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Christine’s Rebecca Hall on humanizing a televised suicide

Photo: The Orchard

Rebecca Hall doesn’t describe herself as “Method,” but when she was on the set of Christine she rarely left character. It was practical—vocally, she had to maintain a throaty American dialect, she explained to The A.V. Club in her proper British accent at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “The crew and the cast got used to Christine, and everyone cared about her, including me,” she said.

The real Christine Chubbuck’s life has generated more morbid curiosity than affection: In 1974, just shy of her 30th birthday, she committed suicide during a live broadcast of the local Sarasota news program for which she worked. But Hall’s performance revels in Christine’s joy and her ambition as much as it tries to peek into her troubled mind. The versatile actor—known for her roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Town—presents Christine as a woman who is passionate and principled, but also deeply uneasy with her own mind and body. The A.V. Club spoke with Hall about identifying with Christine and why she didn’t want to do much research.


The A.V. Club: This movie hit me really hard in a way that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, because I know the ending. But one of the things that I found so remarkable about your performance is—maybe this says something about me—how relatable I found her.

Rebecca Hall: It doesn’t say something about you. This means that the film was a success. This was definitely the intention.


AVC: How did you approach that? You have a story that ends in such a gruesome fashion.

RH: This was born out of wanting to humanize and personalize some mental health issues. Craig Shilowich, who wrote it, was attracted to it because of his own personal relationship with [them]. He heard this story, and he was struck by it, as you are. I think what you’re saying is sort of the reason for it, if you see what I mean? If you don’t make this film, then she’s left a monster who did a gruesome thing, a scary thing. You either hear the story and you’re curious, and you’re sort of sympathetic, or you think, “Ugh, how horrible.” That’s dehumanizing. How about we take that and turn her into a person and it’s not about the final act, it’s about her life. I felt that really strongly, and I felt a sort of deep sympathy with her. It’s also why I do what I do. I want to try to make difficult people somehow relatable.


I had these 20 minutes of her doing a talk show. The access point for me was thinking about this thing that she constantly gets up every day and tries to perform what it is that she perceives to be normal. It’s almost like she’s performing herself, constantly. And sometimes she’s quite successful at it, and sometimes she’s very terrible at it. I think that is something that actually we can all relate to. There are a lot of movies about misfits that are quite cool, that kind of glamorize it on some level. I think there are fewer films, certainly with a lady at the center, about the agony of what it’s like to feel like you’re not accepted, and you’re different, and somehow you’re weird. Of course we’re dealing with extremities and her mental health issues, but I don’t think there’s a single person on this planet that doesn’t have a day when they feel like they’re off, like they’re not doing a very good job of being them. We all relate to having highs and lows. Everyone gets depressed.

AVC: She’s performing herself but she’s also in a performative profession. You’re an actress, which is also performative. How did you tackle that?


RH: You have to start from a place of trying to create a character. It was impressionistic. I didn’t do anything else apart from watch religiously these 20 minutes and then somehow trying to internalize her and then, like a first impression, work with that intuition. I looked at her and I thought, “Oh, she seems very uncomfortable in her own skin. How do I make myself uncomfortable in my own skin?” And it would be a matter of holding myself a different way that was uncomfortable for me. So I kind of had to root it in a truth that was, if I do this, I’m going to get a headache by the end of the day. That’s probably the right place to be in.

AVC: About the posture: Was that something that you took from the footage?

RH: I took it from the footage, but she sat down in that footage, so it was sort of instinct and imagination about what it could be otherwise. It’s difficult to explain. You can’t really externalize it, you can’t really say, “I’m going to do this.” It’s more like: Imagine that you feel that everything you do is wrong when you move, and isn’t like anyone else, and then what happens to your body. It happens naturally. I’m not really conscious of what I was doing. It’s not like I thought, “I’m now going to hunch my back.” It came from a place of imagining of what it might feel like to be that person who’s battling, battling, battling.


AVC: So did you receive the footage from Craig?

RH: Yeah, he gave me that, and that was it. They didn’t want me to go down the route of research and talking to people that knew her, and I think that was correct. I really believed that quite strongly actually. Craig did speak to friends and co-workers. He did not speak to the family. That was very conscious. He was advised legally not to, for a start, but he also didn’t want to. This is not documentary realism. Source material in this instance is very complicated because we’re asking someone to relive and drudge up a personal tragedy, and I don’t really want to do that. I don’t want to also have allegiance to that person’s personal tragedy, because the act itself was a public one.


For better or worse, she forced that event onto the public consciousness, and the world is left with all these questions. Frankly, it’s the responsibility of good art to grapple with that kind of question. That means that you have to respect artistic license and freedom and all those things. I wanted that. So that’s why a lot of it was imagination, and a lot of it was instinct. I wanted to portray an impression of what I personally feel it might be like to be that person. It’s not going to be what she was really like, necessarily. Although, someone has come forward, very strangely, who knew her really well right up until the last days, and has seen the film because—well, I can’t really talk about it yet because I think someone is doing a piece about this person. They contacted Antonio [Campos, the director] and said, actually, it’s uncanny how much you’ve got of the spirit of her, and it’s such a respectful portrayal, and I’m so happy that it exists, and thank you. So that’s a kind of amazing thing.

AVC: Had you heard about her story at all before the movie?

RH: Not even remotely. A lot of people haven’t. I think people have if they’re sort of interested in macabre facts on the internet, do you know what I mean? It’s not necessarily a well-known story.


AVC: There’s a line of dialogue in the film about Christine’s feminism, and the ending has a reference to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was about a career girl in a newsroom during the same period. How did you factor that ’70s idea of feminism into your performance?

RH: It’s something I think about more when I watch the film rather than when I was actually doing it, to be honest with you. But I do think it functions as a sort of interesting feministic critique, because you are seeing a woman who’s resolutely incapable of behaving like the kind of woman that’s acceptable at the time. She doesn’t know how to play the game by everyone else’s rules, and it makes you realize that actually there were rules that were functioning for a woman to be a careerist. They still had to be feminine, and funny, and easy, and approachable, and nice, and likable. That is something that I think is still a conversation. It’s a conversation in my job. You don’t get roles like this very often because people don’t really like women on film to be unlikable. I think Christine is lovable, but I don’t think she’s likable. I think there’s a fundamental difference. For me, those are the richest ones. Men have had a career of doing those kind of things.


AVC: It’s so rare that you see even female villains. You were in Iron Man 3, and it just recently came out that that villain was supposed to be—

RH: Was supposed to be me? Yes. I think the story that Shane Black was talking about precedes me, but it is true, it was me, and I did sign on for a much larger part than I ended up getting to play, which was shocking and disturbing at the time. It made me mad at the time, but they did hear me out. Initially, they were just like, “We’re just going to shoot you in a corridor.” And then I was like, “That seems really wrong. Surely there’s some contractual obligation. This is false advertising. I didn’t sign on to do that.” They kind of came to an agreement with me where they were like, “Okay, we’ll give you a decent death scene, and one more scene with Robert Downey Jr.,” which they did. But it wasn’t what I was meant to do. That was weird and shocking, and a strange situation to be in. But I don’t want to massively slag off Marvel, I don’t. Because they have just employed a woman to be their superhero, and so hallelujah.


AVC: That’s awesome, but it is interesting in terms of roles for women, and what’s perceived as marketable, basically.

RH: Absolutely, but the thing we’re talking about is how Christine functions as that kind of feministic critique, and it does, because she’s operating in an un-meritocratic system, where she is not rewarded for what she does, but at the same time, she is exploited for it. They take what is the best about her, but then they don’t give her any rewards or push her up the ladder. That’s true of the time. It’s not untrue of this time.


I also find the social-political context of the film is a fascinating one, because my access point—as I’m sure anyone who’s born after the ’70s’ access point is—is ’70s films and ’70s culture and there is a kind of a paranoiac atmosphere in that time in America. Yes, it’s the golden age of journalism, ironically, when Christine is functioning—Watergate, and all the rest of these people making these great breakthroughs—but it’s also the moment that “if it bleeds, it leads” becomes mainstream and sensationalizing the news becomes more and more the given. Checking how many numbers you’re getting, whatever you can do to get more numbers. Christine’s going through a sort of breakdown. It’s arguable that America was having a kind of breakdown. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not massively dissimilar right now. The idea that fear can manipulate people and you can use fear in the media to get what you want is happening right now. I think it has a lot of relevance.

AVC: You have to walk this fine line of not falling into the trap of making her a sad single lady. There are elements of her romantic life that are heartbreaking, but it’s not all about the fact that she doesn’t have a guy. How did you deal with that?


RH: That’s written. That’s not me. That was Craig’s brilliance. It’s incredibly bold to have a lady at the center of the film who is not saved by a man, and is not sexually viable in any way. I can’t think of really any. It’s weird, in itself, that that’s the case. I love that the film doesn’t attempt to explain her and doesn’t attempt to say, “she’s like this because of this, and make it neat, and tie it with a bow, and everything has a resolution.” The audience is invited to look at her in the same way that her community looks at her. The community around her doesn’t know why she is what she is, but they still love her, and that’s the real tragedy of it. She’s incapable of seeing that, and seeing that everyone wants to help her and everyone was actually accepting. That’s what hurts.

AVC: You even think her colleague George [Michael C. Hall] might be somewhat sinister, and he’s not, really.


RH: No, he’s kind. He’s really kind. Everyone wants to do right by her. And I think that makes it a strangely optimistic film. At its core is this idea that human beings are actually more accepting than sometimes we, in our darkest moments, give them credit for. I think that’s positive.

AVC: At what point in the shoot did you film the big scene?

RH: Weirdly, it was the last day of shooting. It was my last—unfortunate choice of words. I think it was really hard, but I think the fact that it was hard was an indication that we were doing something that was honest, because—I know this sounds slightly indulgent and self-aggrandizing and I don’t intend this to sound this way—but there wasn’t anyone who made the film that didn’t end up caring for her a lot. I wouldn’t call myself Method, but I do believe in going there and doing whatever it takes to get there. I’m not going to lie, when the wig went on and the makeup went on, I didn’t get to stop being Christine until the wig came off and the makeup came off. And so when it came to that day, nobody wanted what ended up happening to happen. I think that shows in the film, because an audience shouldn’t want it to happen, either. That’s the success of it, if you get to that point, and even though you know it’s coming—and to an extent, you should know it’s coming, because if not, that’s holding it back for dramatic effect, which is obnoxious—you don’t want it to happen.


AVC: My heart was beating out of my skin.

RH: When we made it, I was shaking. I didn’t want to kill her. It was horrible. Also, on a much more biological, technical level, your body technically doesn’t know the difference. Your mind does, but your body doesn’t know the difference when you’re holding a gun. So you get this sort of adrenaline rush. You get the fight or flight mechanism. Until the next morning, I had terrible shakes. I wasn’t being dramatic. I just had adrenaline in my system.

(Photo: The Orchard)

AVC: When you say you didn’t come out of Christine after, until you took the wig off, was that vocally, too?


RH: Yeah. That was technical more than anything else. I would probably avoid talking to people a lot of the time, because I didn’t really want to have to pretend to be Christine during lunch, but the same time, I couldn’t really easily drop the voice without compromising something, and it was just technically difficult to jump back and forth. So it was like, I would speak as Christine, but if I had to speak to people, I would answer from the perspective of Rebecca.

AVC: Was the voice particularly hard to come by?

RH: Yes. It’s considerably lower. It took a long time. It took about three months of prep to get to a place where it was natural.


AVC: Was that derived from that footage?

RH: Yeah, it was just that footage. I recorded it, and I listened to it a lot, and I tried to mimic it, and then I let go of listening to it. I would walk her around a bit outside in the world and try and speak. It’s like a drawing. You start with a really loose sketch. You’re like, I have an idea of what this person’s like. Then suddenly you’re like, I know the colors, and then it’s like, oh no, it’s 3-D, and then it’s in you. I remember before we started shooting, Antonio did one of those old acting exercises. He hot-seated me. He’s like, “Get into character, sit there, and I’m just going to talk to you as Christine.” It went on for like an hour, two hours, something like that. It was fascinating. It was then that I kind of knew that I’d internalized it. When you get to that place, you don’t know what you’re doing on camera, it’s not like you’re consciously thinking.


AVC: There’s the other Christine movie, Kate Plays Christine. Have you seen that yet?

RH: No.

AVC: Are you going to?

RH: I want to support it, but I sort of don’t really—I can’t bring myself to watch it. I will, probably, eventually, but part of me feels a bit, I don’t know.


AVC: Do you want to sort of stay with your Christine? Especially given all this other information coming out in light of the film?

RH: Yeah. Because what we made was an artistic rendering, and it was an interpretation. It was mine, and Craig’s, and Antonio’s version of it. Whether it has verisimilitude of the real one is actually neither here nor there. It’s a piece of art.


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