Three Great Things: Rebecca Hall

The acclaimed actress, who's currently starring in The Night House, on the activities that make her life immeasurably better.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To coincide with the current release through Searchlight Pictures of the psychological horror The Night House, starring Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg and Evan Jonigkeit, acclaimed actress Hall – whose debut as writer-director, Passing, comes out later this fall – shared some of the things that bring her the greatest joy in life. — N.D

I’m going to start with something that I look forward to pretty much every morning, especially in the spring and summer months, which is getting up, making a strong cup of black coffee, and then walking out into the garden and investigating what’s going on there. It’s something that I love to do and it keeps me pretty sane.

I’m a passionate gardener. There are a lot of reasons that I love gardening, but a lot of it has to do with the constant interaction with something that I have no control over, yet I can somehow help. There’s great beauty and great satisfaction in that. For me, gardening is driven through with a constant hope – if something fails, it’s almost a blessing because then you can just try again.

My family and I moved house recently, so our garden is still in its infancy. It doesn’t look how I want it to look now; at the moment it’s a series of chaotic, shambling, spilling-over, madcap, overgrown, wild combinations of very tall flowers that are breezy and billowing and flopping, because there’s been so much rain. But I love the idea of creating spaces within spaces, so that you are constantly disappearing down through a hedgerow – and then something else happens. It’s all classic English garden stuff, except I’m gardening in New York, so it’s different.

I’ve planted a lot of trees and hedges that will get bigger and hopefully blend together. For me, visualizing what it’s going to be is almost more fun than whatever it ends up actually being. It’s like making a movie or all the other creative things that I do. There’s a constant active imagination: Can I visualize this thing, and then can I make it happen? And if I didn’t, then is what it turned into better than the thing I imagined? The most important aspect is my engagement with that process.

At the moment, I have a toddler and animals and my life is very chaotic and busy, but my family, bless them, have a deep understanding that I need chunks of time during the day where I’m completely quiet and on my own. And so they allow me this moment where I take my coffee and just go outside. Even if I’m not doing anything, I very much appreciate this moment of quiet in my day.

One of Rebecca Hall’s recent paintings. (Image via Instagram.)

Playing the Piano
I love playing the piano. I play as much as I can, which isn’t as much as I would like. My daughter hates it when I play, so she comes and bangs her feet on the keys. I love that playing the piano is not really about doing it for other people, or really about playing music. For me, there’s a wandering that happens in my mind when I’m very concentrated on something like that, which is technical but also emotional. I find that peaceful and cathartic, and I’m always interested in where my mind goes when I’m just tinkering.

My mother is an opera singer and a brilliant pianist, and my dad was also a really great pianist as well – we used to play Mozart duets together – and so the level was pretty high in my family. I don’t say that I’m a “good” piano player, because in my family that means you could do it at a professional level. I definitely can’t do that.

I was classically trained when I was a kid, so I can read music very well, but I can’t leave the music aside and just play, which really annoys me, because I’m a big admirer of jazz pianists and I would do anything to have that capacity. If someone says, “Just wing it,” I get scared and don’t do anything. I fantasize about being a jazz pianist and play transcriptions of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and sometimes Thelonious Monk. I study it in a really nerdy way. There’s a difficulty level and there’s also an abstraction in the music that means there’s not really any kind of inevitable melody. So the person playing is constantly being thrown off course. When you get into a flow of that, something about the off-course nature of it makes your brain recalibrate in some way.

“I like painting portraits, and I could sit with someone’s face for a really long time.” (Image via Instagram.)

I like to paint people I know, like my friends, and sometimes I make drawings of characters that I’m working on. My husband jokes that when I’m writing something or preparing a role, I will do anything but the thing that I’m supposed to be doing, and he can trace my movements because there’s half a drawing, some paint on a canvas, I’ve played the piano, and then I’ve gone for a walk in the garden. Somewhere in the middle of that, I will then spend 20 minutes sitting down and doing the thing I’m actually meant to be doing.

Sometimes I give my paintings away as presents, but I don’t usually show them to people. Painting is just something that I really love to do. I don’t have any training. I have no perspective on what’s good or bad, but it doesn’t really bother me because I’m just doing it because I like it. I’m not perfectionistic about it. Sometimes a painting can take a very long time, and I can be unhappy with it for a long time, but I just do it to the point that it’s done.

When I was really little, I thought I was going to be an artist. Between the ages of five and seven, my parents would often be rehearsing – my mother would be in an opera rehearsal and my dad would be in a theatre rehearsal. They didn’t have child care, so I’d find myself in the back of rehearsal rooms. My happiest way of passing the time in that situation was if someone gave me a pad of paper; I would just sketch the people who were wandering around, in crude or fun ways. It started then and it just became a constant.

The act of painting is often clarifying for me. I like painting portraits, and I could sit with someone’s face for a really long time. Something about the different cycles of how you see someone can be really involving. It feels like I’m going down a very deep tunnel, where I’m just looking at one thing. After concentrating on that for a long period of time, I can emerge with complete clarity about a tough decision that I wasn’t even consciously thinking about.

If I’m in a bad mood, I’ll paint or go into the garden or play the piano, because they all have the same sense of purpose. It’s quiet, introverted time that allows me to re-emerge with greater clarity on my life.

Rebecca Hall is an acclaimed British-American actress whose career encompasses the multiplex, the art house cinema, and the world’s most respected theaters. She can currently be seen in The Night House, a psychological horror film also starring Sarah Goldberg and Evan Jonigkeit, and her debut feature as writer-director, Passing – an adaptation based on Nella Larsen’s 1920s Harlem Renaissance novel starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson – is out later this fall. Hall was recently seen in Godzilla vs. Kong, opposite Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Henry. Her other memorable films include Antonio Campos’ Christine, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, Ben Affleck’s The Town, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Stephen Frears’ Lay the Favorite, Nicole Holfcener’s Please Give and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Her TV credits include Mark Romanek’s Tales from the Loop, Susanna White’s miniseries Parade’s End , Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding: 1974 (for which she won a BAFTA TV Award for Best Supporting Actress),Stephen Poliakoff’s Joe’s Palace and Peter Hall’s The Camomile Lawn. (Photo via Todd Williamson / January Images.)