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The real rebecca

I guess I think,” says Rebecca Hall, with the tentativeness of someone trying out a new thought for size, “I might be ever so slightly established now. Which is nice, having been on the ‘up and coming’ list for about 10 years.”

She chuckles 末 a throaty huh-hur that would be deep even if she weren’t recovering from a cold, picked up from her flight to New York. She is in town to do publicity for her new film, Iron Man 3.

Now 30, with more than half-a-dozen films under her belt, Rebecca has turned out to be one of the few British actresses capable not just of cutting a dash through English costume dramas (as you might expect of the daughter of Sir Peter Hall) but also of holding her own in big boys’-club films such as The Town (2010), opposite Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner, and now Iron Man 3, in which she plays a botanist (Maya Hansen) very much cut from the same cloth as Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark: quirky, sexy, polished, coarse.

“She flips all the cards,” says the film’s director, Shane Black. “Rebecca is a real woman. She speaks her mind. She’s not the shy retiring type. Nor is she the wispy maiden behind the veil suffering on the moors. There is a certain brashness about her, which suggests a collegiate quality, a kind of brattiness which says that within the woman is very much alive this defiant little girl.”

She’s a quick, clever conversationalist, who likes banter, badinage and verbal badminton. With her dark brown eyes, sensuous mouth and Modigliani looks, Rebecca conjures an ethereality on which she never quite delivers; instead her energy is raffish, tomboyish, conspiratorial.

She speaks about how they offered her the part in Iron Man 3, and how at first she couldn’t do it because of scheduling. Some other actresses came into the frame, including Jessica Chastain. The back-and-forth went on for some time.

“I basically kept myself busy with other stuff, then I got a call saying, ‘It’s yours.’”

The lesson being?

She thinks for a bit. “If you light a cigarette the bus will come,” she says and laughs. “I am aware that this sounds frightfully grand. But I’ve never really structured my career around stepping stones in order to get some elusive big-picture deal. That’s not even been my goal.

“It’s a pretty scary moment to walk into that set and go, ‘Hello, I’m the new kid on the block, please be nice to me.’ These are huge movie stars. It’s a whole different world, a completely new world for me.”

Have many people in Hollywood heard of her father? “Practically none. It’s very liberating.”

When she’s in England, she says, “I don’t think I can boast about him. ‘Hey, my dad is a British institution, he’s done all these incredible things and I’m really proud of him.’ There is a certain baggage that comes with that in England.”

She fears she’d be accused of riding on his coat-tails. But in America, “it is not that way because they know me before they know who my father is”.

It’s hard not to view Rebecca’s Bafta-nominated performance as Sylvia, the boo-hiss socialite of Parade’s End (TV series based on Ford Madox Ford’s novels) 末 to whom she brought a tangy insolence — as something of a retort to the tabloids who have been vilifying her for the past year or so.

After Sam Mendes split from Kate Winslet it was widely reported that the director’s relationship with Rebecca, whom he cast in two of his plays (The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard; both 2009), was the reason for the split, even though the two maintain they were just friends at the time.

To be caricatured wrongly as a marriage-wrecker and then to take on a role as the woman Graham Greene once called “the most unsympathetic character in English literature” seem connected somehow 末 the acting equivalent of sucking out the poison of the snake that bit you, and spitting it right back.

“She’s incredibly unapologetic, I’m glad you picked up on that,” Rebecca says of Sylvia. (She declines to talk of Mendes save to confirm that they are in a relationship.) “That was definitely one of the things I thought about. She’s calculating but impulsive and does not apologise for herself. It was glorious to play someone like that, who just holds the space.”

Introverted with strongly extroverted tendencies

Weren’t you tempted to keep just a shade of Sylvia’s insouciance? “Oh God, if I had two per cent of her couldn’t-give-a-s*** [attitude] life would be so much easier,” she says, and laughs. Rebecca says she is an introvert. “Did you read that book Quiet? [the New York Times bestseller by Susan Cain subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.] I’m giving away too much.”

She grows a little bashful, for the first time in our interview. “I know I’m introverted, for sure, but with strongly extroverted tendencies.”

I don’t doubt her. Plenty of actors are introverts 末 it’s why they are drawn to acting, where they get to regulate and control the contact they have with the world. “I was quite quiet as a kid. I sat around watching people,” she says.

“I still am really.” Rebecca can’t remember much of her early childhood, but a lot of it has passed into family folklore: how Peggy Ashcroft (the actress) once read her a bedtime story, and the time Maurice Sendak (illustrator and writer) drew her a Wild Thing (beasts in the children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are, 1963).

The boldness that others report 末 that fierce streak of independence 末 she developed early, partly in response to her parents’ divorce when she was six. Although she saw plenty of her mother (Maria Ewing) and her father, “both were incredibly busy, which meant that I spent a lot of my time in rehearsal rooms with one or the other”.

She read English literature at Cambridge, but then, after two years, and within sight of a first, left in order to pursue acting. Except it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Her real reasons for leaving are fascinating. “I had reached a fork in the road where I thought everything I had wanted to do at university had been done — make great friends and do a lot of theatre and work out what kind of grown-up I wanted to be 末 and I’d got to that point.

“Basically I thought, if I can make a choice like this which bucks the trend, and is different and now, I know that I’ll be able to do it for the rest of my life. I’ll feel proud of myself for taking a different road.”

Her acting comes from a similar place 末 part defiance, part pluck, dosed with large amounts of perspective.

“It’s not about arrogance. It’s about inner self-belief and getting on with it. If I sat around thinking about acting all day I’d lose my mind. [Acting] is a convenient way to live and be curious about people and that’s why I do it.”

She says this with the emphasis of someone settling an internal argument that has been going on for some time.

Meet Rebecca

She is the daughter of English theatre director Peter Hall (who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company) and American opera singer Maria Ewing.

Rebecca Hall’s favourite film is Woody Allen’s Manhattan. (Hall starred in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Her agent reportedly paid for the fares for her flight to New York to audition for The Town because she did not have enough money!

She has known playwright Tom Stoppard since the age of 14 as the thrower of great garden parties she used to attend with her father.

Two of her step siblings are popular in the theatrical world 末 step-brother Edward Hall is directing plays and her step-sister Lucy is a set designer.

Tom Shone
(The Daily Telegraph) Did you like Rebecca Hall better than Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man 3? Tell t2@abp.in