Hall of mysteries
There's nothing wrong with playing the girlfriend, or the neighbour, but Rebecca Hall deserves a better fate.
The 30-year-old British actor, who is familiar to many as Ben Affleck's love interest in The Town and Vicky in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, has earned the opportunity to show off her considerable talent, which she finally does as the star of the eerie ghost story The Awakening.
Set in 1921's post-World War I England, the film casts Hall as Florence Cathcart, a woman dedicated to debunking all things supernatural. When a teacher (Dominic West) at a remote boarding school comes to her claiming the ghost of a young boy is roaming the halls and frightening the students, Florence feels compelled to investigate and prove there are no such things as ghosts. What follows is a tension-filled story with clever plot twists that showcase Hall's dramatic acting chops.
"Florence is definitely someone who's acutely smart," says Hall during a Toronto interview, "and it's difficult to play smart as an actor without getting carried away — 'Well isn't it great that I'm playing a smart person' — and you can come off really pompous and a nightmare to watch."
Hall need not worry, her Florence loses all smugness when her beliefs are turned upside down. Does Hall, who grew up in an artistic atmosphere as the daughter of renowned British theatre director Sir Peter Hall and American opera singer Maria Ewing, believe in the spiritual realm?
"I don't know, but I think it's enduringly fascinating. I think what could be considered mysterious now might well be science in 50 years, and I do believe that Shakespeare was right when he said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy,' and that's always going to be the case, and that's part of humanity, that there's mystery."
Having Hall quote Shakespeare is fitting since The Bard's played a large role in her life — her father founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she performed Shakespeare on stage early in her career under her father’s direction.
And it was her penetrating, precise acting ability — and arresting beauty — that caught filmmakers' attention. In 2006, director Christopher Nolan cast her opposite Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige; supporting roles in pictures such as Frost/Nixon, Please Give and the aforementioned The Town soon followed.
But The Awakening gives her a chance to take centre stage and play a strong female lead who undergoes emotional trials.
"The challenge, and the exciting thing about doing the film, is that it was unlike anything I'd done before,"says Hall. "It has extreme emotions of the kind that you don't get from domestic dramas, which is mostly what I've done, or domestic indie comedies, and that was just refreshing for me.
"And also to play someone who undergoes an almighty transition, really off the scale, an extreme arc, I thought, 'Oh, that’ll be fun.'"
Stage-trained Hall admits to have fallen in love with film acting — and her stock is rising, she was recently cast in Iron Man 3. And like many actors who come from the theatre, she says screen acting is all about learning and then forgetting what you know.
"It's totally instinctive, and the less intellect you put into it the better, in a weird way," she says. "I mean I do all this brain stuff before I start the shoot. I’ll spend, at the very least, a month prepping a movie, doing all the work and joining all the dots in my head, and then throw it all out because the more instinctive and the more you just throw yourself off the edge of a cliff on a film set, the better."
Hall's sense of adventure follows her off-screen as well. Although she is romantically involved with director Sam Mendes, she finds it hard to settle down, and hasn't set up a permanent home anywhere. She once told the Guardian newspaper that she envies friends who have homes and shelves full of books. So what’s stopping her from making a connection with a place she can call home?
"I mean, I have made a connection, I suppose I have. I've slightly put down roots in New York, and I've slightly put down roots in London," she says smiling. "And I'm absolutely sure those are going to be my two — I've got a homing device somehow that's always gravitating me to either New York or London. So as long as I've got that sense, and I know that I can end up in one of those places, then I don't mind going wherever I need to go for work.
"But I admit, I do get antsy and I want to move on."