's funny how her characters seem so removed from the world in which she grew up. Sir Peter Hall, her father, is the theatre director who started the Royal Shakespeare Company, her mother the opera soprano Maria Ewing. By the time she was five, they had separated. Back then, her father was always getting married and divorced, and it was time to move on to wife number four; Ewing became, and remained, a single mother.
Hall, now 28, says she doesn't understand why everybody always wants to talk about her dad. It was her mum who was her primary carer, whose achievements were the more amazing, of whom she was in awe. "Her story is insane," Hall says. "She came from working-class Detroit, no education so to speak, had a freakily large voice, won a bunch of competitions, ran off at 18, and by 23 she was an international opera singer." Ewing is a one-woman cauldron of cultures. "Her mother was Dutch, her father half Native American Sioux Indian and half black of some unknown origin."
Does Hall identify herself as black? She bursts out laughing, and when she does her features scrunch into a lovely, messy abstract. "Heeeheee. It is quite funny. No, you could not get more white and middle class and English than me."
She sits pefectly poised and straight-backed. Why does she so often play people drowning in their own diffidence? "I grew to be 5ft 10in when I was 11." Did she feel…? She finishes the sentence for me. "A right twat? Yes. It's huge for a girl, and there was a disconnect between my limbs and brain, so I was constantly falling over and very clumsy. And I was generally wildly inelegant. I wished I was smaller. Always." Thankfully, she says, she then stopped growing.
Although she had five half-brothers and sisters, her childhood was lonely at times, just her and her mother in the Sussex countryside, when they were not away touring. Her parents were "incredibly confident", she says; she wasn't. Yet at the same time there was a belief. At nine, she was acting in her father's TV adaptation of The Camomile Lawn, and realised immediately that this was what she wanted to do with her life. Yet she gave up acting the second the cameras stopped rolling – she had no interest in being a child actor. "My mother exposed me to a lot of powerful women in old Hollywood films like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck. And I wanted to be Davis in All About Eve, no question. I just wanted to grow up and get on with it."
She went to the private girls' school Roedean and hated it. Yes, she knew she was privileged, but not in the way most of the other girls were. "I was a really pretentious teenager," she says, embarrassed. In what way? Well, there were times when she would listen only to music by brass bands, and she preferred painting and playing music to socialising. And? "I was quite into my politics. I didn't really want to be in a posh school, I didn't want to be posh – that was a lot to do with it. Yes, I had these high-profile parents, and Dad had a house in Chelsea, but it's not like I grew up enormously wealthy. My dad's done theatre all his life. He's not even done an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, for God's sake! My mum has no understanding of the class system in England and is totally American culturally. My upbringing wasn't hanging out on the Kings Road and having friends called Paloma and Fifi. So I didn't entirely relate to that." She speaks in a strangely neutral non-accent, impossible to place – not unlike Kate Winslet. She says she has been self-sufficient from a young age. "I've not been reliant on my parents. I was very independent. I think I had to be in a lot of respects."
Why? "Complicated. Family, divorce, blah blah blah, parents working all over the place… I don't have any resentment towards them for my strange childhood, because they never stopped giving me an awful lot of love, but I grew up quicker than some." She remembers going to friends' houses and discovering families who ate together and stayed together. It wasn't the divorce that was unusual, it was that her father had four families. Has that shaped her attitude to marriage? "I can't tell you yet, but I think it has made me incredibly nonjudgmental. I'm accepting of practically anything, and I'm proud of that. It's an important quality to have as an actor because it allows you to accept certain ambiguities."
Hall still seems to be coming to terms with her own – she seems unsure whether she wants to embrace her privilege or run away from it. At Roedean she ended up head girl. Absolutely ridiculous, she says. So why do it? She looks even more embarrassed. "I got voted in and thought, right, they've gone for the 'ironic' vote. Then some sort of leadership instinct kicked in and I thought, I'll do it for the students, I'll make a democracy of this. And I went to the headmistress and said, OK, I'll do it, but only if you allow me to take assembly once a week, just for students. It was a disaster, and my teachers hated me."
At the end of her second year at Cambridge University, she walked out. Was she miserable? No, she says, she was blissfully happy. Why do it? "Because I wanted to make a decision in my life that I would be really proud of. I think that gave me a lot of confidence." Eh? Look, she says, it's a long story, but here's the nub: she had always wanted to go to Cambridge, always wanted to study English, and it all seemed to fall into place too easily. She'd had two great years appearing in plays, and didn't want to spoil her memories with a year of swotting. "I thought it would be slightly fraudulent to disappear into a library and cram in a really superficial, half-arsed way." So she made a pact with herself: if she got less than a 2.1 in her part-ones, she would stay to finish her degree, otherwise she'd quit. And what did she get? "I got one mark off a first." She laughs. "Which is really annoying. It almost made me stay." Weren't her tutors angry? "Furious. It was an incredibly arrogant and hideous thing to do, but I'm proud of it. I didn't want the piece of paper, I didn't want the trajectory of 'I did this, I did that', I wanted to walk out having a little chip on my shoulder." Is that what she told her mum and dad? She smiles. "No, I just said, I'm leaving, don't ask me to explain. They were devastated."
She ended up working with her father again, as a succession of super-smart, super-eloquent Shaw and Shakespeare heroines in Mrs Warren's Profession, Man And Superman and As You Like It. Wasn't it strange being directed by her father at an age when most people are beginning to enjoy their independence? No, she says, it made things easier. "We have a short-hand and intimacy." Would she tell him where to go if he upset her? "No, but I have been more inclined to argue with him in the rehearsal room than with other directors." Does she call him Dad at work? "Absolutely not!" Sir Dad? She scrunches up her face again.
Did fellow actors think she got the job because he was her father? Maybe, she says, but after a while she wasn't bothered. "There's always going to be a separate version of you that people will create, and you have no control over it." What is that? She crunches her toast. "Oh, this sort of strange deference to her father, a bluestocking intellectual who is very repressed and clearly emotionally tortured. Basically an asexual intellectual. And they like to spin an angle that I do what I do because I want to please my father." Crunch.
Why asexual? "I think it's the roles I've played. I've played an awful lot of repressed people." Is there any truth to this picture of her? "I'd say it was 100% bollocks. I've never been desperate to please my father."
I tell her I came across this great quote – when she started working in theatre with Mendes, the Sunday Times called it "a steely act of oedipal severance". "That's the one!" she shouts. "That made me laugh so much." And was it a steely act of oedipal severance? "It's the most curious bit of psychobabble. Isn't he implying I have an Oedipus complex and therefore it would be natural to deal with my guilt about not working with my father by carrying on doing Shakespeare, but with someone else, even if I don't necessarily want to do it?" Especially with a man who has been labelled the new Peter Hall? "Exactly, but then it wouldn't be steely and it wouldn't be a severance… In any event, it's all bollocks."
It's a slightly unfortunate segue into Mendes. If I now ask whether they're having a relationship, it may sound as if I'm suggesting she wants to sleep with her dad. So I broach it delicately.
"And is Sam Mendes like your dad?"
But there's still the tricky matter of asking about their rumoured relationship. I so want to be tactful, but it all just comes out wrong: "What's it like to be a marriage-wrecking bitch?" I ask.
She throws back her head and scrunches her face tighter than ever. "Heeeheeeheee! You thought you'd tackle the rumours head on, did you?"
"So are you having a relationship with Mendes?" I'm starting to sound like a cuckolded boyfriend.
"I did not have sexual relations," she says in her best Bill Clinton voice.
"Look me in the eye, Rebecca Maria Hall," I say.
"No, it's the weirdest thing and it's all a load of bollocks. Again. That's what I mean about separate versions of your life."
But he is a good mate?
"Yeah, of course he's a good mate."
Where do the rumours come from?
"I don't know. Given up caring." If I catch her snogging him in next week'sHeat, I'll be pissed off, I say. She smiles and assures me I won't.
Does it bother her that some think she is the cause of Mendes and Winslet's break-up? "It bothered me because…" She starts again. "No, mostly I didn't give a shit… There's a part of me that doesn't mind the most far-fetched things printed about me, because I'm actually keeping the reality shielded." Is the reality far worse? "No, the reality's just really boring."
So does she have a boyfriend?
"It's none of your businesssssss," she says in a mock teen-whine. "I'm not going to answer that. I'm a very private person. My friends get at me for being too private with them, so I'm highly unlikely to, you know… You want to keep it separate, or nothing's your own."
We retire to a bar football table for a quick game and chat about being cast by Woody Allen. He met her for a minute, asked if she could do an American accent, and that was that. When I score a couple of quick goals, she say her competitive instinct is kicking in. The film must have been something of a fantasy feature for Allen, what with Cruz and, er, the blond one? She fills in: "Some bird called Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem: really ugly people!"
Was she nervous? After all, Allen set the three women up in competition with each other. "I chose not to get involved in it, because I wouldn't have been able to do the performance if I'd turned into a neurotic basketcase – like, 'Am I as pretty as these incredibly gorgeous women?' I just wouldn't have been able to do the job."
The thing they were most competitive about was their relationship with Allen. "Your principal motive on a movie set is to get the film made, but on a Woody Allen set there's an ulterior thing that goes on, which is: did you have a conversation with Woody, how friendly have you been with him, am I liked by him?"
Time to go. She's heading back to England soon, then it's off to Scotland to film a supernatural thriller called The Awakening. So where does she call home? "I don't know." Where's her house? "I don't have one. In England I'll stay with friends and family until they get bored with me. Until I get another job." She says she quite likes the rootlessness, that it helps her acting – no fixed abode, no fixed identity – but you sense that part of her wouldn't half like a room or two of her own. "I've just started to get really envious when I go into people's houses and see books on a shelf. It's so long since I've been able to buy a heavy book."
As we head off, she talks about the things she likes to do and would like to do. As well as the art and music, there's writing. What does she write about? "I dontknowwwwwww," she teen-whines again. "Nothing I want to talk about yet. I wrote reams and reams of poetry in my diary the other night about how sad and tortured I am... I love the solitary, romantic idea of writing."
Actually, she says, she's joking about the poetry, but not about being solitary. Last night, she stayed in on her own and watched all five hours of Ingmar Bergman's gruelling Scenes From A Marriage. That sounds worrying, I say. "You know, there's an awful lot of dealing with people in acting." Dealing? "Well, not dealing with people. Just people. And I like being on my own. I really do. There's so much crap attached to acting, the fame aspect, the ego aspect, the 'Am I good, am I bad, am I being judged, who likes me, who doesn't like me…'"
Does she ever wonder what on earth she's doing in that world? "All the time. Allthe time."