It’s late afternoon in a wine bar in Manhattan, and a slightly hungover Rebecca Hall sips at a Sauvignon Blanc, her posture both composed and crumpled, emblematic of her dichotomous upbringing: posh, high-art family and rebellious bohemian within. Hall has spent the last week packing up her London flat of three years and boozing it up at her goodbye parties; today is her first day as a New Yorker, and last night was the welcome party with old college friends. She glances at her wine skeptically, takes another tiny sip, then tells about how she dropped out of Cambridge after two years of studying English literature.

“The main reason why I left, I think, was because of some probably horribly misguided and precocious and arrogant thinking on my part that I’d done it all in two years,” she says. “But if you’re going to do something as fucking crazy as acting, I think there’s quite a lot to be said for having nothing to fall back on, because then at least you’re one-hundred-percent committed.”

A year later, in 2003, Hall appeared in her father’s production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, earning a prestigious Ian Charleson Award for her performance, which effectively dispelled any lingering allegations of nepotism–her father is Sir Peter Hall, one of the most respected directors in theater. Her talent could not be denied, though it could be said that it runs in the family: her mother is Lady Maria Ewing, a world-renowned opera singer, and her half-brother, Edward, is an accomplished theater director.

“[Acting is] not something you go into easy if you come from a family like mine. I wanted to do everything but act for most of my adolescence, and then I realized that I couldn’t really do anything as well,” says Hall. “Plus, I wasn’t really being that rebellious–I would have to become a nun or nuclear physicist, or something–I wanted to be an artist. It’s not really rebellious, considering the context. But I’m very proud of it. It’s one of the most decisive, strong decisions I think I’ve ever made.”

At 26 years old, Hall is poised to enter the annals of accomplished actors. Her work is extremely varied, and each project is more impressive than the last. In 2006, Christopher Nolan cast her as modest girl turned scorned suicidal lover in his film about masochistic magicians, The Prestige. And, in December, Hall is featured in a screen adaption of Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon, a moving, humanistic portrayal of one of America’s most vilified presidents, Richard M. Nixon. The film, directed by Ron Howard, sees Hall as a gorgeous, posh English femme foil, bewitching both David Frost and Tricky Dick. The role, unlike any of her others, is straight sex appeal.

But it’s the picky, twitchy, tried-and-true, star-making hand of Woody Allen that solidifies Hall as a massive new talent in her breakout role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where she plays Vicky, an American tourist tormented by lust and fantasy. Hall comes off as familiar yet exotic, dreamlike yet down to earth; hers is an inner beauty that outshines the Hollywood perfection of co-stars Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz. Vicky comes off as neurotic and pragmatic, but she is also filled with fervor and pride, and desperate for the bliss of a shameless affair. She is both graceful and bumbling, articulate and stuttering–a mix of Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling, and Katharine Hepburn. The role was a dream come true for the British actress, who, at a young age, set for herself a goal of starring in one of Allen’s films as an American–an accent that she taught herself without help from a dialect coach.

“I started watching Woody Allen films when I was about 12. I always get the impression that people who love him do start watching him quite young, at quite formative ages, [when] you’re just kind of working at what kind of music you like, or what kind of person you’re going to be–what your tastes are. I got very into the idea of being this sort of New York intellectual who’s a bit snobbish… completely and utterly self-involved, self-interested, and disgusting. But I got over myself,” she says, jokingly.

What better venue to show off one’s acting ability than the solipsistic, surreal world of Woody Allen, where money is never an object, taste is always exquisite, opulence is ultimately mundane–all of which leaves the characters no choice but to look inward for turmoil, fantasy, and entertainment. And Hall is superb at conveying this paradigm, perhaps because she can, on some levels, relate to it.

“It’s fun, that whole idea of people just wandering around art galleries and making witty comments; being pretentious yet totally disdainful of any sort of pretense at the same time. I love the kind of irony that’s involved in it, because I like to think of myself as being totally down to earth and unpretentious in any way, and yet, at the same time, I’m massively opinionated and I’m very particular about my taste, so I completely fall into that stereotype.”

But no matter the stereotype, Hall plays the part of Vicky–the role nearest to the quintessential “Woody Allen character” that is present in each of his outings–without making the character seem like an impersonation or a charade (unlike, say Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, or Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda). Instead, Hall separates the writer from the role, making Vicky her own forlorn character–an individual rather than an archetype.

“Everyone asks me all the time: ‘How do you feel about playing the Woody Allen part?’ I didn’t go into it and decide to do an impression of Woody Allen, [but] if you avoid some of those Woody Allen-isms, then it doesn’t work. If you play too much–if you play it for them–then it doesn’t work either,” says Hall. “You’ve just got to… I don’t know, really. I just sort of went for it and did it instinctively.

“His writing is so idiosyncratic. It’s like an artist: whatever he paints, it’s still going to be his style. He doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t sit everyone down and say, ‘Can you behave like this and wave your hands around and stand there?’ But his presence permeates… his iconography permeates the film set, so you can’t avoid it.”

These recent roles, including an upcoming adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, bring Hall’s intensive three-year dedication to film to a temporary halt, and admirably so. Rather than cash in on her hard work and exposure by taking a fame-building action role opposite some not-overtly muscular It boy, Hall returns to her roots, what seems to be encoded in her genes: the theater. For the next ten months, she will be rehearsing for and starring in The Bridge Project, a double-bill performance which pairs Tom Stoppard’s new adaption of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Both plays are directed by Sam Mendes, with production traveling to New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and Germany, before closing in London.

It is this project that has brought her to this fair city, this wine bar. And, like all of her artistic choices so far, The Bridge Project brings together some of the greatest artists of our time–both American and British–reinforcing Hall as a compass pointing toward the world of art for art’s sake. The challenge of playing two characters simultaneously raises the bar once again for Hall, but her ability to take on challenging roles and make them memorable is what makes her so alluring; what allows her to upstage world-renowned beauties and step out from under family’s theatrical shadow. Her onscreen appeal, unlike many of her actress colleagues, is more then just surface, and starts somewhere deeper, building on top of itself until it emerges and shines. It’s called taste, insight into the human condition, and a dedication to one’s craft.

“Celebrity is so saturated in our culture, but I don’t think about how it affects me because I don’t think it does. Nor do I think it really will,” says Hall. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be a movie star. I hope that I just carry on being an actress. I’ve been lucky and I’ve played a lot of interesting people on film, but the really meaty roles that are challenging are few and far between. That is much more common in theater. You get the time to sit around and pontificate about [the characters], which is quite fun if you’re that way inclined. I still consider flexing the academic muscle that is somewhere latent, lurking inside my brain.

“With reviews as well, I can’t really read them. And everyone says, ‘Read the good ones, they’re all great. Look at them.’ And then I sort of think, ‘Why?’ If I read all the good ones and believe those, then if I read the bad on I’d have to believe it as well. Surely, I should just believe what I believe, and let the rest of it go.”

© Flaunt Magazine 2009