Rebecca Hall has walked into the room and — nope — my movie-star radar still hasn’t started beeping. I don’t mean this in a bad way: there are countless photo shoots and red carpet appearances to prove that she has awesome star wattage. It’s just that today she seems so unfussy, so low-key. She tugs off the woolly hat she was wearing against the rain outside, reclines into a chair, and kicks one sneakered foot over the other. ‘Brrr… it’s so nasty out there.’
If you’ve seen any of Ms Hall’s movie performances so far, this may be what you were expecting. In films such as Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) or Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010), she stands out because of her subtlety. She’s one of those wonderful actresses who do most of the work with their eyes, building up a character with tiny flashes of emotion, rather than with look-at-me dramatics. Only a few minutes into our conversation, I suspect something similar could be said of her in real life. This woman who had the newspapers frothing last year after it was confirmed that she was dating the film director Sam Mendes (only shortly after his divorce from Kate Winslet) is remarkably understated as film stars go.
Strangely enough, some of this may be down to her theatrical background. Her father is Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and much of her immediate family works on or around the stage. ‘I worked out, when I started doing theatre, that I tended to play all the emotions in the most extreme way. After three weeks of rehearsals I’d chip it down until all of that was on the inside and I was able to play the minimum on the outside. I suppose when I started doing film that became even more interesting because you could really communicate an inner life without playing it. Just have the inner life.’
Inner or outer life, Rebecca Hall seems to be changing things at the moment. As she turns 30, the film roles that she’s taking on are different from before, perhaps even more extravagant. There’s her performance as Beth, a hyperactive former stripper who totters into the world of sports betting and beyond, in Lay the Favorite. And then there is Sylvia — scheming, destructive Sylvia — in the forthcoming television adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel Parade’s End, scripted by Tom Stoppard. ‘Without wanting to sound frightfully grand about it,’ she explains, ‘I do this purely out of curiosity about people. If I just do the one type I’m never going to satisfy that curiosity, so the more outside my realm of experience, the more outside my immediate understanding, the better.’
And that realm of experience could soon be stretched even further. On the very day of this interview, the internet is all aquiver with the news that Hall is to be cast in the comic-book mega-film Iron Man 3. She doesn’t confirm or deny the reports, although she does grimace when I tell her how the role is being described (‘A sexy scientist? God, that’s depressing. Why can’t she just be a scientist or why can’t she just be sexy, why do they have to qualify it?’), and admits that she isn’t so averse to doing big Hollywood fare as she was in the past. ‘I used to be all very Marlene Dietrich about it: “I don’t want to do anything like that! I just want to be on my own!” But I’m getting over that now.’
We mostly discuss Parade’s End, though. This BBC and HBO co-production fits in with a peculiar vogue for dramas — such as Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire — centred on the years during or just after the first world war, when all the wounds were still fresh. ‘There is something specific about times of complication, financial crisis and all the rest of it, when we look to certain histories that have connections with our own,’ she muses. ‘I don’t know, I’ve always been quite a nostalgic person and I’m quite pro it.’
Her character, Sylvia, will probably be advertised as the queen bitch of the series, not least because of the affairs she conducts in defiance of her husband, our starched protagonist Christopher Tietjens (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But Hall is keen to get in her defence early. ‘I felt increasingly sorry for Sylvia when I read the book, as she’s acting within incredibly reactionary confines. I kept on thinking if she had been born into a different family, with an education, after women’s rights, what would have happened to her? She probably would have been running the world!’
There are projects with more obvious modern parallels on Hall’s slate as well. She is currently bobbing between courtrooms, shooting a film about the legal fog that surrounds the intelligence community — and, gosh, it has her animated. ‘I understand that, for national security reasons, it is important to keep some things secret. But somebody has to be given a fair trial, and if you start letting that slip, and you start creating weird situations that are outside of the law, it’s just not fair. It’s as simple as that.’
Before Hall has to leave, I quickly ask whether she has any heroes. Her eyes gleam as she replies, ‘Plenty! But mainly jazz pianists. Bud Powell or Art Tatum or Bill Evans, people like that. I get nearly everything from music. If I had been remotely talented in that department I’d have done it in a flash. I still try to practise piano for a couple of hours each day. It’s how I decompress.’
And then, as compact as one of Thelonious Monk’s melodies, it’s back on with the woolly hat and the jacket, and out into the rain. If you don’t look closely, she might be just another person, sliding through just another wet afternoon in London.