When actor and producer Daniel Kaluuya asked first-time filmmakers Adamma and Adanne Ebo whom they wanted for the lead role in their dark comedy “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” the identical twin sisters had one actress in mind.
The fact that Hall is Hollywood shorthand is news to the 51-year-old, who said she got started “late in the game.” She’s still trying to figure out what it’s actually short for, or if she has, she won’t leak the recipe of her secret sauce.
Hall said she doesn’t know what a “Regina Hall type” means. “You never think of yourself as something that represents,” she said backstage last month after a “Honk for Jesus” discussion at the annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. “So I don’t know. I mean, I was happy it was me.”
After two decades in the industry, the actress — perhaps best known for her work in the Scary Movie and Best Man franchises — knows never to paint herself or her talent into a corner. But just as you assume Hall is retreating into the ambiguous nonanswers of an actor deep in publicity mode, she flips the script.
“You have to ask [the Ebos]. I want to know what it means, too. Busty! No, definitely not,” Hall laughed. The ability she has to code-switch from comedy, drama and all the things in between with a downcast look or a perfectly timed sideways glance is part of what makes her the prototype the twins were hoping to snag: She can be hilarious in one moment and heartbreakingly sad the next without making the audience dizzy.
In “Honk for Jesus,” Hall plays Trinitie Childs, the former first lady of a megachurch helmed by her husband Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown). Trinitie is the very model of a modern Southern belle, all pastels, big church hats and a perfectly executed “you have a blessed one.” But her slip is showing.
Filmed as a mockumentary, the movie follows the couple’s attempted comeback after sexual misconduct allegations. Brown plays Lee-Curtis like the beguiling egomaniac he is, preaching the prosperity gospel from the pulpit in Prada suits. But while Trinitie is just as hungry to take back her gilded throne, Hall offers a way past the first lady veneer through quieter moments (like fingering the rhinestones on a new $2,000 hat) that make condemning her more complicated.
It’s part and parcel for Hall, who wants her audience to have “compassion for the characters” she plays, whether it’s the suffering but sanctified Trinitie, the creepy Carmel of “Nine Perfect Strangers” or the no-filter Brenda of Scary Movies 1 to 4.
“I want people to think, ‘Well, who would be friends with Brenda? She’s a terrible friend!’ But I want people to be like, ‘I want to be friends with her’ even though you don’t know why,” Hall said. “I read ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ and said why hasn’t someone sent Carmel home? She’s in the wrong place. But I want people to care. That’s the hardest part: to search for that because it’s very subtle.”
Character actor — the term used for those who disappear into compelling roles so thoroughly that you forget about the famous person doing all the work — is a title Hall has earned. The boss from hell in “Little.” That’s Hall. The put-upon small-town chain restaurant manager in “Support the Girls”? That’s also Hall. The driven ’80s femme financier in “Black Monday”? Hall.
“I have to find the character first,” Hall said. Once she does that, she feels like she can “do anything” and “the rest is just play.” So how does she hop from one sandbox to another? “Hair. I have to know how they wear their hair first,” Hall said. “How someone wears their hair says a lot. That’s a helpful way in for me.”
Dawn Towner of “Black Monday” had “different hair every season.” Lisa, in “Support the Girls,” had “dated” curls. (“That hair had been around a long time but it was also done. You look at it and say ‘she took her time.’ There was still effort,” Hall said.) In the thriller “Master,” she wore a short Afro. All of it, she said, got her closer to the truth.
Having IMDb credits this long to scroll through is the privilege of a “slow and steady” acting career that almost never was. The D.C. native got into acting while still a graduate student at New York University. “And I was bad,” Hall said. Her father’s death prompted the 20-something to reevaluate what she wanted to spend her life doing. She got her degree in journalism, but instead of producing segments for “60 Minutes,” she headed to Hollywood. “My first film that I actually booked was ‘The Best Man.’”
For years, Hall was viewed as a great ensemble player and comedic actress, often the surprisingly bright spot in movies such as “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” “Think Like a Man” and “About Last Night.” Black audiences recognized her from the cult classic “Paid In Full” and wider audiences knew her from “Scary Movie.”
“I think she’s one of the best actors working today, period,” said “About Last Night” director Steve Pink of the actress back in 2015. “I think everyone should know who Regina Hall is. I would cast her in anything and everything I ever do in the future.”
But it wasn’t until the commercial success of the 2017 movie “Girls Trip” and the critical acclaim of “Support the Girls” a year later that the actress started to see a gear shift in her trajectory. “All of those films had specific audiences, and over time, a collection of audiences together finally getting to know and experience you probably shifts things,” said Hall, who was one of the 2022 Oscars hosts.
“I guess I shouldn’t say it was slow. I was always working. It’s just how careers go, you know. It’s like some people marry their first love, some people marry their 51st love,” she said, adding, “I think mine happened in just the right way. I got to learn from every job” and “I can say now I’m happy. You understand when it all comes together.”
Back onstage at the film festival, it’s as if Hall is giving the writer-producer siblings of “Honk for Jesus” the CliffsNotes to her own career thus far. “I made it for Black folks,” Adamma said of their film. “But we want the White folks to come see it, too!” interjected the actress from behind her director, adding just the right pinch of a Regina Hall-type moment.