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.
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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]
The movie’s very empathetic towards her, which is different from self-pity.
That would have been sensationalizing. That would be a terrible manipulation, and an easy manipulation. That’s not the point. The point is to make you feel what it might have been like to be this person who did this quite unthinkable thing. At the film’s base is compassion. It’s made not because it wants to explore the act so much as the life that precedes it.
It also touches on a lot of issues that were relevant then and are depressingly relevant now, too: mental health, suicide, Second-Wave Feminism, the start of the decline of journalism.
It doesn’t allow for a simplistic response. It makes for a complicated one. That’s good, because that means people will debate these things, because these are things we’re not good at talking about. There’s some sort of strange irony here, which is that this is a woman who desperately wanted to be seen and get headlines for doing something good for people, for journalism that would serve the community, for doing something right and honest. What she ended up doing is seeing the rules of the game and deciding, ‘I don’t get to survive — is that the way it is?’ And she got headlines for “blood and guts” [Chubbuck’s phrase decrying the way news was evolving right before she pulled the trigger]. But now she stands a chance of getting headlines for the debate she engenders. I hope that’s the case.
I was wondering if you’d seen “Kate Plays Christine” at this point.
No. I’m nervous to watch a film that’s essentially about how you can’t do the thing that we did. [Laughs] It’s a really sensitive subject matter. It was never my intention to fan the flames of keeping her associated with this sensationalized, macabre, “Oooh, look at that,” scary thing that happened.
Tracy Letts has a role her as the frazzled station manager. He’s had quite a year playing stern and scolding types in “Wiener-Dog” and “Indignation.” I’m sure he’s not that terrifying to act with, though.
He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Nothing like having a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright on your film set telling everyone how great the material is.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge