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Most screen heroines who move into haunted houses do so
without knowledge of their spooked histories, or in spite of them. In THE
AWAKENING, opening this Friday, August 13 from Cohen Media Group, Florence
Cathcart arrives at a post-WWI boarding school allegedly inhabited by a child’s
ghost for the express purpose of debunking those rumors. It’s a compelling part
given memorable life by acclaimed actress Rebecca Hall, taking her first lead
in a genre film.
The daughter of Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter
Hall, she previously dabbled in the occult via supporting roles in Christopher
Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE and the 2009 adaptation of DORIAN GRAY while also winning
attention for films as diverse as Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA,
FROST/NIXON and THE TOWN. THE AWAKENING (see our review here)
affords Hall one of her and the genre’s most complex roles yet, as Florence’s
investigation of Rookford School’s specter challenges her long-held beliefs and
causes her to realize unsettling truths about herself.
FANGORIA: Is THE AWAKENING the first lead you’ve been
offered in a film of this type?
REBECCA HALL: No, I’ve been offered horror movies before,
but I didn’t feel the parts were strong enough or the story interesting enough
to take those, and this one was. I didn’t set out to make a horror movie per se;
I’m just interested in playing characters that are interesting to me. And this
one was, so I thought, “Great.”
FANG: What was it about Florence in particular that appealed
HALL: It was a combination of things: I liked her smarts, I
liked her attitude and she’s quite an attractive persona. But she’s also
complicated and damaged and frail, and when you scratch the surface a bit,
she’s not everything that she appears to be.
FANG: That’s one of the interesting components of the
character, and without giving too much away, how did you approach playing the
hidden side of the character without revealing too much early on?
HALL: It was quite a sort of tightrope to walk. Part of me
was very aware that it had an intricate plot, and should stand up to a second
viewing. As in, there should be all sorts of things the audience can pick up on
the second time they view it, so there was an element of wanting to lay those
foundations as well as playing what was on the surface, and trying to balance
it so we weren’t giving away too much while giving away enough. Keeping that
balance was very tricky, and kept in check by Nick, the director. He knew
exactly the tone and pitch every scene should be, and would modulate me
FANG: How was it working with Nick Murphy in general?
HALL: Really great. I liked him from the minute I met him.
The jury was out at first about whether I was going to take the job; it was an
interesting script, but I thought, “First-time film director, he’s made a great
bit of television, but…” Then I went to have lunch with him, and within five
minutes I thought, “I want to make a movie with this guy,” because he has such
a sort of intoxicating enthusiasm and passion for what he does. I thought that
would translate into a good film, and I think I was right. I hope I was right [laughs].
FANG: Was the subject matter something that interested you?
HALL: I think inasmuch as it interests anyone. I wouldn’t
say it’s something I’m particularly nerdy or obsessive about, but it is
interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by ghost stories, because they’re an
important way to discuss mortality and spirituality and grief and catharsis and
all these different, very real, very powerful aspects of human experience.
FANG: On a personal level, would you consider yourself a
believer or a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural?
HALL: I would consider myself a healthy agnostic. I’m
neither skeptical nor a true believer. I don’t know [if such things exist], but
I’d really like it to be true, because that’s far more interesting!
FANG: Did you do any research into the various types of
equipment that Florence uses in the film?
HALL: I did [laughs], and I’m laughing because this is a bit
like the day when you take an apple in to the teacher… My usual three months of
prep that I do before a movie starts involves lots of sort of nerdy research,
some of which I’m willing to talk about and some of which I won’t. But part of
it here was to look up the first Edison sound recorder and all the other things
that were mentioned in the script, and find out the history of this machinery
and whatever. And to my great shock, nothing that was mentioned in the script
came up as being historically accurate. I got really baffled by this, and
called up Nick Murphy and was like, “But…but…that’s not…,” and he was like, ‘I know,
you need to calm down and stop being so crazy. I made it up!” [Laughs] And I
was like, “Oh. Yeah, you’re right, I’m gonna stop that now.”
FANG: What about the ghosts themselves? Were most of the
special FX done live on set as opposed to being added digitally later?
HALL: Yeah; this was done on a shoestring, just a small
group of us on location in Scotland making this, and there were no special
effects, nothing. A couple of little things were obviously added in
postproduction, but we all mucked in; when you see me being dragged through the
mud, I’m being dragged through the mud.
FANG: Did that make it easier to get into the headspace of
your character’s fear?
HALL: Well, it’s obviously a lot easier to get scared when
you’re running through an actual woods as opposed to staring at a greenscreen
and imagining you’re there. At the same time, you might be running through the
woods, but you’re never far away from 20 people with makeup brushes and
lighting rigs, eating sandwiches, drinking tea and chatting about football, so
you come up against challenges that way.
FANG: You have a couple of great co-stars in THE AWAKENING;
can you first talk about working with HARRY POTTER’s Imelda Staunton?
HALL: She might be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met
in my life. She has a wicked, wicked sense of humor and made me cry on several
occasions from laughing so hard, at times I really shouldn’t have been [laughs].
She’s brilliant. I found her to be very inspiring, actually. She has always
done things I admire, the way she juggles having the kind of career she wants,
doing theater and film and all these different things. I’m in constant respect
FANG: How about Dominic West, who plays the headmaster?
HALL: Dominic is also a very, very funny person. In fact,
whoever put the three of us in a room together and told us to act seriously
needed his head examined. We kind of became hysterical children [laughs], but
he’s great. He’s very bold, Dominic. He doesn’t really filter himself; he’s
kind of game for anything, and is very trusting. And that’s all you can dream
of with an actor you’re working with, because the majority of what we do is
about just being game for stuff.
FANG: I was especially taken by your early scenes with West;
not all horror films have characters as intelligent as this one, and to see you
and him kind of intellectually sparring was intriguing to watch before the
supernatural stuff gets started.
HALL: Yeah, that was one of the things that appealed to me
about doing the film. Very much so.
FANG: And here’s the question that gets asked of anyone who
does a film like this: You were shooting a ghost story on location in a big old
house; did anything spooky happen in real life during production?
HALL: No, no. I get asked that a lot, and I really wish it
had, but nothing. Nothing.
FANG: Are you a fan of this type of movie yourself?
HALL: I am, I am. Some of my favorite movies are horror
films, though it’s not quite as cookie-cutter as I like them because they’re
about horror, but a lot of genre films are a way into talking about something much
more universal and human. THE AWAKENING is ostensibly about ghosts, but it’s
really about loss and grief and knowing yourself and coming to terms with
yourself. There’s nothing supernatural about that.
FANG: Recently there’s been a trend in movies focusing on
people who are skeptical about the paranormal; RED LIGHTS is another recent
example. Do you believe that reflects an unease or doubt about the world at
HALL: Yeah, I do, I do. I think that historically,
culturally, we are interested in telling these narratives about human
experience at times that are in flux. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that
there were higher records of spiritual/paranormal activity and seances just
after WWI. In times that are hard financially and otherwise in society, the
popular narratives will reflect that or start a dialogue about it in some
FANG: What do you have coming up?
HALL: I just wrapped a film called CLOSED CIRCUIT, a contemporary
piece set in London about barristers. It’s a political/legal thriller about
contemporary events in England and deals with closed-court proceedings and
terrorist cases. It’s completely fascinating, I loved it. It’s directed by John
Crowley, Eric Bana’s in it. I’ve got a five-part HBO/BBC adaptation of a novel
called PARADE’S END that Tom Stoppard scripted, with Benedict Cumberbatch, that
should be on TV over there [in the U.S.] quite soon. It’s really good, and
that’s also, strangely, set in WWI in Britain. I’ve got a Stephen Frears film
called LAY THE FAVORITE, based on a real person named Beth Raymer who was a
professional sports gambler, that’ll be coming out there soon. And I’m in the
middle of shooting IRON MAN 3.
FANG: Can you tell us a little about your part in IRON MAN
HALL: No [laughs]. I’m not allowed to tell you anything.
FANG: Do you think you might work with Nick Murphy again?
HALL: Oh, happily! In a heartbeat. He’s already made another
film [the cop thriller BLOOD] that’s in postproduction right now. He didn’t ask
me to be in it; he said he had made this movie which was mostly about a girl,
and now he’s done a really boy-heavy film.
FANG: Have you talked at all about what project you might
get back together on?
No, we haven’t. I don’t know, it would probably have to be Florence Cathcart
becoming a proper Sherlock Holmes figure, debunking more ghost stories
somewhere. But I doubt he’d be interested in doing that [laughs]!
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