By taking the part of Florence Cathcart in The Awakening, Rebecca Hall is engaged in an ambitious piece of pretence. Of course she is. That’s her job.
This time, though, she finds herself inhabiting a character with strong similarities to her own. Florence, an arch-rationalist in a grief-stricken 1920s Britain awash with spiritualism, goes to a remote boys’ boarding school to investigate sightings of a ghostly child. “That’s what I do,” says the 29-year-old actress, misleadingly.
“No, not literally. I mean, I have an instinct that makes me go towards unknown territory rather than that which is expected of me.” She goes further by saying that whenever she feels she “ought” to do something, she can be relied on to do the opposite, which is why she’s wound up in a horror movie.
Does she have a perverse streak, then? Look back at her already eventful life and you can’t rule out the possibility. Now celebrated for her performances in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (both released in 2008), she looked to be on the verge of stardom even at the age of ten, when she played Sophy in her father’s TV adaptation of Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn.
But then she put the acting career on hold while she got on with school. Not just any old school but the awesomely classy Roedean in Sussex (small change from £163, 30,000 a year). And not just any old pupil, either, but head girl.
Nor was her father any old TV director but Sir Peter Hall, former head of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and one of the most commanding presences in the past half-century of Britain’s cultural life.
Head girl at Roedean. It turns out that even in this exalted post she rebelled, as much against herself as the institution. “I was definitely chippy,” she says. “Head girl makes you sound as if you’re all organised, with leadership qualities and those things that look good on the UCAS form. I was interested in left-wing politics, in a pretentious, precocious, not very helpful way – with a misguided teenage romantic socialism.”
To her surprise, she got a place at Cambridge to read English, but left after two years to return to acting. What did her father – a Cambridge graduate himself, and proud of it – make of this? “Well, he was rather shocked, but he got used to the idea, and in the end he said he was rather proud of me for doing what I’d done.”
In person, as on the screen, she comes across as a magnetic mixture of her long-divorced parents. While the four-times-married Sir Peter is the more famous of the two, Rebecca credits her mother, Maria Ewing, with having instilled in her the discipline and passion of performance.
Ewing is an opera singer, now living in her native city of Detroit, with Sioux, Scots and African-American in her ancestry. Rebecca may appear to have been trained as an English rose, but her blooming definitely has something more exotic about it.
As for the acting, it looks unforced, organic. She can do dowdy as well as delectable, and the camera loves her for it. It hasn’t been easy. Apart from the inevitable charges of nepotism when she has appeared in her father’s stage productions, there are now the pitfalls of her own, independently achieved fame.These were globally visible last year when she was cast in the tabloid role as marriage-wrecker to Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet, who have since split.
Reports alleged that Winslet had grown annoyed at the apparently close friendship between her director husband and Hall while they were working together on theatre projects in New York and London.”Totally Sam’s type,” said a source. “A thespian mix of brains and beauty.” Some suggested they had become more than friends. Such reports were never confirmed. Nor are they now. They were presumably wrong? Hall fields the question with a weary tolerance, a neutral “Mmm” and a brief silence.
We talk of Woody Allen and his ability not to care what is said about him. She found him “glorious but kind of impenetrable, but then I suppose I can be, too, so we got on quite well.”
Has she developed an armour similar to his? “I try not to care. The point is that I can’t control it. People will say and think what they want to say and think. I would rather not say anything. Ever. And it’s a lot easier not to say anything, ever, if you realise that whatever you do say will be twisted and turned, so that you can’t make your plea one way or another because then you open up your life to always having to talk about things like this.”
Marriage? Children? The questions begin to sound a little impertinent, but she says with some gameness that she understands people might be intrigued. “It’s not that I want to keep it secret; it’s more to do with my work. I’d far rather they (the public) knew an utterly fabricated and invented version of my self, rather than the truth, because then I can keep my options open for what I play in my roles.”