|Rebecca Hall |
Photograph by Richard Saker
"I was worried everyone would hate me"
Being the daughter of Britain's best-known theatre director Sir Peter Hall might have had its advantages. But outstanding performances in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon and C4's upcoming thriller Red Riding prove that Rebecca Hall is not just daddy's girl
Sunday 22 February 2009 00.01 GMT
ver since she was a little girl, Rebecca Hall has been identified as a promising talent. The daughter of Sir Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was director of the National Theatre, and Maria Ewing, the celebrated opera and jazz singer, she had great expectations encoded in her genes.
At 10 she appeared in her father's TV adaptation of The Camomile Lawn and also got herself an agent. And though her parents placed her fledgling career on hold for a decade, Hall's first adult appearance on stage, in Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession - again in a production by her father - landed her the Ian Charleson Award.
|Rebecca with her father, theatre director Peter Hall, in 2010. Photograph by Dave M Benett|
The award is given for the most outstanding classical performance on the British stage by an actor under 30. Hall was 20, fast-tracked from Cambridge University to Cambridge Circus, without any of the bother of drama school or life in provincial rep. Instead, with her lithe beauty and theatrical heritage, she walked straight into magazine lists of newcomers to watch.
Put all of this together, the famous parents, the elite university, the nepotism, the precocious success, and the photogenic bone structure, and 27-year-old Hall could seem like a walking overdose of old-fashioned privilege. From such an assessment, it would be tempting to conclude that her talent was much less about natural promise than predetermined profile.
Or at least it would be if her evident ability was not currently on display in Frost/Nixon, Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Channel 4's Red Riding, adapted from David Peace's novels of the same name. She plays, respectively, David Frost's jet-set girlfriend, a neurotic Manhattanite abroad, and a working-class femme fatale, and in each role she is instantly and memorably convincing.
I meet Hall in a café in downtown Manhattan, a few blocks from her SoHo apartment. Her agent told me how to spot the actress: "She's tall and very pretty." She didn't take long to find. Dressed in black, she looks like she walked off the cover of a Velvet Underground album. Hall is what is often termed "willowy", meaning that she is tall but she wears her height with style.
"Actually," she says, "I'm a very clumsy individual. I think it's a hangover from having far-too-long legs too soon and my brain is still catching up." All I can say is that's not how it looked as she slinked down Broadway.
There's an easy confidence to her manner, smart and casual, that has nothing to do with arrogance or birthright. All the same, you can see how she was made head girl at Roedean, the exclusive girls' private school. It remains a slightly sensitive subject.
"I'm not wild about my time at Roedean," she says. She claims to have been a poor head girl who spent most of her energy and time acting. "I was always playing men," she recalls, "because I was tall." In her final year, she was cast as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. "So I had to play a 50-year-old obese American in a wheelchair. Not an obvious choice. I'm slightly embarrassed about the pictures. I know they're around. Sam Mendes is determined to find them."
It's because of Mendes that she's living in New York. They met when he was executive producer of Starter for 10, in which she played the serious brunette jockeying for the affections of James McAvoy. I point out that she has worked with a few male stars, including Christian Bale on The Prestige. What, I ask, was the director of photography like on that film?
Not long after Starter for 10, Mendes asked her to appear as Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Varya in The Cherry Orchard, as part of the Bridge Project, Mendes's joint venture between the Old Vic and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
She grabbed the chance, unaware at the time that she'd have three films out at precisely the moment she was locked into an extended theatrical run. Not that she regrets the decision. "I'm loving it," she says, of her life in Manhattan.
What she won't be doing, she says, is cashing in her new film currency by moving to Los Angeles. "I think actors who go over there tend to have a slightly crazed, desperate look in their eyes after a while. Seems to me to be completely detrimental to everything. No one has ever encouraged me to go to Los Angeles, not even for auditions. All the American films I've got are pretty much from making videos in my bedroom in Archway. I'm not kidding."
This aversion to LA, and the empty search for celebrity that it represents, stems from deeper and longstanding reservations about the consequences of fame. "I was a kid when my father was running the National. Both my parents were very much in the public eye - their divorce was a big deal [she was five at the time]. They were famous in a way that opera stars and theatre directors aren't really famous anymore."
Witnessing the experience of her parents, she says, made fame seem a "massively unattractive" proposition. "I'm still terrified of the idea of becoming remotely famous."
I point out that film actress is perhaps not the wisest career choice if one's aim is to avoid fame. "Yeah," she agrees, "but I'm not really good at anything else. No, I think I've a better perspective on fame and how to deal with it. There are those creative types who are so obsessed with not becoming famous that it becomes their whole reason to be - 'I mustn't get photographed!' and that sort of thing. I think the only sensible way to deal with it is not to let it ruffle you too much."
In any case, she literally couldn't wait to become an actress. She left an English degree at Cambridge in her final year, much to her father's disappointment. I tell her that I've read that she loved everything about Cambridge and that she was fed up with it. Which is true?
"Both," she says without hesitation. "I did love everything about it. I wouldn't be the same person without those two years. All of my friends were from those two years. It was everything I imagined university to be. But I spent all my time acting, and I thought if I watch all my friends disappear into the library and become neurots over getting their degrees, I'll end up hating the experience. If I leave now, I'll remember loving it."
There was also, she admits, an element of throwing a spanner in the works. "I felt an irritation with the trajectory of going to Roedean and then going to Cambridge and getting a good degree."
So did she suffer an awkward fortnight of unemployment?
"No," she replies, acknowledging the tease, "it was a bit longer than that. An awkward three or four months."
Her agent put her up for various jobs, none of which she got. She attributes her failureto the fact that she had no experience or drama school training, and nobody had seen her act. But she also thinks that people were reluctant to employ her because she was Peter Hall's daughter. "They didn't want to be accused of nepotism."
That's possible, of course, but the world is full of out-of-work actors, and there's no reason why their ranks shouldn't include the children of theatrical legends. Nevertheless, the rejections were enough to persuade her to take her father's offer of a part in Mrs Warren's Profession. "I thought, 'If no one else is going to employ me because of nepotism, I might as well go for out-and-out nepotism.' Rather than battling that demon indefinitely, it's better to say, 'Yes, I am Peter Hall's daughter, and if you can accept me in this context, then I'll define myself in my own right.'"
But having been given the chance by her father, did she question whether she could actually do it? "Well," she says, "the press night was one of the scariest nights of my life. And I think my father's as well. But I never felt unconfident in my own ability, though I did feel insecure about whether anyone else would see that." She laughs out loud at this subtle distinction, then adds: "I was fairly convinced everyone would hate me."
How long did that last? "Oh," she gives me a look of bemusement, as if the answer was obvious, "I still feel it. I think a lot of actors have that. If you really commit to anything as vulnerable-making as acting you have to have some deep-down kernel of self-belief. But at the same time most actors believe in the possibility that they're delusional, and that they're going to be found out for being a fraud."
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, by some way Woody Allen's best film for years, the actor with the Allen-like role is Hall. What happens - does Allen guide actors towards "doing" him?
"Well, yeah, when I first read the script," says Hall, "Vicky would appear on the page in these enormous chunks of dialogue scattered with 'gees' and stuttering. I thought, 'Oh, OK, I know where I am. I know what part this is.' But I don't think he goes about it consciously writing what we've come to know as the Woody Allen character. In fact, he told me to put it in my own words. And if I ever went too near to that kind of thing, he'd encourage me to mix it up and do something completely different."
The result is a deliciously uptight characterisation, full of moral indignation and sexual yearning. Hall says she has met plenty of Upper West Side neurotics in her time, but that she was more interested in conveying a familiar female dilemma of trying "to negotiate the difference between fantasy life and real life".
Her role in Red Riding is not so readily accessible. She plays the mother of a missing and most probably murdered child, living in a grim 1970s council estate in Yorkshire. Her grief manifests in the unconventional shape of dark sexual abandon.
She says she had little time to prepare for the part. Does that mean, I ask, that she didn't go and live on a council estate for six months? "No," she laughs, "definitely not. It's called acting."
But she did read all of the David Peace books. "He's kind of a brilliant writer," she says, "very unnerving. He's got a prose style unlike any I've come across."
By contrast, her part in Frost/Nixon must have been a doddle. She plays Caroline Cushing, who was Frost's girlfriend at the time of the Nixon interviews. It's a slim part that is little more than a device for placing the macho battle of wills in softening feminine relief, but Hall carries it off with just the right note of suggestive hinterland.
She had dinner with Cushing, who gave her blessing. "She said, 'Don't make me a bimbo - I'm an intelligent person.' Which she is. She's formidable, actually - very glamorous. I spoke to all the real-life men concerned about her and you just had to mention her name and they all blushed and went gooey."
What, you mean John Birt?
"Yes," she guffawed, "she obviously had an effect on people."
Birt and many others, including Frost himself, were invited on to the set by the actors portraying them. "It was a bit like show-and-tell days at school," she says. "Every day I'd come into work and go to the make-up truck to get my hair done and Michael [Sheen who plays Frost] would always be there, and he was obviously very finicky about his hair, how it fell just so. It had to be just right - and rightly so, because it was a very specific look and he micromanaged it precisely. One day I came in and did a double-take because I realised it was actually David Frost in the chair and not Michael Sheen. He was having his hair done and doing exactly the same thing - micro- managing the haircut!"
The one obvious absence, owing to his being dead, was Richard Nixon. Still, Jonathan Miller once compared Peter Hall to the disgraced American president. "Working for him [Hall] was like working for Richard Nixon," he said. "Like Nixon, he always has a couple of underlings around who finish his enemies off by spoiling their reputations."
That's subsidised theatre for you, but what has this latter-day Tricky Dicky made of his daughter's acting? Does he ever proffer technical advice?
Do you not solicit his opinion?
"Strangely not. He's my dad before he's a director. I'm more concerned with seeing him and hanging out with him than I am with him coming to see something I've done."
Peter Hall has been married four times. Rebecca is the only child from his third marriage, but she has three half-sisters and two half-brothers ranging in age from 16 to 53.
"He's had a lot of kids now, and by the time he got to me he worked out how to be a really wonderful dad. He's really good at taking off the director's hat and just being my dad. He goes to see my stuff, but he doesn't give me any notes. He's just proud, and gets very emotional in a very heart-warming way."
She says that he recently called her after seeing Vicky Cristina Barcelona again when it opened in London. "He was very emotional and said that people were laughing in the audience. Then he called me up to say there was a really good review in the Sunday Times. It's very touching. We have a really healthy relationship."
She doesn't read her own reviews, she explains, because "I have a tendency to believe anything bad written about me". She doesn't know what she's going to do after the run at the Old Vic, but she hopes that at some point she gets the opportunity to sing in a film, thus combing her mother's two great loves of singing and cinema.
For the moment, though, she is savouring the feeling of not being rooted to one place or one career. "I'm quite into the idea of carrying on living out of a suitcase."
Then she slips back on to the SoHo streets, no longer a promise but a genuine talent, her future as busy and broad as Broadway.
Rebecca Hall / I was worried everyone would hate me
Rebecca Hall / ‘I was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time’