Live From Cannes: Rebecca Hall Talks Steven Spielberg and "The BFG"
"It’s like the Hollywood joke to say, 'hold on a minute, Steven Spielberg is on the phone,'" says the actress ahead of The BFG premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
When 34-year-old Rebecca Hall first came to the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (in which she played Vicky), she didn’t even bring a dress to walk the carpet. “It was the first red carpet I had ever done, and when I got to Cannes and was like ‘wow, this is a huge thing…’ but I learned from my mistake!” quips Hall, whose saving grace was Alberta Ferretti, who came to the rescue at the last minute. With that behind her, the BAFTA-winning actress returns to the Grand Palais tonight, fully equipped in Dior Couture to walk the red carpet for her film The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s remake of Roald Dahl’s 1982 childhood classic. Shot in Vancouver, the film follows an orphan named Sophie who teams up with the Big Friendly Giant to defend the world against evil people-eating giants. Hall plays Mary, the Queen of England’s maid, who comes to Sophie’s rescue. Here, Hall talks everything from magical moments with Spielberg, to bonding with her eleven-year-old co-star.
The film is part animated, and part real life. How long did you spend talking to a green screen?
None actually! Towards the end of the film the green screen stops and it takes place at Buckingham Palace with the Queen of England and real people… and I’m one of the real people. I had to look at Mark Rylance, who plays the BFG, on a platform in a monster suit. For Mark it must have been incredibly alien. He was way up there isolated on this platform. In the digital version he looks like a giant.
And had you read The BFG before you were cast for the role?
Yes, I loved it. I read it when I was 5, when I had just graduated to reading by myself in my head. I remember it was a big moment for me.
Well nearly thirty years later you’re part of its legacy! Talk about the character you play.
The character I play is Mary, a quite rotund, fleshy maid with a feather duster. It’s really cartoonish. When I first read the script, I was like, “they want me for that role?” But they changed it a bit to make her the Queen’s right hand woman, who runs her life, which is fun and quite a nice plot twist.
Did you relate to rotund Mary at all on a personal level?
Not remotely! I brought my own idea of how I see the world, my warmth is maybe similar to hers, but beyond that no. She’s frightfully British and put together – she wears tweed. The whole nine yards. I have this crazy 80s, early-90s posh British hair. My character is an orphan, and at the end of the film there’s this sense that she will be okay and that she has a family now. My character is meant to be this child-like symbol of the perfect mom. At the end you see the orphan might have a future.
I would ask if it was crazy to work with Spielberg, but your first movie was with Woody Allen so…
But Spielberg is the one! He’s reached this mythical Hollywood status… It’s like the Hollywood joke to say, “hold on a minute, Steven Spielberg is on the phone.” So for sure it’s a thing…
Did you have any mythical Spielberg moments on set?
Yes, and it was the best thing that happened to me on set. There is a scene in Buckingham Palace where all these waiters arrive in the dining room with plates piled with toast. The Buckingham Palace dining room is a set they constructed that’s about the size of a football pitch. So I’m standing at one end of the room, and we’re waiting for the crew to set up the shot. One of the waiters walks by and Steven picks up a piece of toast, and asks “is this real or fake?” And for some reason, he Frisbees it across the room, and somehow, I put my hand up and caught the toast. It was one of my finest moments!
How athletically inclined you are!
No, I’m not a sporting person at all, that’s what was so incredible! For some reason I just caught it. The entire crew broke into spontaneous applause, there’s even a video of it.
Toast hurling aside, what was it like to work with Spielberg?
Everything you’d expect it to be. It was cool getting to see him in action on a kids’ movie. He’s so good at getting the performance out of kids. He goes into the world with this childlike sensibility and naiveté that’s incredibly intoxicating and so lovely to be around and there’s this sense of wonder and magic in what he does. So to do this on a kids film, he was able to express all of that, it was wonderful to watch.
And did you bond with the eleven-year-old lead, Ruby Barnhill?
Yes! She would make me howl with laughter all day long. I wore a purple dress one day, she came into work and said “I’m going to call you purple swan.” Then she would go on and make up a rap about it. She was great.
I know it was shot in-studio, but did you have any interactions with Vancouver or impressions of it that informed your performance?
I was so tired, I was coming right from this film that’s out in the fall called Christine, which was incredibly hard work for me. I’m excessively proud of it, but I finished it right before I came to Vancouver for The BFG. I was so exhausted and emotionally drained. So The BFG was a nice antidote. I forced myself to snap out of it, I had been that person for two months prior, so it was confusing to be like wait a minute, I’m not in the 1970s playing someone with mental disturbances. It was all very odd. This role was a nice light relief.