Rebecca wears a top by DKNY, a skirt by Bally and earrings by Céline.
Rebecca Hall is watching herself on film, running the same sequence over and over, analysing tiny details of her own expressions and gestures. “Do you think that feels forced?” she asks a colleague. This isn’t the Rebecca Hall we’ve seen before, though. It’s the opening sequence of Antonio Campos’ Christine, in which she plays the brilliant, ambitious and witty television journalist Christine Chubbuck, whose personal and professional troubles permanently overshadowed her gifts when, one day in 1974, she looked straight to camera from behind the anchor’s desk and announced to viewers that “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first: attempted suicide,” – and then shot herself in the head.
To kill oneself on live television seems both a radically unambiguous gesture and an irreducibly mysterious one. Rumoured to have inspired Paddy Chayefsky during the writing of Network (or at least eerily echoing its conceit), Chubbuck’s act could be read, Hall says when I meet her, as “symbolically, the primal scream” of an America suffering a national nervous breakdown. If it was an act of satire – as well as an expression of profound despair – it was one utterly lost on the media it was aimed at: Chubbuck’s boss, Robert Nelson, who so angered her with his demands for gory or sensational stories over the more serious work she preferred, reportedly showed off his press clippings about her suicide with the words, “We got the whole front page.”
When I meet Hall, she emphasises that the Christine of the film is a fiction, that the motives of her real-life model must remain unknowable, but that the film nonetheless hopes to create “a dialogue about mental health. A dialogue about how a difficult woman fits in a society like that.” Chubbuck’s family, Hall tells me, had to go to court to wrest the footage of her death away from the network, but when you watch Hall’s uncanny re-enactment of it, it looks rather like a portrait of someone regaining control over her own life. (The scene was apparently even more uncomfortable to film than it is to watch. For Hall, aiming a gun at her own head turned out to be far more disturbing than she had imagined: “My whole body started quivering, I could barely stand up. It was just adrenaline. Your body doesn’t know any different – it feels real.”) Hall sees her task in Christine as “making a case for understanding people who are difficult to understand. For me, the film is watching someone who desperately wants to survive, to live and be happy and be successful, and she eventually reaches this wall where she goes, ‘OK, you want blood and guts, that’s what you’re asking me for, well, if that’s the truth, then I don’t get to survive. If this is how this world functions, then I’m not going to make it.’ So she’s like, ‘Goodbye and, incidentally, fuck you!’”
Hall and I initially meet at a dark cafe in her Brooklyn neighbourhood, but she suggests a walk in the sun instead and we end up spending several hours talking on a bench on the dappled sidewalk. Hall began her career on stage and TV, but her breakout role came alongside Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s 2008 romp Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She now stars in blockbusters like Iron Man 3, but she has been able to do more unusual work elsewhere, such as in The Gift, a mainstream horror flick that’s really about gaslighting, “men controlling women in relationships in these really underhand, subtle ways,” or in Please Give, one of Nicole Holofcener’s small, talky, mordantly observational pieces. (Please Give and Christine, she says, are probably the two films so far about which she feels that “the thing we set out to do, we did it. You’re lucky if you get three of those in your career.”) In person, she’s all ease and enthusiasm, and ravishing in a way she’s clearly learned to mute just enough to move around in public without being approached. While there are some stares and one mesmerised toddler interrupts our conversation (her “large features” often have that effect), I don’t immediately recognise her, and she’s been assured at least once by strangers that she looks “like Rebecca Hall – but don’t worry, way prettier!” Her onscreen presence, too, is often quiet, restrained – she has a rare gift for preserving ambiguities of interpretation within a performance, and for allowing the play of thoughts to come in and out of view across her face. Her Christine, on the other hand, is “a large characterisation” – a tense, self-conscious woman, funny and bright, but also volatile, raw and unsettled in her skin – and she’s well aware that it’s “risky to be big on screen”. Yet the effect, often filtered through various claustrophobic layers of retro-tech and surveillance-style shots that recall the 1970s paranoid canon (which she reminds me has to include Klute, as well as the likes of The Conversation and The Parallax View), is still a subtle one.
So it’s a surprise to me when she lists her earliest acting influences, all of whom share a certain grand scale, whether comedic or melodramatic: there’s Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe, whom she praises for her “sublime” comic timing. (“The idea that that’s not conscious is lunacy,” she says of a scene in How to Marry a Millionaire. “You have to have a technical consciousness, a perspective on the person you’re playing, to achieve any of that.”) She laments the loss of the screwball comedy, which, she says, “probably went out of fashion around the time Katharine Hepburn got told it was box-office poison to do any more of those films. People definitely find it threatening. It comes down to, ‘If you’re smart and talk fast, then you can’t be sexy, because I wouldn’t be able sleep with you.’” What interests her, she says, about these women’s performances, is the inherent tension between the big persona and what is allowed to show through underneath it, through its cracks – “a fundamental vulnerability and exposure”. Which is also one way to describe what’s remarkable in Hall’s version of Christine. For her character, every day is “an exercise in waking up and going, ‘Have I got away with performing normality? Have I gotten away with being regular? How are you looking at me?’” The challenge in portraying mental disturbance, Hall notes, is how to show it “by trying to not show it”. The film itself is “super meta in that sense: she is performing all the time. And sometimes very badly, as well. She’s being very deliberate and conscious with her voice; the stakes are so high for her to be normal in that moment.” Hall and the filmmakers are very aware of the irony in making a film about someone like Christine, whose last act defined her so violently in the public sphere. We discuss how hard it is to make a film that analyses the problems of women forced to perform themselves in public without simply reproducing them. “You have to do it kind of covertly,” she says.
That very visible emotional and social logic in Christine – the way in which we feel we are witnessing a real person’s impassioned but failed performance – is also what here replaces some of the cheap narrative explanations that movies are so often tempted to give for a protagonist’s crack-up. Hall is proud of the film’s courage in providing “no explanation, no diagnosis. You’re seeing her as society would see her, with some added glimpses. You don’t get let off the hook with an explanation: this is why. You’re just confronted with what it looks like”. Hall points out that even now, suicide, while alarmingly common, remains taboo and clouded by unusually fact-resistant clichés. We presume to know far more than we do about what kind of person does it, and how, and why, and whether we might predict it in advance. The desire to understand other people’s inner lives better than that is what draws Hall to acting. It’s an investigative instinct, similar to the impulse to write, which she also does. (Her first script, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, one of the great books of the Harlem Renaissance, attracted interest but proved impossible to finance in Hollywood, where I suspect there’s something of a bias in favour of white-guy-in-crisis films. The theme intrigued her in part because her maternal grandfather is thought to have been passing as white.) She says she would love to work with Sarah Polley, whose film Stories We Tell, about her late mother and the family’s conflicting interpretations of her, explores a hybrid territory between fiction and nonfiction, or rather the complicated fictionality of most real lives and relationships. It’s an area that attracts Hall, who was fascinated by Joyce Carol Oates’s vast Marilyn novel, Blonde. Both acting and writing involve “the absorption of everything around you”, Hall notes, and both are “processes of interpretation”, though acting is the more “fully embodied” kind. She spends time listening to NPR podcasts, “to the vocal register, to the emotional changes, and trying to spot when people are being disingenuous”. She sees acting as an opportunity to apply the skills of debate – “you understand things from every perspective” – and to examine and portray people’s contradictions and warring impulses, “like counterpoint music”.
But Hall has always reserved the right not to disclose much about her own inner life. She mistrusts the increasing pressure to reveal yourself, the implication that if you have done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide. For one thing, this too is gendered: “There is an expectation that women are the feeling sex, so you should sit down with a journalist and say everything – but the work speaks for itself. You don’t need to know whatever I’ve gone through that’s allowing me to access it.” For another, she thinks that the “I’m real, I’m straightforward, I’m honest and here’s my life” routine is always suspect, a performance in itself. Besides which, “What’s so hideous about complexity?” I ask if she’s seen Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, about being shamed and discredited in 1998, just before the development of our current web culture – another woman, you might say, defined by an event that wouldn’t normally be public. Except that Lewinsky, unlike Christine, just about survived hers. “That’s a film,” Hall says. “Somebody should do that.” §
Left, Rebecca wears a dress by BOSS and bracelets by Charlotte Chesnais. Right, she wears a suit jacket and trousers, shirt, vest and tie by Gucci.
Left, Rebecca wears a robe, slip and trousers by BACK by Ann-Sofie Back and slippers by Buscemi. Right, she wears a dress by Dior and a necklace by Loewe.
Left, Rebecca wears a coat by Paul Smith and a dress and shoes by Calvin Klein Collection. Right, she wears a dress and shoes by Balenciaga, a top by Wolford and an earring by Simone Rocha.Left, Rebecca wears a dress by BOSS and bracelets by Charlotte Chesnais. Right, she wears a shirt by Tome and glasses by Gucci.
Left, Rebecca wears a dress by Loewe, and right, she wears a coat, shirt and trousers by Balenciaga.
Left, Rebecca wears a coat, corset, hat and shoes by Prada. Right, shoes by Jimmy Choo.
Rebecca wears a dress by Balenciaga, a top by Wolford and an earring by Simone Rocha.
Set design: Julia Wagner at ACN Studio / Hair: Rheanne White at Tracey Mattingly / Make-up: Christian McCulloch for Dolce & Gabbana Beauty at Tim Howard Management / Nails: Kylie Kwok at Tracey Mattingly / Videography: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie / Photography assistant: Nick Piltoff / Styling assistant: Mary Anderson / Set design assistant: Dylan Bailey