Interview | Rebecca Hall on Sympathy, Anxiety and ‘Christine’

In 1974, television reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television. It was a shocking act of violence, as actor Rebecca Hall says, “not just to herself but to everyone who saw it.” In the new film from Antonio Campos (Simon Killer), Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, and navigates the uncomfortable psychological, social and workplace issues that led this promising woman to a tragic end, and she gives one of the best performances of the year in the process.

I sat down with Rebecca Hall a few weeks ago to talk about Christine, Christine Chubbuck, and the difficult issues her new film raises, and my choice of reading, apparently. The interview begins with Rebecca Hall inquiring about the book I happened to have with me, which segued somewhat reasonably well into our conversation about her latest, incredible film (which is now playing in theaters).

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Rebecca Hall: What are you reading?

Crave: A Monster Calls.

What’s that?

J.A. Bayona, the director who did The Impossible, it’s his new movie. I’ve got him and the novelist [Patrick Ness] coming onto my podcast so I’m doing research.

Nice, nice. Looks interesting.

A lot of the best movies this year are really depressing. Because this [A Monster Calls] is all about death and Christine is…

…is about depression.

Crippling depression. Terrifying depression.

Well, I don’t know that I actually think about it as being about that, but I know what you mean. I mean it is a film about a woman who commits suicide, but I’m fairly astonished by its capacity to not revel in darkness, but actually be about someone trying to live. You know? Because there’s no reason to make this if it’s about… there are many ways to make this film. There’s definitely the sensationalistic version, the version that’s rooted in a general feeling of like “Whoa, weird, crazy, horrifying thing she did, let’s make a film about that.” But then there’s this version, which is the one that actually looks at her life and makes her a human, and I’m proud of that.

I think you should be proud of that. I loved this movie. I saw this at Sundance and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and one of the things that I admired about it is that it’s a film, obviously, about suicide. A lot of movies tackle that topic and it’s sad.


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And yet I feel this movie is uniquely sensitive to the mindset that leads her there, and I feel like we follow her story so that we understand why she thinks this is logical.


This isn’t an act of sadness, this is logic. How do you access that as an actor? It sounds horrifying.

Well, you have to not think of it as horrifying… which is horrifying to think about in advance of doing it. [Laughs.] You know, it strikes me that this is what I want to do as an artist. […] I think it’s quite easy to humanize characters who aren’t good or heroic, or even characters who are victims, who have terrible things happen to them. I feel it’s crucial to humanize the ones that we would rather turn our backs on or don’t want to deal with or don’t understand.

Those ones, what Christine did was an extraordinary act of violence, not just to herself but to everyone who saw it. And that is an incredibly hard thing to negotiate and it’s a very easy thing to condemn for, but the value of this film is, what gets someone to that point? What is it? And it’s not like the film provides a bunch of pat answers. It doesn’t. That would be reductive and silly. We don’t know the answers. We just don’t. But what it does is present us her circumstance compassionately, so that you are left with the discussion the end of it, like, “Imagine if.” Imagine that. Imagine.

You ask me how I get into it, it’s like you just bring it closer to you, and it’s not actually that hard in a weird way. Because when you think about it we all know what it’s like to be stymied over work, to have professional disappointment, to have personal disappointment. We all know what it’s like to get depressed from time to time, regardless of whether we are medicated and diagnosed with something or not. We all know what it’s like to feel unloved.

What this film does is actually confront the next chunk of that, which is, were it not for arbitrary circumstances of gender, social context, historical context, and brain chemistry – random, random things – we might all have the potential to go over the edge. I don’t mean in the way that she did but it’s closer than we want to imagine. She’s a harbinger for an awful lot of things that we have a tough time talking about. Not just mental health issues, not just suicide, but also what we expect of women in the workplace. How we expect a woman to perform their womanliness in an acceptable way. How we judge them differently to other people. She is resolutely herself and she’s in pain a lot of the time because she knows that her version of her, that she can’t not be, is off, and so she’s trying to perform other versions of herself and can’t do it and fails and is bad at acting. It’s all over the place and it’s funny and it’s charming and it’s heartbreaking.

It strikes me that one of the great tragedies is, she’s actually got people in her life that do reach out to her.

I mean this is the thing, the film doesn’t point fingers. It doesn’t say this is the reason why, or this thing happened to her in her childhood. We don’t know any of that stuff, really, and we have no right to hypothesize about it, but also more importantly, to present a society that is essentially benevolent? Yeah, they’re all dealing with their own stuff. You’ve got the head of the station who’s kind of an idiot, and yes he’s misogynistic but he’s a product of the time. And he also says, “You’re the smartest person here.” He’s doing his best by her but he’s got a mandate from someone else about he needs more juicy stories and the rest of it.

But by the same token he’s taking what she’s giving [him] but not giving her a bump up the ladder because that’s not what you do. That’s reserved for the men. It’s not for the ladies. It’s un-meritocratic in that sense but it’s not saying “You’re a bad person for being like that.” He’s doing his best to get by in that context.

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He’s actually a rather good boss in some ways, because he’s trying to get her to compromise. He understands her ideals but he needs this in order to work.

They all are quite accepting of her. They all are quite accepting of her and I find that… This is what I’m saying. There’s a weird sort of positivity in this film. I think that there is a strand of, the strongest emotion in the film is compassion, and then the second strongest emotion to me is a sense of loss and grief. Because she shouldn’t have died. She shouldn’t have got to that point, and that sense of loss pervades the film.

I suppose if you don’t see the film but you hear what it’s about, you might mistake that sense of loss for something that is despairing or nihilistic or bleak, and there isn’t actually anything despairing or nihilistic to me, or bleak, about this film. There’s a deep affection towards a bunch of people who are all dealing with their stuff, you know? And some people have the tools to deal with their stuff and then one person, that we’re asked to follow the closest, doesn’t.

I don’t know, I will say this: when I was watching it I did pick up on an element of the despair, but that made me sympathetic.

That’s what I mean.

That made me want to go, “No, don’t!”

But that’s exactly, that’s the thing! That’s the emotion. I mean “despair” in the sense of, like, “The ultimate message of the film is there’s no hope for anyone and we should all go kill ourselves.”

No, that’s definitely not it.

That’s definitely not. It doesn’t glorify what she does. It makes you feel, “Don’t do it! Please don’t do it!” That’s why it’s successful.

But what I love about it is that it is in no way condescending about it. It’s strange because in some respects the way she’s dealing with her anxieties are healthy – she’s trying to power through – and in some respects it’s not because she’s denying other people the opportunity to see her when she’s fragile. And yet there it is, this inevitability to it. We know how it ends.


What was your first experience with Christine Chubbuck? Did you hear about the story just randomly? Was it the script?

I just got sent the script.

And you never heard about it before?

I never heard of it. I had no idea.

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Was there a wealth of information you could research?

No, there isn’t a wealth of information. There’s a handful of surviving friends and co-workers and there are some family members. Craig Shilowich [the screenwriter] spoke to the friends and co-workers. The most of what you see is based on fact from that research trip that he did.

What you don’t see, what isn’t factual, is mostly – by and large – by omission. Like, there were other family members in her orbit that are not in the film. That’s purposeful because he wanted it to be a workplace drama, really. He had to have some element of [the] familial, something outside of that, which is the mother character, but there isn’t a lot of stuff out there. The filmmakers didn’t want me to speak to people who knew her and I actually understand. I completely understand why.

Why is that?

Because first and foremost this is a piece of art. My job isn’t to be an investigative journalist. It’s not my job to go and say, “This version of this story is not true and this is true,” because this is a piece of art that comes from a collaboration between things that come from life, but also a writer’s feelings and personal engagement.

The truth is, Craig Shilowich wrote this because he had a nearly ten year period of extreme depression, and it arrived out of nowhere and it left him just as quickly, and one of the things that helped him out of it was the sense of finding what he wanted to do with himself, his work. So when he found this story late one night on the internet, he didn’t come across it on “The Five Most Shocking Things Of All-Time” and just go, “Oh, that’s cool! Weird!” He had a real feeling because he looked at it and he said, “Wow, imagine if I had gone through what I had gone through but been a woman, but been a woman in the Seventies, but been a woman in the Seventies who had my work taken away from me. Would I have made it? I don’t know.”

And so he had things that he wanted to get out and then my work is to address the piece of writing and bring life to that.

So that’s what he took away from it when he first encountered the story. When you were reading the screenplay was that all evident, and when it was evident, what made you say “I have to do this” as opposed to, “This sounds like a terrible mindset to deal with and live with?” It just seems to me, on the outside, not as an actor, that this would be harrowing to try to live with these ideas and not try to shrug them off and try to cheer myself up. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does, but I saw so much. Already in the writing there was so much. There [something] was fascinating and wonderful about that, and the way Craig depicted it and the eccentricities of her, the humor of her, the oddities. And my first reaction was one of sympathy. When someone gets to that point, and doing something like that, it’s not… what good does it to do just go, “Okay, you were crazy and I am going to put you in a box and lock the key and just label it ‘Crazy,’ ‘Freak,’ ‘Evil,’ whatever you want to say?” What good does that do? I don’t know.

I’m not frightened to engage with what that feels like. You can’t be as an actor. That’s my job. And also, crucially, you can’t go into it thinking “I’m now going to go into a dark place” because that’s not what she’s thinking. It’s just her reality. She doesn’t contextualize it as “dark.” As me, as an actor, going to that place, as you say, I have to follow it logically. I have to live it and feel it. I felt the thing that was difficult to separate myself from the kind of sadness that I felt about it. That was the toughest thing.

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I ask these questions not out of complete obliviousness to your job but because I myself deal with anxiety.

Me too.

I’m on Paxil.

You and me both. I’m not on Paxil but I’ve had my moments.

It’s quite good, I recommend it. But watching this film, it struck me as a very rich understanding on the part of the actors and filmmakers, and it freaked me out a little, to be honest, that anxiety could be captured, and captured in such a way that it would seem matter of fact and logical, because I’m used to seeing it either brushed aside or treated as a trite melodrama.

Right. Hyperbolized, yeah.

Was there just an inherent trust Antonio Campos, or did you have conversations about the best way to do this?

Oh no, we had conversation till the end of the day.

What were your biggest concerns, with him? What were the sort of things you talked about that you needed to bring to the film?

Most of my biggest concerns were obliterated in the first meeting, because I did wonder, like, why is he making this? So I did wonder, honestly, I’ve got to say it, why is a guy making this? Because there is a lot about it… don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s an exclusively female story at all, I think it’s an every person story with a woman at the center of it, but that is super rare. There are a lot of big tragedies in our big literary and filmmaking culture. There are big tragedies about universal situations and it’s always a man, and it’s very rare that it’s a woman.

And here the fact that it’s a woman is very implicit.


This would be a very different story in every way.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. But it still has that universal quality. But absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more. So I was curious. And you know, he makes a lot of dark films. I think it’s easy to come to the conclusion that he might be a sort of brittle hipster, interested in dark things for no reason. You know what I mean? So I was like, what is this? And the moment I met him I couldn’t get over how fragile he is. [Laughs.] He’s incredibly sensitive.

He’s attracted to dark subject matters because he’s trying to negotiate how to live in a world where he feels all these things about these things, and he wants to engage with it because it affects him, and he’s emotional. He’s not a sort of cerebral filmmaker, even though his films can be quite cerebral. He’s not very good at analyzing it but he feels and he translates that feeling into a visual aesthetic which captures it very viscerally.

So my fears were sort of… I knew the script had it already. I knew the script because Craig had that experience with it, it came from a place of heart so there was a through line through it that was packed with compassion towards this person, so I wasn’t worried about how the film was going to treat this character. But I wanted to know why he was making it and how he wanted to make it.

Top Photo: Maarten de Boer / Getty Images Portrait

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.