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Foot Loose

There are no flashing lights, no entourage, not even a lick of mascara. Just Rebecca Hall, strolling into the theatre café at the Young Vic exactly on time, ordering a green tea and suggesting a table by the window. Nobody inside the café or outside walking by gives her a second glance. It’s an anonymity she strives for, and one that tends to escape most female leads in Woody Allen films.

“My closest friends get at me for being overly private with them, so the idea of sitting down with you…” she tails off. “I keep myself to myself and I don’t force my business on anyone else. I like to be able to disappear into situations. I’ve been 5’10” since I was 12 years old, for God’s sake, so I’m used to being physically conspicuous – I’ve learned to deal with that. But I don’t like it.”

Acting, then, is the perfect cover for a 27-year-old girl who describes herself repeatedly as “such a geek”, allowing her to perform onstage and in front of the camera (Starter For 10, Frost/Nixon, The Prestige, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) while keeping a steely guard over her personal life – except for those details the press picked up on as she was growing up. The only child of glamorous American opera singer Maria Ewing and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company Sir Peter Hall, she was used to being part of a family who drew attention – one of her earliest memories is of seeing her mother’s performance as Salome, when she stripped naked, kissed the head of John the Baptist and then took her own life.

Hall was head girl at the elite boarding school Roedean – “Bullshit! Bullshit! I was a terrible head girl, they practically fired me” – and followed in her father’s footsteps with an English degree at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, which she quit to his dismay after her second year to act full-time. She found herself unable to get past the audition stage for four months, possibly thanks to directors’ reluctance to associate themselves with Sir Peter, so when her father offered her a role in Mrs Warren’s Profession, she figured that she may as well go for it and tackle the accusations of nepotism head-on. Suddenly, people took notice – here was a young woman of refined beauty who could really act, having picked up her talents not from drama school but from observation and “learning on the job, from when I was little, doing lots of plays”.

In an uncanny case of art imitating life, Hall landed her first film role in Starter for 10 with James McAvoy, as the low-key love interest of a fellow Cambridge student competing on University Challenge. “I did have a friend from Cambridge who appeared on that programme,” she laughs. This was followed by The Prestige, in which Hall plays the suicidal wife of a magician, and Frost/Nixon, where she added gravitas to a rather shallow role as David Frost’s jet-setting other half, after meeting the real Caroline Cushing for dinner. “When Peter Morgan wrote that part he hadn’t met her, so in a sense her character was a complete fabrication. I was nervous meeting her because I knew that first and foremost I had to serve the script, but she seemed pleased because she thought that I was bright – she was keen to avoid being perceived as an airhead.”

Cagey about whether she can write, Hall mutters, “I just write out of boredom, it’s nothing very interesting or worth reading. It’s not poetry. Fuck, no… Yeugh!” She finally divulges that she has written “a bunch of short stories”. “My friend Brian Crano thought one was brilliant and adapted it into a short film called Rubberheart a few years ago,” she says, laughing. “It was about sex dolls, based on some documentary that I had seen about those life-sized, titanium skeleton sex dolls manufactured in LA using silicone; you heat them up in a bath and they get warm… really scary. My story was about a lonely character who hadn’t found any lasting relationships. I imagined this woman dating him, then discovering he has three of these dolls that he keeps like a family. The idea is about how judgemental or accepting we are when it comes to a base level, and how much does it matter? I played the woman.”

So perhaps Rebecca Hall isn’t quite as innocent as she appears. Determined to do something outside her comfort zone, she auditioned for Channel 4’s challenging paedophile ring drama, Red Riding, based on David Peace’s novels, which aired this year. “I auditioned for this blonde, northern, abused mother and everyone went, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen.’ But I was determined to get it and to do it. That was a big challenge.”

She claims that another challenge presented itself in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, playing the neurotic, prudish, engaged Vicky who resists Javier Bardem’s advances. Hall’s audition with Woody Allen involved a brief meeting where he asked her if she could do an American accent, then sent her on her way. She was hardly going to say no. “I do instinctively trust him because he’s brilliant at what he does,” she says, “but the idea that you can just cast someone in 30 seconds does make one think, is he really going on a wing and a prayer here? What if I am really, really terrible? I thought, I’ve got to prove my worth.”

“We definitely had a few good nights during filming… not with Woody, are you kidding me?! He’s like (adopts Allen’s accent), ‘I eat my dinner at six thirty and go to bed by eight.’ The other day I was cycling down Lower Marsh, and there was a taxi and some people by the side of the street. I was quite pissy at this point, going, ‘Can I just get through?’ I kid you not, there was a camera and I had cycled almost directly into the shot. It was all the crew from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, waving at me. Woody came round the corner and said, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you on a bicycle? You’re ruining my shot!’ It was fucking hilarious. He was pleased to see me, but told me he wouldn’t come and see me in my Shakespeare play because he wouldn’t understand the language. Not true at all! Well, he’s a bit of a philistine, so yeah, it might be true.”

Like her mother, Hall can sing – a fact that she characteristically refuses to shout about. “I’m quite a music nerd and I love singing but I’m shy to do it in front of people,” she fidgets. “A Tom Waits musical, that’s what I’d want to do!” Then, entirely unprompted, she adds, “My ex is a singer-songwriter, a brilliant singer-songwriter, and he deserves lots of press.”

The ex is actor Freddie Stevenson, introduced to Hall by her father when he cast the two in As You Like It and failed to notice the first signs of the off-stage romance. “He wasn’t aware of it, and I never asked him! Nah, he loved Freddie,” she grins. Has she found anyone since? “None of your business!” she squeals, bouncing on her chair with fists clenched in frustration. “Sorry, but I’m really entrenched about this now. I feel like I’ve got to make ground rules about my private life and stick to them. It’s a difficult balance of trying to be open – it’s part of the job and people are curious, I get that. But I don’t want people to know everything about me.”

At the moment, you can see Hall in Dorian Gray, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, as the suffragette daughter of amoral adviser Henry and the second girl Dorian falls for – a character that doesn’t exist in the novel. “I think, fair game. The book is really philosophical and intellectual, it’s not a sort of edge-of-your-seat, thrilling movie. They were making something that’s like a genre feature, a horror film… there was such a departure anyway from the book that it didn’t bother me.”

Tonight, Hall is preparing for one of her last performances in The Bridge Project, Sam Mendes’s stage adaptation of two classics – Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, alongside Ethan Hawke. “For (Chekov’s) Varya I don’t really wear any make-up. Well, I do, but it’s this pot of grey-green stuff to make me look as bad as possible. In rehearsals, Sam kept saying, ‘No, you need to make yourself more unattractive.’ I eventually came out, half-joking, having painted on these epic Frida Kahlo eyebrows that vaguely joined up in the middle, thinking it was a bit of a funny joke. And he went, ‘That’s perfect.'” Glancing at her watch, she stands up and slings an unshowy black Prada bag over one shoulder. “So now I’m off to put on my slug eyebrows, and then do some Chekov.”

© Dazed & Confused 2009