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Rebecca Hall stars in Christine, the true story of news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself in the head live on-air to protest the sensationalization of news. (Christopher Wahl for The Globe and Mail)
Rebecca Hall stars in Christine, the true story of news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself in the head live on-air to protest the sensationalization of news. (Christopher Wahl for The Globe and Mail)

Finding the humanity in real-life horror in news drama Christine Add to ...

Before Rebecca Hall even opened her script for the new drama Christine, its synopsis freaked her out. It’s the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Fla., newscaster who, to protest the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that was taking over news coverage, went live on the air on July 15, 1974, and shot herself in the head.

“I didn’t want to go near that,” Hall said in an interview last month during the Toronto International Film Festival. “Is it exploitative horror? What’s the point?”

Almost immediately, though, Hall realized her reaction was wrong. “I was doing that thing of assuming that if Chubbuck did this scary thing, she therefore must be untouchable and a monster,” Hall says. “I realized I had to do the movie. I feel it’s my job in the world as an actor to slightly reduce the amount of times that people assume other people are monsters. We should all be trying to understand each other, and be more tolerant.” (Christine opens in select cities Friday.)

Perhaps it’s her inner directive to play prickly women that has kept Hall, 34, from easy success. She played Vicky, the daunting one, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; David Frost’s aloof girlfriend in Frost/Nixon; and Sylvia, a self-centered socialite, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the British miniseries Parade’s End. Ben Affleck chose her as his unexpected love interest in The Town; Joel Edgerton tormented her in The Gift; Louis C.K. hired her for his angst-filled series Horace and Pete.

Nearly six feet tall, with a dark, regal beauty, the London-born, Cambridge-educated Hall looks elegant and long-limbed in a white top and wide-legged cropped black pants. Intimidatingly intelligent and well-spoken, she comes from acting royalty: Her mother, Maria Ewing, is an American opera singer. Her father, Sir Peter Hall, founded the Royal Shakespeare Company (she headlined his acclaimed productions of As You Like It and Twelfth Night). With director Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project, Hall toured The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard across Europe, Asia and the United States.

Craig Shilowich, Christine’s writer/producer, and Antonio Campos, its director, became convinced Hall was their star after watching her Broadway debut in 2013 in the expressionist play Machinal. It was another gruelling role: Hall played a pained wife who killed her husband – the first woman in the United States to be executed by electric chair. (Since 2015, she’s been married to her Machinal co-star, Morgan Spector.)

“Rebecca can transform into another person – her face, her body, her whole being,” Campos says in a separate interview. “She exposes herself, this beautiful vulnerability. A performance becomes a possession. That was the level of commitment that Christine needed.”

“It’s scary how good she is,” Shilowich agrees.

Thankfully, Christine avoids mawkish Hollywood explanations for why its heroine is what she is. Clearly, she suffers from depression and anxiety. (Shilowich did, too; that’s what first drew him to the story.) But she’s also a misfit, an eccentric. Her daily struggle to feel accepted and perform what she feels is normal give the film a poignancy to which anyone can relate.

“I’m not going to lie, Christine was a difficult person to be for a while,” Hall says. “It hurt to play her – I mean, physically hurt.” She wore a 4.5-kilo wig on her head, and held her body in a taut, slumped posture, which gave her a tension headache “by four o’clock on the dot every day.” Though the footage of Chubbuck’s suicide mercifully has been destroyed, there still exists 20 minutes of her hosting her talk show, which Hall watched repeatedly.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night with her voice rattling around in my head,” Hall says. “I had swallowed her that much – my inside voice stopped sounding like me and starting sounding like Christine, and I would have conversations with her. Which was definitely a little crazy.” She laughs.

Hall doesn’t consider herself a Method actor. She’s not one for telling grand stories about how she stayed in character for three weeks straight. “But the truth is, a role like this can’t not be painful,” she says. “Really good acting is invisible. To stand a chance of doing that, you have to internalize it. It’s both head and gut. They have to operate at the same time.”

Christine’s mental breakdown dovetailed with America’s psychic one: Paranoia was rampant in 1974, thanks to Vietnam and Watergate; journalism was moving out of its golden age, into the sensationalism that persists to this day. “Click-bait is the just an extension of ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’” Hall says. “And the notion that fear can be used to control and manipulate people? That’s still being used, everywhere you look.”

The contradictions within Chubbuck make her a perfect vehicle to explore this story, Campos agrees. “The news is obsessed with violent urges,” he says. “Christine is against that, but she also has this violent urge against herself. The thing she protests against is the very thing she does in the end.”

“Christine left the world with a lot of questions,” Hall sums up. “It’s art’s responsibility to grapple with them, to get at a larger truth. We’ve all had days where we feel isolated, or that we’re not doing a very good job of being us. In our darker moments, we believe that no one will ever accept us.” As Hall came to realize, that doesn’t make us a monster. It makes us human.

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