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Mad about the Girl

Rebecca Hall is doing an impression of Peter Hall. Stooping her shoulders, chin protruding, she drops her temple into a ponderous frown, then settles into his gait. From a photograph on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery, her father stares back at her, one eyebrow raised like Orson Welles, as if amused at his own reflection. ‘Very good tweed,’ she says, now recomposed as her 28-year-old self, as she scrutinises the veteran director’s image (eyes hooded, gnarled hands regally clasped). She drifts on to a nearby polyptych in oils depicting scenes from his career. ‘This is on the set of Orpheus Descending [1988] with Vanessa Redgrave. And this one’s got the family dog Smudge in it; he’s wearing a “cone of shame”, like he’s just had an operation!’

Despite her spirited playfulness, as a lauded actor in her own right – both in Hollywood and on the stage – Hall doesn’t always relish such focus on her heritage. But, newly returned from America and about to embark on rehearsals for Twelfth Night at the National – under the direction of her father no less – she is today unleashed from self-restraint. And so, together, we wander the parquet floors and marble archways of the gallery, in search of the British greats (some of whose lives are entwined with her own impressive lineage).

We saunter past effigies of the distinguished: Diana Athill (‘She really rocks – an amazing role model for women’); a rugged Tom Stoppard, who adapted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the Old Vic’s Bridge Project, in which Hall appeared in 2009 (‘He’s ludicrously charismatic and casually foppish in the most impressive way’); Francis Bacon, resembling a knackered Teddy Boy (‘Have you read his interviews? His dark doubting moments are inspirational. They bring you back from the brink’); and Samuel Beckett (his shock of white hair and white specs immortalised by Harpers photographer Dmitri Kasterine), whose English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot was directed by a 24-year-old Peter Hall. ‘There’s a cupboard in my dad’s house full of Hasselblad cameras Beckett gave him,’ Hall recalls. ‘I never met him, but I saw my dad’s revival of Waiting for Godot with Ben Kingsley when I was 15: it was one of the most transcendental theatre experiences of my life.’

Despite Hall’s thespian connections and film roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Please Give and Ben Affleck’s The Town, the gallery crowds murmur past oblivious, as she roams the corridors wrapped in a masculine camel coat (a present from David Hare’s wife, Nicole Farhi), denim shirt and jodhpurs. In the flesh, she possess that same calm presence and low-key magnetism that allows her to melt, unassuming, into her roles: the dowdy mammogram technician in Please Give; Woody Allen’s gawky Vicky… Yet Hall is a beauty equine allure: a loose espresso-coloured mane, a mouthful of teeth and the elongated limbs of a Modigliani muse, softened by a smattering of asymmetric dimples. It’s a look Halston would have adored in his Seventies heyday. ‘I love the silk-shirt-no-bra thing – it was a great time for women,’ she says of the era’s louche fashions. Only in Frost/Nixon (2008), dressed in the designer’s gowns, does Hall show a rare glimpse of her siren potential. ‘It was a real relief to play the babe for once. I’ve always been attracted to wallflower parts, and I had to get them out of my system… I’m interested in being the girl who subtly reveals herself, rather than wears her beauty externally. I think it was Lou Doillon who said she’d rather be the one on the subway who the guy doesn’t notice at first, but who slowly draws him in.’

Nicole Holofcener, the director of Please Give, in which Hall appears in unbecoming hospital scrubs and a billowing granny’s nightie, emphasises the actor’s rare absence of vanity. ‘She never expresses any discomfort about playing plain. On the first shoot day, the costume department gave her a pair of skinny jeans, which were just too adorable on,’ she says. ‘We panicked and replaced them with an ill-fitting and unstylish pair, but Rebecca was totally game… She has a large mouth that looks incredibly sexy, but also has the potential to be goofy, and crazy dimples in weird places on her face. Her emotions are right there, on the surface of her skin. They trump any glamour that would get in the way of her character.’

‘She’s always very real, very natural,’ adds Andrew Garfield, her co-star in David Peace’s 2009 film Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974. ‘She’s never showing off in her performances. It’s never about her, or about “look at me”. It’s always about the role. It’s very rare to find an actress who can put aside how beautiful they are, or how charismatic. She just doesn’t follow the obvious Hollywood mould.’

It is such on-screen versatility, coupled with her commitment to the London stage and theatrical inheritance (her mother is American soprano Maria Ewing, her uncle in director Edward Hall), that make her so reminiscent of one of our great British actresses. ‘She is a young Vanessa Redgrave,’ says Hall’s father, who championed Redgrave’s career in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1959. ‘They both take enormous risks because they are true artists. Watching Rebecca’s development has been one of the most exciting events of my life.’

The fading winter light filters through the Covent Garden Hotel’s windows, throwing shadows on Hall’s ivory complexion as we sip tea and discuss Twelfth Night. It is not the first time the actor has been directed by her father on stage. She starred in his productions of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession in 2002, and As You Like It, the following year. Why did she choose to return from Hollywood to work with him again? ‘It’s my dad’s 80th birthday, and he would have grounded me and sent me to Coventry if I hadn’t,’ she teases, a resemblance to her father flickering across her face. ‘There’s a part of me that’s interested in extreme characters, and then there’s this one that wants to listen to Bach and do Shakespeare. I haven’t worked with my dad for seven years. Back then there was no reason than beyond wanting to prove yourself. I was much more pugnacious; a little more “Fuck you world, I’m going to work with my dad.” This time, it feels much more personal and emotional than before.’

With half a decade of independent acclaim behind her, charges of nepotism in Hall’s early career (she once said she might as well embrace it if she was going to be accused of it) now seems anachronistic, as does any notion of her yearning for Oedipal approval. Hall is now nearly the age her father was when he set up the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 – his achievements must weigh heavy. ‘I’m in awe of him. Maybe subconsciously the success of my mother and father has driven me,’ she ponders. ‘But do I compare myself? No! I’m not sure why. By every psychological textbook, I should.’

As the cross-dressing Viola, Hall will follow in the illustrious paces of Peggy Ashcroft (1939), Vivien Leigh (1955), Diana Rigg (1955), Judi Dench (1969) – and, of course, the famous Blackadder spoof. ‘Yes, Bob!’ she cries. ‘I love that sketch, Bob. It’s absolutely one of my favourites.’ Shakespeare’s comedic heroines resonate with Hall as they undergo ‘a kind of rites of passage. They are young women who aren’t quite sure of their identity. Their disguise is a chrysalis and when they’re de-shelled, they have to come to learn who they are.’

Though Hall has undoubtedly grown these past seven years, she has always been blessed with a ‘strong sense of self’, sangfroid and fierce intelligence nurtured by her bohemian background. Her father, the son of a railway worker, founded the RSC and presided over the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988, in its golden era. His first wife Leslie Caron had become Warren Beatty’s lover, and with his second marriage to Jacqueline Taylor over, he met Hall’s mother while directing her at Glyndebourne. Hall’s childhood was ‘culturally spoilt’, filled with the luminaries of the realms of theatre and opera: Peggy Ashcroft read her bedtime stories, Maurice Sendak drew Hall her very own Wild Thing, and her mother took her on tour to the Met in New York (where, during Tosca, the wardrobe department made Hall mini costumes for her Barbies), La Scala in Rome, to Paris, LA, Chicago and Tokyo.

Ewing, who grew up in Detroit and is of Dutch, Scottish, Sioux and African-American descent, also sang jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, but was best known for her arrestingly sexual rendition of Salome, for which she stripped naked in the final scene, holding the head of John the Baptist. ‘She plated the role from when I was four to 14, so I was used to her singing love songs to a bleeding head, doing the dance of the seven veils before being hacked to death,’ Hall remembers. ‘I just couldn’t understand why she couldn’t go off with the head and live happily ever after.’

Peter Hall and Ewing divorced when she was five (‘The mixture of our two volatile natures and our two careers made for a turbulent life’, Peter Hall has said), and mother and daughter moved from Chelsea to Sussex, near Glyndebourne. There, Ewing exposed her daughter to the glorious divas of the silver screen: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck. ‘I was obsessed, and watched All About Eve on a loop every night for years. I could quote the entire sections of Margo Channing’s lines. I loved the style, the glamour, but most of all the strength of the women.’ Ewing recalls Hall’s nascent talent for mimicry: ‘We were watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and within minutes she had the lines memorised and was doing the perfect Marilyn Monroe. She was only about seven. It was hilarious.’

When his daughter was eight, Peter Hall was casting the role of 10-year-old Sophy for his TV adaptation of The Camomile Lawn. ‘We had seen about 500 girls for auditions, but none of them was right,’ he says. The project’s producer, captivated by the young Hall, suggested she try out for the role. Cast in the series, she plated a character subjected on a ‘flashing’ while running along the Cornish cliffs at full moon as a dare. ‘My stepmother Nicki [Frei] had a talk with me to explain that there would be a little cross on the camera and I had to pretend he was showing off his ding-dong,’ Hall hoots. ‘More to the point, I had to sit on Toby Stephens’ shoulders butt-naked, which makes it a bit awkward when I see Toby today.’

Her spell in TV was brief, her father aware of the perils of child stardom. In any case, it was Hall’s ambition to become a painter and later, at Roedean, she spent afternoons sketching and listening to music. She appeared in school productions, most notably as the 50-year-old obese American in The Man Who Came to Dinner. (‘I had to put on padding and sit in a wheelchair,’ she says). After a spell as head girl, during which she purveyed radical left-wing politics, she went to Cambridge to study English. Impatient to become an actor, she dropped out after her second year and, soon after, won the Ian Charleson Award in 2003 for Mrs Warren’s Profession.

By 2006, with a host of stage and screen roles behind her, Hall had broken into Hollywood. But it was not until 2008 that she would make a mark on the global consciousness in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Woody Allen had always been something of an idol for Hall, who had long coveted Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall role. And after a single brief encounter with the director in New York, it transpired that the admiration was mutual. ‘It was snowing and I met him in an edit suit. I was so nervous and clumsy, accentuated by the physical awkwardness of being wrapped up in layers of clothes, with a huge woolly scarf and hat.’ Allen surely identified with her in that very instant, as he cast the uptight, over-analytical anti-type to Scarlett Johansson’s bohemian spontaneity. ‘Vicky is the “Woody” character,’ Hall explains. ‘I wasn’t playing him exactly, but the Woody type that appears in all his movies.’ Allen’s juxtaposition of Johansson and Hall as opposites is a revealing one: it is hard to imagine Johansson surmounting her ‘bombshell’ physical attributes to disappear into a plainer role. Even when Hall plays ‘seductive’, as she did as the traumatised mother of a girl murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper who loses herself in an affair with a journalist in Red Riding, she does so with nuance and subtlety.

‘Rebecca has the confidence and the discipline to be still – and the beauty and the gravitas to convey so much while maintaining that stillness,’ says Jon Hamm, Hall’s recent co-star in The Town. ‘The fact that she is so young is mindblowing to me, because she carries herself with the comportment of a more mature actress – qualities not found in the majority of today’s young actors, who seem to want to prove how much they can act rather than how well.’

Firmly set on the trajectory of fame, post-Allen, Hall abandoned Hollywood in 2009 to act in Sam Mendes’ three-year-long transatlantic Bridge Project, alongside Ethan Hawke and Simon Russell Beale. The double bill of The Winter’s Tale and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard played at the old Vic in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, followed by a world tour.

‘My general rule is one piece of theatre for every three films,’ Hall says, as she orders an orange juice. ‘I think it’s how to preserve one’s mystique. I like disappearing, and I think I’ll always do it. I’ve never been one who gets frightened if I’ve not had my face splashed in magazines. For me, fame is a by-product, not the aim, of what I do.’

Over the course of the year-long production, the cast became close, like one big family. ‘The last night was emotional. We played in front of 30,000 people under the stars at Epidaurus in Greece. I was thinking it’s all much bigger than me. See, I’m a total hippie! Afterwards, we partied and went skinny-dipping. it was dark when we went in the ocean and then the sun came up.’

And what of her relationship with Mendes? The rupture of his marriage to Kate Winslet had been attributed, by the tabloids at least, to his closeness with Hall (‘She’s totally Sam’s type – a thespian mix of beauty and brains,’ an anonymous ‘friend’ was quoted). Hall freezes for a second, looking disappointed that I have asked the inevitable question. ‘The whole thing was horrid,’ she retorts with aplomb. ‘But I’ve said my piece on this one.’

Certainly, ‘Bridge’ was an epic commitment for Mendes and the cast. When Hall was nominated for a Golden Globe for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she was unwilling to abandon the production to attend the awards. ‘Many people have said it was a big old error, that I wasn’t making the most of the exposure. I haven’t done many award ceremonies… The business generates this fear for actors. You think you’re rational, intelligent and immune to it, but I’ve felt it. Like, “Am I going to enough parties?” “You’d better go out quick, get me some cleavage-enhancing cream.” It’s a dangerous thing to get sucked into.’

For the most part, Hall is immune to the vortex of anxieties that ensnares most actors, and possesses a rare comfort in her own skin. Partly due to the legacy of Ewing’s naked Salome, she is unperturbed by the nude scenes she has played – most recently with Ben Affleck in The Town. ‘Though I’m always slightly disturbed when something gets dropped in the edit. “What? I got my boobs out and you’re not using it?” She laughs. ‘There was this one website that freeze-framed every bit of a nude scene I did. It was shocking. Awful angles. You’re in mid-movement and your boob is kind of up there. And now it’s about for all time on some actors-get-naked site.’

Hall is level-headed about the lunacies of Hollywood, and is in no hurry to migrate to LA’s palm-fringed shores. Instead, she feels an affinity with the East Coast, especially New York. With her recent turn in Affleck’s film, set in working-class Boston, her public persona is evolving from what she once perceived as ‘the bluestocking, intellectual, asexual.’ In New York, I’ve been noticed a lot recently by real kind-of dudes on the street with their Hi Tops and massive jackets. They’re like, “Woah, it’s that girl from The Town.'”

She is keen to explore her own American heritage, in particular, her maternal grandfather’s Sioux and African-American descent. ‘I’m a strong black woman!’ she jokes, revealing a slightly gummy grin. ‘Well, it’s quite complicated. I’ve been to a Native-American reservation in Colorado. But the black part of me is of completely unknown origin. I’d like to research it when I have time, without going on Who Do You Think You Are?’

Hall has thrived on her peripatetic existence in recent years. She gave up a rented flat in Tufnell Park three years ago, and is only now house-hunting for a base in North London again. When I ask if she’s single, she shoots me that same dispirited look. Hall is fiercely private about her amorous existence; on the subject she says only that, at five foot 10, she has ‘dated a lot of shorter men; why limit your options? I think I’d be fine playing opposite Tom Cruise.’ Her greatest infatuation instead, she confesses, is music. An accomplished pianist, she taught herself jazz piano on a keyboard in her hotel room while making The Town. A soundtrack is the inspiration point for every role. ‘The first thing I do for every character is to make them their own playlist.’ Being a ‘muso’ and sketching – she is also an adept portraitist – is her ‘meditative’ refuge from the frenetic world of film.

With such polymathic talents, there are no limits to the direction of Hall’s career. Beyond upcoming turns in Everything Must Go with Will Ferrell and a Richard Linklater film, she has ‘done with wallflower parts’ and plans to go ‘all balls-out with a new surprising role’. Is it a Charlize Theron in Monster or a Charlotte Gainsborough in Antichrist, even? In response, Hall simply smiles impishly; though, she later adds she’d happily undergo a De-Niro-style metamorphosis or don her Rodean-era fat suit again. With diversity as her guiding principal, she would relish a role in a musical or, given her heritage, the chance to direct one day. In whichever – and all – of the paths she chooses, Hall cannot but thrill us. ‘Unhindered by the need to be pretty or famous,’ says Holofcener, ‘she will have a long and varied career.’

Outside the hotel, the London heavens have opened. Hall peers out and sighs with fortitude (triggering an implausibly positioned dimple on her chin); the drowsy onset of flu has descended upon her during our interview, but, ever committed, she ploughs on to the end. ‘It’s a big fat cliche, but the benchmark is Meryl Streep,’ she ponders, as she dons her coat, hugging her collar to freckled cheekbones. ‘She’s juggled film and theatre, been constantly surprising, kept her sense of humour and had three kids. That’s kind of it in a nutshell, isn’t it?’ With that, she plugs in her iPod (switching, I fancy, to the sounds of the Seventies) and strides out into the sodden streets. She’s surely one of the few actors who can hope to attain such a dream.

© Harpers Bazaar UK 2011