When you buy a ticket to see Hitchcock, you may think you’re in for a blow-by-blow treatment of the making of Psycho. Certainly, that story is told, but the film is much more about the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, and the massive role she played in helping her husband craft his films into a final product.
On November 17, 2012, I sat in on a press conference with the film’s director, Sacha Gervasi, and the entire cast, minus Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Hopkins. There were, however, many participants:
- Sacha Gervasi (Director)
- Helen Mirren (Alma Reville)
- Toni Collette (Peggy Roberston)
- Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook)
- Jessica Biel (Vera Miles)
- Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman)
- James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins)
How has your perception changed — if at all — about Hitchcock and Hollywood of the times since before you started the film?
Toni Collette: Well, I guess he comes across as quite a domineering figure. He was very domineering, he was a control freak, and he was intimidating — but he was also very warm, and very funny, and obviously very talented.
Danny Huston: The problem with a man [who] has that kind of greatness is sometimes the man and the mythology creates some confusion… In a sense of working with Hopkins, I wasn’t always fully aware if it was Hitchcock playing Hopkins or Hopkins playing Hitchcock; which blurred the lines all the more. Their knowledge is smoke and mirrors, and we’re telling the tale, which is somewhat true and somewhat not.
Jessica Biel: We, of course, know his very challenging relationships or domineering relationships with his wife and with his great leading actresses. What I had discovered was, yes, that was a part of who he was and his directorial style, but it’s the passion, the love of the work, and he was so dedicated, he cared so much. Yes, it was a very strange way to work at times, and it may have been hard for some people to be part of that, but I think in the case of Vera Miles, they had so much respect for each other. I think that type of respect was such a big part of his relationship with the women in his life.
For all of you, what is your favorite Hitchcock film?
Sacha Gervasi: Hello, Psycho.
Helen Mirren: Vertigo is mine.
Collette: It’s too hard.
Huston: Strangers on a Train, only because I wrote it [referring to his character in the film].
Biel: Dial M for Murder, I always loved it.
Michael Stuhlbarg: Wow, it’s kind of hard to choose, because each one kind of accomplishes a different feat. I’m particularly taken by Rope, just because of the technical issues in creating that whole story in just one shot; how he made it through the cuts, how he tried to hide that. There’s so many, and I love them all.
James D’Arcy: For me, it has to be the last one I watched. The minute you see it, you’re struck by its genius and you forget the last one. Then you watch the next one, and you’re like, “Oh wait…” The last one I saw was Foreign Correspondence, which is a 1940 piece of war propaganda. Absolutely mesmeric; it has one of the best plane crashes I’ve ever seen. That one wasn’t even on my radar before I saw it, now it’s my favorite Hitchcock film.
Gervasi: With many filmmakers there are maybe one or two master works; with Hitchcock, there are perhaps 10 or 12. That’s very rare… I think Sam Mendes recently referred to North by Northwest as the first Bond film; and Psycho is the first horror film. He was known as a genre director at the time, and I think he was quite dismissed. Some of these films were not particularly well reviewed.
We have a joke in the film where Hitch wakes up from a nightmare, he turns to Alma and goes, “What is this, another Vertigo?” Vertigo was a commercial and critical disaster, and I think it was the week we shot that sequence, around that time, it was voted by Sight and Sound as the number one film of all time. It’s lovely to have that perspective and talk about his film Psycho, which was widely dismissed; I think the quote from the New York Times was something like, “an awful blot on an otherwise honorable career.” And now most critics call it a master work.
I had the privilege of talking to Sir Anthony this morning, and one of the things he mentioned was how thrilled he was to work with you, Helen Mirren. So firstly, how was it acting with this man for the first time?
Mirren: Our trajectory, while we never actually met, is fairly similar in a modicum of terms. The funny thing is, when talking about theater, you are reliant on the other actor on stage with you, unlike in film where you’re sort of really working between you and the camera. You never really get the chance to work long with another actor unless you get in a long two-person scene. You learn to depend upon and give room to the other actor — that was the nature of getting to work with Tony [Hopkins]; we recognized that the other person needed support. I recognized that hugely with Tony because, to carry all of that make up, and the necessity to have that impersonation, as well as acting the role, I knew what kind of challenge that was. So I tried to give him as much support and freedom, and he did the same for me, which is fantastic.
I think he is just amazing. When you watch him on screen, he is an absolute minimalist. You’d never imagine he did so much stage, because some of these movements are so tiny and subtle, to act through all that which he is carrying. I have to say, being on set with him, I was completely unaware of the fact that he was wearing anything. He became Hitch, he just was that man. In a way, when it all came off and it was Tony, I was rather taken by surprise. Like, “I completely forgot you are actually this person.”
He’s a minimalist, but he is a volcano of emotion… And when he is able to push that emotion through all that make-up, it just plays brilliantly.
For Jessica and James: you both portray people who had very noticeable public images, whereas Helen, you played someone who didn’t have that kind of exposure. How did you go about researching these roles, without trying to just do an impression?
Biel: That’s a tough question. It was something I was very careful about, and something I talked to Sacha about, a lot. I think what I realized as we were going along with it was that it’s almost impossible to actually re-create the whole person, so I’m really just grasping onto a facet of who she could have been. Everybody knows the characters that she played and who she was — but who was she as a woman, as a mother, as a sister, [and] as a wife, we won’t ever really 100 percent know that.
I just wanted to grasp a facet of her personality, of who she was as a human being in reference to her experiences with Hitchcock, and with her family, and with the trajectory she took with her career… Maybe, I think, what a lot of people wanted her to be, she didn’t want. She didn’t want to be a star; she just wanted to be a perfected actor. That says a lot about who she is. She has a lot of grace, and was so intelligent, so that is what I was trying to go for.
D’Arcy: It is interesting that this man I was trying to find the essence of is so confused with Norman Bates that journalists who have seen the film have asked me what it was like to play Norman Bates — and I don’t play Norman Bates, I play Anthony Perkins. He became so synonymous with the role that he was condemned to play it three more times. For me, there was a little freedom in that.
I don’t think people know Anthony Perkins very well at all. They know Norman Bates extremely well — particularly from the first Psycho. There’s a very good biography written about him, [and] he does share certain characteristics with Norman Bates — that sort of shyness, that boyish quality. I felt disrespectful the other day, but looking at a few of the other films he made around the time, he wasn’t the most versatile actor I’ve ever seen. So his physicality, I decided, was Norman Bates’s physicality. It was the same physicality he had in other movies, so that was quite helpful that he had a consistency.
Mirren: Yes, very few people even knew what [Reville] looked like. My great sadness is that she was tiny — less than five feet — and I’m fairly tall. That imagine of a tiny birdlike woman and this huge guy who was big in every sense, I just love that image. She was the only one who could control him, and I couldn’t do that, because I’m not little… So I had to find a different way to get into her, and my way was [via] the book that her daughter wrote.
I thought that was very pertinent, the fact that the only daughter of Alfred Hitchcock chose to writer about her mother and not about her father — and she didn’t call it “Alma Hitchcock,” she called it Alma Reville. She said that she really wanted to bring her mother out of the shadows and put her in her rightful place. So that was an amazing resource for me… I learned about her life, her energy, her love of Hitch, and her love of film.
In this modern world of TMZ where we know so much about people’s private lives, if this was happening today, do you think Alma would have stuck with Alfred Hitchcock?
Mirren: Absolutely, even more so. The great thing, in Patricia’s [Hitchcock] book she said, was that “people don’t understand, my dad was an ordinary guy.” He would come home regularly at six o’ clock; he didn’t shoot through the night. He came home at six, mom would cook diner, we would sit and eat as a family, feed the pets. She described a rather banal family, suburban life. Yes, he was artistic — he would go off and make these extraordinary films, but there was an ordinary streak about them. I think this was a partnership made to last, and it would have done just as well in this day in age as it did, then.
How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually? Also, if Hitchcock were still alive today, what questions would you ask him?
Gervasi: It’s an accident, of course, if anything ever comes together. You do your best work, you try, you never know. I think we all intended within a Hitchcock thriller to make a film for an audience. We wanted it to hopefully be entertaining and emotional, and hopefully you laugh a bit too. So, that seems to happening with audiences. It’s been a wonderful and warm response.
We try to capture his spirit. You know, the film opens with Ed Gein killing his brother in a field in Wisconsin, and we pan over to Anthony Hopkins sipping his tea. We’re clearly telling everyone, “Get ready, we’re going to have some fun.” As the film deepens and expands, we hope to get to the emotional reality of what might have been his life. We were definitely trying to entertain, and we hope it’s successful.
As for the second part of the question, I would be silent in awe.
Mirren: I think I would ask him, what is the most elaborate practical joke you ever played? He was a great trickster, and some of these practical jokes were incredibly elaborate, requiring huge amounts of organization and a cast of people literally having to act the part. So I would love to know what he thought was his most successful practical joke.
Jessica, you have great speech [in the film] about the importance of having a life and not just being a movie star. [Do you believe] that today it’s easier to [balance] a brilliant career and a family than it was back then?
Biel: Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s terribly hard now. Do you mean the idea of giving it up?
Yeah, giving it all up so you can have the family?
Collette: Well, that was the ’60s; that was a cultural expectation. I think it’s certainly changed.
Biel: Definitely. I don’t think she [Vera Miles] looked at her career as being a failure of some kind or something she wasn’t proud of. She wasn’t interested in being a star, the way I got into the character — I talked to her grandson. Vera is alive, and doesn’t have a public life at all. She’s not interested in having a public life, and was just not interested in speaking with me, at all. I don’t think that was an insult in anyway, but her grandson was interested. (laughter) Okay, he’s married and highly protective of his grandmother. He’s probably [her] best historian.
I think it is very challenging to have a private life. That’s just my opinion. It’s been very hard for me to have any sort of privacy in my life. It’s a balance you have to try to create, but it’s very hard. I really would love to be in the days where there was no TMZ, and the internet. You know, Google is great, but I think I would be better off.