In the deceivingly understated new play Animal, Rebecca Hall portrays a woman on shaky mental ground. Her Rachel has secretive interactions with mysterious figures (a flirtatious hunk, a woman in a wheelchair) who might or might not exist. Her psychiatrist asks if she’s thought of harming herself or others; she denies it, but we have reason to wonder. Rachel is on the brink of a breakdown and she’s aware of it, watching herself sink with self-reflective gallows humor. Hall lets us discover the character via accretive little brushstrokes: an ironic smirk here, a quiver of uncertainty there. She’s not an actress who goes for the obvious telegraph, the easy sell.
“That stuff doesn’t interest me,” she says over the phone. (Hall had rolled her ankle not long before the first preview and was trying to keep movement to a minimum.) “One of my unhappiest states is to watch indulgent performances. I’m always looking for a counterintuitive way to do something that doesn’t feel like a repetition of an actor trope. But it’s not like I’m deliberately shying away from something — I don’t make a choice that feels like it’s drawing attention to the fact that it’s not drawing attention.”
This approach may explain why Hall is often called on to embody characters defined by subdued or even virtuous qualities: reason (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), kindness (Please Give), resilience (The Town). Even in meaty lead parts — a wife under threat in the domestic thriller The Gift, a hoax-buster in the spooky The Awakening — she eschews flash. In lesser hands, the title role of last year’s Christine could have been hammy Oscar bait; instead, Hall portrayed Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newscaster who shot herself to death on live television in 1974, with a low-key intensity that was simultaneously grim and heartbreaking. “She doesn’t go for the sentimental choice,” said Christine director Antonio Campos. “She goes for what feels truthful. And she’s not scared of being ugly — not ugly like her makeup’s smeared or whatever, but showing an uncomfortable side to a character.”
The actor is especially adept at pairing vulnerability with — and this isn’t as contradictory as it might appear — confidence and poise. The latter could derive from her upbringing in a stage family: Her father is the British director Sir Peter Hall, her mother the American classical singer Maria Ewing; when his daughter was all of eight, Sir Peter asked little Rebecca if she wanted to be an actor. (Talk about a leading question!) About a dozen years later, he cast her as Rosalind in a production of As You Like It that traveled the U.K. and America. (It made a pit stop at BAM in 2004.) Since then, Hall, now 35 and a Brooklyn resident, has split her time between movies, television, and theater, on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet while her résumé ranges from supporting roles in big franchises (Iron Man 3) to leads in indie dramedies or European period pieces that tend to resist the mainstream, she has only a BAFTA (for Red Riding: 1974) and a single major nomination (a Golden Globe for Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to her name. Even her magnetic turn as a doomed murderess in the 2014 Broadway revival of Machinal failed to catch the eye of Tony voters.
Through it all, she has remained an actor’s actor, or maybe a smart director’s actor. Poking fun at bottom-line-oriented Hollywood execs, Please Give helmer Nicole Holofcener noted in a DVD extra that Hall’s “got that sweet, open, vulnerable, natural beauty that I think could be overlooked by someone stupid or really not looking carefully.””But Hall herself has also deliberately, almost defiantly refused to capitalize on her successes. After garnering raves for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she didn’t decamp to Hollywood but signed up for Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project, for which she toured venues around the world (including BAM again, in 2009) with repertory productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale. “Some people would say it was one of the dumbest decisions I ever made,” Hall says, laughing. Likewise, where Ben Affleck and Blake Lively gained prestige and exposure from The Town, Hall went from that sleeper hit to the Raymond Carver adaptation Everything Must Go — one of the few non-comedies (and non-blockbusters) in the Will Ferrell canon.
Now she’s followed up Christine and its critical afterglow with Animal, a new play by a largely unknown author, Clare Lizzimore, showing in a hundred-seat theater. Hall wears little makeup and unglamorous street clothes; mere feet from the audience, she has abdicated movie-star distance. Her agents may be pulling their hair, but she remains philosophical. “Fame is sort of nebulous and weird,” she says. “A large part of the jobs I want to do are based on: Is it something that’s going to stimulate me? Is it going to keep me entertained? Am I going to see parts of the world I haven’t seen? What you get is your life’s experience.”
Adding to her experience capital, Hall served as producer on Brian Crano’s upcoming rom-com Permission, about a couple who decide to open their relationship to other people. Playing her screen husband is her old As You Like It pal Dan Stevens, while Hall’s real-life spouse, Morgan Spector (who’s also in Animal), turns up as a gay friend. The producing gig sprang organically: “I came on the script, said I would act in it, and it seemed obvious that the next step would be to raise the money.” Hall adds, “It was a huge learning curve for me [and] made me realize that slowly but surely I’m sort of edging toward behind-the-camera activities.”
Given that Hall is the kind of cultural omnivore who Instagrams playbills of the shows she sees — as well as pictures of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s cryptic 1977 classic 3 Women and Justin Vivian Bond in concert at Joe’s Pub — the prospect of directing excites her. “I love art, photography, music, storytelling; it seems to me a way you can merge these passions is film directing,” she says. Notice the emphasis on film. “I’ve got no interest in directing a play whatsoever,” Hall declares. “I think it’s really an actor’s medium. Every time I love a play, my instinct is, ‘Ooh, I wish I was doing it, I wish I could approach it every night and do the whole thing from start to finish, own it in that way you get to own a story when you’re onstage.’ ”
She pauses for a laugh. “When I love a film, I think, ‘God, I wish I’d made that.’ ”
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