Rebecca Hall’s roots are showing. Though she’s most widely known for movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The BFG, and Iron Man 3, and for smaller films like Please Give and Christine, she first made her name on the stage. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given that her mother, Maria Ewing, is an acclaimed opera singer, and her father, Sir Peter Hall, is—well, Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, longtime director of the National Theatre, and director of countless stage productions, including many of his daughter’s earliest London appearances: Mrs. Warren’s Profession, As You Like It, Man and Superman, and more.
Hall later starred in Sam Mendes’s productions of The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard and made her Broadway debut in a 2014 revival of Machinal. (She has since married her co-star from that production, Morgan Spector.)
Now Hall returns to the stage, as Rachel in Claire Lizzimore’s Animal, directed by Gayle Taylor Upchurch at New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company. The show, which plays May 24-June 18, is a dark comedy about a woman losing her grip on her life. We spoke early during the rehearsal process.
Were you looking to return to the theatre, or was it just that the script for for Animal caught your attention?
I’m always at least peripherally looking for plays to do; I love doing theatre. It’s a huge part of my life and always has been. This came up because Gayle Taylor Upchurch is someone I know and have worked with, and she said, “Will you do a reading of this play for the Atlantic?” Over the course of reading it out loud and working on it for a day I just felt very connected to the material. I suppose it was the wit of it and the brilliance of the language, plus it was nice to be doing something in my own accent. I also found it incredibly moving. When she later said the Atlantic wanted to do it I was on board.
You’re best known in England for classical theatre, and your Broadway debut here was in Machinal, a play written 90 years ago. So was the fact that this was a new play part of the appeal?
That was a huge part of it. I’ve been saying for a long time that I’d love to do contemporary writing, so it was exciting to find something I responded to. There’s a a level of primal rage in this play that seems quite cathartic in a strange way at this moment in time. It felt very contemporary—it obviously is contemporary, but what I mean is, it felt of this moment.
Are you personally feeling primal rage, or are you referring to society more broadly?
I’m talking about a societal rage. Do I personally feel rage? No, I hope not—it would be time to go back to therapy if I was. But I think everyone is feeling a degree of rage and confusion and high emotion in their day-to-day life right now.
While you are excited about doing a new play, what is it about the classics kept you coming back to those?
It’s because the writing is so good. Actors can do an awful lot with mediocre writing, but at a certain point you’re not better than the writing. Poetry is poetry and universal themes are universal themes for a reason, and when they’ve been articulated in the best way they can be, then why not do that?
Are there classic roles you have your heart set on?
Funnily enough, I don’t. There are a definitely a handful of Shakespeare roles that I haven’t done that I’d like to do, such as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. And I can think of a lot of 20th-century roles I’d like to do—there’s a whole world of Tennessee Williams that I’ve never gotten into, and that I’d love to do. But I like keeping my options open. I like when people bring me things and say, “Can you see yourself doing this?” and I say, “No, I can’t,” but then I read it and say, “But now I can.”
Are there contemporary playwrights you’d love to work with?
Oh, golly, you put me on the spot. I hate making lists. There’s a lot of interesting young playwrights right now, especially female playwrights, which gives me hope because they’re roughly the same age as me, which means they’ll keep writing good plays for women their age.
Are you encouraged or frustrated by pace of progress in terms of getting more women writers produced onstage?
It is what it is. I’ve spent a lot of time getting angry about it but I’d much rather be optimistic.
Is it an adjustment coming back to the stage after time away on movie sets?
It’s a different set of muscles, and I’m aware that those particular muscles are underused. I have to bulk them up again, which I think is very good for me technically as an actor. I used the word muscles because it’s like exercise programs—doing just film is like just being on the treadmill as opposed to being on the treadmill and lifting some heavy weights. You want all those skills and you want a mix of them all together.
I’m always struck when I start in a rehearsal room again by how satisfied I am by the experience of being in a room with a group of people who have a job to do and who spend a chunk of time talking about it and thinking about it and analyzing it. I’m always excited to do that again.
After a play do you bring those theatre habits back to your film work?
The skill set I learn in a theatre rehearsal room, of how to plot the narrative from beginning to end, how to understand what a character goes through in order to tell the story and communicate it clearly to an audience—I take all of that process with me to every film set that I’m on. I always do my homework, I do my own rehearsal time before I start a movie—I spend at the very least three weeks to three months getting ready to do it. That’s very important to me, and I definitely picked up those skills doing theatre.
Do you have a desire to write or direct theatre or film yourself?
I love writing; I write a lot. I’ve got a long time—I’ve got a lot of life—so it’s not about getting on it right this second. I have an interest in writing for theatre, but I don’t really want to direct theatre. It’s really an actor’s medium for me—I know it isn’t, I know there are directors who do extraordinary things, including, you know, my father. But when I watch plays I love, my feeling is always, “I wish I was up there doing that,” whereas when I watch films I’ll think, “I wish I had made that.”
After this will you do another play soon or is there career pressure to get back to the movies?
It’s a constant dilemma. In fact, I’m going through that dilemma right now, though I can’t tell you about it, obviously. I tend to tell my agents when I take theatre jobs, “Don’t worry, I’ll do some movies after this,” but if a theatre job comes up and I want to do it I’ll do it. At some point I can’t help thinking I’ve earned the right to not be strategic about these things and to just do what I feel passionate about and what makes me happy. It’s probably not true but I’d like to think that way.
New York City-based journalist Stuart Miller writes regularly for American Theatre and AmericanTheatre.org.