Rebecca Hall, who stars in "The Night House," knows what you're thinking about movies set in haunted houses. She thinks it, too.
" 'Why isn't this person leaving?' It's kind of the joke of horror movies, having to formulate the reason," said Hall, whose spooky résumé includes the excellent "The Awakening," in which her character debunked hauntings, as well as "Night House." "I thought it was kind of brilliant here that the reason this person can't leave is that she doesn't want to."
In the first scene of "Night House" — opening in theaters Friday — Hall's grief-stricken Beth gets home from her husband's funeral. Almost immediately, she senses his presence in the house, which he built. Soon his favorite tunes are spontaneously playing on the stereo, he's texting her and she begins to realize she didn't know him as well as she thought. Careening between hysteria and devastation, Beth almost seems angry at his spectral presence.
"It makes her incredibly reckless and sort of thrilling as a horror movie hero. She's genuinely terrifying. Her character is terrifying. The place she's at is terrifying," said Hall, who said extreme behavior attracted her to the part, just as it did in "Christine," the true story of a TV anchor who shot herself on the air.
"There's only one thing scarier than being terrorized in a house, all by yourself, and that's someone who wants to be terrorized, yelling, 'Come get me. I don't care anymore!' I think it inverts the damsel-in-distress trope," she said.
Like many ghost stories, "The Night House" is about grief. Or, possibly, about how grief haunts us like a ghost.
"It's a very specific, odd moment to tap into someone's journey. There are films that deal with grief, sort of the month after, when you're in the stage of being able to cry about it, and films that deal with the immediate, when someone has just died. But this sort of in-betweensie stage, four days after, I found very intriguing," said Hall, who thinks of the movie as Beth learning to grieve.
Hall has never had any experiences that would convince her there are ghosts. She doesn't believe. But she doesn't not believe, either.
"I'd like to, in a funny way, just because of stories and imagination. The world is richer for those things," Hall said. "One of the things that's interesting about the movie is it does slightly pose the question of, 'What's more scary to you, the fact that ghosts exist or the fact that they don't?' "
Hall is one of those actors whose face is more familiar to moviegoers than her name. The Brit played Christian Bale's tragic wife in "The Prestige," Vicky in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a maid in Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" and a scientist in this year's "Godzilla vs. Kong."
Between "The Night House" and Hall's other upcoming movie, "Passing," which Netflix will release this fall, she's about to become better known. A drama that earned rave reviews in January at the Sundance Film Festival, "Passing" is based on a Harlem Renaissance novel about a Black woman who "passes" for white in the 1920s. Hall, whose father is theater director Peter Hall and whose mother is opera singer Maria Ewing, received the book from a friend about 15 years ago.
"I was starting to, I suppose, come to terms with a history of passing in my own family. My grandfather on my mother's side was a Black man who passed in Detroit. He passed for white, and passed that on to my mother and her sisters, who lived as white, and, in turn, me," said Hall. "I didn't have any language for that but someone gave me the book and said, 'What your grandfather was doing and, arguably, what your mother is doing has a name. There's a history. There's a precedent.' And I knew none of this."
Hall spent the subsequent years trying to figure out how to adapt a book as spare and elegant as Nella Larsen's novel, which is not just about "passing" but also about the difference between how we see ourselves and how society does.
"It blew my mind," she said. "It's a tiny novella where very little happens and, within that, a whole world of complexity is allowed."
Having written and directed her first movie, Hall said she's eager to do it again, and she'd like to throw acting in to make it a triple-header. But she never considered acting in "Passing," whose stars, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, are being touted for Oscars.
"I go through the world as white. I would argue on some level I'm not, but the world sees me that way and I thought it was important for the characters to be played by actors the world knows to be Black," said Hall.
The complexities of the "Passing" characters, one of whom is married to a white man who doesn't know his wife's background and who constantly makes racist remarks, also recall the decisions that led Hall to say "yes" to "The Night House."
"The more I am intrigued by a character, the more likely I am to want to play her," said Hall. "When I watch something and can't work out the character initially, I'm in for the ride. So I have a similar philosophy [in choosing roles to play]. I'm in for the ride!"
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367