Over the weekend in Park City, Utah, “Lay the Favorite” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, drawing mixed reactions from audiences and critics with its colorful portrait of an ex-stripper who discovers an unexpected aptitude for legal gambling (you can read our review here). Amazingly, however, the film is based on a true story, using the memoir by Beth Raymer as a jumping off point, and as Rebecca Hall puts it, her performance as Beth gives the character a believability they might not have if they were in a regular, fictional film.
The day after “Lay The Favorite” premiered at Sundance, The Playlist sat down with Hall and her director, acclaimed filmmaker Stephen Frears, for a conversation about the process of putting the film together.
Because this story is based on a real person’s life, how faithful did you want to be in terms of balancing realism with a cinematic sense of drama?
Frears: We wanted absolute fidelity to the character.
Hall: I wanted to be [faithful] because it would be completely idiotic not to be, because the real person is unique and original, and if you just played her as someone fairly ordinary, you wouldn’t have the movie. It’s character driven, so yes.
Was it tough to find a balance between playing a character and portraying a real person? She has a sort of huge personality.
Hall: The sort of irony is that as a real person, you wouldn’t believe her in a movie, so you have to do service to that and just go for it. But I had a good meter in Stephen where if it got too annoying, he’d tell me to tone it down, and if it were too believable he’d tell me to dial it up.
Frears: You make these decisions absolutely arbitrarily. There’s no law, no rule. It’s whatever seems right.
How would you define this character’s journey? And how much of it was reflected in the source material as opposed to the script?
Hall: To me, that’s what the story was – it’s a rite of passage. It’s about someone who has incredibly low self-esteem, she doesn’t think she’s good at anything, and then eventually grows up and takes responsibility and realizes she’s capable and intelligent.
There’s also a unique balance within her in that, as you said, she lacks confidence, but still seems pretty certain everything will work out.
Hall: Well, she’s unapologetic. That’s the thing about her and that’s what makes her an original – she’s unapologetic and eternally optimistic. So she makes the best out of every situation. It’s like, no matter how crazy the odds, to speak in twee gambling language, she will bank on it being the best outcome because she believes that life is there to be grabbed, and so she’ll have joy.
How easy is it to prepare for the various levels of her personality, to accommodate all of them, and still be intuitive and spontaneous?
Hall: Well, I don’t know – you do your homework, you know? I spent a long time getting my head around just who this person was and trying to feel her on some instinctive level. Because there’s the physical life and the voice, but at some point you abandon all of that, you know what the spirit of the person is and you let it descend and just get on with it. And it’s instinctive from there, it has to be. Because it’s about the performance, and the last thing I wanted to do with this was make it a big song and dance about showing off, “Ooh, here’s my impersonation and here’s my fireworks” and all the rest of it. That wouldn’t be interesting.
Stephen, what was your introduction to the material, and what did you connect with?
Frears: Well, I just started getting interested in it because my friend D.V. [DeVincentis, writer of “High Fidelity“] was writing it, and then I met Beth and then they took me to Las Vegas and I realized what an interesting world it was. It’s just been very, very interesting and worth the voyage really. But there isn’t one single thing, like you say, “Eureka!” You just think, “Oh, this is interesting – I see.” It’s an endless discovery of things that takes you to the next stage.
How formal is the process for you of determining the tone and technique of making a film? Do you define that beforehand or simply discover it through the process of filming?
Frears: I knew absolutely what the tone should be, yes. I do it more with my ear than my eye, but I know what the tone should be. And when there’s men fooling around together and things like that, I love that, and so you do that with your ear.
Rebecca, was part of the appeal of “Lay the Favorite” that degree of difference, or challenge you’d be facing, by playing Beth versus your more serious roles?
Hall: Yes and no. I’d be disingenuous if I said that didn’t come into it, but also I think it’s highly reductive to say that I pick things that are [just different]. I don’t. I suppose the reason why I like acting is because I’m curious about human nature, and the less I know about a character on the page, instinctively, in a way, the better. Because I know I can go on a journey of finding out something that will take me somewhere new and I’ll learn about it, and that’s why I like doing it.
Is an important component of acting the transformational aspect? Do you enjoy creating characters that are sharply different than you are?
Hall: Not necessarily, no. But I think it’s a fun challenge to do that, and it can be very liberating. And it can take you down roads that otherwise you’d be inhibited [to go down] if it wasn’t so extreme, such a leap away. And also it gives you a sort of objectivity about a personality, so you have the vantage point of understanding and interpreting something creatively. And the ones that are closer to myself, I think I can get a little bit lost in, and it will be more distinctive but I won’t necessarily be so clear about separating myself from those.
Having moved successfully between smaller projects and more commercial ones, how careful or calculated do you have to be about making creative decisions, versus making ones that specifically help your career?
Hall: Look, I like working, I’ve got to eat, so there are certain compromises, no matter how high your ideals might be at any moment. But on the other hand, I try and avoid thinking of strategy and I tend to stick to my gun of doing things that I like and try to avoid things that I “should” be doing, and stay true to that. But you know in this day and age, when you’re an actor and have to be a certain degree of celebrity in order to even be in the film that you like, it can be difficult for sure. So yeah, there’s a part of me that’s like, should I pick [this big commercial movie], but I haven’t, and I don’t think I will [laughs]. So I don’t know.
“Lay The Favorite” continues playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution.