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Rebecca Hall on the Message of ‘Machinal’

I’d like to tell you why I wanted to do this interview,” says actor and director Ethan Hawke, a two-time Academy Award nominee who recently starred in a Lincoln Center production of Macbeth.

“A couple of years ago, I had the chance to do Shakespeare and Chekhov around the world with Rebecca,” he says. “I walked away from the experience feeling as if I had worked with a young Katharine Hepburn or Vanessa Redgrave. It’s very rare to run into somebody who is as smart, humble, and gifted as she is.”

Hawke and Hall had teamed up for a 10-month road tour for the Bridge Project that took them from New Zealand to London and Athens. Hall is best known in this country for her roles in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ben Affleck’s The Town, and Iron Man 3. But the theater is her natural birthright—her father is famed director Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is currently seeing another theater maestro, Sam Mendes.

Hawke says his friend “has everything it takes to be a really serious artist. I think it’s really lucky she’s coming to New York and doing this play.” Hall plays the lead in the stark drama Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the case of convicted and executed murderer Ruth Snyder. Hall stars as the young woman charged with the crime.

Here, Hawke speaks with his friend about the shocking play, compares notes about acting, and finds out how Hall convinced her very discerning father that she had the chops to be an actress.

First up Rebecca, what’s brought you to New York?
I’m here doing a play called Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell. It was last performed on Broadway in 1928.

EH: Why do you think it hasn’t been done since then?
RH: I would guess it was radically ahead of its time. At the time it was very shocking. It’s shocking now, lord knows.

EH: Do you know who played your part in the ’20s?
RH: The only famous person in the production was Clark Gable—it was his first job.

EH: Really? Forgive me, Rebecca, have you been on Broadway before?
RH: The last time I was in New York was with you at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music].

EH: So this is your Broadway debut? It’s kind of like a debutante ball, right?
RH: Is it? Does that mean I have to wear a dress and corsage?

EH: I think it does. It means you have to pay attention to what you wear on opening night. You should be the toast of the town. Who’s directing you?
RH: Lyndsey Turner. She’s a British director—amazing, actually. I met her a year ago, and she said I’d love to do something with you. She suggested this play, which I’d heard of but not read.

EH: I did my first play when I was 12 years old and my first movie when I was 13, and I have never been directed by a woman.
RH: That doesn’t surprise me, which is sad, frankly, that it doesn’t. This production is a play about a woman, and it has a female director, a female designer, a female lighting designer. The fact that that’s an anomaly….

EH: People would never even notice if it were all men.
RH: Of course not! But I think it’s important because [with women in key roles for Machinal] it’s very much what the play’s about. It’s based on Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband and was the second woman to be executed in the electric chair in New York. [The playwright] Sophie Treadwell was a journalist. Although she didn’t write about the trial, she did attend it. On the day of Ruth Snyder’s execution, a guy from the Daily News strapped a camera to his ankle and got a photo of her seconds before they pushed the button on the chair. It was on the front page of the paper. When you look at it, it’s still shocking. Treadwell basically wrote an angry, visceral outpouring, that this woman became a sensationalized celebrity. She wrote a play that’s not about Ruth Snyder, but every woman, someone not heroic, not particularly outspoken, but a fragile regular woman. What are the circumstances in which society can be pushed to a limit? Where a woman has no voice? What are the circumstances by which she commits a murder? What Treadwell writes is full of rage and anger, about the lack of voice for people who are oppressed.

EH: Your father, [Sir Peter Hall], is a highly regarded theater director—one of the best of his generation. What I didn’t know was what an interesting artist your mother is.
RH: My mom, Maria Ewing, is an American opera singer. She sang at the Met and in opera houses all over the world. There was an artistry to everything she did, an utter dedication [to finding] the truth to the role. Growing up, a sense of “don’t ever make compromises” was instilled in me; always maintain truth and stick to the integrity of the piece. Be bold—otherwise, what’s the point?

EH: A certain amount of inevitable compromise creeps in—there’s kind of a grayness to adult life. If you’re totally uncompromising, you end up getting stranded by yourself and don’t get to work. I could understand how you would excel in the theater, but you’ve also been excelling in movies. You grew up around the theater, but the movies are your own thing. What do you make of that?
RH: When I first started out, it was kind of exciting territory because it was the area where my family could not have a reaction entrenched with experience, and that was kind of refreshing for me. Instinctively, I knew it would be something that was mine. I always aspired to do movie acting. Movies, particularly black-and-white movies, were a big part of my growing up. My mom had a sort of Golden Age of Hollywood obsession. My heroes were film actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn.

EH: How are you liking New York?
RH: I’m loving it. And the snow is very beautiful today. I’ve got my boots. Everything’s okay if you’ve got snow boots, right?

EH: I love when it snows, and I love going to see a play on a cold winter night, and I love being in one. For the Bridge Project, we traveled around the world for nine to 10 months, when we did Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. What do you remember of that year now?
RH: The standout memory is Epidavros, the ancient open-air theater just outside of Athens. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that. It seats, what, 11,000 people?

EH: Yeah, almost 12,000. And it’s unamplified.
RH: The acoustics are extraordinary. It’s an experience that every actor should go through. I remember seeing everyone file in and thinking the same people made this journey and sat on those stones 2,000 years ago. Nothing much has changed, and we’re just serving a purpose by telling a story here.

EH: I had a similar experience—I felt so much like a part of an ancient tradition. There are some great actors who have a different relationship to the cinema than they do to the theater. I would say it’s pretty easy to be okay in a movie and it’s really hard to be great in a movie. But it’s very hard to be okay on stage. The stage is merciless. Was it too intense an experience to work with your father [Hall was directed by him in a number of British productions], or was it something that brought you closer together?
RH: I don’t know, we were always close, we always had a good relationship around work. He took me into plays and asked my opinions, and I was quite vocal about them. We had this sort of healthy banter. So working together was a no-brainer because it just felt like a natural extension of that part of our relationship.

EH: Did he direct you when you were younger?
RH: One day when I was 8, I went to his office to wait for him to finish work—he was directing a TV series. And that was the day that they were casting the part of the little girl in the series. None of the 300 little girls had been quite right. And the producer walked past and looked at me and made a strange face. Then I saw them go into the office room, where my dad was sitting, and my father started gesticulating wildly, “NO.” Later he came out and said, “The producer has some crazy idea you look like the little girl we need for this part and maybe you would be interested in auditioning.” And this bit I can’t remember at all, so it could be family legend—but apparently I said, “Yes, yes, absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be an actress.” But whether or not I did that is really—

EH: Might be your father’s retelling?
RH: That might just be a little bit of embellishment. Nonetheless, I did audition, and apparently must have done well enough to get the part. When I was working with him, it was very professional. It was nice to be around him; it was lovely to get to do something that was genuinely exciting and have my dad there to hold my hand. When I was a teenager, it was slightly different because a large part of me rebelled against it all. I didn’t want to admit I was probably an actor deep down inside. So I pretended I wasn’t and wouldn’t let anyone come and see the shows I was in. I was sort of silent on the matter so that nobody would tell me to stop. Then I went to college and did a bunch of stuff and finally I let my dad come and see me in a college production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where I played Martha, hilariously.

EH: Wow.
RH: He came, and I suppose I did a bit of “Okay. Here’s me really having a crack at this. If you want to tell me now that I’m no good, you can do it.” I don’t think I would have listened to him, but I did give him that option. Afterward he was like, “No, I think you can do this. If you want to do it, you should do it.” I carried on at Cambridge for a while, and when I left, my dad was none too pleased with me dropping out of college a year early. Time passed, he got over it and offered me a job. I refused the job for a while, thinking that was the worst thing I could do in the world, and then came around. He’s a great director who is offering me a great part, and I’m only turning him down because he’s my father. What am I doing?

EH: What are you reading now?
RH: The Luminaries [the novel by Eleanor Catton that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize last year.] I have to have a book on the stand no matter what. But the amount of words in this play and the noise and the tempo keeps me up at night and makes me go bananas, so I have to be reading something. But Luminaries might be a little too much to have bitten off. I think I need something lighter.

EH: I can never read anything when I’m in rehearsals for plays. We’re six weeks into our run, and I’m just now able to read something else. Every time I start reading, I think I should be looking at Macbeth. For the past month I would just sit on the subway and look at my lines. For some reason I feel guilty every time I look at something else. The trouble with those plays, with Shakespeare, is that you can always do it better. You’re never as good as the play is. Did you hear [President] Obama’s speech about Nelson Mandela today?
RH: No, I didn’t.

EH: You were probably at rehearsal, but he gave a great speech. What I thought was beautiful about it—is how he really challenged apathy. So many of us know that so much wrong is happening in the world, but it’s so easy to sequester yourself from it. One of the really remarkable parts of Mandela’s legacy is the challenge to care. I think it is incredibly hard for all of us. I find it easier to care about my block than when I think about all the things, you know, the polar ice caps are melting, the fighting in Darfur. I mean, it’s just overwhelming.
RH: I agree with you. In England, the younger generation is often fed this sort of tune—we’re all apathetic and we can’t do anything. It’s nonsense, and I think people are much more interested and vocal than they let on. While I’ve not presented my name to any charities as of yet, I’m looking into it.

EH: One of the things [you’re] getting very serious about is my mother [Leslie Hawke’s] organization Ovidiu Rom, working with Gypsy rights in Eastern Europe. But we’ll talk about that another day. You’re coming to the show this week? If you are, just shoot me an e-mail and we can have a drink afterward.
RH: Perfect, I’m coming tomorrow.