Regina Hall’s career defies easy summation. The NYU journalism grad had an early stint on a soap opera, supporting roles in “The Best Man” and “Love and Basketball,” then mined for comedy in the Wayans brothers’ “Scary Movie.” That was the first year of her movie career. More “Scary Movie” entries followed, in tandem with a range of studio projects primarily aimed at black audiences — many of which did strong business, from “Think Like a Man” to “Law Abiding Citizen.” In 2010, after a nasty breakup, she almost quit acting to become a nun. Then came “Girls Trip,” the 2017 blockbuster comedy that grossed over $140 million worldwide. It’s the sort of massive cultural success that could have catapulted Hall to even greater commercial heights.
Instead, she starred in “Support the Girls,” a modestly budgeted character study from writer-director Andrew Bujalski. The endearing slice-of-life dramedy centers on Hall as Lisa, the committed manager of a grimy Texas sports bar staffed by scantily clad waitresses, as she juggles a day that never slows down. Bujalski’s understated approach is Altmanesque in its capacity to explore the nuances of a neglected corner of American society, but Hall injects the movie with revelatory energy: She’s the adult in every room, a stern warrior on behalf of her vulnerable staffers, a good samaritan at odds with an indifferent world. As she carries scene after scene, Hall makes it clear that another chapter of her career has arrived — and appreciation for her work is long overdue.
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Though “Support the Girls” received raves out of the SXSW Film Festival, it opened to little fanfare with a day-and-date release over the summer. Fortunately, Hall has not been absent from year-end awards season appreciations. In September, she scored Gotham and Independent Spirit Award nominations; at the end of November, she was voted as the Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle, marking the first time the award has been given to an African American. (Disclosure: This writer is the 2018-19 chair of the NYFCC.) There may not be a powerful campaign behind her Oscar odds, but like her “Girls Trip” co-star Tiffany Haddish’s late-season momentum in 2017, many people would be thrilled to see it happen.
“I was really speechless,” said Hall in an interview a week after the NYFCC announcement. “I hadn’t even thought of the race part of it. It’s not just me, but this movement is celebratory for everyone, the evolution that we see in so many aspects of what we do. I’m thrilled.” Hall first met Bujalski on the set of “Girls Trip,” having no familiarity with his low-budget, idiosyncratic filmmaking, and found herself drawn to a script that didn’t force its leading woman into a box. “I kept waiting for movie things to happen,” she said. “Oh, she’s going to be bad. I had this cynical point of view. I was kind of surprised by her good intentions. That was so beautiful.”
The movie also came with another curious ingredient: a plot centered on the plight of a middle-aged African-American woman, written by a white man, that didn’t identify her race on the page. “It never came up,” Hall said. “It was something I thought about. Obviously it was a choice he had made, but I never felt like it served anything but pure intentions.” She spoke from experience, having encountered plenty of other projects that went the other direction. “I’ve read stuff where I felt like someone was trying to find a black voice, and that has felt not right — like, oh, she’s supposed to be sassy,” Hall said. “I liked that Andrew never really brought that up.”
Bujalski needed a strong lead who could handle being in virtually every shot of the movie and adapt to its unique tone, which veers from lighthearted comedy to introspective drama over the course of a packed 104 minutes. “I quickly learned I’d hit the jackpot,” he said, adding that role called for “a lot of weird emotional twists and turns, repressing emotion as often as she’s expressing it, and frequently lurching from one to the other.” At one moment, Lisa defends her staffers from leering men at the bar; in another, she’s coping with a pending divorce, or sitting through a temper tantrum from the bar’s alpha-male owner.
“It was abundantly clear that she’d have access to that den mother nurturing that was so central to Lisa,” Bujalski said, “and also that Regina was wildly charming, super sharp, and naturally unpredictable.” Hall was drawn to the character’s capacity for kindness in the midst of Job-like struggles. “Her life is always on the edge,” she said. “She has this muted expression, but an undercurrent of pain. That was completely different from anything I’d done, because it was much more internal. I had to do a lot of backstory.”
Because of her “Scary Movie” history, Hall has often been associated with comedies, a perception that “Girls Trip” helped solidify. But it wasn’t part of her initial impulse to act. “Wen I first came up, a lot of people thought I was a comedian,” she said. “I started in New York and I loved creating characters, creating life, and having something that resonates with an audience — whether it’s comedy or drama, big or small.” The 47-year-old embraced the possibility of deeper roles that might come her way. “As I’ve gotten older, there are roles that are more involved and have a life to them that is so complex,” she said. “When you’re preparing them, you have to go to places that aren’t always the most comfortable. I hope there are a lot more roles like that.”
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A world apart from the bawdy antics of “Girls Trip,” Hall is a soft-spoken, eloquent presence who considers every facet of her career as if holding up a vial to the light. “I have done a lot of studio films,” she said. “If ‘Support the Girls’ went to a studio, it would have a plot twist. Something about the sincerity of the movie would change. It doesn’t have a lot of giant second- or third-act resolutions. The day becomes more reflective as you enter into it.” She has watched the movie become a gradual discovery over the course of the year. “It fell right where it’s supposed to be,” she said, “and it gives the filmmaker a lot of autonomy to really create something that serves the vision, and not a corporate board or fiscal expectation because of all this investment.”
Hall knows that arena well. Years before “Black Panther” became the beacon of hope for commercial black cinema, Hall was benefiting from the support of Screen Gems executive Clint Culpepper, who sent projects ranging from “About Last Night” to “When the Bough Breaks” her way. “Clint Culpepper never stopped,” Hall said. “All these movies were performing and the studios were like, ‘Oh, maybe we should make black movies again.’”
With “Support the Girls,” she landed a role that resonated for other reasons: Lisa serves as the ultimate rejoinder to workplace harassment. “The movie came out at a time when we really didn’t know how people would receive it, because it was at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, this big idea of supporting women moving forward,” she said. “It has all of those themes, but we didn’t know how people would feel about the backdrop of it being that kind of restaurant. The fact that people see what the spirit of the movie is about and they walk away with that is really wonderful.” In one scene, Lisa fires a staffer who puts her in a compromising position in the most tender way possible. “I tried to be generous,” she tells an employee before firing him. “You are every day,” he replies.
Hall first began peering beyond more-formulaic studio options after taking a supporting role in James C. Strouse’s “People Places Things,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was later acquired by The Film Arcade. “That helped a lot to put me in the indie circle,” Hall said. “Because I’d done things like ‘Scary Movie,’ a lot of stuff had fallen through the cracks that had more subtlety.”
Strouse said he appreciated Hall in both “Scary Movie” and “About Last Night,” particularly the way she had juggled chemistry with Anna Faris and Kevin Hart in two very different kind of projects. “I’ve never worked with an actor that could adjust so precisely to direction yet retain her own voice,” he said. “Regina’s a star. She has one of those faces that just lights up the screen. And her charisma is off the charts. But she also has this very relatable quality.”
Hall said that more filmmakers have approached her about a range of projects in the wake of her recent credits, particularly the one-two tonal shift of “Girls Trip” and “Support the Girls,” which together suggest she can pretty much do anything. “I do a drama and they say, ‘We forgot you do comedy,’” she said. “Then I do a comedy, and they forget I do drama. There are producers and directors I’ve had conversations with and we’re putting together projects and it’s been really amazing. It’s a huge difference from 10 years ago.”
She listed filmmakers ranging from Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan to Nicole Holofcener as among her favorites, but had no preference for studio or independent projects. “I don’t think these worlds have to judge each other,” she said. “They’re just different, and both fascinating when they’re done well.”
Hall is regularly asked about a “Girls Trip” sequel, which has yet to materialize as her co-stars’ schedules continue to fluctuate. “We probably should’ve planned a time for it a long time ago,” she said. “But everybody loves each other. They’re definitely figuring it out.” For now, however, she has plenty of other ways to remain visible. She has a major supporting role in “The Hate U Give” as the concerned mother to the woke activist played by Amandla Stenberg, and 2019 finds her at the center of the Showtime series “Black Monday,” a dark comedic take on Wall Street figures behind the 2008 crash. Then there’s the “Shaft” reboot, in which she stars opposite Samuel L. Jackson, and a role in Romany Malco’s directorial debut “Prison Logic.”
“Acting can be tough,” Hall said. “There’s what you want to do and then there’s what you’re doing.” She often thinks about that moment she nearly abandoned her career for the cloth. “I was at a personal crossroads in my life, and you’re sitting in New York and you’re doing theater. You just expect this continual upward climb,” she said. “Then you’re like, god, I’m not interested in that. You’re auditioning and it’s not happening for the things you want, only the things you don’t want.” The only reason she didn’t become a nun was because the sect that appealed to her deemed her too old. “I guess God was like, ‘Nope,’” she said. “One year earlier, and maybe I would’ve done it. I was 40. Things are different than they were, but listen, I still enjoy my spiritual life. I’m just not a nun.”
Hall’s latest professional chapter predates the surge of interest in diversity in Hollywood, but she’s happy to bask in the moment, including her historic NYFCC win. “Change happens when it happens,” she said. “It’s an honor to win, period. The fact that I’m a little chocolate shop is just the cherry on the icing.” She chuckled. “People have so much more access to watch things continue to expand and broaden our thinking,” she said. “As long as we continue to do that — with race and gender or whatever it is — it continues to push forward this idea of equality.”