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Aside from reviews that consistently drain critics’ supply of superlatives, you’d think it would be hard to find a common thread in Rebecca Hall’s acting career. It’s spanned 25 years (she got her start at 10) with stage, TV and film roles and comprised ingénues, diffident girlfriends, domestic terror victims, troubled career women and manipulative upper class terrors. Small wonder the Los Angeles Times called her “capable of becoming anybody, anywhere.”
Actually, the thread is easy to spot. You won’t get far into any review of her work before you hit the word “intelligent,” time and again. Most of the women she plays are smart, and the way she plays them is pretty genius, too. Hall doesn’t burn up a screen as much as consume it with quiet intensity, enticing us with slow, subtle reveals of what’s going on inside her characters. The scenery chewing stuff “doesn’t interest me,” she told The Village Voice earlier this year. “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.”
Our theory is that she’s an intelligent actor because she’s an intelligent woman. She made her first smart acting choice at age ten. After somewhat reluctantly casting her in his television adaptation of Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, Hall’s father, legendary British stage director and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall, asked her if she wanted to be a child actor, or an actor. She chose actor. She’d had her mom’s stash of Betty Davis movies on loop for years and knew exactly what kind of actor she wanted to be, and it wasn’t kids’ stuff. Hall considers her artistic parents (her mom is renowned opera singer Maria Ewing) and complex family life (her dad married four times) a gift; the way she sees it, a nonjudgmental acceptance of life’s ambiguities is one of acting’s primary requirements.
Hall studied English Literature at Cambridge, but dropped out shortly before her final year, ready to get on with what she’d known she was going to do anyway. She was reluctant to trade on her father’s work to secure some of her own, but knew the whispers of nepotism would come regardless. So why not take the plunge, get the whispering over with, and prove her own merits, whatever they might be? At 23, she took the role of Rosalind in Sir Peter’s production of As You Like It at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We’ll let the theater press tell the rest. On top of calling her “a young actress of glistening freshness and uncanny intuition,” The New York Times wrote, “Not since Vanessa Redgrave’s Rosalind for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 has a performance in the part provoked such feverish, star-making praise…When she finally takes her hat off, letting her hair tumble to her shoulders, she keeps her eyes closed for a second, like a diver before the plunge. She knows that whatever follows isn’t going to be easy. As Ms. Hall presents the moment, Rosalind has never seemed braver.” The New Yorker said Hall “exquisitely conveyed the sometimes tremulous combination of knowingness and naïveté that characterizes Rosalind. If you knew and loved Rosalind’s lines, it was thrilling to hear the subtlety with which Hall delivered them.”
A casting director who witnessed the performance encouraged Woody Allen to cast her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and suddenly Hall was Hollywood’s new discovery. GQ’s review ran, “In the annals of acting, you won’t find a feat more impressive than the one Rebecca Hall pulled off: almost stealing a movie in which Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson go lesbian. And she did it with fire-eyed soliloquies, not nude shots, and by making her character’s ambivalence about the meaning of betrayal the most heartbreaking conflict in the film.”
Roles in Frost/Nixon, Please Give and The Town followed to equal praise, and the Times doubled down in 2010: “Hall is among the fastest-rising, and most gifted, actresses of her generation.” Never mind she’d been “rising” ever since 2006 with her feature debut in Starter for 10 and The Prestige. Even a risky creep into horror (2011’s The Awakening) paid critical dividends, as did her first truly and deliciously unlikeable turn as Sylvia Tietjens in BBC Two’s Parade’s End (2011).
She topped them all in 2016’s Christine. “In lesser hands, the title role could have been hammy Oscar bait, wrote The Village Voice. ”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.” And, we’d add, devastatingly human.
Hall has two films (Permission and The Dinner) out this year so far. Her third is Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a true and fascinating origin story about the creator of Wonder Woman. It’s just now hitting theaters, but by all reports, she’s already stolen it. She’s also writing and painting when she can, and is adapting Nella Larsen’s novella Passing as a screenplay.
That Hall has managed to avoid getting bogged down in any one type of role, or one particular medium, or even in the Hollywood system itself is tribute to her well-documented intellect. That said, “No matter how crafted or technical a situation is, I still get there through gut feeling.” No real artist operates without the certainty of instinct. She probably knew that all along.