Unlikable and Unforgettable: Rebecca Hall on The Complexity of Christine

A conversation about what could be a career-defining performance.

I think increasingly women are allowed to be heroic and that’s way too late. They should have been doing that for a long time. ‐ Rebecca Hall

Christine recounts the real-life story of Christine Chubbuck (played by Rebecca Hall), a Sarasota Florida news reporter who took her own life during a live broadcast. The film takes place in 1974, a time when news outlets began moving away from hard-hitting news and shifting towards ratings grabbing sensationalism. Director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich hold Chubbuck’s tragic life up against the backdrop of “if it bleeds it leads journalism,” to construct a story that foreshadows our current media climate.

The film’s ensemble cast features strong turns from Michael C. Hall, J. Smith-Cameron, and Tracy Letts, but Hall still manages to stand head and shoulders above everyone else. As Christine Chubbuck, Hall is a heartbreaking train wreck. Even though a disaster is preordained, Chubbuck’s plight still managed to entangle itself in my heartstrings. Since the film’s premiere at Sundance, Hall’s performance has been generating buzz. It’s a safe bet that Hall’s work in Christine will garner her awards season consideration later on this year.

We were able to catch up with Hall while she was at the Toronto Film Festival for the premiere Christine. As we sat down for the interview, Hall mentioned loving the film Moonlight and declared the film’s director, Barry Jenkins, a special filmmaker. Based on that statement, I knew FSR readers were in store for an insightful discussion. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed what constitutes good acting, 70’s era American cinema, and allowing female characters to be as unlikable as their male counterparts.

Hall said that it took her a minute to come to terms with the idea of doing the film because the script initially frightened her. “You can imagine what the synopsis was,” she told me. “It was like, this is the synopsis of the woman that did this thing, which is how we all hear about it. I think it’s actually you fall into two camps: Those who are curious and have a sort of sympathetic response and then there are those who are like, oh god, what a horror story, what a shocking horrible thing to do, what a monster.”

“I felt deeply uncomfortable because I thought, how can you do this? Why would you do this? Is it going to set out to try and shroud what happens and then make it a shocking horror thing? How are you going to do this? I definitely fell into the first camp and I had an instinctive understanding that how she was seen on the internet was always [in] the ten most shocking things that have ever happened on television kind of monster language. I thought there’s potentially something in this if it affords the opportunity to humanize this person and then I read it and I understood that it was a very compassionate film.”

When asked about her mindset while inhabiting the role, Hall told me, “I think that really good acting is invisible, it doesn’t draw attention to itself. You don’t question it and you believe it and I think to do that with a big character you have to internalize it, you have to essentially swallow it and have a very intimate relationship with who that person is.”

To prepare for her role, Hall watched limited footage of Chubbuck on her show, Suncoast Digest. “The only way I can describe it that I think makes sense to people is when I say it’s a bit like first impressions,” Hall said. “When you meet someone you have an instinctive response about someone. If we allow ourselves to actually think about it, we can intuit an awful lot about someone from just the very first time you meet them. But then, we have a lot more information that comes at us which informs, revises. Often that first one is on some sort of root level quite correct. It’s in your gut. So the process of approaching her was really watching that footage and allowing my intuitive gut response to percolate in my system. I looked at her and I thought, this is someone who is profoundly uncomfortable in her own skin and she’s constantly performing. She’s doing this act of what she perceives to be normal and like everyone else so she fits in. So that lead to me thinking how do I make myself feel uncomfortable in my own body, how do I hold myself so that I have that tension, that pain, and I’m carrying around that discomfort? I was fascinated by this idea that she’s constantly performing in a way that politicians make this gesture, you know they’re sort of I am a held [together] person.”

I think the film is humanistic and actually strangely optimistic.

As a television journalist, Chubbuck broadcasted her personal story to thousands of observers. Her on-air position served as a precursor to how we use social media today. I asked Hall how she feels Christine’s story relates to society in 2016. “I think enormously,” she told me. “I think the film is humanistic and actually strangely optimistic. I’m going to explain myself, this is kind of a slightly complicated idea but I really do believe this. This thing that I’m talking about, her constantly performing what she feels to be normal ‐ and sometimes she’s really good at it like in her work. Sometimes she’s really bad at it when she loses it and everything falls apart. And then sometimes it can be quite funny when she’s bad at performing what it is to be normal. Regardless, the community around her has no idea what’s going on with her. The audience has no idea what’s going on with her, there’s no explanation for it. They still accept her and they still love her and they still respect her. And the real tragedy of the film is that she doesn’t see that.”

Hall elaborated further, “So what I mean is I think it’s optimistic about people, that we’re actually much more accepting and tolerant than sometimes we even ourselves think about those around us. Or at least I hope that we are. I think in a way what you watch in the film is a community that wants to help her but can’t because she’s not capable of accepting that help and that’s a tragedy.”

Sundance 2016: Christine Offers a Compelling Look at a Real Life Tragedy

Yes, it’s dealing with mental health issues. Yes, it’s dealing with….all those issues are still relevant today like spotting, diagnosing. And on a lesser scale, I think there are a lot of films that portray being a misfit or being different or quirky as kind of cool and kind of fun and kind of aspirational in a strange way ‐ and it’s a lady as well which is even rarer ‐ that portrays how really, really hard it is to feel that you are weird and [how] painful it is, and the struggle of it. It’s asking the audience, it’s inviting them to go imagine what it’s like to feel this. And yes she does this shocking thing at the end and yes you can also put it into a political-social context because it’s America and the golden age of journalism, it’s Watergate. She’s operating in a system that is not rewarding her, partially because she’s a woman and she won’t play being a woman like everyone else plays being a woman. So she doesn’t get rewarded for being a good journalist, there’s the feminist critique there which is still relevant. It’s also the beginning of if it bleeds it leads, this idea of sensationalizing the news. That hasn’t gone away. We’re still operating in a time where fear is used to manipulate and influence people. It’s only getting worse. Does it have any relevance today? Lots!”

Hall said that Christine’s screenwriter, Craig Shilowich, “Came to the story because he has a personal relationship with mental health issues and he wanted to tell a story that was personal to him.” Hall also stated that Shilowich wanted to humanize Chubbuck. “He didn’t consult with the family, deliberately, cause he made a decision to make a piece of art. Also, the issues of sources in this kind of case is very complicated. For them it’s a personal trauma, you wouldn’t ask them to relive it in any way shape or form, however, for the world, it’s a public tragedy because she forced the event onto the public consciousness. So we’re left with a lot of questions and it’s art’s responsibility, frankly, to grapple with that.” Hall also added, “In terms of documentary realism, I’m not trying to find out the facts of a real person and portray them, I’m trying to serve this script. So I didn’t speak to people that knew her, I decided to go a different route and that was what the filmmakers wanted me to do as well.”

I asked Hall if taking on the role had changed her in any way. She paused a moment before answering, “It’s the sort of role that I’ve always wanted to play. I suppose it’s given me a kind of courage. I think it’s sadly really hard for ladies in film to be unlikable. I don’t mean lovable, that’s different because I think Christine is unlikable but she’s inherently lovable and I think that’s hard. I think increasingly women are allowed to be heroic and that’s way too late. They should have been doing that for a long time. The next step is for them to be allowed to be anti-heroic. I’m talking about the type of roles that Robert De Niro did profusely in the 70’s. I mean that’s what he built his career on, playing these big frightening characters that do scary things and somehow you still love them. There’s work there as an actor, to take something that is frightening and you’re like, ‘I don’t get that person. I don’t like them,’ and make them human. That’s tolerance, understanding, that’s compassion. That’s empathy and that’s what this film is really.”

I also asked Hall what it was like working with the film’s director, Antonio Campos. Hall’s face lit up with a big smile as she answered, “Really great. I think he is a master. I think he’s a master of the form visually. There’s stuff that harks back to…this is a film geek-out which is good for you probably (laughs)…. There’s that period of American cinema in the 70’s that I love where it’s quite oblique filmmaking a lot of the time, it’s quite distant. That sort of storytelling is not so prevalent now. I think we need to explain everything all the time. It’s rare that you get to make a kind of a piece that evokes moods and feelings and I think Antonio is possibly the most intuitive director I’ve ever worked with. He’s not necessarily good at explaining what has to happen because he’s feeling it and that’s how he makes it happen. He translates the gut onto the screen visually.”

“Visceral,” I chime in.

“He’s a totally visceral filmmaker,” Hall responds. “That’s the word I’m looking for.”

Finally, I asked Hall if she had to decompress after spending her days working with such heavy subject matter. “I think it’s unhealthy to take a character home with you so I really try hard to let go of it when the day is done,” she said. “It was a very small budget so we shot this in like 22 days, maybe 23 days which for a period movie is tough! So I think I went home and I didn’t have to worry so much about letting go of the character because I just had to get to bed.”

Christine opens in U.S. and Canadian theaters on Friday, October 14.