Friday 23 March 2018

Rebecca's expanding Hall of Fame

From Broadway to The BFG, Rebecca Hall's career is proof that she is undoubtedly one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of her generation

Rebecca Hall's career goes from strength to strength. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire
Rebecca Hall's career goes from strength to strength. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire

Anne Marie Scanlon

On paper, Rebecca Hall is what the people of the North would call a 'dose'. She is the daughter of Sir Peter Hall, the renowned director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Daddy directed Hall in her first role aged 10 in The Camomile Lawn on TV and later in her professional stage debut in Mrs Warren's Profession. Not only did Hall go to Roedean, she was head girl.

At Cambridge, she shared a flat with Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and hung around with Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston.

After a long-term relationship with director Sam Mendes, she is now, at 34, married to fellow thespian Morgan Spector. I'm expecting a posh privileged princess.

When I meet Hall to talk about her role in Steven Spielberg's The BFG, she's wearing a shapeless black two-piece that even the most devout nun would curl her lip at. Yet she looks fabulous.

Hall is a gorgeous woman who could wear the proverbial bin bag and make it look good. Mind you, after a few minutes in the star's presence, you cease to notice what she's wearing. She's posh, certainly, with a cut-glass accent and some curiously old-fashioned expressions, such as "in truth", but she is warm, funny, engaging and great company.

I won't lie, I wish she was my friend.

None of this comes across in her role as Mary in The BFG (based on the Roald Dahl book), which is "very small and very significant" - as Hall was told when approached to do it.

She tells me that she replied: "It's Steven Spielberg, I don't care what the part is."

That's just as well really because while the role of Mary is very significant to the story, it's also thankless.

The film is essentially a two-hander between the BFG (Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who both give absolutely wonderful performances. Hall's character appears in the latter half of the story and is totally upstaged by Penelope Wilton's Queen Elizabeth II. Even the ubiquitous royal corgis have more to do than poor 'Mary', as her role is the only 'straight' one in the film.

Spielberg approached Hall without asking her to audition. "It was incredibly flattering," she tells me. "I was thrilled."

It's hardly surprising as over the past decade or so, Hall has more than proved her versatility in vastly different roles and genres in film, television and theatre.

Few actors can say they've starred in a Woody Allen film (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as well as a blockbuster (Ironman 3). On TV, she has appeared in Parade's End (dubbed the upmarket Downton) and won a BAFTA award for her role in Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (which had a complicated and difficult script, to say the least).

Her stage work is equally diverse and, unsurprisingly, contains quite a lot of Shakespeare.

When I tell Hall that she defies categorisation and ask how she chooses her roles, she starts laughing. "It's probably a little bit in the hope that journalists keep saying things like that," she says.

Hall goes on to say that she doesn't have a "formula" for choosing work. "I don't know any more. I don't think there's a failsafe formula as you constantly get the rug pulled from under you in this job. You can read the best script in the world, with the best part and by day seven of filming someone turns up with an entirely new draft and some exec that says actually this is now the film that we're making. It's so unpredictable."

Having worked in the industry as a child herself, I wonder if she had any words of wisdom to give to her young co-star.

"I didn't say much about it because I thought it would be terribly condescending to be," she puffs herself up and puts on a pompous voice, "Oh well when I was…" before dissolving into laughter again.

"Ruby doesn't really come across like a child, I think she might be older than me, in truth. She's incredibly mature and incredibly wise and is not affected in a way that sometimes you get with a child actor who's a little bit jaded already at the age of 11."

Although Hall attended Cambridge, she didn't complete her studies. She tells me that she always wanted to act professionally but wasn't ambitious.

"I didn't finish my degree - not because I thought, 'I want to be a star and let the world know I've arrived' but I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, to be creative.

"I didn't think I'd get into Cambridge anyway and then I did get in and my head was filled with all of these romantic notions that had been passed along by my father, who went in 1940-something. He went on a scholarship and had a director of studies who was like, 'Yes, the way to learn about life is to do Shakespeare' - and he did.

"He didn't do a drop of work and he got a third, he just scraped his degree and no one ever told him off about it. It was always a very romantic telling. So I thought, 'Great, I'll be able to waft around doing artistic things all day."

While some newspapers have referred to Hall as an "English Rose", her family is far more complex. Her mother is the American opera singer Maria Ewing, whose father was African American. As he was light skinned he 'passed' (a term that was used during segregation to denote an African American who lived as a white person).

"He was living in a time in America when it wasn't fun to be black," Hall explains and then adds, "it's not fun to be black now, actually. I didn't know him as he died when my mother was 16. It wasn't easy for them because they did get found out and my mother had a lot of prejudice and racist abuse as a result."

The actress goes on to say that she'd love to do a DNA test to find out all about her cultural heritage as she thinks there are some Irish connections, as well as Scots and Sioux.

Whatever her antecedents, Hall identifies primarily as a Londoner, although she now lives in Brooklyn Heights in New York with her husband. Ex-flatmate Dan Stevens and his wife live down the road and Hall is godmother to their daughter.

"I do love New York," Hall says, "I've always felt at home there." When she's not working "I try and live, I read, I stay active, I'm never not doing something."

'The BFG' is in cinemas now.

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