American audiences know Rebecca Hall from her rich performances on the big screen, from her Golden Globe-nominated performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona to her action-packed turn in Iron Man 3. But the daughter of legendary director and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall has no shortage of stage cred across the pond, including starring roles in her father’s production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Sam Mendes’ mountings of The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. Now, Hall makes her Broadway debut in Machinal, playing a deeply depressed housewife who finds herself dissatisfied with marriage and motherhood. Below, Hall tells Broadway.com why taking on the challenging new role is like getting pummeled "with a meat tenderizer," recounts her chaotic opening night and more.
Why did you pick Machinal to make your Broadway debut?
It was a combination of things. I wasn’t looking to do a show on Broadway—that wasn’t the starting point. But this play arrived and I would’ve done it anywhere, and that it happened to be being produced on Broadway was a bonus. It’s such an extraordinary piece of writing and so unusual and still so radical and so polarizing now, which I find fascinating. And [director] Lindsey Turner is a really inspiring and shining presence in theater right now, and I’ve been an admirer of her productions in the past, so I was thrilled that she wanted to work with me.
Helen isn’t just a depressed woman, she’s multifaceted—how did you create the layers of this character?
As bizarre as it sounds, a lot of the play happens to her. It would have been wrong for me to say, “OK, she’s got depression, so I’m just gonna play somebody with extreme anxiety and depression, and that’s it.” I think Treadwell has written someone who’s delicate and someone who lacks the imagination of a hero at the center of a drama. She’s not necessarily someone who is always going to commit a murder. She’s an ordinary woman who gets affected by this situation that she’s in. So I keep myself as loose and empty as possible and then just let the rest of the company slowly pummel me with a meat tenderizer, as it were. [Laughs.]
Wow, that’s heavy! How do you release this tension you build up throughout the performance?
A lot of times [in theater], you come off really excited and full of adrenaline, and that’s often the indicator that it’s gone well. But this one is completely the other way around. If I come offstage like that, I know I haven’t been doing my job properly. If I come offstage subdued and I want to go and sit quietly by myself and stare at a wall, then I know that it’s gone well. [Laughs.] So I usually sit quietly for a little bit and then go get a drink.
This set is a character in itself, constantly rotating throughout the show. How did you even begin to learn to work with it?
It was one of the most thrilling days of my career when we got presented the model box and told about the concept of the set. We’d already been three days into rehearsal and Lindsey had made it clear that we weren’t doing a big production, the point of doing this was to make the play heard. And then she showed us the box. I’ve never known anything like it. It was watching a whole company of people with their jaws on the floor. It’s beautiful and magical and surprising and has great showmanship, but it also genuinely supports what we’re trying to do with the play. The box is like the machine of the play, it’s the life machine and I step on that box at the beginning of the show and I don’t get off it until the end. I’m bracing myself every time it spins. [Laughs.]
The set had some fits and starts on opening night and you had to begin the show all over again—what was that night like for you?
When it happened, it was horrible for obvious reasons. While they were trying to fix it, Lindsey was very inspiring. She was like, “Well, we could stop, we could all go home, but I feel like this woman has been waiting since 1928 to have her play done again on Broadway.” We all agreed, it seemed that we had to go back. It’s got such a cumulative force, and certainly for me if I start in the middle of it it’s very odd. I’ve only been half pummeled with the meat tenderizer as it were. [Laughs.] I was nervous going on the second time ‘cause I thought, do I have the energy to get through this? But the thing that struck me when I was onstage was wow, I’m actually doing something for the same audience who had just seen me do it an hour ago. I don’t think, ever in my career, that’s happened before.
I’m excited to see your new movie Tumbledown—did you choose a light romantic comedy to be your next project on purpose?
You hit it on the head, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I read this script when I was in rehearsals. I was so Machinal, Machinal, Machinal, heavy into it. I said to my agent, “I don’t think I can read anything right now.” And then I found myself needing something to read to get my mind out of this dark and depressing place, and I couldn’t put it down. I thought, “Oh, here we go, this is the tonic at the end of Machinal to stop me from going into a deep crash.” [Laughs.] This’ll be it, this’ll be lovely, and it’s a nice head space to go to and it’s really witty and funny and smart. I haven’t done anything like that for while.
See Hall in Machinal at the American Airlines Theatre.