Rebecca Hall, the British actress born in London who is really half American (her mother comes from Michigan), might not have been born to play Florida TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck, but you would never know it after seeing Antonio Campos’s Christine. Hall inhabits the role and considers it her best work, in a career that has included such varied pieces as Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Frost/Nixon and The Gift. She knew, though, that this story, of a young woman who committed suicide live on air during a broadcast from her Sarasota news station in 1974, would not only be an acting challenge, but the kind of role she hadn’t been asked to play before.
I didn’t know anything about this story, but after I saw it I had to run to Google and find out everything I could about Christine.
I didn’t know anything about it either until I got the script. It came with one of those agent cover letters when they do a five-line synopsis of the story. You can imagine what a five-line synopsis of this story is; it’s a little bit on the reductive side. I was sort of enraged by it, on some level, because I hadn’t read the script at this point. I was like, why make this? What’s the point? There are many different versions of this film that could be made and there’s definitely the exploitative version.
I suppose the thing that really struck me was that similarly, in a bit of casual Googling, I realized that if the film doesn’t get made, then she exists forever in a vacuum of that act. Of course, it’s the thing that made her famous, but the significance of her and that time feels like a harbinger for so many things that we want to talk about right now, honestly. How we view women in positions of authority and what we expect of women in pain versus men.
What were you ultimately trying to achieve in playing Christine?
For me, it just felt so significant to humanize this person, because on a really sort of straightforward level, I think it’s easy to humanize characters in art that are heroic or kind, or even the ones who have terrible things happen to them, but are good victims. I think it’s crucial to try and humanize the ones that we’d all rather look away from, or that frighten us, or the ones you don’t understand.
You come to really empathize with this person.
That was the thing when I read the script. I was so struck by the very strong vein of compassion that runs through the telling of the story. In our culture, we have a lot of big tragedies. Every tragedy is with a man at the center. I can’t think of many universal stories—big tragedies—with a woman at the center. It’s incredibly female, so why is it two men making it? Part of me was a little bit like, how did you come to this? Then I met Antonio and Craig Shilowich, who wrote it; the truth is, Antonio is an incredibly emotional person. He gravitates toward dark material because he feels the world very clearly, and he has to find a way to deal with that.
How much of it is based on actual fact?
Obviously the conversations and everything. The facts are that she did have a breakdown in Boston. She did, for a time, live with family members; her mother. She was working there. A lot of the characters are composites of people, but everything you see is essentially real. Mostly what isn’t factual is by process of omission.
These events were about two years before the movie Network, which featured an on-air death.
Yeah. Recently there are rumors out there that Paddy Chayefsky was inspired by the Christine Chubbuck story, and then the suicide plot happened in Network. And there was a book that says that’s absolutely not true because he wrote it before Christine Chubbuck. Still, the truth is he wrote a draft of it without the suicide and then the draft after.
How did you approach actually capturing the essence of Christine?
Well, I have a fond belief that really the good acting is invisible. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and you don’t see the seams and mechanisms. I think when you have to play a character that’s quite big in many ways, you don’t stand a chance of doing that unless you really put in the time beforehand and internalize it. I mean, you have to have such an intimate relationship with that character and it has to be yours; you have to live with it.
Did you always want to be in this profession?
I have always wanted to be an actor because I believe in the human experiment. I am fascinated by what makes people people, and I’m fascinated in humanizing the people that we have a hard time wrestling with. I don’t think that’s the full picture ever. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that with acting, and it’s really rare that you get the chance to as a woman.
Is there a certain responsibility in playing a real life person?
There is, but I feel a greater responsibility when I’ve played real people that have been alive and I’ve been able to talk to them. I always end up getting into this conflict of, am I beholden to their version of it, or the story that they want to tell? On this, all the things I would like to find out about Christine Chubbuck probably went to the grave with her. So much of it has to be instinctive guesswork.