Movies

Rebecca Hall On Why A Suicide Scene In ‘Christine’ Is The Hardest Thing She’s Ever Done

Rebecca Hall
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In July of 1974, Christine Chubbuck delivered a newscast in Sarasota, Florida and shot herself in the head on air during a live broadcast. If something like this happened today, it would be impossible to avoid the footage. Yet, somehow, for an event that happened in relative recent history, no footage exists and this story achieved a kind of like urban legend status – sometimes it was told in the same breath as the murderer hiding in the back seat.

Rebecca Hall has had a slew of great roles, but we haven’t really seen a true Rebecca Hall movie yet. But with Christine — which premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival – she gets that meaty leading role. Hall plays Christine Chubbuck as a determined, motivated woman who obviously had some demons. It’s a tough balancing act, because with this film, no one wants to use her death to sensationalize a movie, yet Christine herself seemed to want all of this sensationalized.

When you meet Rebecca Hall – as I did just off of Park City, Utah’s Main Street – she is much taller than you’d expect. Ahead, she discusses, as she says, the hardest role of her life. And she reflects a bit on her professional path, revealing the film that boosted her career above all others. She also reveals that her character in Iron Man 3, Maya Hansen, was supposed to have a very different fate than what we saw on screen.

I remember my parents telling me about this when I was seven or eight.

Really?

Because there was no Internet, I didn’t really know if it was true. It was almost an urban legend. Were you aware of this story before this project?

That’s really funny. You’re the first person I’ve come across who has said that. Even Craig didn’t know about it until he stumbled across it.

I didn’t think this was actually real until I was a teenager.

I’d never heard of it.

What was your reaction when you heard it? Were you like, “How have I not heard about this?”

A little bit, yeah.

Because you’d think this would be something people would talk about more.

And it’s not like it hasn’t had subsequent opportunities for the sort of publicity that it has now in the sense that Paddy Chayefsky was inspired by it [for Network, but that claim is disputed]. But even when that came out, you’d think that more people would talk about the fact that that was an inspiration and they don’t, really. Not that that matters. But yeah, it’s strange.

It’s really hard to find information on her.

Yes.

It’s long enough now where there’s not a lot of people who even knew her that well. How do you possibly do research on this person?

Craig [Shilowich, the screenwriter] did. Craig did enough to then turn it into art. But if it’s drama, how could you possibly document someone’s life exactly? You’d have to do it over years and that wouldn’t make any sense. And from there, I feel there is a certain amount of creative license, for want of a better phrase, that has to happen, so that message would have the most impact over that story.

Did you personally ever meet anyone who actually knew her?

No, I didn’t. There really aren’t that many people. Craig met a handful of them and he told me about what they said.

What did they say?

There were a couple of things that stood out in my memory. Most of them were things that alluded to the fact that they were incredibly in awe of her. That even though she was an incredibly difficult person and she was frightening and confusing, everyone sort of loved her on some strange level.

It comes across in the movie that her coworkers like her.

The thing I think about this film is there is no merit in making a film about someone who may or may not have done a politicized, horrific end and trying to make it some macabre act of heroism, because it’s not. It’s a tragedy. She should have lived, and you can’t glorify that.

But we are left with the impression she probably wanted it glorified.

Yeah. But I think her wishes were complicated, because I think she was suffering from mental illness.

And she requested her segment be recorded that day.

It’s tragic, but it’s laden with irony and ramifications. And, certainly, the version of Christine that we have made, the character is saying, “Okay, you want me to do it on your terms by your rules, society? You want blood and guts? Well then, here it is — but sorry, that involves me dying. I don’t get to live in this environment.” And that’s essentially what I think we’re all trying to do with the film: show someone that doesn’t have the tools to survive the difficulties of society.

Most people believe the tape of this incident doesn’t exist anymore.

No, that doesn’t exist.

Did you see any actual tape of her?

There is, there’s precisely 20 minutes of footage of her.

That’s it?

That’s it. There’s precisely 20 minutes of her doing Suncoast Digest with the show. It’s an incredibly dull segment about a zoning petition at a hotel.

When Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln, there’s a lot to choose from there. But here you’re playing this real person and there’s very little available about her.

Well, the reason that I love doing what I do is because I think it’s fundamentally creative. Even the ones that don’t look like it’s a big ol’ characterization, it’s still ultimately me because I’m making my own choices. And so, I’m obviously going to learn something about myself. But it’s the ones that I don’t really know how I’m going to do it and I don’t understand them, those are the ones that I love. And it’s always like that. I mean, they’re always characters and I’m always trying to create something.

Right, but there has to be more weight, right? People can’t wait for The BFG, but this must be much different.

Of course. There are varying levels of intensity about this, but I think that’s fundamentally what I like to do, imagine something other and understand that.

In the filming order, when was the suicide scene shot?

Right at the end. My last day.

That looked difficult, mentally.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been asked to do.

That makes sense. It would be weird if you’re like, “Except one scene in Iron Man 3. Other than that…”

[Laughs.] You know, the reason I did this was to make people empathize with someone who is impossible to empathize with. Because it’s an unthinkable act, some would even say an unforgivable act. It’s horrible. But I want to understand that so that we can have compassion, because I think teaching people to have more compassion makes people generally a bit better and healthier. And mental health issues are still not dealt with properly on so many levels.

The scene is done in such a low-key way, which makes it more horrifying, that it looks so real and normal.

Exactly. But it’s real. And the only way you can really make other people empathize with her is if I feel it. So, I had to feel it.

Even as an actor, holding a gun to your head is still an unusual thing, I’m guessing.

Well, your body, when you’re acting anything, your brain knows that you’re doing something, but your body doesn’t. When you’re holding a gun up to your head, your body thinks you’re holding a gun up to your head. Your adrenaline function thinks that you’re holding a gun up to your head. When you have fake blood pouring out of your head, your body thinks that.

Was that all practical effects?

It was all practical and I couldn’t stop shaking for like 24 hours after. It was very, very disturbing. Nothing compared to what some people go through in real life…

Still, Ron in accounting doesn’t have to do a scene like that. I believe you when you say it was difficult.

But I felt supported and it was a special day. It was incredibly difficult because of obvious reasons, but when you watch the film, you see a community trying to help someone. And I think weirdly, the cast and the crew all sort of made themselves vulnerable to her, if you see what I mean. Like they all simply fell in love with her on some level. I couldn’t really go in and out with the actions and the voice, because it’s such a different placement in the vocal register that I still had to be her all day no matter what. So, they spent a lot of time with her.

What film was the game changer for your career? When everyone started paying more attention? I feel there are three or four that could be the one. Even The Town got you a lot of attention.

Well? I don’t know that it’s available to me. I think it’s available for everyone else. I just keep trying to do it. Okay, probably Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Because it was the first one that someone gave me a really substantial, fun character.

See, you had an answer. You do know what it was.

Yeah. I mean, it was a substantial character and that’s what I wanted to do. So, I was like, “Oh, okay, I get to do this.” And it’s funny, because I think I always do that. I think people just believe I’m the same. [Laughing.] You know, it’s like, I can do different things. But I love what I do. I just want people to let me keep doing it.

Now you’re in a Spielberg movie next. I think people are going to let you keep doing it.

Yes. Well, you know, but with a good role. This, I think I’ve been in a lot of great films and I’m proud of so many of them. But I actually think this is the first that I can look at and say what we as filmmakers set out to do is up there. Often, you look at films and it’s great in different ways that you didn’t anticipate. Or it’s different or it’s something else.

So, you had your idea of what The Town would be like and you see it at the premiere, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s still great, but not exactly what I thought it’d be.”

Yeah. Or it’s like, “I set out to do something and I did it.” And I think with The Town, it’s very different because, I don’t know, it is what it is. But with this, I set out to do something really kind of frightening — and it was. I don’t mean it worked for everyone. It worked for me.

What’s your opinion of your death scene in Iron Man 3? It’s kind of odd because it’s so quick. I always thought you were coming back in that movie.

[Laughing.] You know, it changed a bit in the making of it.

That doesn’t surprise me. What happened?

[Laughs.] Oh, you know. Things happen. Put it this way: The thing that I thought it was going to be, it didn’t end up being.

What was it going to be?

I’m probably not at liberty to say. I’ll probably get in trouble.

Was she still going to die?

Yeah, she was always going to die. It was just different. I think it worked.

Well, now I’m curious.

[Laughs.] Well, I don’t want to tell you because it’ll ruin it for too many people who love it as it is.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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