Mountains and Playgrounds: Rebecca Hall on Resurrection

Mountains and Playgrounds: Rebecca Hall on Resurrection

It’s good to have Rebecca Hall back on our screens as an actor. After her elegant feature directorial debut Passing, it wasn’t just any script that would convince the artist to return – but Resurrection is unlike any other thriller we’ve seen. Ella Kemp interviews Hall about gaslighting, motherhood, and what it takes to climb a mountain.

Rebecca Hall knows all too well how tall she is. It’s not a nursery rhyme or a point of contention, instead a weapon to be wielded in the face of abusive behaviour and any threat posed to her child. “I could knock him out, probably,” the actor says of her Resurrection co-star Tim Roth when trying to understand out loud the wildly unfair power imbalances brought on by trauma. “I am just literally bigger than him.” 

The question of who would win in a fight comes up in conversation about Hall’s latest thriller and most incandescent return to acting, Resurrection, since making her directorial feature debut with the beautiful and potent Passing. That film was an elegant meditation on racial identity which adapted the 1920s Nella Larsen novel of the same name. This one is a grisly, unsettling psychological horror about a woman and mother pushed to the brink, by, well, a low-life. 

“I always thought of her as being very much in a cult of one,” Hall says of her character Margaret, whose life and career is upended upon the arrival of David (Roth), an unsettling man from her past. “She's so readily triggered back into these patterns of being manipulated by him, even though he's completely ineffectual in a sense. He doesn't have any power, he hasn't got a job, he has a pot belly and drinks vodka out of a paper bag. But still, that psychological manipulation can be so powerful.” 

Hall is no stranger to this kind of story as an actor, and she sees painful parallels in her own life too. “I have come across people in my life that have had that effect on me, and that destabilisation and not even realising it is really, truly terrifying to me,” she says. “I think of myself as an incredibly rational and independent person. So there is nothing more scary than my reality being distorted by someone else’s power.” But in Resurrection, the power is, ultimately, in Hall’s hands with a focused, enraged and often delirious performance of white-knuckle defence and determination that any mother would recognise. 

There is a moment in the film where Margaret says that mothers are “gloriously disposable,” a line that sits uncomfortably when considering the broader and unshakeable belief that the bond between mother and child is unbreakable. Hall initially told writer-director Andrew Semans that she disagreed with the line. “I wasn’t scared of flying or ever had vertigo before becoming a mother, and then now I’m suddenly so aware of how precious my life is, because I’m responsible for this baby.” But it’s precisely that care that somewhat vindicates Semans’ script at the same time. 

“There's a double edged thing of being a parent in that your whole world becomes about protecting this other person, that's not yourself. And in that sense, you are disposable, because you would put yourself in front of a bus for them,” Hall says. “But once they grow up it’s impossible to remove every threat, you’ve got to let them go and live with the fear that you might not be able to.” That fear comes to the fore in Resurrection when Margaret, petrified about what David might do, makes her teenage daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) text her an “OK” emoji every hour, on the hour, to confirm she is in fact OK. Margaret pays Abbie $20 each time. For her trouble. “What you can learn from that movie is that there's not really a moment when your mother isn't worrying about you,” Hall laughs.

The actor recognises that her character, while suffering severe abuse, gaslighting and PTSD, isn’t faultless either. “It's so down that road of existential terror that she's also totally unbalanced and a little bit megalomaniacal, it's become a little crazy,” she says. “But she's also got borderline abusive behaviours that she has learned and is passing on.” For Hall, playing Margaret offers “catharsis” in a way that allows her surprisingly “jolly” side to live a little lighter once the working day is done. “People always ask me why I do all this intense, heavy stuff – but it’s my way of getting it out of my system. Because of that, I can go home and I’m quite silly.” 

Silliness and something of a thrill (she calls Resurrection “the extreme sports of acting”) was what Hall needed when she returned to acting after Passing. “It was totally arrogant,” she says of her frame of mind as an actor before she directed. “I’d got to a place where I was like, this is kind of easy for me, what can I possibly do that's going to be challenging? This isn't brain science? Why do we treat it with this perverse reverence when I'm just showing up and saying my lines?” She says. “I've been working as an actor for a really long time, I started professionally acting when I was nine. So I was a little bit jaded in terms of what acting is.” But then, she watched her stars.

Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga and André Holland lead Passing and deliver sensitive, delicate performances while reckoning with severely difficult material. “I was bearing witness to all these astonishing actors do their thing, and I was really humbled by how vulnerable they made themselves every day. And I'd forgotten that somewhere down the road.”

Still, Hall is revitalised but her future remains unclear. She knows that she can’t do extreme sports every day – and that acting bears something of an addiction. The actor explains: “No matter how challenging the role, and how daunting the mountain looks like, once you've climbed it, once you've done it as an actor, it doesn't really matter. You're still looking for the next one. And that is, I now see, completely and utterly insane.” But that insanity was, in this case, the only thing that brought Hall back to our screens. 

Resurrection plays out like a familiar mind game that Hollywood thrillers love, until it pulls the breaks and takes a turn nobody has really dared before. “Reading the script, there was that sense that any ending was going to be disappointing. which is often the case with anything that is high octane,” Hall says. “So when I got to the end, and I was so simultaneously shocked and outraged. I don't believe that this is possible in the film laws of the universe. Perversely, it was the feeling that there was no way that anyone could pull this off was the thing that made me want to do it.”

But she did pull it off – so where do you go from here? For an actor so experienced and a filmmaker already so sensitive to the rhythms of the art and the hard graft that goes into anything like this, Hall is ready to just take a minute to sit back and enjoy what she’s done. “Being an actor is still essentially being a kid putting on an outfit and saying ‘let's pretend’, and if you're not having fun, it's pointless,” she says. "So I'm not looking for necessarily the next huge mountain to climb. I'm just looking for where I can have fun.” From up there? The view is gorgeous.

Resurrection is available on digital platforms now.

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