'The Night House' Star Rebecca Hall Shares What Really Scares Her [Interview]

When I spoke with Rebecca Hall about her latest film, director David Bruckner's The Night House, it had been a busy day for the actress. As is wont to happen during press junkets, things were running a bit behind schedule. So, after a brief wait, I dove head-first into the deep end with some tough questions. It's that kind of horror movie, one that demands actual conversation and dissection. She took it like a pro, not that I'd expect any differently. 

The Night House is a film that sets you up for heavy concepts and heady scares from the get-go. Nothing about it is tame or mild; every ounce of dread is dialed up to 11. As a result, the periodically hopeful yet predominantly bleak film demands serious consideration and in-depth analysis. 

The Night House follows Beth (Hall) in the wake of her husband's shocking suicide. She is overwhelmed by the grief that comes with loss and the pain, anger, and confusion that accompanies a loved one committing suicide. Alone in their lake-side home, her dreams begin to haunt her, compelling her to dig deeper into her husband's past to find out what else she didn't know. It takes her to a place she could never have prepared for. 

So, of course, I'm going to launch into very heavy questions pretty much right away.

Ready!

I'd like to know how you prepared for playing Beth? How you got into the character and braced for this kind of performance?

I don't know. I don't have a sort of good answer for that. I think there are some roles that I've taken on that require a lot of prep because, just the sort of physical, vocal characterization is so very far away from myself, and it takes a certain amount of groundwork to fully embody that. And then there are other roles where I know it's going to be very challenging, but part of the challenge is just imagining myself in that scenario and seeing what my body and voice does and not preparing that much, in a weird way.

And this, it fell more into that [category]. I felt like it had to be very instinctual, and that I had to just sort of hurl myself into it and be prepared to look foolish at times. I knew it was going to be a lot because there was not really anyone else to bounce off of, which can often be, frankly, a saving grace on a film set. Even when it comes down to someone [with whom] you can dissect how you're feeling about a scene afterwards over a cup of tea. You forget how valuable that is until you're in a situation where there isn't anyone [laughs]. So, I knew what was going to be hard about it, and I wasn't wrong [laughs]. I just threw myself into it. That was really it.

You're playing a suicide survivor in The Night House, a surviving family member of someone who took their own life. As a suicide survivor myself, watching this was really gratifying because you brought a very specific kind of anger to the role that is natural and common in that kind of situation. Did you feel a certain pressure or weight to be careful with how you approached that aspect of the character?

Yes. I feel a certain kind of pressure and weight and respect for all the characters I play, I think. Because there tends to be stuff that I haven't experienced that I know is real for other people, and that's the reason why I do it. I suppose there was something in the writing of this that was already, I thought, getting at something. Like, yes, there is a supernatural read of this. But for me, when I read the script, it struck me that, actually, we're talking about a woman who is, as you put it, a suicide survivor. And comes with that this territory of, I didn't know him well enough to know he was going to do that. And, in a way, the film takes that idea and pushes it to an extreme where she's sort of imagining like, imagine what he could have been capable of? How monstrous could he possibly have been? Let me make the most extreme version of that in my head as a sort of process of psychologically dealing with the worst thing imaginable rather than the reality, which is already unimaginable, anyway.

So I thought that was a really interesting and honest take on it. And it felt to me like her anger, her recklessness, her sort of fearlessness were all part and parcel of that emotional state that she finds herself in. Which also happens to make her a really intriguing heroine of a horror movie. Because, I think there's probably only one thing scarier than watching someone being terrorized in a house by themselves, and that's watching someone who is prepared to be terrorized and doesn't run away, but instead runs into the danger and says, "Okay, come at me, I'm ready for anything." I think that is truly scary.

Every time you did that, I went, "No! That's the one thing you're not supposed to do!"

Yeah!

Well, that kind of bleeds into the fact that the villain of the film, so to speak, is this really unconventional character that reminded me a lot of The Neverending Story, actually.

Really?

Yeah. It made me think of the Nothing.

Right, the Nothing. Of course, that never occurred to me. You're right. Of course!

That was the first place my head went.

David Bruckner always said to me, when we were talking about this, he was always like, "What is scarier than nothing?" This isn't really a film about the supernatural. It's just about nothing. And in that sense, it sort of boils down to what is scarier than what your own mind is capable of, and all these things that it could be? And of course, there is another reading of it that is more conventionally supernatural in that sense of stories. But it is this thing of the Nothing, and also to actually personify nothing, which the film takes a stab at, I think is really odd and challenging and rewarding. Because we all have that moment when we're standing in the bathroom and you look to the right because something moved and it looked like a shadow or maybe someone's...Whatever it is, little moments where a door frame looks a different way or something. Suddenly, everything that you relied on up ends and it could be other.

And one of the most compelling things about horror movies is often what's left unseen. It's the things that we can't prepare for, the things that we don't know are coming, which is also what made something like Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man so compellingly terrifying. This really felt like it pulled on some of that as a concept. But again, it brought me back to this kids' movie, The Neverending Story, where kids are meant to recognize that the lack of knowledge, the lack of knowing, can be scary. But also recognizing that that fear is okay. This felt kind of like the natural progression from something like that, where it's like you said, when the people that we think we know the best, all of a sudden become strangers. So is that something that you'd say is scary for you?

Yeah. Wouldn't it be great if I just said: "no, no, no." One of life's big questions. I'm totally chill with that [laughs].

I'm grateful that your answers are not just "no".

It's the big reckoning, isn't it? Accepting the possibility of not knowing and accepting the possibility of nothing as opposed to an answer or an explanation for something is sort of the kind of ultimate...it's a step on the way to nirvana or whatever.

I think that's one way of looking at it.

It's a hard thing and we will want– I have a three-year-old and she started asking me the big questions and it's so interesting. It's just so human to just want to explain everything so precisely like, this is this because of this. So, therefore, everything must follow that same pattern. And I suppose, the older we all get, the more we realize that you can't actually always do that. And it's not actually possible. Holding onto that is hard. Being at peace with that is hard.

Exactly. One of the things I'd heard about was that, at the Sundance premiere, David Bruckner said that your reaction to the film would largely be dictated by what scares you the most, "the idea that ghosts actually exist, or the realization that they don't," and that was really compelling to me. As a concept, how does that affect you, or how did that impact the character?

It was something that was in my head all the time, actually. It was sort of the...axis she was balancing on, this thing of...There's certain things about Beth that are tough and knowing and grounded and sort of sardonic and brittle. Things that don't necessarily add up to someone who believes in anything supernatural, but then there's also the simple reality of what she's going through and a desperation to not let it be true and therefore let any other reality come in. So, it was that. What to her is scarier, that they exist or that they don't? I don't know.

And are you a bit of a skeptic?

I am in as much as I have no experience of it. So I can't really stand behind something that I have no experience of. But I'm also a bit of a "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" sort of person. I believe that there's a lot of...the world is sort of magical, but I don't know that that adds up to me believing in ghosts [laughs].

[Laughs] I guess, this will be my last question for you, and that way I won't keep you too much longer, and hopefully, your day can get back on track. What scares you?

What scares me? I don't know. I don't have any cute answers like spiders or anything like that.

I was hoping not.

[Laughs] I don't know. I think the life stuff, not doing everything. I think I have a sort of increasing, brewing panic about not being able to do all the things that I want to do, which is sort of unfounded because I'm always busy.

But that's the thing, right? Our adult fears are different than our kid fears in as much as we worry that it's not enough, or we're not enough, or we're not doing enough, or there isn't enough. It always seems to be about quantity, somehow.

Yeah, yeah. I know. And it's hard. And I think all of that stuff, all of your fears or lack thereof, shift when you have kids. It becomes a very different thing. And then suddenly the overriding fear is that something might happen that means you're not going to be able to show up for your kid. Or that something might happen to them, which is even more unthinkable. But everything sort of shifts on to that when you have kids.

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The Night House hits theaters this Friday, August 20, 2021.