Rebecca Hall on ‘Godzilla x Kong’ and Finding Her Way in Hollywood


Rebecca Hall stood in front of an easel, her face contemplative. She moved a paintbrush gently on a palette, then applied the paint to the canvas. This was in her studio, a converted barn next door to where Ms. Hall lives in upstate New York with her husband, the actor Morgan Spector, and their 5-year-old daughter, Ida.

When she’s not acting, Ms. Hall paints as a way of channeling her creativity. Her father, Sir Peter Hall — who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company — once warned her about dividing her talents. “He said that it’s very hard to do more than one thing, which really haunted me for a really long time,” Ms. Hall said. “Increasingly, though, I refuse to stay in one lane.”

This, in many ways, is Ms. Hall in a nutshell: unwilling to be boxed in, an artist at heart. At 41, Ms. Hall is considered by some to be one of her generation’s most talented actresses. She possesses an unnerving maturity and an unparalleled capacity for versatility. She can so thoroughly embody a character that, as the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis once wrote, “she becomes your way into the movie as well as the reason you keep watching.” But her career choices reveal a circuitous route toward stardom, a push and pull between projects with famous directors and actors and those on a much smaller scale, including independent films and stage productions.

Most recently, she appears in this month’s “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” a big-budget monster film. In it, she plays Dr. Ilene Andrews, an anthropological linguist, who serves as a maternal Jane Goodall-type figure for Kong. It’s the type of heavily marketed blockbuster that a younger Rebecca Hall might have objected to altogether. So why did she choose to do it?

“The cynical answer is you don’t get to be an artist in this day and age without doing some of those,” she replied. “But I’m also a straight-up lover of cinema, and that involves all kinds of cinema. I don’t have the mentality of, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do one for them, and then I can do one for me.’ There’s also a huge amount of fun in it, and I’m proud of the end result.”

Ms. Hall shared a story about starting out in Hollywood. She had just signed with Creative Artists Agency and was visiting Los Angeles for the first time. “I was being sent around to auditions, and I sensed a little bit of a pattern,” she said. “I wasn’t anywhere near getting any of these jobs. But I wrote a letter to my agent at the time saying, ‘I think of myself as a different kind of actor. I want to do interesting independent films. Please stop putting me up for these blockbusters. I’m not a conventional movie star, and how dare you.’”

Ms. Hall paused. “I mean, I was probably nicer than that. I’m more polite. But the gist of it was: ‘I wish for you to conceive of me as something other than what you’re conceiving me.’”

The story made Ms. Hall cringe now. “As cool and righteous as it sounds, I think it was an error,” she said. “The more of those big jobs that I would’ve done in my 20s, the more access I would’ve had to other work. It was also incredibly arrogant to assume that all those films were unworthy. Of course, I wanted to be in those films, too. I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“I don’t think either of us ever had ‘movie star’ set in our sights,” said Dan Stevens, her co-star in “Godzilla x Kong,” who met Ms. Hall as students in Cambridge when they were both cast in a stage production of “Macbeth.” “Rebecca always had ‘artist’ written all over her.”

Ms. Hall’s Hollywood star turn came in 2008, as the conservative brunette to Scarlett Johansson’s more impulsive blonde in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a role for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Before that, she had apprenticed under her father and, notably, made her television debut at the age of 10 in “The Camomile Lawn.” Sir Peter would later cast her at 21 as Rosalind in an acclaimed production of “As You Like It.” She has gone on to play a wide variety of characters, including Ben Affleck’s virtuous love interest in “The Town” and a ditsy Las Vegas dancer in Stephen Frears’s “Lay the Favorite.” In 2016, she received wide acclaim for “Christine,” a film based on a true story about a television reporter who took her own life on camera in 1974, directed by Antonio Campos.

“Rebecca loves playing women on the verge of a breakdown,” said Mr. Campos. “She likes playing complicated, hard roles.”

He added: “It’s funny, she’s either doing a romantic comedy, or she’s doing the most complicated, tricky, difficult, unhinged performance.”

Overall, her body of work has revealed a curious eclecticism, one that is best explained, Ms. Hall said, more by her drive to try something new as an actor than by an interest in building a strategic career, though she acknowledged the former was a “luxury not always guaranteed.”

Hollywood may not be able to categorize Ms. Hall, but the fashion world has happily embraced her many variations. Ms. Hall and Mr. Spector frequently attend fashion shows, most recently as the guests of Thom Browne, Gabriela Hearst and Batsheva Hay. “Someone with that caliber of intelligence and curiosity, it’s normal that she will articulate herself in different mediums so she can sense and understand the world,” said Ms. Hearst.

“She’s always been interested in great work,” said the actor Khalid Abdalla, who also attended Cambridge with Ms. Hall and directed her in a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at that time, which won the hard-earned praise of her father. “Not interested in stardom, not interested in celebrity for celebrity’s sake, but how you negotiate that path, particularly as a woman. And particularly as a woman in a pre-Me-Too era in your 20s,” Mr. Abdalla added.

But the Hollywood that Ms. Hall grew up admiring had changed. It isn’t as easy to build a career doing indies. Ms. Hall acknowledged that the Gen X attitude against selling out no longer applied. If anything, actors today reverse-engineer their artistic bona fides (think: Robert Pattinson), first achieving mega-fame with a franchise, then leveraging that celebrity to make what they want.

Still, she has no regrets. “You should ask her: ‘What are the projects you haven’t done?’” Mr. Campos said. “There are films where I went, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t do that! Why didn’t you do that?’ But I think she’s very content with how things are going. She does what she wants to do.”

A few weeks later, I asked Ms. Hall about this. Could she share some of the more iconic roles she has turned down? “Oh, I’ve got some good ones,” she said, chuckling. She appeared to run through a list in her head. She stopped herself. “Oh no, I can’t, I can’t. I don’t want to get into it. It opens too many cans of worms. I think I’ll do it when I’m much older, then I’ll spill everything.”

In the last few months, Ms. Hall has been quietly sharing her paintings on social media. She recently began to sell them to interested people in her direct messages. This April, a number of her paintings — studies of various audiences — will be on view at Alchemy Gallery in New York City, in dialogue with the work of her friend, Rob Roth, an actor, artist and creative director of the band Blondie. “I asked her, ‘Well, why audiences?’” explained Roth. “And Rebecca said, ‘Well, they’ve been staring at me for so long, I figured I should look at them.’”

Three years ago, Ms. Hall made her directorial debut with her adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing.” The project was 15 years in the making. Ms. Hall had originally read the book in response to the fact that her maternal grandfather — a Black hotel doorman from Detroit — passed as white after marrying a woman of Dutch descent. Ms. Hall’s mother, the acclaimed opera singer Maria Ewing, passed as white as well. The film offered a sense of closure for Ms. Ewing, who died in 2022. “She reached some real peace about her racial identity towards the end, which I never thought would happen,” said Ms. Hall.

She is now at work on a new script for a film she wants to direct, one that is loosely inspired by her relationship with her mother. For all of her mother’s life, Ms. Hall had to manage her expectations around her own celebrity: Ms. Ewing had always encouraged her to be a star, but she had to be careful never to eclipse her mother, she said.

“There’s no easy way of saying this: My mother had a lot of profound mental health complications. And I was a caretaker for her entire life, in one way or another. So it was very hard for me. I was always thinking about her. It was impossible to navigate, because I was always doing something wrong.”

Ms. Hall knows it will take time to produce such a personal film. After “Passing,” Ms. Hall found, to her surprise, that she wanted to return to her acting career more urgently than ever.

“I don’t say this lightly or flippantly, but acting comes easy to me,” she said. “And the ease with which I often find acting can lead to a kind of disrespect for it in a weird way.”

In 2022, she chose to star in the thriller “Resurrection,” where, as a single mother terrorized by a man from her past, she delivered an eight-minute monologue that the Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri wrote “is so riveting, so mystifying and terrifying that you shouldn’t be surprised if it shows up in every acting class sometime in the near future.”

Ms. Hall had wanted a real challenge. “Storytelling has been around forever, so I came out of it being like, ‘Oh, acting is really one of the noblest professions.’ It reinvigorated something in me.”

Ms. Hall is appearing next in Janicza Bravo’s “The Listeners,” a BBC adaptation of the 2021 novel by Jordan Tannahill about a woman who can hear a sound that no one else can. She also has a role in James L. Brooks’s upcoming comedy “Ella McCay,” with Ayo Edebiri and Jamie Lee Curtis, about a young politician who steps into the role of her mentor. It began filming last month.

“I felt some kind of tether to her,” said Ms. Bravo about their time filming “The Listeners.” “There are these people you fall in love with on the screen, and you have a false idea of what they are going to be like. She was better than the thing I had imagined.”

Ms. Hall has been married to Mr. Spector, 43, since 2015. The couple first met the year before, while both in the Broadway revival of Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” and have worked together many times since. Their wedding was a spontaneous and improvised affair — something only two actors would have had. They rented a barn for a weekend and asked friends to perform a ritual or ceremony with them. “We had a theme, which was ‘bring your own wedding,’” Ms. Hall said.

She said she hadn’t expected to want marriage, or a family, but that changed with Mr. Spector. (She had her own tabloid moment in 2010 when it was rumored she was the cause for the split between the director Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet. Mr. Mendes and Ms. Hall dated from 2011 to 2013.) “Marriage felt to me like a Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith,’” said Ms. Hall. “I believe that the whole idea of it is logically impossible, so deciding to do it anyway is a pure act of hope.”

While the afternoon light was fading, Ms. Hall finished her painting. Or it was finished enough. Ms. Hall likes the work of Alex Katz, and she has a similar fondness for flat lines and bright colors. In the next few weeks, Ms. Hall would embark on the press tour for “Godzilla x Kong.”

She talked about how much she loves her life upstate, with its deliberate sense of isolation. Both are at the heart of the conflicting impulses that drive her as an actor: “I wanted to be a movie star as much as I wanted to be an artist,” she explained. “I was always dancing towards a desire to be an iconically famous amazing movie star, and also, ‘Oh, no, certainly not. I must hide immediately.’ I was always doing that dance, and I still am, and I probably will forever. That’s just my truth.”


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