Rebecca Hall on ‘The Night House’ and How ‘Passing’ Answered Lifelong Questions

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From Godzilla vs. Kong to her directorial debut, Passing, Rebecca Hall’s 2021 slate certainly runs the gamut in terms of genre and scale. In between Warners’ monster slugfest and her black-and-white period drama, Hall’s psychological horror film, The Night House, finally hit theaters after its $12 million sale to Searchlight Pictures at Sundance 2020. In the David Bruckner-helmed film, Hall plays Beth, a newfound widow who discovers some unsettling secrets about her recently deceased husband (Evan Jonigkeit). Hall — who acts by herself for long stretches of The Night House‘s haunted narrative — welcomed the intimacy of the set, especially on the heels of a massive production like Godzilla.

“There is a thing that happens on those big movies that is overwhelming and so exciting to witness,” Hall tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then there’s a thing that can happen on these smaller movies that can be equally overwhelming and exciting to witness. And that’s when people don’t have the resources to problem-solve with money; they have to problem-solve with creativity. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen on the big jobs; it happens, too. But there’s a necessity for it on the smaller ones, and that can often be real food for the soul.”

In January 2021, Hall returned to Sundance as the writer-director of Passing, and the highly-anticipated feature was picked up by Netflix for nearly $16 million. Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing chronicles the reunion of two mixed-race childhood friends — Tessa Thompson’s Irene “Reenie” Redfield and Ruth Negga’s Clare Kendry — in 1920s New York. Reenie presents herself as an African American woman, while Clare is “passing” as a white woman. For Hall, Passing is a deeply personal story since her mother, world-renowned opera singer Marie Ewing, didn’t know much about her father’s background.

“Growing up with her, I suppose there was always some mystery around her background. Frankly, I always looked at my mother and assumed that she must be Black,” Hall shares. “I didn’t really have any basis for this, but sometimes, I asked questions, like, ‘Your father, maybe he was African American? Was he Native American? Do you know anything?’ And she couldn’t answer. Not wouldn’t — she couldn’t. And the older I got, she told me stories, specific stories, about incidents of specific racism towards her from neighbors or people in her life, which she always, of course, struggled with, especially having no understanding if they were telling her something that she didn’t know about. And then I read the book [Passing], and I got context for something that I didn’t have before. And after I read the book, I became quite sure that what my grandfather must’ve been doing was passing for white in a time when he felt presumably safest and safe for his family doing that.”

And since she finished the film, Hall has become even more acquainted with her family’s history.

“I recorded an episode of Finding Your Roots, and thanks to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, I now know a lot more than I did, even when I was filming the movie,” Hall reveals. “That episode comes out in January, so it’s a long way down the road. But I know all of the information, and it’s been confirmed. And as expected, there’s a lot more to it than even I could have imagined, honestly. So that’s my connection with it. I came to the book with something personal that I was grappling with, and the book gave me an avenue to explore it.”

In January, THR covered Passing‘s creative triumvirate, and at the time, Hall mentioned that her mother had yet to see the film due to the pandemic. While Hall was hoping to share a cinematic experience with her, she knew it couldn’t wait any longer.

“She has finally seen it,” Hall says. “I was hoping that I could get to hold out to see it in a cinema with her, but things just being what they were, that wasn’t happening. And it became, at a certain point, ridiculous that she hadn’t seen it. So she watched it, and while I don’t want to put words in her mouth, it’s safe to say she was very profoundly moved by it. She called me and was fairly emotional and said, ‘Thank you for giving him words and giving a way to talk about this that nobody could.’ And she said, ‘I suspect you’ve probably relieved him.’ She was talking about her father.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Hall also discusses her future ambitions now that she’s a filmmaker, as well as the influence that her father, celebrated theatre director Peter Hall, had on her directing approach. Then she reflects on Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and her first time reading with Christian Bale.

You’re having quite a year with Godzilla vs. Kong, The Night House and Passing.

Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it feels like a nice moment. (Laughs.)

Starting with The Night House, it’s my understanding that you’ve never had anything close to a paranormal experience.

I haven’t. I really haven’t.

Have you sought one out?

I feel like I’ve gone through life looking for them. (Laughs.) Just haven’t quite found one yet. The closest I’ve got was when I was staying in a very haunted hotel in Concord, Massachusetts, and everyone told me I was going to experience something. And then I woke up one morning to the sound of drums and marching, and I thought, “Oh. here we go, this is it.” (Laughs.) And I looked out my window and it was a Civil War reenactment. (Laughs.)

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The Night House
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

When a role deals with grief on this level, it probably isn’t a walk in the park, but did a movie like The Gift prepare you or condition you to the psychological aspects of The Night House? In other words, do past experiences in related genres ease future go-rounds?

That’s an interesting question. I suspect yes. I suspect, thematically, that there is territory that one revisits in a career, and I think you are informed by it. I suddenly thought about a film that I did close to ten years ago now called The Awakening, which had elements of grief in it. I think the haunted narrative as a genre endures because of the ways in which it metaphorically can help us process the largest existential question there is in death and grieving and all these things. So I do think that grief does tend to go hand in hand with haunted movies. I suppose what I found particularly compelling about this one was that there was such an honest dose of anger that came with it. Also, the specific timeline of her story. There are films and stories that deal with the immediate aftermath of losing someone, up till the funeral. And then there are films that deal with it three months down the road when you’re trying to reclaim and rebuild some of your life. But I thought it was so peculiar to start the movie directly at the end of the funeral in this sort of limbo where people are not calling so much and not dropping off food plates anymore, and the character, as a person, isn’t able to think about how to start her life again because she hasn’t really processed what’s happened. There are ways in which I look at The Night House, and, actually, if you put the paranormal to one side for a second, it almost feels like the emotional journey of someone who is getting to the point where they can cry about what has happened. They start off in a place of just seething anger and shock, and they get to a place where they can actually accept and cry. So I thought that was so interesting and it was one of the things that compelled me about it.

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The Night House Still
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

You’re alone for long stretches in this movie. Was David in your ear at all, basically telling you when to walk forward or when to react in response to a certain noise or visual?

There were some specific jump scares, and David, let’s not forget, is a man who is singular in his interests. He has devoted his career to perfecting this genre. He is only interested in making horror films, and he has a surgical precision with how to time things, how to manipulate, how to understand what an audience needs and when they need a break and when they need a jump. All those things. But for as much as he has that level of precision in terms of the craft and the technique of making the movie he wanted to make, when it came to me, he actually gave me pretty much total freedom, which I thought was a really interesting combination. So when he needed me to jump at a specific moment, he would say, “Boo!” and I would jump. (Laughs.) But within the realms of that, he didn’t really know what I was going to do in any given scene beyond what the script dictated and neither did I. We had a larger conversation at the beginning where we talked a lot about how impulsive and reckless Beth is as a character, and it occurred to me that the more intuitive I was as a performer and the more I surprised myself, the better it would probably be. So quite often, neither of us had any idea what I was going to do when he called action, which often led to quite raw and honest results. It often led to some fairly embarrassing, silly ones, too, but they all were on the cutting room floor, thankfully. (Laughs.)

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The Night House Still
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

After her husband’s funeral, Beth went back to work too quickly, which turned a lot of heads at her school. In general, do you also distract yourself with work when times get tough?

If something is hard, I tend to want to deal with it. This is a circular answer to your question, but the way in which I deal with everything is to process whatever’s going on in my life through whatever I’m working on, creatively. And that’s not necessarily always something that has to be public. I mean, my garden is a creative endeavor, too. (Laughs.) I have to be outputting in that way to handle everything that goes on; that’s just always been who I am.

I’ve read that you make charts for your characters. Do you do this to combat the fact that you shoot out of sequence and need to know where you’re supposed to be on any given day?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really straightforward way of just holding the whole film in my head because I do think it’s an actor’s responsibility to be somewhat responsible for the narrative. You’ve got to commit to the emotional truth of whatever’s going on in the scene, but you also have to make sure that you are giving the audience the information that they need to carry the story along at the right time. And that’s something I’m conscious of and want to be able to give to directors when they get into the edit. So I suppose it’s my way of doing that. I’ll often chart out a scene, internally, emotionally, because I think every actor has discomfort when they feel that they are playing an emotion without a clear intention. Like, what are you trying to do? What are you trying to get? It goes beyond what you’re feeling. You can’t necessarily play a feeling, but you can play an intention. And so that’s always something that I think about. Over the years, I’ve got to a place where I now like to often think about the counter-intention. (Laughs.) What does a character want to say and can’t? What are they projecting and what are they in control of projecting to the outside? So it’s their mask and whatever’s going on underneath. Those are often in contradiction, and I think that’s how I approach everything because I think everyone has that.

My favorite scene is the one where Beth unloads on a parent who’s trying to change their child’s grade. Was that the hook for you as well?

Absolutely. Yeah, you’ve picked the one. When I got to that point in the script, that sold it for me. I was like, “I’ll do it,” on the basis of that scene. I honestly thought it was just a brilliant piece of what is, essentially, exposition. That scene exists in the movie so that we can find out what has happened to this woman that, up to that point, we don’t know. But it was so deftly revealed and also revealed so much about her character. Her humor, her brittleness, her capacity to be confrontational and a little acerbic were all there, and I suddenly understood the character. I found her to be very compelling on that scene alone. (Laughs.) Yeah, it was really the scene that hooked me in, and I remember saying to David, actually, “That sensibility that’s in that scene, we’ve got to tease that out with her as much as we can everywhere.”

After shooting something as enormous as Godzilla vs. Kong, was it refreshing, in a way, to go back to basics?

Yeah, incidentally, it was Kong, then Tales from the Loop, and The Night House was in the middle of Tales from the Loop. And when I finished Tales from the Loop, I went straight into Passing. So it was a little crazy. (Laughs.) Basically, they all sort of landed in the same sort of area. But yeah, I’m a film enthusiast. I love movies and their many different shapes and forms, and I want to be a part of all of them out of curiosity and love. But yes, you’re right. There is a thing that happens on those big movies that is overwhelming and so exciting to witness. And then there’s a thing that can happen on these smaller movies that can be equally overwhelming and exciting to witness. And that’s when people don’t have the resources to problem-solve with money; they have to problem-solve with creativity. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen on the big jobs; it happens, too. But there’s a necessity for it on the smaller ones, and that can often be real food for the soul.

I realize that doubles have probably gotten you used to this, but is it still a bizarre feeling when actors like Stacy Martin are cast to resemble you?

(Laughs.) It’s funny. Acting is a weird lark. There’s not many other professions where you look at yourself when the job is done. (Laughs.) Nobody else knows what they look like, 360; actors do. (Laughs.) I suppose that everyone has a different version of how they look in their head, so when you’re confronted with someone who’s been cast to look like you, it can be kind of interesting. I was very flattered, frankly, when it came to Stacy Martin. (Laughs.)

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Passing Still
Edu Grau/Sundance Institute

Shifting to Passing, your directorial debut, what past directors of yours influenced your own approach to the job?

It’s sort of an impossible question to answer. I think of myself as having the most exclusive and lucky directing school that I can imagine by just having been in many movies and watching so many people work in different ways. So I can’t say that I can identify this thing or that thing. When you have the good fortune to witness so many directors work, there’s a luxury and understanding in that there is no correct way to do it. Everyone does it very, very differently. The only correct way is your way, and I don’t think I would’ve known that had I not seen so many different variations on the scene. There’s a freedom in understanding that what it actually boils down to is your emotional connection with the frame. Do you like what’s happening in that frame? Do you like how it looks? What is your gut saying? Is it saying yes, or is it saying no? That’s really it. That, and then you’re constantly trying to communicate what’s in your head to everyone else so that they can help you get there, which is really the hard part. (Laughs.) But that’s the thing that I have learned from getting to watch so many people do it in so many different ways, and I’m very grateful for it.

I don’t think I realized the full extent of the term “passing” and the lengths that some people went to in order to pass. For those who may have missed THR‘s cover story, what was your personal connection to this story?

Well, my connection was that my mother is American. She’s from Detroit, originally, and she left that all behind her to become a very successful international opera singer. And growing up with her, I suppose there was always some mystery around her background. Her father, specifically. She would talk about her mother, who was Dutch, but her father, she didn’t really know. American? Yeah. Frankly, I always looked at my mother and assumed that she must be Black. I didn’t really have any basis for this, but sometimes, I asked questions, like, “Your father, maybe he was African American? Was he Native American? Do you know anything?” And she couldn’t answer. Not wouldn’t — she couldn’t. She didn’t have any information, really. She knew that things were hidden. She didn’t know any of his family members. She didn’t understand certain things. And the older I got, she told me stories, specific stories, about incidents of specific racism towards her from neighbors or people in her life, which she always, of course, struggled with, especially having no understanding if they were telling her something that she didn’t know about. So this is how it was presented to me, in little bits and pieces. Mysterious, not clear stories. And then I read the book [Passing], and I got context for something that I didn’t have before. And after I read the book, I became quite sure that what my grandfather must’ve been doing was passing for white in a time when he felt presumably safest and safe for his family doing that. I didn’t have any real confirmation of any of this until recently. I recorded an episode of Finding Your Roots, and thanks to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, I now know a lot more than I did, even when I was filming the movie. That episode comes out in January, so it’s a long way down the road. But I know all of the information, and it’s been confirmed. And as expected, there’s a lot more to it than even I could have imagined, honestly. So that’s my connection with it. I came to the book with something personal that I was grappling with, and the book gave me an avenue to explore it.

To follow up on a thread from the cover story, has your mother finally seen the film?

Yes, she has. She has. She has finally seen it. I was hoping that I could get to hold out to see it in a cinema with her, but things just being what they were, that wasn’t happening. And it became, at a certain point, ridiculous that she hadn’t seen it. (Laughs.) So she watched it, and while I don’t want to put words in her mouth, it’s safe to say she was very profoundly moved by it. She called me and was fairly emotional and said, “Thank you for giving him words and giving a way to talk about this that nobody could.” And she said, “I suspect you’ve probably relieved him.” She was talking about her father.

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Passing
Courtesy of Netflix

Were you more specific with performance direction than most directors? I know that some actor-directors are very careful in this regard, so did you strike a balance and pick your spots?

I try to think about how I respond to directors. My father actually taught me something from working with him in theater. I would watch him come into a rehearsal room on day one, and while it was imperceptible to someone who didn’t know him very well, I could notice that he was clocking everybody in the room with what felt like a kind of 360 vision. It was a sort of picking up on signals and understanding the needs of everyone in any given moment. And then that’s how he would approach each actor. He had an uncanny capacity to sniff out when the right moment to give a note was. So I believe that the way to direct actors is to enable them towards their best work, and everybody has different criteria for feeling safe and fearless about that. You just have to intuit and work out what it is that’s going to make them feel the most helped. So that’s something I very much learned from my father, and that was really the thing that I concentrated on. And the material in Passing is very subtextual. There’s not a single character that says anything that they’re really feeling, possibly with the exception of Clare (Ruth Negga). But not really. (Laughs.) And so we had to do a very intricate dance with the material, all of us, and it was my job to be the one that was seeing it and seeing whether we were hearing the thing underneath the thing, the subtext. The hidden stuff. So I was pretty hands on about that. I’d say, “We need to see this, and we need to feel this moment.” And certainly, there was a formality to the moviemaking that necessitated me saying where an actor would have to be in a scene, physically, but within that, I wanted to be able to give them emotional freedom. So it was a little contradictory at times, but somehow both.

What’s the path forward for you in terms of acting and filmmaking?

I’ve always thought that anyone who decides to direct and act in a movie is probably out of their mind, but there is a huge precedent for it. I’ve certainly worked with people who have done it. But I’m not giving up acting in a hurry, so I suspect if the material is right, I might end up doing that. But I don’t want to give up either. I want to do both. So I’ll just keep on keeping on.

When you worked with actor-directors over the years, did you start to gain more confidence that you could do the job as well?

Definitely, yes, but I don’t think I was holding back. It was a combination of being somewhat intimidated by the idea, but also just the world interacting with me in the way that it did and giving me a lot of opportunities as an actor. So the timing was the timing. I wanted to make Passing for a long time, and people were like, “Well, that’s never going to happen.” And then the world shifted slightly, and it seemed more possible that a film like that could get made. But yes, I’ve wanted to do it forever. I’ve always wanted to direct. It’s just finding the right moment.

You worked with your DP, Eduard Grau, on The Gift, which was Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut. Did you notice anything about his way of working with a first-time director in Joel that prompted you to hire him for your own debut?

Not specifically The Gift, actually. I’d worked with him before on The Awakening, and he was pretty young then. I think it might’ve been one of the first things he did. So I knew him very well and I knew how he operated. I really think he’s astonishing, and I’m very, very grateful for how everything shook down. But actually, I didn’t go to him initially. I initially had somebody else, and then there was a scheduling conflict and I was in a bit of a bind. So I called someone who I knew I had a relationship with, someone I knew would be capable of doing the job. And I thought there was a chance that he’d get on a plane on very short notice and do it, which he did. He threw himself into it in a way that was extraordinary, and he was just a wonderful and brilliant collaborator. I just adored working with him. So it all turned out pretty well in the end, but I didn’t necessarily have him already.

The Prestige is one of my favorite films of all time, so I have a really convoluted question for you.

Oh yeah? Okay!

Despite noticing Borden’s (Christian Bale) erratic and fickle behavior, Sarah didn’t know that she was basically married to two brothers. Of course, she figured it out towards the end of the movie and decided to take her life in response. Do you think you would have benefited even more from you not knowing that Christian was playing two characters? Theoretically, you and your character would have felt the same level of confusion and frustration.

Oh, that’s an interesting question. That’s a bit chicken and egg. I think it probably would have yielded interesting results, but they would probably have ended up being roughly the same, if I was doing my job correctly. I hope. (Laughs.) I don’t know. That’s interesting.

What do you remember about reading with Christian for the first time?

I remember just being in something of a fugue state, honestly. It was so bizarre. I had sent in an audition tape just days prior. I filmed it on my mate’s bad camcorder in my terrible London apartment out of college. (Laughs.) The whole thing was just so unlikely. And then, a day later, they were like, “They’re putting you on a plane so you can go and do a chemistry read with Christian Bale.” And then there I was in a room with all of them. And my memory is that I was very deer-in-the-headlights about the whole thing, but excited. And I do remember that Chris Nolan was very loose with the text. He really wanted me to just make it up and improvise. There was that big emotional scene towards the end, and I jumped on that. I remember just going for it, thinking, “What have I got to lose?” So it was all very surprising. And then I was in L.A. for four months without a driving license, not knowing anyone, which was a whole other thing. (Laughs.)

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The Night House is now available in theaters. Passing premieres in theaters on Oct. 27 and Netflix on Nov. 10.

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