Armie Hammer has a succinct answer when asked how it feels for him and Lily James to play the same roles in the new version of Rebecca that were once played by legendary actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine: “Well, they’re both dead, what are they gonna say?”
Hammer (Call Me by Your Name) is joking of course, and he acknowledges working under the shadow of both the 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the classic 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier. But he also says that giving the story another go on the screen is a risk worth taking.
“You know, we’re doing an adaptation of a film that Hitchcock also made an adaptation from the same book,” says the actor in our Zoom video interview below. “They’re kind of like big shoes to fill, but at the same time, if you’re not swinging for the fences, why even get up to bat?”
The new Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley (Free Fire) and now streaming on Netflix, is not strictly a remake of the 1940 film but is, if anything, slightly more faithful to the book. Wheatley and his screenwriters (Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse) coax a moral ambiguity and feminist twist out of du Maurier’s multi-layered Gothic romance that wasn’t permissible in the 1940 film, retaining a plot turn that was excised from Hitchcock’s film due to the vagaries of then-enforced Hayes Production Code.
In the new film — as in the book and the 1940 version — the main character is an unnamed young woman (played here by Lily James) who is working as a personal assistant to a wealthy older American (Ann Dowd) on holiday in Monte Carlo when she meets Maxim de Winter (Hammer), also rich, quite dashing and recently widowed.
The two strike up a whirlwind courtship that results in de Winter whisking the young woman back to his ancestral estate, Manderley, as the new Mrs. de Winter. But once ensconced there, she discovers that the house is permeated with the lingering presence of her predecessor, Rebecca, who still commands the unhealthy loyalty of the mansion’s housekeeper, the sinister Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
“It’s been a long time since there has been a film out of this book,” says Thomas. “I think that this younger generation hearing the story will take it on in a different way. I think we’re far better at expressing our frustration of being born female and frustration at the inequalities that there are. And I think that gives it a new tone.”
Rebecca in all its incarnations pivots from romance to thriller quite suddenly and organically, leaving the viewer or reader disoriented along the way. James (Baby Driver) recalls the way she felt when she first read the book, which she believes was a gift from her mother.
“I feel like I’m questioning myself now whether I made that up, but I’m sure she did,” says the British actress. “I went to India when I was like 20 and I was reading it on a sleeper train. I remember thinking it was definitely the wrong book to read in India because I was not looking out the window. I was just reading and feeling I was back in the English countryside. But I for sure remember reading the book and thinking, ‘Wow, this is crazy. This is so intoxicating and so surprising and shocking and twisted and romantic somehow.’”
“I remember being very struck by it many years ago,” says Dowd about watching the Hitchcock movie for the first time. “It was very haunting, very compelling. And then you move on and you do other things. And then I read this adaptation all these many years later and all of that came back. The beauty, the haunting nature of this love story. How complex that world is and how full of suspense and also weird dynamics. Very, very powerful.”
When asked if she thinks the story can still speak to viewers today, Dowd says, “A love story is always relevant, and how Ben has brought this together in this stunning story, I think it’s so compelling. Even if you don’t think that’s kind of your cup of tea, the minute you start watching, I don’t think you walk away. It’s just too good.”
Hammer and James both have different takes on what new generations of viewers can take away from du Maurier’s essentially timeless story. Hammer keeps with the tone of his earlier answer: “If you’re going to get romantically involved with someone, you should probably ask if they ever murdered their spouse,” he says in a deadpan voice. “Just as an icebreaker.”
“Make sure you know the man you’re going to marry,” says James, agreeing to some extent. She adds, “I think that the younger audience are going to love it because within this kind of Gothic, romantic, thriller, ghost story, it’s got everything. It’s luscious to watch, but it’s also an amazing look on men and women and jealousy and obsession and being a victim and emotional abuse and stuff that’s always going to remain relevant.”
Rebecca is streaming now on Netflix.