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Meet Rebecca Hall: You’ll Like Her

Rebecca Hall is a very attractive woman, not least because of her laugh. A big, fat, velvety laugh, where she throws her head back and bares her big white teeth — one she is employing now, as she tells of a play she performed while studying for an English degree at Cambridge. “It was called The Breast of a Woman,” she explains, “and in the finale I had to take off my robe and crack a communion wafer on the inside of my thigh, walk around for a good five minutes totally naked, then have this simulated sex scene. Some idiot thought it would be really good to have a pair of rabbits in a cage on the stage, and they were so excitable, they completely upstaged me. Ha-ha-ha! I still wake up in a cold sweat that someone might have videoed that.”

Back recently from New Mexico, where she, Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp have been shooting Transcendence, Christopher Nolan’s eagerly awaited sci-fi thriller, Hall, 31, looks the picture of schoolgirl elegance today in a prim navy Margaret Howell polo neck, immaculately cut knee-length skirt (Céline, right? “No, Zara,” she whispers conspiratorially, “but I adore Céline”) and cool slip-on Keds. A willowy 5ft 10in since she was 11, Hall is a good clotheshorse and has uncompromising taste. (Remember those fabulously orthopaedic gold sandals she wore on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival?) She also loves dressing up, thinks it is disingenuous to moan about the red carpet, and — hurrah! — is “fully prepared to own the fact that I have an absurdly large wardrobe and spend a preposterous amount of time playing with things I’m going to wear. But that’s one of the joys of life, to build the characters you’ve got for the day.”

Meanwhile, couldn’t she give a masterclass on the art of getting one’s bosoms out without ever looking tarty? Perhaps, I venture, it is because she is not in any way a pouter. “No, that’s true,” she says wistfully. “I find pouting very difficult indeed.”

She is pale, freckly and prominent-jawed, and you can see the slight resemblance to her father, the director Sir Peter Hall, but it is her mother, the opera singer Maria Ewing, to whom Hall most obviously owes her unusual looks. “My grandfather was part Sioux Indian, part black,” she says in her fashionably glottal accent, “but, to be honest, I don’t know the full extent of it, because that side of my family was shrouded in secrecy — what with them living in a white Detroit neighbourhood and him wanting to deny his roots. In Albuquerque, I kept sneaking off on these pilgrimages to chat with the chieftain and coming back with six books on Native American culture.”

Hall is in town to promote her latest film, Closed Circuit, an espionage thriller also starring Eric Bana, in which she plays Claudia, a special advocate handling secret evidence in a closed-court case against a terrorist bomb suspect. She’s good in it (better than Bana, whose English accent feels a little dodgy), bringing great plausibility to the role, as she does to every part she plays. From David Frost’s upper-class sidekick in Frost/Nixon, to the female Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, to, yes, even the scientist Maya Hansen, of whom we saw not nearly enough in Iron Man 3, they’ve all got proper flesh on them — you can, as it were, lose yourself in them in a way you often can’t with a very beautiful actress.

Perhaps it is the mark of one who genuinely knows and loves theatre; perhaps it is also because of the “nerdy” way Hall researches every character she plays, papering the surfaces of her trailer with little charts and formulas and so forth, even giving each one their own playlist. “I might still have Claudia’s on my phone, actually — a lot of Bach, some wildly pretentious jazz from this Scandinavian trio I found, some piano by Brad Mehldau. Mathematical, contained but free-form, a little bit cold, a little bit odd.”

Read bedtime stories by the likes of Maurice Sendak and Peggy Ashcroft as a little girl, and cast in her father’s 1990s production of The Camomile Lawn at the age of 10, she describes her upbringing as wildly unconventional and inconsistent, but also quite brilliant and “full of love”. Hall has four half-siblings from her father’s other marriages — to Nikki Frei, Jacqueline Taylor and Leslie Caron — but it was decided that she would be brought up quite separately by her mother after the couple split up in a blaze of publicity when she was seven. Life then, before she was sent to Roedean at 14, involved a lot of staying up late and watching from the wings while her mother sang. She remembers in particular her mother’s shocking performance as Salome, directed by Sir Peter, for the finale of which she stripped buck naked and, bearing the severed head of St John the Baptist, was impaled by spears. “The way she contorted her back every night, it looked like her spine was cracking, and every time I honestly thought it was for real. Each night I’d run out from wherever I was allowed to watch it, then run back to make sure her shower was running at exactly the right temperature.

“My fastidious, perfectionist side is entirely from my mother,” she adds loyally. “She was so dedicated to every detail when she went into a role, and although she was a singer, she was the greatest actress I’ve ever, ever met.”

One wonders if Ewing, whom Hall once described as “never walking into the kitchen in the morning without red lipstick on”, has met Sam Mendes, Hall’s current beau, but given the way Hall almost winces at the mention of his name, it doesn’t look as if we’re going to find out. They first met on the set of Starter for 10, then on the ambitious Bridge Project that Mendes created with Kevin Spacey a few years ago, taking Chekhov and Shakespeare around the globe. They so suit each other, these two. It feels as if they should have always been together: both went to Cambridge, both thesps, both have exotic, bohemian backgrounds. (Mendes’s father, a professor from Trinidad, was of Portuguese-Italian extraction; his mother, a children’s author, is a British Jew.) But, although they have been pictured out together in New York, although Mendes’s ex, Kate Winslet, is happily pregnant by her new husband, Ned RocknRoll, and although Mendes has publicly declared they are an item, she won’t be drawn. In the end, I give up.

“Thank you for that,” she mouths gratefully, adding that she has become more recognisable in the past six months than she has ever been before, and, though it may sound a bit arrogant, misses the relative anonymity. “But it’s interesting how much you can disappear if you want to. I don’t mean pulling on a beanie or a pair of dark glasses, although that can be part of it. I mean more the dimming-down of the presence button. Of course, the interesting thing is when subconsciously you don’t want to turn it down, because there’s something intoxicating and self-perpetuating about being able to complain about all that attention. All I’m saying is that if you genuinely want to be invisible, you can.”

In a few weeks’ time, Hall will be joining Mendes in New York, where she is about to do a big play on Broadway: a revival of Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell, the true-life story of the convicted — and executed — murderer Ruth Snyder. And then? “Oh, comedy! I’m desperate to do comedy. After getting the electric chair for two weeks — ha-ha-ha — I think the only thing I want to do is make people laugh.”