Interview: ‘Forrest Gump’ Star Hanna Hall Tackles Provocative Thriller ‘Scalene’

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CHICAGO – By the age of 15, actress Hanna Hall had delivered iconic lines in two of the most acclaimed films of the ’90s. After famously yelling, “Run, Forrest, run!” in Robert Zemeckis’s Oscar-winner, “Forrest Gump,” Hall nailed the unforgettable line, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl,” in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, “The Virgin Suicides.”

Since then, Hall has tackled a wide variety of audacious roles in both mainstream releases, such as Rob Zombie’s 2007 “Halloween” remake, and independent productions including Adam Sherman’s edgy 2010 drama, “Happiness Runs.” In her latest film, “Scalene,” Hall plays Paige, a compassionate college student who signs up to care for a mentally handicapped man, Jakob (Adam Scarimbolo). When she suspects that Jakob is being abused by his mother, Janice (Margo Martindale), Paige attempts to “save” him by devising a plan that could potentially result in her own doom. Director/co-writer Zack Parker splits the film into three segments, each representing the distinct perspective of each principle character. It’s a provocative meditation on the subjectivity of truth, and Hall’s riveting performance ends up stealing the show.

Hollywood Chicago spoke with Hall about her new film as well as various key projects in her career. Most recently, the actress shot a slew of video game trailers that may lead to a web series called, “Hawken,” in which she plays the badass character of Natalie. This summer, Hall also directed a mightily intriguing play entitled, “Astral Dick,” in LA. Obviously, Hollywood Chicago couldn’t resist asking about that one… Your first experience in front of the camera was “Forrest Gump.” Were you the kind of girl that always liked to put on plays with friends?

Hanna Hall: Yeah, totally. [laughs] I loved doing that with my friends while growing up. It wasn’t a career that I was necessarily interested in at the time, but it was definitely something that I always enjoyed doing. I was so young that I don’t think I even questioned it. That first film was a very organic experience.

Hanna Hall stars as Jenny in Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.
Hanna Hall stars as Jenny in Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment How aware were you of your character’s plight, and the abuse that she suffers at the hands of her father?

Hall: I had read the whole script. I was about 8 years old and I understood the full extent of the character’s journey and what she had been through. They actually cut out a lot of the scenes that dealt with the abuse that happened to Jenny when she was younger. I think they had a scene where they implied that I killed my father. When you’re that age, you don’t question the fact that it’s not you. You understand that the character is not you, and the older you get, the more your character’s [struggles] get in your head. At that age, it was very clear that this was something that I was playing. It had nothing to do with me or my life. That distinction is a lot clearer when you’re young, for some reason. Has the line “Run, Forrest, run!” followed you throughout your life?

Hall: Oh yeah, definitely. [laughs] It’s fun to hear other people say it in public, not knowing who I am. As a kid, it was an interesting experience. Since that film was so huge, did the role of Jenny pigeonhole you in the minds of producers?

Hall: I don’t know. I definitely play a lot of people who either kill themselves or get killed or are abused in some way, which is funny because it couldn’t be further from my actual life. As an artist, you like to explore things that you might not experience in life but are interesting to you. We all have those aspects in our personality or our experience on some level. You also played the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters in “The Virgin Suicides.” What was your initial reaction to the project?

Hall: I loved the script from the second I read it, and I read the book as soon as I finished it. I was actually screen tested for the lead role of Lux, and I was very disappointed when I didn’t get it, but my age really wouldn’t have worked for the character. Then they cast Kirsten Dunst and offered me the role of Cecilia, and I was just really happy to still be a part of the project. What was the atmosphere like onset?

Hall: I think everyone who was a part of it really appreciated it from the beginning. A lot of the boys paid for their own plane tickets and hotel rooms during the shoot. There was a nice sense of community. A lot of times when you work on something, people are either there for the paychecks or for whatever their reasons are, and aren’t necessarily focused on the quality of the work or the project. That was a really special experience. Sofia was a fantastic director and all of the actors were amazing. She cast people who she knew already inherently understood the tone of the movie. She created the costumes and figured out all the visual aspects of the movie, and then allowed us to come up with ideas for our characters. She would be open and willing to talk about anything, so that was a really cool experience. You really felt like your choices were important. As an actor, you don’t always feel like the director cares about what your view of something is. What was your take on why the Lisbon girls commit suicide?

Hall: We talked a lot about the oppression of being female in that time specifically or in history. [The Lisbons] lived in an enclosed world and it was hard for them to understand the larger world when no one would let them view it. I think that’s the metaphor for why they do it.

Hanna Hall stars in Zack Parker’s Scalene.
Hanna Hall stars in Zack Parker’s Scalene.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures How did your enrollment at Vancouver Film School alter your perception of the filmmaking process?

Hall: First of all, it takes the ego out of being an actor when you realize that the overall product is not solely about your performance. It’s really a collective art form and [in school] you learn about how important that is to the final piece. I’ve done pretty much every job onset on some level. The performance of the actor is very important and is the link to the audience in a lot of ways, but it’s also just a small part of something a lot bigger. Has that experience made you want to direct your own films?

Hall: Yeah, I work on small stuff all the time. I’m actually currently starting to write a feature. I love production. It’s nice to have a project that feels like your own. When you’re an actor, you’re at the mercy of the director, for better or for worse. [laughs] There are positive aspects about it as well, but it’s not the same as actually creating your own project. It’s a lot more satisfying, as an artist, to do production. It also makes the filming process a lot smoother. I worked in the camera department for a year, so the director of photography knows that he can talk to me and say, “This is where the good light is,” rather than have to tell the director and have the director talk to me. The line of communication is open between us, and it makes the process a lot easier. It’s more of an open experience when I’m aware if what everybody’s job is. It’s also more fun. In past interviews, you’ve had many favorable things to say about your experience of working on “Halloween” with Rob Zombie.

Hall: Honestly, he’s one of my favorite directors I’ve ever worked with. He and his wife are the most intelligent, classy people I’ve ever worked for, and I think that’s what’s really great about Rob Zombie. You realize when you meet him that everything he does is intentional—his persona as a musician and as an artist. It’s not just some character that he’s playing. All of these pieces are really put together with intention, which I think is what a true artist does. Nothing is by accident, and I really respect him for that. I don’t want to work on anything, especially in the horror genre, where the nudity or violence is gratuitous. I don’t mind nudity if there’s a reason for it—if it’s built-in and it drives the story forward. My character in “Halloween” is nude not just because the producers want to see boobs. One of the most intriguing titles on your résumé is Mark David’s audacious 2009 film, “American Cowslip,” which features an incredible cast including Diane Ladd, Bruce Dern and Peter Falk.

Hall: I loved that the story was about this heroin addict who was ruining his entire life but had the capability to create something so beautiful even in that state, which was his garden. I just loved that concept so much. I thought it was really funny and I loved all of the people involved. The lead actor who co-wrote it, Ronny Blevins, was so cool when I first met him and I loved working with him. I couldn’t believe the cast that they got for that show. Cloris Leachman and Rip Torn were hilarious. “Happiness Runs” takes place in a hippie commune that feels very true-to-life.

Hall: It’s the director’s story, so that’s probably why it seems so realistic. All of that stuff, in some way and on some level, happened. He combined characters and storylines, but he really lived that life. Living in California, I had met a lot of people who had been in situations like that. Was that a challenging shoot?

Hall: The most startling thing about that experience, for me, was how hard it was to separate reality from fiction. I felt like I had a lot of the emotions that the character would’ve had in the situation she was in without really realizing it until afterward. It was a pretty long shoot—lots of nights and it was cold out. The conditions were pretty brutal. I felt really close to the character, and felt very disturbed by the end of the process. Of course, I don’t really know what that life is like, but I feel like I’ve gotten a really weird window into it. It was intense.

Hanna Hall stars in Zack Parker’s Scalene.
Hanna Hall stars in Zack Parker’s Scalene.
Photo credit: Breaking Glass Pictures What initially attracted you to “Scalene”?

Hall: [Spoiler Alert!] I loved Zack Parker. He seemed really cool when I first talked to him on the phone about his script. He’s a really conscious filmmaker, and the challenge of what the character goes through [appealed to me]. The scene where we find out how Paige convinces the police that she was raped just seemed terrifying to me, so I was like, “Great, let’s do it.” [laughs] “That sounds awful, and I don’t want to do it, so, ‘Yes, please sign me up!’” If you’re not doing things that are challenging you, then you aren’t going to be pushing forward as an artist. Did you find your own moral compass shifting while reading the script?

Hall: Yes, that’s what I love about it. Everybody in that script believes that what they’re doing is right, and I feel like that’s reflective of what we do in real life. Nothing in the world is black and white and everyone has a different view of things. If an event were to happen, and you asked 15 people who saw it, they’d all have a different version of it. I don’t think that’s something people explore very often in movies. It’s always about what happened and what didn’t happen. It seems that each character’s interpretation of the truth is somewhat distorted. When Janice asks Jakob, “Why do you always have to f—k things up?” her delivery of the line sounds much harsher from your perspective than it does from her own. Were those distortions deliberate?

Hall: Yeah, absolutely. He had a lot of little details like that. He used different colors and would shift objects in the frame depending on which angle you were looking at them from, and I think that’s kind of the point. Five people can watch the same thing happen, and they’re all going to recount it differently. That’s just human nature, and if you don’t understand the history or nuance of what just happened—in the case of “Scalene”—then your [perception] is your own reality. When my character heard Janice say that line, it sounded really mean in my mind, even though she said it without any ill intention. We all had to believe that what our character did was right, and that’s what makes it so sad, and what makes the potential downfall of Paige so interesting and wonderful to watch. [laughs] The ending encapsulates the whole thing by leaving it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions about what’s real. You recently directed a play called “Astral Dick” at The Electric Lodge in LA. What was that play about?

Hall: The playwright, James Mathers, is a really close friend of mine. He’s a painter and a writer. I’ve been wanting to do the project for a while, and I finally had time so I financed it and raised all the money with two girlfriends of mine. I produced and directed it and did all the costumes, and we designed and built the sets. The play is really fun and ridiculous, and it has a psychedelic noir pastiche feel to it. It’s about psychic detectives who are trying to figure out who’s been involved in a brutal string of murders. The cast of characters are at a poetry café and there’s an extreme cult called the “AnarChrist.” They’re punk kids, but they’re also “AnarChristians.” They perform bad poetry, but it’s also the best worst poetry you’ve ever heard. At the end, the detectives discover that it’s a poem that’s making people go kill themselves. But within that, the themes that I’m exploring are chaos and order and our struggle between those two states as people. The poem represents an overall theme of chaos and how life really does comes down to that and how terrifying it is—or how freeing it is. It’s a hard show to pitch, but we had 12 performances and they were sold out. We got written up in “LA Weekly,” and hopefully we’ll be doing it again sometime in the next year.

Capsule Review for “Scalene”: Zack Parker’s intriguing psychodrama subverts the expectations of moviegoers expecting a blood-spattered, trashy thriller. The three colors that flood the screen during the opening title sequence represent the separate, distinct perspectives of the film’s main characters: an enraged mother (Margo Martindale) devastated by her son’s wrongful incarceration, a 26-year-old man (Adam Scarimbolo) whose mental challenges have rendered him mute, and a young college student (Hanna Hall) who resorts to horrifying methods to protect the man from alleged abuse. Many of the plot twists stretch the boundaries of credulity, but the film is consistently grounded by the fine work of its three leads. After an opening dreamlike sequence of shocking violence, Martindale earns the audience’s sympathy in the film’s early sections, as she attempts to woo a man (Jim Dougherty) who doesn’t have nearly enough patience to deal with her son’s mental illness. Yet it is Hall’s riveting performance that ends up emerging as the heart of the film during the extended third act. She has the profoundly tricky task of getting the audience to identify with her decidedly unsympathetic plight—and succeeds. With its subtle distortions and Hitchcockian homages (particularly its climactic nod to “Psycho”), the picture is a provocative meditation on the subjectivity of truth.

‘Scalene’ stars Margo Martindale, Hanna Hall, Adam Scarimbolo and Jim Dougherty. It was written by Brandon Owens and Zack Parker and directed by Zack Parker. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 31st. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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