If you’re at all familiar with the track record of actress Rebecca Hall, you know there’s a certain genre she excels at. She’s not somebody who stars in cookie-cutter romantic comedies or FX-heavy action blockbusters. You’re more likely to find her doing Shakespeare on stage—like the 2009 production of The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by her boyfriend Sam Mendes—or doing independent movies that are more likely to get critical raves than break box office records, like Woody Allen’s 2008 Golden Globe winner Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ron Howard’s 2008 historical drama Frost/Nixon, and Ben Affleck’s 2010 crime thriller The Town. Most recently, she made a splash in HBO’s five-part costume drama Parade’s End, adapted from the Ford Madox Ford novels by Tom Stoppard. She has yet to appear in a dud, and The New York Times called her “among the fastest-rising, and most gifted, actresses of her generation.”
This month, she’s playing a scientist in the new Iron Man movie.
It’s certainly a first for the London-based actress, and possibly a sign of things to come. She’s also signed on to co-star with Johnny Depp in Transcendence, another science fiction, comic book-esque movie—this one about a scientist whose brain is uploaded into a supercomputer. Fans who fell in love with Hall the indie actress might be a little disappointed with her new career direction. But knowing Hall, her performances will be anything but one-dimensional. Her character in Iron Man III may fit into the cliché “smart and sexy scientist” category, but it’ll likely be more compelling (and believable) than, say, Denise Richards pretending to be a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough.
Hall, who’s turning 31 this month, is the daughter of British theater director Peter Hall (he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company) and the American opera soprano Maria Ewing. Their marriage ended when Hall was just 5, and she stayed with her mother. She had growth spurts at a young age—she shot up to 5’10” by the time she was 11—and was, by her own admission, an awkward teenager. “There was a disconnect between my limbs and brain,” she’s said. “So I was constantly falling over and very clumsy.” She went to the University of Cambridge and studied English literature for two years, before dropping out to try acting full time. Despite having no training whatsoever, she made her professional debut on the West End stage at just 20 (in a show directed by her father), and landed her first film a few years later, the James McAvoy period comedy Starter for 10. It’s been uphill ever since.
I called Hall to talk about Iron Man III, American accents, Woody Allen, pretentious teenage girls pretending to be Better Davis, and the trials and tribulations of being the daughter of famous parents.
It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Iron Man III is going to be a blockbuster.
I think so. It’ll be more surprising if it doesn’t make insane amounts of money. Do you feel any of that burden on your shoulders?
Not really. It’s called Iron Man for a reason. I’m not playing Iron Man. I feel the same as I do with anything, really. It would be unfair to the smaller independent projects to say that I don’t feel as much pressure working on them as I do when I’m working on a big movie. It’s just not true. I put personal pressure on myself to do a good job, regardless of what the media is.
You play a scientist, but a comic book version of a scientist. How do you prepare for a role like this? Do you do serious research, or just throw on a lab coat and glasses and blammo, you’re a scientist?
None of that, actually. I do research for everything, always. But I do research that is appropriate to the role. If I was playing a scientist in a world that was similar to our own, then I would research that field of science. But if I’m playing a scientist in the Iron Man world. We’re talking about the Marvel universe here. There’s no compatible area of research I could go find. It wouldn’t make sense.
Have you read any Iron Man comics?
I try to look at the source material that the script comes from. But ultimately the script is the thing you’re making, not anything else. I read a few of the comic books out of curiosity, just because I never read comic books before, and it was fun to get into that world which is a whole new thing to me. There is some really amazing artistry in graphic novels. I’m in awe of them now and admire them hugely.
You’re entering into a strange new world for this film — the comic book nerd universe.
Oh yes, absolutely. [Laughs.]
Have you gone to your first comic book convention yet?
Sadly, no. I’ve not been to any of them. But I’ve seen pictures from ComiCon and that kind of thing, and it seems absolutely brilliant.
People sometimes dress up as their favorite characters for these things. Who would you come as?
What would I dress like?
Yeah. Are you the Princess Leia slave bikini from Return of the Jedi type? Or somebody from Game of Thrones? The dragon lady, maybe?
I’d come as Ziggy Stardust, probably. I’m a music nerd. If there is any area that I am geeky or nerdy about, it’s my record collection.
I think the world would be a better place if you dressed up as Ziggy Stardust.
You think? It’s not going to happen, so dream on. But thank you for the idea.
There’s a lot of action and choreographed fights in Iron Man, which isn’t typical for you.
For me personally?
I mean the movies and TV shows you’ve done. I don’t recall a lot of judo in Parade’s End.
[Laughs.] Don’t you remember that big fight scene between me and Benedict (Cumberbatch)? Yeah, I haven’t done anything like that. Well wait, I suppose that’s not true. I did a film called The Awakening, which is a supernatural horror film and there was fighting in that and quite a lot of running around and screaming and action-y stuff. It was definitely the most physical thing I’ve done to date.
Of all the characters you’ve done, Sylvia Tietjens in Parade’s End is probably my favorite.
Literally insane. Should have been locked away. Yeah, you’re right.
She’s not just a bitch, she’s an artful bitch.
Ooooh. That’s a glorious way to put it.
Anyone can be rude or cruel. How do you elevate that bitchiness to something transcendent?
Well, it helped that the language was written such that it was already elevated. She has some of the most minted, brilliant, articulate sort of dexterous verbal put-downs. And so that already makes her an original. Then I suppose it was a combination of being very… (long pause.) I didn’t want to just play her as kind of a campy arch-diva. But at the same time, she had to be larger than life. Because she is. She’s a monster on so many levels. I had to work out what I liked about her.
What about her could you possibly identify with? She’s so fundamentally awful on so many levels.
Yes, but I don’t really buy into the philosophy that one has to relate to a character in order to play them. I don’t think I’m drawn to characters because they’re like me. I think I’m drawn to characters that strike me as human. I have to understand a character, but I don’t have to relate to them.
You’ve claimed that as a teenager you were “pretentious.” In what ways were you pretentious?
Where do I begin? Reading books that were way beyond my understanding in years. Listening to Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and telling everyone how important jazz music was. Dressing all in black. I could go on. I mean really, I was a horror. I so wanted to be a beatnik and it was really not very trendy wanting to be a beatnik when I was 13. It wasn’t anything that made me vastly unpopular or anything, I was just a bit geeky. I definitely aspired to things that were beyond my years. I remember once in an English class, one of the students said to me, “That’s a pretentious comment, Rebecca.” I can’t remember what I said. But I remember the English teacher made this rather brilliant comment which has stayed with me my whole life. “There’s nothing wrong with being pretentious. You have to start pretentious to get somewhere.” I really agree with that. It’s often the route to anything.
You went to a private girl’s school. Were you comfortable in that environment?
I don’t think I would have enjoyed school anywhere, honestly. I think the school I went to was excellent for me, in the sense that it forced me to be quite disciplined with my academia. As a teenager, I was much more interested in wafting around and listening to music. And if I hadn’t been forced into a rigorous environment, I probably would have flunked everything. But the school I went to did me very, very well, even if I didn’t like it. I was very desperate to be a grown up. I didn’t like being at school and I didn’t like being a kid or a teenager. I had a great childhood, I’m not saying that. I just wanted to be… all my idols and heroines were adults.
Isn’t that pretty typical? When I was a teenager, I wanted to be Kurt Vonnegut. I wanted to be old and grizzled and smoking cigarettes in dirty hotel rooms.
God yes! I want to be Kurt Vonnegut now!
At the time, did it seem like older people had life figured out?
It was just that older people could do what they wanted. There weren’t institutions and requirements. They were doing things they cared about. I grew up surrounded by people who were doing vocational artistic professions and they got to make something. I didn’t grow up in a repressive environment, I grew up with lots of exciting, stimulating, incredible figures who were all grownups and I wanted to be in that world, doing the thing that I was passionate about. I knew I wanted to act. I knew what my interests were, and I just wanted to get on and do it. I was terribly impatient.
Your dad gave you your first acting job, in a TV adaptation of The Camomile Lawn, when you were 10.
I was eight when we shot it, but it came out when I was 10.
Did you know then that acting was it for you?
Pretty much. I got an agent around that time; the same agent that I have now, in fact. She’s like family to me. She and my parents both said it is possible, you could have a career now and do some child acting. And they were supportive of me if I wanted to do that. But they also said to me, “You know, it’d be wiser to go to school and have a childhood like a normal person.” And I agreed with them. I wasn’t interested in being a child actor. None of my heroes were actors in kid movies, they were all actors in grown up movies. So I didn’t see the point. I might as well go to school, get an education, do those things I was encouraged to do. And then be the kind of actor that I wanted to be.
You went through a period where you watched All About Eve every night. Were you imagining yourself in those roles?
Oh yes. Margot Channing was probably my favorite. There was a time I wouldn’t be put to bed unless I sat there trying to learn huge chunks of dialogue, like when she was removing her face makeup at the beginning.
That makes me very happy. I’m trying to picture you as a 10 year old girl, doing your best Bette Davis impression. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s pretty much how you’d imagine it.
How’d you even discover a movie like All About Eve at that age? Your parents must’ve had something to do with it.
My mother has an incredible knowledge of black and white movies. She’s American and that’s part of her heritage.
She’s originally from Detroit, right?
That’s right. She brought me up with those films. I didn’t grow up watching TV. I grew up reading books and watching black and white films. Movies with Barbara Stanwick, Joan Crawford, all these classic, powerful women. That was my childhood and I loved them. I worshiped them.
Your mother was clearly a big influence on you. Was it ever tempting to follow in her footsteps rather than your dad’s?
Well, I think I did. I mean, what my dad does is artistic, sure. But it’s also intellectual and diplomatic. Being an actor is about performing, and my mom was a tremendous, inspired performer. That was her great strength. When people talk to me about that, they say I followed in my dad’s footsteps and I actually think I followed more in my mom’s. To me, acting is obviously performative, but it’s instinctive as well. It’s not entirely intellectual and all that sort of stuff. It’s instinctive more than anything.
What’s it like to collaborate with your father? You did a number of plays with him after you left Cambridge, and then most recently on Twelfth Night at London’s National Theatre. How has that relationship evolved?
I don’t know if it has evolved. It’s always been what it is. We never had anything but a very grown up, easy, professional dialogue about acting and the profession and everything that it entailed. It was something that we didn’t question or think about.
You never worried that someone might accuse you or your dad of nepotism?
In the beginning, absolutely. My first big role, in (George Bernard Shaw’s) Mrs. Warren’s Profession, was directed by my dad. I was terrified that people would assume I only got cast because of him, and the critics would tear me to shreds and I’d never work again. You know, that mentality of “She better be good.” You almost felt like people were waiting to see you fail. It was truly, truly horrifying. But I think both of us sort of ignored that and pretended that it wasn’t happening until the first night. I remember my dad made a whole thing about my name being very small on the poster, don’t do any press about it, don’t draw any attention. I just wanted to do the job and see if, you know, I’d be accepted in my own right. And if I did, it’d never become an issue, because I wasn’t denying where I came from. I do remember opening night, he was standing with me backstage, and he face went entirely green. I’d never seen anything like it. He just looked at me and said, “What on earth have I done?” He was just making himself sick with worry.
Were you able to calm him down?
I was as petrified as he was. I practically threw up all over him. Luckily the press came out the next morning and it was fine. But I never saw the point in denying it, in denying that I was my father’s daughter and that was part of who I am, because I knew I would always come up against those comparisons. I’m proud of my parents. They are amazing. But I also know that denying where I come from and my heritage or changing my name wouldn’t actually help anything because I’d still get labeled as such.
Your mom is American and your dad is British. Do you feel like a cultural mutt?
Absolutely. People make these jokes about being mid-Atlantic, but that’s genuinely how it feels. I feel mid-Atlantic. London and British culture is very much home to me. But I go to New York and I feel exactly the same way. So I’m somewhere in the middle and I’m happy in either place. Which is why I feel so grateful that I’ve managed to somehow cultivate a career that enables me to be in both sides of the Atlantic.
Is it easy for you to do an American accent?
Easy in the sense that my ear is very tuned to American accents. I can hear them very well and the differences. But I don’t have a default American accent. I like to tailor every American accent to the character. And that’s the same for British characters, like Sylvia. She’s British, but her accent isn’t anything like mine. It goes for every role that I’ve ever played. That’s one of my starting points, the voice and how they sound. It’s the work that I like to do and I wouldn’t call that easy.
When you auditioned for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, wasn’t Woody Allen’s only question whether you could do an American accent?
Yeah, that was pretty much it.
Was he looking for a certain kind of American accent? From a certain region?
No, I don’t think so. If he was, he didn’t say as much. He just asked, “Can you do one?” And I said yes.
That was the totality of your audition for Woody Allen?
That was the totality of my audition for Woody Allen. It genuinely was.
I can’t let you go without asking for a quick Woody Allen story. Do you have any fond memories of working with him?
There aren’t any memories of him that aren’t fond. It was just a truly, truly preposterously nice way to work for a couple of months. To be in Barcelona, in the sunshine, with one of your idols. I look back on it and it’s revoltingly paved with happy memories.
We all know Woody’s a little quirky.
A little, sure. [Laughs.]
Did he do anything that lived up to his reputation?
The one image that always sticks out is when I was queuing for lunch one day, the buffet, and there was a line of parked cars on the curb next to where the queue was. And I happened to see that one of the cars was occupied and it was Woody’s car. He was sitting in the backseat with all the windows shut, just practicing his clarinet quietly.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April/May 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)