How Cambridge-educated Rebecca Hall had to fight to play ex-stripper Beth Raymer in Lay The Favourite
16:53 GMT, 22 June 2012
When casting for the part of Beth Raymer – the real-life heroine of director Stephen Frears’ latest film Lay the Favourite – the decision was obvious: hire anyone but Rebecca Hall.
Hall, the English rose, Cambridge-educated daughter of theatre impresario Sir Peter Hall and opera star Maria Ewing, seemingly had little in common with Raymer – the Ohio-born car salesman’s daughter who, after a spell as a stripper, makes it big in high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas before finally recounting her experiences in her best-selling memoir of the same name.
Rebecca was keen to land the part, but was told by Frears: ‘You are everything I am not looking for and I will never cast you’, She took a year to convince him otherwise, and now stars in the film opposite Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, which is released today.
Seeing double: Actress Rebecca Hall and her real-life inspiration Beth Raymer at Sundance this year
It’s the kind of dogged pursuit which would have made Beth Raymer proud, although even she must have had her reservations about Hall, the star of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, being cast in the role.
‘Actually,’ says Beth, ‘I was pleasantly surprised. My friends had been throwing around names like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Stiles for the part, and Rebecca has this reputation for being very prim, but I found her very natural and easy to talk to, not at all posh, and I thought she got me down brilliantly in the movie.
Beth’s story was published two years ago and, described as ‘Dickensian’ by some critics for its colourful array of characters, became an instant success. It offered a rare insight into the somewhat shady world of high-stakes sports gambling.
The film rights to the book were snapped up before Beth had even completed it, ‘although actually,’ admits Raymer, ‘they finished writing the screenplay before I’d even written the book!’
But if the details of Beth’s story are unusual, the premise is all too familiar – that of a smalltown girl with big aspirations whose basic desire is to ‘have fun and make money’.
Screen star: Rebecca as Beth with Joshua Jackson as Jeremy in a scene from Lay The Favourite
Initially, she takes a job as an in-home stripper in Florida, until one day, a client pulls a gun on her and after escaping, she runs away to Vegas to see if she can become a cocktail waitress.
Instead, she is introduced to Dink Heimowitz (played by Bruce Willis) – a highly successful sports gambler, who takes Beth under his wing, teaches her the ropes and helps transform his charge into a gambler par excellence, making huge bets on his behalf and earning herself a fortune into the bargain.
As Beth takes to her new job instantly, juggling the different bets effortlessly in her head, she notes: ‘It’s the first place that’s ever made sense of how my brain works’.
Along the way, Beth meets an assortment of colourful characters including Rosie (Vince Vaughn) – Dink’s rival and a fast-talking illegal bookie – and Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dink’s high maintenance, lowbrow wife, with whom Beth enjoys a love-hate relationship.
But as Beth finds herself teetering
on the wrong side of the law, she must quickly work out which of her new
friends she can trust if she is to survive.
a film which deals with characters on the fringes of society, Lay the
Favourite is strangely sweet, helped in no small part by Rebecca Hall’s
portrayal of Beth as its ditzy, sympathetic and, despite her various
jobs, surprisingly innocent heroine.
captures Beth perfectly, from her high-pitched, girly voice to the way
she absent-mindedly twirls her hair – a nervous tic which Beth concedes
‘probably knocks 20 points off my IQ’.
Interesting life: Beth's life story has been turned into the film
‘I was amazed at the way Rebecca got me and I really liked her,’ she continues. ‘We bonded over dancing and drinking whiskey and we talked about our mums a lot. Rebecca’s mum lives in Detroit and my mum got divorced and moved to Ohio, so we talked about all that post-divorce stuff.
‘Both our mums have big personalities too, so there was a lot of common ground despite our different upbringings. We became good friends during the course of filming.’
The film opens with Hall as Beth performing an erotic dance for a client at his home and as the real Beth admits: ‘Rebecca and I did spend a rainy afternoon – sober, I might add – dancing around her apartment. I showed her my moves and she showed me hers. I told her: “If it jiggles, then jiggle it!” and I’ve got to admit, she was a great dancer. She was pretty loose to begin with so those dance scenes weren’t a problem at all and those were all her own moves.’
During Beth’s time as a stripper she came across several unusual characters, including one English Language professor who wanted her to read aloud while sitting naked on a bar stool. ‘He had me read In Cold Blood [by Truman Capote] and the naked bit didn’t worry me at all,’ says Beth, ‘but the reading aloud bit did. I have a deep fear of mis-pronouncing words, so that wasn’t fun at all.’
‘But I learnt a lot about men and about marriage and human nature during that period. A lot of times, the guys didn’t have a sexual need, it was more a need for a connection. Even though they were married with nice homes and nice families, they were sad and just desperately lonely.’
Beth left Florida with the blessing of her father, played in the film by L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen (‘my father wanted Robert Redford!’), and went to Las Vegas, where she met Dink Heimowitz, a professional gambler who made a fortune betting on the outcome of various sporting events, and he took her under his wing.
‘To make it as a professional gambler, you have to have a very serious work ethic,’ she says, ‘and Dink was very bright and would work 16-hour days. That little gambling office had the energy of a floor on Wall Street and we were putting hundreds and hundreds of bets on throughout the day.
‘We would make $60,000 a day sometimes and millions in a year. At first, it’s pretty exciting but then it quickly becomes quite normal.’
Dink, six foot four, 20 stones and with a rather unappealing line in Hawaiian print shirts and white tube socks, makes an unlikely film hero, but with Bruce Willis inhabiting the role, such considerations melted away.
‘I was on set quite a lot and Bruce was very sweet and more softly-spoken than I imagined. He also had a lot of sex appeal. He’s actually wearing Dink’s real clothes in the film too. Because Dink used to wear his clothes several sizes too small, when Bruce Willis tried them on, they ended up fitting and he even wore those ugly white socks!’ she adds.
‘I’d showed Dink the book before it was published and he had some problems with some of the descriptions and the anecdotes, but once he realised Bruce Willis was playing him, he was Ok about them.’
Watching the film, it’s clear that the image of a professional gambler as a ‘slimy degenerate’, to use Beth’s phrase, can be off the mark.
The closeness which developed between Beth and Dink didn’t go down well with his wife Tulip (played in the film by a resplendently trashy Catherine Zeta-Jones) and, Beth admits: ‘I developed a crush on Dink which was basically misguided emotion. Dink had showed me the ropes, given me advice and was very supportive and wise. He was like an older brother to me and I eventually realised that.
‘Both he and Tulip were like a surrogate family for me, even though it took Tulip and me a little time to warm to one another. To have her played by Catherine Zeta-Jones is the ultimate compliment though as Catherine’s just so beautiful. In truth though, Tulip is more of a blonde, California girl…more a Goldie Hawn type.’
After a spell working in Curacao, ‘where you could win millions a day…and just as quickly lose it’, Beth eventually left the gambling business behind when a customer cheated her out of $25,000.
‘When that happened, I was so angry,’ she admits, ‘because a lot of business is done purely with handshakes. He wasn’t true to his word and that made me feel that it just wasn’t worth it anymore.’
At 28, ‘and by normal resume standards just a criminal with no references’, Beth had a stroke of luck when she was accepted to New York’s Columbia University and when Lay the Favourite was published, her luck changed for good. She’s currently writing her second book, ‘a novel – I’m done with memoir for now’ and admits that life couldn’t be better.
‘When I was growing up, I never had any aspirations or ambitions and I was like a blank slate’, she says. So if there’s any moral to my story, it’s to keep an open mind. You just never know where life is going to take you.’
* Lay the Favourite is released in cinemas on June 22nd