Rebecca Hall on Roles: 'I Do Things Because I Want to Understand, or I Want to Find Empathy, or I’m Just Curious'

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Rebecca Hall directed the movie Passing and starred in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Now Hall, 40, takes the lead in the psychological thriller Resurrection (currently in theaters and on demand). After a traumatic event that occurred when she was 18, Margaret (Hall) has achieved a successful and balanced life as a single mom. But that carefully tended equilibrium is upended when her past returns in the form of David (Tim Roth), and she must confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades.

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What made Resurrection irresistible for you?

I just found the audacity of it to be something quite out of the ordinary. I tend to applaud when films are daring and push things. I think it’s less about the subject matter and more about the cinematic experience, like it’s going to be something.

In addition to being a story about past trauma, Resurrection is also a mother-daughter story at its core. How do you think Margaret deals with motherhood? Especially since her daughter is at the age Margaret was when she underwent her trauma. Maybe that’s even more triggering for her.

I think it is. You’ve really hit the nail on the head in terms of how I look at the story. I always thought it was really a metaphor for the existential terror of being a parent. I say that somewhat jokingly, but I also mean it. Anyone that has a child, it’s terrifying, the idea of not just the big stuff, like they get might get hurt or in danger or anything like that. But also, the basic stuff, like sooner or later they’re going to have to grow up and go out into the world, and you can’t look after them anymore.

That’s the core of the story. You’re meeting a character when her daughter’s just about to fly the nest and go and be an adult, and she can’t look after her. And she’s the ultimate helicopter parent. Margaret’s ultimately micromanaging everything because she’s so terrified of the world.

This may sound crazy, but Margaret reminded me a little bit of Liam Neeson in Taken, because anything to protect her child, right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There is that element to it. I said earlier the thing about it being very cinematic, and I think that’s part of it. There are these heroic tropes, like she’s the ultimate lioness mother-protector. Fiercely, I will do anything to protect my children, that kind of thing. There is something stereotypically filmic and heroic about that. But this is utterly the sort of devotion that’s distorted and twisted, and sends you on a “Wait a minute, where are we? What’s happening?” ride at the same time.

Tim Roth is excellent at playing a sociopath. What conversations did the two of you have to get that relationship just right?

Not all that many. We’re firm believers in in the script; just do it and see what happens. We were lucky that I convinced our director, Andrew Semans, to let me play Margaret in my own voice, with my own dialect as a British person. I said to him, “It makes sense. She’s running away from something; she might as well be British.” I never get to do that living in America, and often playing Americans. I’m half American, so it’s not a stretch for me, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to do things in my own accent.

I said to him, “I don’t see why she couldn’t be.” And then of course when Tim Roth got cast, that opened up the idea that he could also play British. Funny enough, I think it ended up being a good choice for the movie, too, because it ended up bonding us as these two outsiders within this world, which I think did a lot of that work that you’re asking about for us in a funny way. You imagined their past because of this shared other culture.

Your director had nothing but compliments for how prepared you were. In the big monologue scene in which Margaret’s trauma is revealed, he said you did that in two takes. So was there something really about this woman that you understand that made it easy for you?

I think probably a combination of things, yes and no. I mean, not obviously remotely specifically at all. I have nothing that I can relate to her, but I’m someone who dealt with anxiety at times in my life and had things that I can map onto it. But I’m not really that type of an actor, I don’t necessarily do things because I directly identify with something. Sometimes I do things because I want to understand, or I want to find empathy, or I’m just curious, or I’m moved. And I think there are things that I could definitely use. Because ultimately, it’s me, so whatever choices I make, they stem from somewhere that are mine. As for how and why and wherefore, ask my therapist.

When Margaret reaches her breaking point, it’s amazing, that was so intense. Do you take that stuff home with you? Or can you turn it off when you leave?

I used to be terrible. I used to not be able to leave it at work. I had a really hard time not bringing some of that energy and some of that emotion home with me. But over the years, I’ve learned to compartmentalize, and I actually think it’s really healthy and better for my acting. And having a child really helps that because I come home and my daughter’s not got room for any of that, there’s no time. We’re straight into playing Mary Poppins.

So she takes you into her world.

Yeah, she takes me out of it. And I think that’s actually pretty good for going there when you’re at work, because I don’t use my work as emotional catharsis. But there is something often very cathartic about just releasing whatever it is. Whatever anxiety you’re carrying around, whatever pain, anything you’re carrying around that’s inside you, and just being able to have an outlet for where you can release all of that.

And it’s a little bit of that, and it’s also mostly just believing in the story that’s in front of you, which I’ve never had a hard time doing for whatever reason. I find it easy to imagine myself into other situations and then I am moved. It’s not a lie, I am moved. I’m going through it. My body’s going through it, everything’s going through it. And that’s the hard part to shake off because you do feel a little bit drained at the end of it all.

Because your body doesn’t know that it’s not real.

I learned this probably in a very brutal way when I was making Christine and I had to hold a gun up to my head. It was fascinating how my body just flooded with adrenaline, I couldn’t shake it. My body thought that I was holding a gun to my head, even though I knew it was a prop gun, we all knew it was a prop gun. That’s the best way to describe what acting often is; you have to actually believe it in that moment. It’s not about remembering that time that you had it rough when your cat died or whatever to make you cry. You cry because you believe the story that you’re an actor in.

You did Resurrection right after you directed Passing. Directing takes up so much more time than acting in something. Were you looking to step away from directing for a while?

No, I wasn’t. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I actually read the script just after having shot Passing, but then it didn’t happen because the pandemic happened. So there was a year and a half where it was, “Am I going to do this, am I not going to do this?” But I think it wasn’t that I was trying to step away from directing, I think quite the opposite. I came out of the experience of making Passing, thinking, “Actually, this is what I want to devote my life to. I’m not giving up acting, but this is what I want to concentrate on because I love it, and this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

So I made this pact with myself, I don’t know that I really want to act unless it’s something that really pushes me, that feels like it’s going to be something that really pushes me. There has to be a reason to do it. And then, of course, this script landed in my lap. And I was like, “This is ridiculous. This is the ultimate challenge for an actor, it’s like running a serious marathon.” And I couldn’t say no, because I’m masochistic like that, I guess.

What was it like directing Passing, about Black women who try to “pass” as white to avoid prejudice?

I felt strongly about it. I knew that it was going to be delicate to make people understand that I was coming to it from a place of truth. All my life experiences that went into it would be difficult for people to understand, given how people have perceived me. But my mother was Black but born into a passing family, so [directing the movie] became quite illustrative of the story itself, my story.

What did you learn about your family’s history from doing Finding Your Roots?

My story was crazy because [host] Henry Louis Gates says any sort of Black history that’s traced, usually there’s no paper trail. But in my case, there actually was a ton of paper; my great-grandfather turned out to have been a famous post-abolitionist who was friends with Frederick Douglass.

How did you get invited to participate in Finding Your Roots?

I actually badgered them for ages because I knew that I’d come from a white passing family, and I knew that meant that all of the family history was completely obscured, and it would be very difficult. Even with DNA tests and all the rest of it, it would be very difficult to actually find out the stories. Also, I didn’t entirely have confirmation because my mother was protecting the wishes of her father in the sense of, he said this is something we never talk about.

So she didn’t really talk about it unless I pressed her on it. And then it was vague. She’d be sometimes yes, sometimes no. I don’t know. So it felt to me very important for the sake of my family to do something that was quite public facing, given that so much of it had been deliberately hidden, and not by any of our choice. If that makes sense.

I was badgering Finding Your Roots to put me on the show for probably seven years. And it wasn’t until Henry Louis Gates heard about Passing. He was like, “Wait a minute, what’s that white girl doing making that movie?” Because he studies [the subject] and teaches it to his students at Harvard. And then one of his people basically said, “Oh, she’s been trying to get on the show for ages. Apparently, her mother’s Black.” And so, he looked into it and was like, “Well, OK, get her on the show now.”

How surprising was it to find out about your great-grandfather?

That’s the stuff that my family, my mother, didn’t know about. Something to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. They had no idea because it had been completely hidden from them that they were anything other than a white family living in a suburb of Detroit.

The decision to film Passing in black-and-white, was that one that you had to fight the studios to film it that way?

There were no studios; there was just a million different people handing small amounts of change and then piling it together and making a movie. Netflix bought it afterward. We made it in a very, very, very independent model. But the black-and-white was nearly impossible. I got told by lots of people, lots of studios that wanted to back it, saying, “It’s great but can you change this?” Some people said, “Can you make the male parts bigger, actually?”

But the one thing that everyone kept saying was, “Can you make it in color?” And I kept saying no, and then it got to the point where I realized I was going to have to make it for a lot, lot, lot less money if I was going to make it in black-and-white, or not make it at all. So I decided to go for the difficult fashion. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga were already attached. I remember calling them up and saying I wasn't sure we were going to get any money at all.

I said, “Look, if I do it in color then I probably could get it made tomorrow, but I don’t want to. I want to know what you both think of that because you’ve stuck with this and I want to see you play these roles, I don’t want you to lose this. So I’m willing to rethink that if you tell me otherwise.” And they both said to me, “Stick to your guns. You’re making the right decision. Your vision’s right for the movie. We’ll stick with you whatever happens.” And they did. I’m grateful for them.

You were 10 years old when you started acting. How much of that was influenced by your father being a director? Is it that why you had the exposure?

How could it be otherwise? I don’t really know is the answer. It’s all very chicken-egg. I knew what acting was. I knew the good and I knew the bad, so I had a perspective on it that I think was pretty knowing. I knew it could be tough. But it’s funny, I always thought I would act, I always wanted to. But I always thought I would make films, and I didn’t really know what that was going to look like for a long time.

I never entirely thought of myself as an actor. I thought of myself as someone who drew pictures, who wrote stories, who wanted to make films, who admired films and filmmakers. Acting sort of became the avenue where I could do all of that, until I realized that I could actually do the thing that I really wanted to do if I just decided to do it and worked at it.

When you look back at all of your career, what project are you most proud of?

It’s got to be Passing. It took me 15 years to get made. I still look at it and think it’s nothing short of a miracle that it exists. So, it’s got to be that. I made it for my mother, and she got to see it before she died, and that was very important to me.

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