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Rebecca Hall: I thought acting was nonsense

Electric cables are a strange thing to get sentimental about. But it's what does it for Rebecca Hall, apparently. The British actress can still remember the day she stepped onto her first film as an adult — 2006's romantic comedy Starter for 10 — and saw a snaking pile of cables on the floor. It immediately threw her back to making her screen debut on TV drama The Camomile Lawn, and almost tripping over a similar coil of wires: “There was a weird nostalgia attached to them.”

Quite what Freud would make of Hall's childhood memory is anyone's guess. But on the surface, the message is clear: being on a film set offers her a level of comfort, of childhood familiarity. It's hardly a surprise, being the daughter of esteemed theatre-director Sir Peter Hall, who directed her in The Camomile Lawn, and opera singer Maria Ewing, who raised her daughter to love cinema. “I grew up watching Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck,” she explains.

While it might be stretching it somewhat to put Hall in such esteemed company, this 32-year-old Londoner has already amassed a series of impressive credits, working with such talents as Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon). And, in this last year, she has finally cracked mainstream Hollywood, with roles in Iron Man 3 and Transcendence, by Nolan's regular director of photography turned first-time director, Wally Pfister.

Playing boffins, in both cases, neither role stretched Hall's considerable talent, but it arguably felt more exotic than what she was being offered in the UK. Cast in rather starchy productions like Dorian Gray, Hall admits she felt was being “trapped in a box” that she wasn't particularly comfortable with. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘I'm developing a name for myself for playing these slightly buttoned-up, repressed neurotics', and I thought, ‘I don't want to spend my whole career doing that'.”

Thankfully, along came Stephen Frears's Lay the Favorite — with Hall playing an ex-private dancer-cum-cocktail waitress. The reviews were less than enthusiastic, but it allowed Hall the chance to shake things up. These past few months, she followed a three-month stint on Broadway, in Sophie Treadwell's expressionist play Machinal, playing a woman inspired by real-life convicted husband-killer Ruth Snyder, by starring in forthcoming rom-com Tumbledown, alongside hot Hollywood comic Jason Sudeikis.

Just to add spice to the mix, this month sees her in A Promise, the new film from French veteran Patrice Leconte, the director of The Hairdresser's Husband and Ridicule. “I've always wanted to infiltrate French cinema,” she says, “but felt I didn't have the language so they'd never let me.” In truth, it's an uneven mix: French director, English cast and a German setting, adapted from the novel by Stefan Zweig, Journey into the Past. Yet if the cries of euro-pudding are never far away, Hall

glides through the gloop quite easily. Set in 1912, in Germany, it's primarily a love triangle, as Rickman's wealthy industrialist hires a young man (Madden) as his assistant, who is soon making a play for his wife, the much-younger Lotte (Hall).

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“This film is essentially about three people who are all harbouring things that aren't available to the other two, and nobody ever says what's going on,” she says. Not to worry: there are plenty of shots of furnaces being stoked to suggest the passions bubbling away underneath.

Understandably, it was the chance to work with Leconte that intrigued her: they met in Paris for a cup of tea. She spoke “very little” French and he had “considerably less” English.

“But the fact we actually managed to have a conversation without sharing a language at all was probably enough to make me think doing the film would be a good idea.” If you exclude her excursion to Barcelona for Woody Allen, it's her first proper European film.

Even now there's something fresh about Hall, something of the newcomer who hasn't been over-exposed. She only started acting after wandering into the production office of The Camomile Lawn after school, catching the eye of the producer. “He didn't really want me to do it,” Hall remembers of her father, “but he got roped into me doing it anyway!” Then, after the first day of shooting, he asked her if acting was something she wanted to do more of. “It's so embarrassing to tell this story,” she blushes. “Apparently I was like: ‘Yes, of course! Obviously! Are you crazy? It's what I've always wanted to do!'“

So she never had a moment of teenage rebellion then, wanting away from the family business? “Yeah, I did,” she nods. “I did for sure. I did. There was a point when I realised that it was so boring to decide to be an actress, and so inevitable. I hated the trajectory of it. The whole thing of coming from my family and acting. Also I knew the rubbish that surrounds it. I went through a really holier-than-thou phase where I went: ‘Acting is a bunch of nonsense and its all narcissism and vanity, and who'd want to do that? It's stupid! It's not at all an artistic endeavour. I'm going to be an artist! I'm going to be a true creator!' But that was b*****ks!”

Now there are different problems, with Hall forced to face the peripheral pressures of a life in the public eye. She's uncertain about the need for actresses to sell themselves in magazines. “I still don't know that one. I really don't. I think I probably arrogantly assumed you don't have to do that, that talent will speak for itself and you should not. So I've tended not to. But I'm sure that's not true any more. It doesn't mean I'm going to change my behaviour. It just means maybe I won't ever be as famous as some people, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.”

In front of me, dressed in a high-waist forest-green dress, gold flats and an eye-catching silver bracelet, Hall seems far removed from the bronzed Barbie-dolls that gravitate towards Hollywood. Pale-skinned, with big brown eyes and her dark hair in a bob, she has a shy smile and a graceful presence. Never mind her heritage — her mother is American, of Dutch, Scottish, Sioux and African-American origins — she's ever so British. Then again, that's what an education at Roedean, where she was head girl, and Cambridge, where she read English, will do for you.

So far, at least, she's managed to cope with paparazzi — though it's getting more intense. “I see them more and more. I've had them popping up out of bushes. I find it really silly to be all kind of: ‘Don't look at me!' On the whole I tend to go: ‘Hello!' They get the photo and that's it! I don't need to run away and hide and be all dramatic about it; it makes it much more of a thing than it actually is. So what if someone gets a photo of me eating a sandwich and dropping ketchup down my front? It's not the end of the world.”

Of course, interest was stirred when it surfaced that she and British director Sam Mendes were an item, particularly tricky given it came in the wake of his split from Kate Winslet. They met when he was an executive producer on Starter for 10, all those years ago, but post-Winslet, she was briefly cast — rightly or wrongly — as “the other woman”. Hall, however, has a firm policy when it comes to her private life. Or as she puts it: “Keeping my mouth shut!” Is turning the other cheek always easy, though?

“There are moments where you go: ‘Is this policy I've made of never saying anything (a good idea)?' But I realised it doesn't make any difference because I can scream and shout about trying to correct whatever story, but it will still be an image of me that isn't my reality and I'd actually rather keep my reality to myself, and frankly the fabled image that goes up there can be whatever it is. I'd have to separate the two and not worry about it. I think that's the only way you actually end up not being very interesting. Just leave it alone.”

After appearing in Mendes's productions of A Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard in 2008-9, would she consider working with him again? What about James Bond? After Mendes's triumphant Skyfall, he will return to start work on Bond 24 soon. “It's funny ... you're the first person to ask me that!” she replies, drily. “Yes, the James Bond franchise ... what are you going to ask me about it? If I got offered a part in a James Bond film, I'd consider it like any other. I don't think it's very likely, though.”

Still, never say never again, as they say.

  • A Promise opens on Friday, August 1

Hall’s memorable movie moments

Some of Rebecca’s choice roles to date include:

Starter for Ten (2006) - as right-on student activist Rebecca, Hall brought James McAvoy’s dreamy University Challenge contestant down to earth with a bump in this enjoyable 80s-set romcom.

The Prestige (2006) - Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan’s moody look at the world of magicians gave Hall her first big high profile role as the exasperated wife to Christian Bale’s earnest illusionist.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) - as title character, Vicky, alongside Scarlett Johansson as Cristina, Hall drew critical acclaim for her portrayal of the uptight US student who falls for artist Javier Bardem’s charms in Woody Allen’s sunny comedy drama.

The Awakening (2011) - chills and thrills galore in this 1920s-set supernatural tale, in which Hall played a sceptical paranormal investigator called in to probe ghostly goings-on at a spooky boarding school.

Parade's End (2012) - starred opposite Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch as his character’s manipulative wife in this well-received BBC drama set during the First World War.

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