Set against a backdrop of impending catastrophe in the early 20th century, the five-part mini-series Parade’s End (airing on HBO from February 26th through 28th) tells the story of English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is trapped in a marriage to an unfaithful wife while being torn over his unspoken love for a fearless, young suffragette. Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) is a callous socialite who has given birth to a child that may not be his while Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens) is a fearless young woman who unexpectedly turns Christopher’s world upside down. As the First World War breaks out across Europe, Christopher struggles to adapt to his new life as an army officer and attempts to hold onto sanity and meaning, as the old world order collapses amidst tremendous upheaval, marking the end of Edwardian ideals and bridging the gap between feudal England and the dawn of modernism.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress Rebecca Hall talked about why she wanted to play the complex and complicated Sylvia, what she thinks of her extreme character, how invigorating the role was to play, how encouraging it was to have screenwriter Tom Stoppard on set, how she sees the relationship between Sylvia and Christopher, working with Benedict Cumberbatch who she’s been friends with for over 10 years, and how challenging it is to find roles this meaty. She also talked about what she looks for in a script, and the experience of being on a big Hollywood production like Iron Man 3 (she plays scientist Maya Hansen). Check out what she had to say after the jump.
REBECCA HALL: I’d be surprised if any actress read a part like Sylvia and didn’t want to play her. She’s just a one in a million invention. She’s completely and utterly glorious and monstrous, at the same time. It’s an attractive proposition to get into the head of someone like that. She’s very seductive, and it’s so much fun to play someone who says all the things that you dream about saying, in your worst moments, but never have the nerve to say. She’s utterly reckless, utterly sadistic, utterly vulnerable and utterly sympathetic, all at the same time. It’s an impossible concoction, and a wonderful concoction. You want to be her, and you want to hit her in the face. So, I read it and I thought, “This is fantastic!” I really wanted to do it. It was a no-brainer, really.
Over the course of the five hours, you really go back and forth between hating her and sympathizing for her. Did you feel that same way, in reading the scripts?
HALL: One of the gifts of doing five hours of drama, as opposed to what I’m used to doing, which is like an hour and a half film format, is that you can afford to really make a long journey. You can give 100% of the extremes of whatever characterization you’re doing because you know you’ve got time and evolution to turn it on its head again. I was really aware of that. It’s very much my feeling with Sylvia that you should hate her, after Episode 1. You should think she’s completely unsympathetic and a nightmare. And then, somewhere around Episode 3 or 4, you should love her. That was definitely my intention and, if I’ve done that, then I’m happy. That’s what was interesting about the format of having the time to do that.
Was it physically and mentally exhausting to play this character?
HALL: Strangely, it wasn’t. I found her invigorating, in relation to other characters that I’ve played. With her, everything is out there. There’s nothing internalized. If she feels something, she feels it 100% and she lets it be known. And I’m not talking about the lying and the deceit, because obviously there’s an arch side of her character. She’s extreme, so it’s all out there, as opposed to other more wallflowerish characters that I’ve played, where you need to bottle up all of the emotions and internalize it and live with it on the inside so that you can present something else on the outside. That, weirdly, can be more exhausting to play. Playing Sylvia was a bit like riding some incredible racehorse. It was exciting and thrilling and liberating to be extreme in all these different ways. And the writing was so impeccable. Tom Stoppard is the best. He’s arguably our greatest living writer in English. I can’t think of many people who can top him. Having that gives you an energy because you are working with top-notch stuff.
HALL: It was encouraging and it gave us a confidence. He’s not necessarily always like that with film work. He can be like that with stage work because that’s his thing, but this was very much his baby. He felt very precious about it, and he was on set all day, every day. You have to pinch yourself a bit when Tom Stoppard is sitting around and you’re having conversations with him between takes. He’s so brilliant that you can’t fathom it. He has the incredible capacity to make you feel, not that you equal him, but that he would never look down on you, intellectually. He treats everyone with an openness. He doesn’t wear his intellect, in any way, and yet he’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had the good fortune to have a discussion with.
How would you describe the relationship between Sylvia and Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch)?
HALL: It’s a very complicated one. They’re two people that approach life in completely different ways. He’s chivalrous, to the point of martyrdom, and he’s saintly, to the point of self-destruction. She’s promiscuous, bored and sadistic, and yet desperately in love with him. Part of it is the fact that he treats her kindly. She behaves worse and worse and worse and worse, to get a reaction out of him, and nothing works. All she gets is, “It’s all right, I understand you.” If you’re someone like Sylvia, who can’t resist the temptation to stick their hand in the fire, that reaction is going to drive you crazy. And she’s Catholic, so she won’t divorce him. That actually means a lot to her. It was very important to me that she was Catholic. There is that sense of the girl that went to the nun school, and then ends up being the most rebellious. She’s extremes and he’s tolerant. There’s nothing she can do to get a reaction out of him, and it drives her crazy. It’s also the reason why she loves him.
On some strange level, he gets her and she gets him. They can’t live together because they will destroy each other, and yet it’s very difficult for them to entangle themselves and just do what you would do in a modern situation, which is to get a divorce. They can’t do that. So, it’s a complicated, sadistic, masochistic, destructive relationship. I think the really important thing about it is this antithesis of him being representative of what we now think of as nostalgic Edwardian England with proper morals. In the book and in the TV series, the fact that he’s representative of that actually makes him a fool. Sure, it makes him romantic and heroic, but it makes him a bit of a fool because he just suffers.
That way of existing doesn’t survive anymore, in this world, which is on the crest of being blown up, literally, by World War I. Just underneath the surface, it’s a culture that’s completely hysterical. And Sylvia is a modern woman. She’s the one that, in a couple of generations, her personality is going to make sense, but in this world, it doesn’t because she has no education, she has no career and she has no outlet for it. Give her 20 years and she will actually survive, probably quite well. If she existed now, she’d survive brilliant. But then, it was a mess because she wasn’t given any education to understand or analyze what was instinctively her intelligence and her ability to manipulate. There is a case for sympathy for her. I know she behaves like a cow, but she’s a great cow.
How much fun was it to have someone like Benedict Cumberbatch to play these scenes off of?
HALL: It was fantastic! He is a brilliant actor. We both had a lot of discussions about how we wanted to do it and how bold we would be about it. One of the things that we were both on the same page about was being counter-intuitive and not do what everyone does with period drama these days, making it accessible to a modern audience by softening the edges. We didn’t want to do that because the writing wasn’t like that. This is a vision of this society that you’ve never seen before. People should talk incredibly poshly. It should be alienating. There should never be any explanation of emotional behaviors. It’s not that kind of a world. It doesn’t wrap everything up and give it to you with a clear, “This is what it’s about.” It was important to us that we didn’t try to do that too much with the acting either. It really helped to work with Ben because I’ve known him for over 10 years. I probably met him first when I was about 15 or 16, and he’s been a friend forever. We were both really, really keen to do this. Part of the reason that we both did it was that we knew the other one was doing it, and we’ve known each other for so long that we wanted to play this crazy man and wife who have this tumultuous marriage for 10 years. We’ve got a shared history already, so it’s easier to get to those places, if you know someone very well, anyway. We had a blast, really. It was great! I loved working with him.
When you play a character like this, who’s so multi-faceted and complicated, is it hard to find really meaty roles after that?
HALL: Yeah. You play somebody like Sylvia and you think, “Well, that’s once in a lifetime. What am I going to do now?!” It’s sad! It shouldn’t be like that. Men get those roles, all the time. It’s difficult. It’s a small pool. I think it’s getting bigger, but it is tough. When you get to play something that is just really different and really makes you think, “This is why I do it!” I’m interested in exploring human behavior, and here is someone who is so unique and says a lot about certain ways of behaving. Sylvias do exist. These narcissistic, damaged, lovable psychos do exist, but people don’t write about them with a grace and level of profundity that Tom Stoppard coupled with how Ford Maddox Ford, who wrote the novel, do. It is one in a million, really.
What do you look for, when you’re looking at scripts?
HALL: I think it’s probably instinct coupled with something to do with the unknown. There are unknown variables. If the character rings true to me and I believe that it’s a fully-rounded person, or I could make her a full-rounded person, but I don’t really understand why, then that attracts me because then I know there will be room to work out why she does what she does. Sylvia is a good example of that because, on the page, she was so mysterious. It was like, “Why on earth are you behaving like this?” The work the actor gets to do is trying to find that out. So, I suppose it’s an element of mystery and ambiguity and contradiction. I always look for contradiction in a character.
HALL: I don’t know. Everything is much scarier in your mind than when you go and do it. That’s the boring truth of it. It’s one thing in your head because one’s experience of it is through watching it on a 50-foot screen, but when you’re dealing with the amount of people that are on those sets, and you’re going to work and doing your daily job, it becomes more mundane, faster than you can think. Well, it never becomes entirely mundane. It’s a big Hollywood film set. But, after a moment, you just have to get on with it. If I walked around gawking about how big and Hollywood and exciting the whole thing was, I’d never get anything done.
Is it strange to work on something that so much attention is focused on, or are you able to tune all of that out and just focus on the work?
HALL: I don’t know if I consciously tune things out. I think I’m just really dappy. I don’t think I go about thinking to myself, “I’m just going to tune everything out and go on with my life.” I don’t notice it, most of the time, because I’m daydreaming and I’m really daft like that. I recently got on the tube in London with my mate who was like, “Why is everyone looking at you?,” and I was like, “I don’t know.” So, I tune things out without thinking about it, mostly because I’m a daydreamer.
Parade’s End airs from February 26th through February 28th on HBO.