With 1940’s Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock made the cruelest and most deliciously creepy horror of Hollywood’s golden age. At a time of (straight) “family values” and stringent film censors, his adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s novel skewered the supposed sanctuary of the marital home. It’s the story of Maxim DeWinter, an emotionally repressed aristo obsessed with his ex-wife Rebecca, and the mind games he plays with a naive, scrappy young bride. It bemused DuMaurier when the audience interpreted her novel as a love story – it had so much to say about class, queerness, and toxic masculinity.
Netflix’s new Rebecca adaptation – directed by Ben Wheatley and starring Armie Hammer and Lily James – only softly hints to its source material’s queasy undercurrent of gaslighting and psychological abuse, and primly skirts its queerness. (A bolder adaptation may have foregrounded the androgynous moods and lesbian desire in DuMaurier’s Rebecca.) Yet the new Rebecca has fine performances and fresh-feeling moments of style that somewhat lessen its mumsy vibe. A phantasmagoric sequence at a costume party brings to mind the fish-eye freakouts of The Favourite, or The Wicker Man’s pagan chills.
When I speak to Hammer on a Zoom call this September, it’s before Rebecca has been torn to pieces by the critics, and he happily munches on his breakfast at home in LA. Sadly, the dirtbag porno-tache he cultivated this summer is gone; his face is Winklevoss-smooth. He is courteous, engaged and low-key weird: he runs off on a tangent about an obscure Scandinvian horror, and swears profusely in a candid, matey conversation.
Rebecca is such a classic of cinema and literature. Did you know the story before, and what made you think the world could do with a new version?
I was aware that it existed. I had never seen the film; I had never read the book. After getting hired I read the book cover to cover, and then back to the cover. With the film I didn’t watch it intentionally, because Ben [Wheatley] said that he would prefer that I not. He was like, “We’re making something very different.” And we did. We modernised, while staying more true to the original source material than Hitchcock did. He changed the way that Maxim killed Rebecca.
There’s a lot of base elements in this story that are the same human shit that we all deal with: being in a relationship with someone, thinking about who they were with before, worrying about [if] they like you as much, emotional trauma, bad communication, toxic relationships. We’re still dealing with all of this. We’re just wearing different clothes now.
Do you see the new Rebecca as in conversation with #MeToo?
We definitely wanted to be aware that the modern audience is very different. Modern audiences now probably sympathise more with Rebecca – a woman who didn’t listen to her husband, who did what she wanted, and was like, “I’m an independent woman and I’ll do what I want.” That is probably more appealing to the modern audience than Lily’s character who is just like, “I’ll do whatever you tell me to do.”
How did you go about constructing the headspace of your character, Maxim DeWinter?
Understanding his whole context of what his character had been through. Both growing up in the house and the class that he grew up in. What transpired between him and Rebecca and what damage that would leave on him. Building a full backstory for him, trying to understand who he was. All that nerdy actor shit. I shaved every morning with an antique shaving kit.
A cutthroat razor?
More like a safety razor, because if I used a cutthroat I would have just showed up with fucking holes in my face. Wearing the wardrobe and also being in those beautiful stately homes, you kind of sink into [the era] a little bit. I also found a few different colognes that were the big colognes at the time.
What were the colognes like? I imagine a cologne from the ’40s to really whack you round the face with its scent.
It sort of smells like the restroom of a very old clubhouse.
Do you think of your character as an abuser, and did that make it complicated to empathise with him?
Hmm. [Pauses] The relationship he has with Lily James’ character is not the most emotionally healthy relationship. But I wouldn’t say that he is intentionally abusing her, and also it’s kind of a requisite when you’re playing a character to sympathise with their point of view. Even if you’re playing the bad guy, you can’t think that you’re the bad guy. It has to make total sense why you do the things that you are doing. And understanding Maxim’s backstory and what happened to him helped [me] understand why he’s so bad at communicating and why he’s so afraid to tell Lily the truth of what he’s thinking. There’s no safe place in the world for him, even his home. That can be a very isolating and scary thing.
Your character Maxim could be read as a study in male emotional withholding.
If he could be upfront with Lily’s character the movie would be 17 minutes long!
Ben Wheatley has a specific style and there are weird, trippy moments. Were there any scenes that were difficult on a technical level?
The dance was very tricky, and that was two long nights of filming. But it never felt like we were wrestling against logistics to try and get anything [shot].
As a gay man I first watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca because of its coded queer moments. Do you think LGBTQ fans will find similar pleasures in the new version?
I hope so! It’s obviously subjective, and different people get different things out of it, and [they] think that the movie has a different purpose and all that. That’s kind of the fun nature of what we do, is that everyone gets their own interpretation. And everyone is right.
You played in On The Basis of Sex with Felicity Jones. In light of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, what memories do you have of meeting her, and her legacy?
I was really lucky; I did get to spend a little bit of time with her. It was a really intense and overwhelming experience. The woman was maybe 5′2″, and she probably weighed 75 pounds wet. But she was just so formidable, and so sharp. She had so much mental acuity that you could say “Well was was the deal with this?” And she would just sit and look at you for 30 seconds and not say anything. What is a long time to have someone staring at you. And you go, What did I step in here? And then she’ll go, “Well, you have to understand the historical context of this law…” And in those 30 seconds she’s been connecting every dot to complete her train of thought. She was very measured and very reserved, but then could also tell stories and have a good time.
Ben Wheatley’s kind of a weird director and a lot of his work is pretty niche. Have you seen his film Kill List?
Oh yeah. That is one of the most disturbing movies of all time. I was like, “What the fuck is wrong with you, man?” And he was like, “Don’t look at me, Amy wrote it” – his wife. So I go, “So she’s the fucked up one?!” He goes, “Well yeah.”
Is there a movie you’ve watched during lockdown that really blew your mind?
I watched a movie called The Guilty. It’s about a Danish 911 call centre operator. And the entire movie is a close up of his face, basically, answering calls. You never see anything but the guy’s face, but you fill in this entire story – you do all the work. And I was like, “This is unreal.” It’s so good.
Rebecca is out globally on Netflix.