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Iron Lady: Rebecca Hall

You will know her as the sensible one from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but now Rebecca Hall is making sparks fly with Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 3. Here, she curls up for GQ and talks luvvie posturing, anatomically correct action dolls and her life with Sam Mendes.

Rebecca Hall laughs the way some people stammer. Not for her an “um” or an “er” to punctuate a sentence, or an “errm” to give pause to ponder her next line. When Hall talks, she laughs, and when she laughs, she really laughs. The head is thrown back, the hands clap, the chestnut hair swooshes, the freckles blur. Anyone nearby is almost forced to treat the immediate vicinity as a ship in a storm; anything breakable must be grabbed and secured.

For Rebecca Hall, just starting a sentence is a contact sport.

We are sitting in the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell, London, the 30-year-old’s local haunt (“They do great cocktails,” she says, before we order coffee. “Though probably not at 10am in the morning”), near the house she shares with her partner, film director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). “It’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?” she giggles, after the waitress treats her like a soldier returning from war.

Hall is here because – rather incongruously considering her track record for intelligent Stateside dramas and considered period Britflicks – she’s the female lead in Iron Man 3. “I thought, do I want this? And why do they need me? That was my big question. I’ve always been terribly snobby about [superhero] films. I was very much, ‘Meh, why would I want to do that?’ If you’re just going to make me run around and jump, then I might not be your gal…”

What Hall is often your gal for is clever types. Most frequently, clever types who are buttoned up (Starter For 10), slightly stiff (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), or slightly stiff and buttoned up (The Town). The clever bit is true again here – she’s playing scientist Maya Hansen, a weapons-tech expert who invents a system for new super-soldiers – but she’s playing opposite a man (Robert Downey Jr) in a flying robotic suit blowing things up to the soundtrack of perfectly timed punch lines. So, why her?

“Well, [director Shane Black] said that he was looking for an actress who could convey intelligence and vulnerability and be funny.”

So someone who can keep up with Robert Downey Jr, in other words?

“I’ll go along with that.”

And provide a love interest for him to rival Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts?

“I can neither confirm nor deny.”

Such is the nature of super-secret superhero blockbusters (we do know this: Guy Pearce is playing the baddie, and it will be more of the same, which is no bad thing). The other big difference between this and her usual fare: the need to be scanned for your own action doll.

“I know!” She sets off into a giggling fit again.

“I was on set and got led away to a 3-D scan. You stand on a rotating platform in the dark while it lasers you from all different angles. The doll will be completely anatomically correct.”

Talking to Hall – the daughter of legendary theatre director Sir Peter Hall – it’s hard to predict exactly what will set off the next giggling fit. Just when you’ve convinced yourself you’re the wittiest man alive, you’ll realise – to your horror and curdling shame – she’s actually spotted a stuffed cat over your right shoulder (this actually happened) dressed like a Victorian child (“It makes me laugh every time I come in here! Sorry… I’m easily distracted”).

You can instantly see what made Mendes fall head over heels. She won’t – and hasn’t – spoken about the details of their relationship, notably when it began, with tabloid tales casting her as the cause of his split with Kate Winslet. But does she feel settled with him now? “I would avoid using that word. I think you can be settled, but allow things to change.” She pauses, folds and unfolds her arms. “Yes, so that’s what I’d say.”

Another pause: “It’s tough, but, you know, the likelihood you’ll meet someone who is not in that industry is remote. It is what it is.”

Refreshingly, she has little patience for luvvie pretences. “The po-faced element depresses me,” she says. “You get a lot of young actors trying to replicate the Daniel Day-Lewis thing, and it’s incredibly self-defeating, because 80 per cent of what they’re doing is just [telling] everyone what they’re doing.”

So, she didn’t get an actual PhD to prepare for the role of Maya then?

“Oh, yes, of course, I did that. It’s now Dr Rebecca Hall, thank you.”

Maybe not. But, she says, acting isn’t her only interest, with her coyly admitting there’s “a couple of screenplays I’ve been working on. And I write short stories. And people have read them and been positive, so I suppose it’s fairly on the legitimate scale.”

At this, she breaks into gales of laughter again. So is she still the go-to gal for the sexy-yet-smart good girl? Has it changed?

“I hope it has,” she says. “Although I have to be honest – I don’t really mind if it hasn’t.” And then that laugh again.

© GQ Magazine 2013