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What Brought Her Here

Rebecca Hall has a pair of laudable goals. She wants to be well-respected and she wants to be successful.

Done and done.

Ms. Hall, 31, has been heralded for her work on stage (“As You Like It” and “Man and Superman” directed by her father, Peter Hall; “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Cherry Orchard”), on television (“Parade’s End”) and on screen (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Town” and “Please Give.”). She stars with Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman in the forthcoming sci-fi thriller “Transcendence,” and is making her Broadway debut Thursday in the revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist play, “Machinal,” a work inspired by the case of husband-killer Ruth Snyder.

But there is this one other little aspiration. In addition to being well-regarded and sought-after, Ms. Hall—who is tall, lanky and flat-out wonderful looking (unfairness alert: brainy too)—would like to be able to stomp around in public unrecognized. “That,” she said, “is the ideal.”

Sometimes a girl has to settle for two out of three.

Because she arrived for a lunch interview before the restaurant was officially open for business, there were no customers to take note and take covert phone photos as Ms. Hall strode to a back table. But the wait staff did enough gawking for a full house. A server promptly delivered mint tea, refused, per management’s instructions, to present a bill, and expressed hope that the actress (and reporter!) would come back soon.

“It would be so grand to find the attention appalling,” said Ms. Hall, who has a star’s ability to seem very friendly while remaining slightly distant. “If a few more people are coming up to me on the street, so be it. I don’t want my life to turn into ‘oh, god, please leave me alone.'”

Really, that’s a declaration better left to the character that brought the London-based Ms. Hall to New York.

But first things first: the pronunciation. “It’s MAH-shi-nol with a soft ‘sh,'” Ms. Hall said. “There was a long time in rehearsal where everyone was saying so many variants: ‘MAH-ki-nol.’ ‘MAH-shi-nail.’ Someone came up with ‘Ma-HAI-nal,'” she added, giving the word a Hebraic twist.

“And then our director, Lyndsey Turner, decided to do some research and learned that Treadwell had written a letter to somebody before the play was picked up and put on Broadway, and she was explicit that she wanted it to have the ‘sh’ sound.

“But there were a bunch of blokes doing their thing who decided it should be pronounced ‘MACK-i-nol’ because it sounded better,” Ms. Hall said with disgust. “And that’s what people have been saying ever since.”

“Machinal” focuses on an office drudge known mostly as Young Woman and occasionally as Helen (Ms. Hall) who, cornered by circumstances and convention, marries her boss, a man she finds repulsive, and gives birth to an unwanted child. A passionate affair with a drifter is the catalyst for a tabloid-tailored crime, one ripped from the same headlines that animated James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity.”

“Someone had mentioned ‘Machinal’ to me six or seven years ago and said, ‘You should look into it because it’s something you might want to do at some point,'” Ms. Hall recalled. “I glanced at it, but I suppose I didn’t have a context for it.

“Then Lyndsey took me out for a cup of tea and said: ‘I like your work. We should do something together. I have this play, “Machinal.”‘ I told her I’d looked at it once, and she said, ‘No, go read it properly and come back.'”

A conscientious actress, Ms. Hall took the direction and was galvanized. “It’s not often that you come across a play that you think is worthy of being an American classic and isn’t,” she said. “You’re lucky if you see it as a footnote in a women’s anthology. Doing this has been like working on a new play, but with all the benefits of knowing you have something good.

“There are passages that remind me of Beckett, but a long time before Beckett,” she continued. “I find that fascinating. It seemed absolutely ludicrous that there hadn’t been a production on Broadway since 1928. I was interested for that reason much more than it being my Broadway debut.”

Not that Ms. Hall is ignoring the significance of the event. “I guess it’s impossible because everyone keeps bringing it up,” she said with a laugh. “I keep wondering: ‘Do I get to wear a prom dress and carry a corsage? Will they throw confetti on me?'”

Ms. Turner doesn’t seem to think confetti would be out of order. “Rebecca has grown into one of our most important British actors,” she said. “I like that she’s a bold adventurer in terms of roles. The part in ‘Machinal’ isn’t the most glamorous that an actress could take on. It’s about playing someone who’s ordinary and suffocated from the life she’s leading. But if there’s anyone who can investigate that, it’s Rebecca.”

Mr. Hall’s daughter with his third wife, opera singer Maria Ewing, 9-year-old Rebecca made a splash in her first professional outing, “The Camomile Lawn,” a miniseries directed by Mr. Hall. Other offers quickly followed.

“Do you want to be a child actress or do you want to be an actress?” father asked daughter. Demonstrating a wisdom far beyond her years, the little girl chose option two.

“I had a very clear understanding of the question,” said Ms. Hall, who, beginning a decade or so later, worked on several stage productions with her father, among them “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” her West End debut. “But I think that was born of my heroines at the time—Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be a grown-up. I didn’t want to be a kid.”

Since then, Ms. Hall has displayed an ornery streak that would delight her role models. She dropped out of Cambridge University with one year to go “because I wanted to do something that went against she grain,” she said. “So now when I don’t think to go against the grain, I remind myself that I once did—and it informs the next choice.”

Case in point: After the release of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “my career was, as the Hollywood people like to say, exploding, which sounds very frightening,” said Ms. Hall, a Golden Globe nominee for her work in the Woody Allen comedy. To the horror of her agents, that was the precise moment she decided to make a yearlong commitment to the Bridge Project, a transatlantic repertory venture.

So just imagine the surprise of those agents when Ms. Hall accepted a role in last year’s “Iron Man 3,” based on the Marvel Comics superhero. “If you had asked me 10 years ago if I was going to be in ‘Iron Man,’ I would have answered ‘no, I would never do such a thing,'” she said. “When I started acting I was very much about ‘I’m going to be an artist. I’m not going to do anything mainstream.’ But I wanted to face up to my 20-year-old self and say ‘stop being such a snob,'” Ms. Hall said. “And now I’ve done it. It doesn’t mean I have to do it again. I’m not going to do ‘Iron Man 4.’

“Spoiler alert: My character died in ‘Iron Man 3.'”