When Rebecca Hall got to Sundance, she had a bit of a surprise: The English actress was there with Antonio Campos' “Christine,” a biopic about Christine Chubbuck, the Florida TV news reporter who shot herself on the air in 1974. And lo and behold, not only was there another film there about Chubbuck — Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” — but it was a documentary about the untold ethical considerations involved in making a film about someone known primarily, even solely for her suicide. To her credit, the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Gift” actress never took the task lightly, and nor did the movie itself: It’s a deeply empathetic portrait that carefully avoids easy explanations for her decision, and presents her life leading up to her final act.
Hall, 34, talks to us about avoiding self-pity, building a character out of little at all and whether she’s finally seen “Kate Plays Christine.” (Spoiler: She hasn’t.)
There’s only 15 minutes of footage of Christine Chubbuck that is available to the public. What other things did you have to go off of?
Nothing. It was that and an article that was written about her at the time. I’m glad, in a way: Impersonation is problematic. It’s got to come from you, not matter how extreme the categorization. It’s got to come a place inside of you. Otherwise it will never be honest. I read a lot of books about what it’s like to be that depressed and really battle with a suicidal impulse. I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet who doesn’t have someone in their circle who hasn’t battled with mental health issues. And I had my personal experiences with occasional anxiety and depression, though I’ve never been diagnosed or put on medicine. I’ve had dark moments, but who hasn’t? Engaging with all those things about one’s self is where you build from. It’s all emotional.
You gave her this very declarative way of speaking.
It’s a big voice, but the voice happened because I watched the 15 minute tape and thought this was someone uncomfortable in their own skin, and is barely capable of getting a word out that’s free or at ease or relaxed. It struck me that there was something performative about her. Of course, this was from a TV episode where she was interviewing someone, so of course she’d be performative. But it felt like me that it ran deep. Imagine what happens to the voice: It starts to clamp up. The jaw gets tense. All of those things come from my instincts about those 15 minutes of footage. You can intuit a lot about a person from a first meeting.
Your portrayal of her is that she’s always on edge, but she also has a biting sense of humor. She’s not one way the whole film.
It was more important to concentrate less on the despair and more on the sense that this is someone who wakes up every day and has this feeling in the back of their brain that they’re not like everyone else — who gets up and is tenaciously striving to succeed at living and being herself. She’s constantly, constantly trying not to die.
It’s a good portrayal of someone who’s a workaholic — someone who, in part, is trying to escape herself by throwing herself into constant work. I can relate to that.
You and me both. [Laughs]