Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins has made a career of playing imposing, authoritative characters. In the dramatic film “Hitchcock” (directed by Sacha Gervasi), Hopkins portrays the title character: the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who had a reputation for being very intimidating , dictatorial, and quick use his power to get his way. The movie takes a behind-the-scenes look at the problems and controversies that Hitchcock faced when he made his 1960 horror film “Psycho.” His wife, Alma Reville (played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren), stood by him and acted as his trusted advisor and editor, even if she sometimes clashed with her husband too. Even though Hitchcock had tremendous success in the entertainment business, he was still plagued by deep insecurities.
The release of “Hitchcock” came just one month after HBO premiered the TV-movie “The Girl,” which portrayed Hitchcock’s troubled off-screen relationship with actress Tippi Hedren, who says that Hitchcock damaged her career after she refused his sexual advances. Hitchcock’s obsession with the blonde actresses he cast as the stars of his movies is mentioned in “Hitchcock,” but it is not the focus of the movie. Instead, the movie shows how Hitchcock, under great financial risk, battled the studio system to get “Psycho” made and released in theaters; how he was with the cast and crew while making the movie; and how he proved to be a master of self-promotion in hyping the movie to audiences. Hopkins talked about Hitchcock (the man and the movie) via a video conference call during a “Hitchcock” press conference in New York City.
You also had to wear prosthetics when you played Richard Nixon in the 1995 movie “Nixon.” Can you compare and contrast the challenges of your roles in “Nixon” and “Hitchcock”?
President Nixon was probably the most challenging because he was such an American figure and had such a great position and was involve din a very complex dilemma of not telling the truth. [“Nixon” director] Oliver Stone wanted me to play [Nixon] because he understood my insecurities and how insecure Richard Nixon was.
With Hitchock, it was different. He’s an immense figure physically and in his reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of the century. [He] was so well-known to the public through the “Hitchcock” TV series that started in 1955. And also, I’d been a fan of “Hitchcock,” ever since I was young boy, 16 years of age, when I saw “Rear Window” and later, the other films [such as] “North by Northwest.”
“Vertigo” is one of my favorites. And then “Psycho” in 1960. I was one of the early viewers. It had just been released that week in September in 1960. And I was in Manchester. And I was knocked out by the power of the film, the terrifying aspect of the film. So I’ve been a Hitchcock fan.
I think the difference is that I had the most enjoyment with this untried [feature film] director Sacha Gervasi. He was one of the reasons why I really finally decided I wanted to do it. He’s never had experiences working with actors before. He had a wonderful film ‘Anvil!,” which was a documentary. His enthusiasm was so great. That’s all the more reason to do it, because he had such confidence in himself.
My insecurities started after the film, because I’d wondered if it had gone OK. I caught the sight of myself on those video playbacks on the camera where the director can watch the screen. I just saw one look at it and I was, “I don’t want to see any more,” because I wasn’t sure if I’d got it right. My insecurities were so deep that I wanted to run away to Tierra del Fuego ore something like that.
I saw the film … and Sacha has done a remarkable piece of work. And I was very pleased with what I saw. I had studied many of the Hitchock mannerisms from the TV series. And I watched a lot of his films again and again. The early films, the silent movies and “Psycho,” Vetrigo” and “Rear Window,” my favorite.
And then I watched “Hitchcock Presents.” And that was my clue. And I instinctively [was] thinking, “He was born in Leytonstone in east London, so he was a Cockney.” And the accent that he put on for his show when he became known as the great Alfred Hitchcock, I think it was for the benefit of American audiences. So they must have [thought he] sounded like a high-born aristocrat, which he wasn’t. He was a Cockney.
So when he said [Hopkins says in Hitchcock’s famous accent], “Good evening. I have a story for you which will terrify you, absolutely,” I [did] a London accent. And I’m sure in his domestic life, he spoke like he would’ve done 30 years before or 40 years before, as he lived as a young man in London. So I knew I had to get the voice as close as possible.
And the incredible look that [“Hitchcock” special makeup effects artist] Howard Berger created the face of Hitchcock. We had to be very careful in him not being covered in makeup, not vanishing behind it. We did about five tests or maybe right tests. Julie Weiss, a wonderful costume designer, did the body. I lost a lot of weight to get into shape, because I didn’t want to put on weight. So once it was all put together, I felt like Hitchcock.
My first scene was out in the desert when Michael Wincott, that wonderful actor [who played Ed Gein], when he hits his brother with a shovel, and the camera pans over — that was my most scary moment. There’s no turning back now.
I think we made the others very nervous, when I said to Sacha, “Can we do it a few more times?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine.” “Don’t tell me it’s fine, because I want to do it more.” So we did about six, seven takes. I wanted to get the first sound right.
And afterwards, I had nightmares that it wasn’t right. The thing is, is to not do a Frank Gorshin or a Rich Little impersonation, brilliant as they are, because I think it becomes pure mimicry, then something somehow becomes lost. It becomes inauthentic. So my task — I suppose if you want to call it that — was present a representation of what Hitchcock is like, and hopefully produce his inner psyche as well.
Did you ever have any personal encounters with Alfred Hitchcock?
I met Hitchcock in a restaurant. I don’t know if it’s there now. It’s called Ma Maison. And I was with my agent, who actually represented Alfred Hitchcock. He also represented Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. His name was George Chasen.
It was 1979, and Hitchcock had just been made a knight by the queen. So I said, “I’d love to meet him.” We walked on past his table. And George Chasen, my agent, said, “Good afternoon, Sir Alfred.” He said, “George, how are you?” I was introduced as George’s client. [Hitchcock] said, “Charmed, I’m sure.” That was the only time I met him.
I met Janet Leigh a few times. I met James Stewart many years ago, about 50 years ago. And I asked him what it was like to work with Alfred Hitchcock. And he gave me some insights. I had no idea I was going to play him, but I’m glad I did.
Can you talk about what you brought to the Hitchcock character, in terms of the culture clash in Hollywood and being in the era of McCarthyism?
I do know about the cultural clash. I think he adapted very well to Hollywood. I think he loved it. He loved living there, and I think he enjoyed his life there. He was a man who loved food, he loved good wine and all the rest of it. He loved the lifestyle that he had. He’s like a lot of Brits who go out there and just relish it and enjoy it.
He was there in the McCarthy era. I don’t know if he was particularly involved in that political storm. He made “Rear Window” with James Stewart just after the McCarthy period, in fact. I think that’s when he became very popular worldwide, in Britain and in America. In that period [with] “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Vertigo,” “The Wrong Man,” I don’t think he was making any political statement.
I think his great genius was he was a psychologist. He understood human psychology so deeply. I think it was not even an intellectual. He was a very well-read man. He spoke a number of languages, German and French. He was very well-educated, brilliant man — maybe self-educated. He had a natural hunger for knowledge. He read voraciously. And I think he read [Sigmund] Freud deeply.
So he had a knowledge of human nature and the dark forces that are in every human being. People are very fond of using the words “the dark side.” I don’t think he had a dark side. He was a very complex, probably very insecure man, felt like an outsider. He did say that he was never nominated for an Oscar: “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
And I think he must have felt it deep down, but probably he was too polite or too remote to complain. I think that it must’ve rankled him that he was never taken that seriously, because he was a great moneymaker. So when the red flag went up that he wanted to do this schlock horror movie called “Psycho,” they thought he was mad. And he probably thought he was mad too. But he put his security at risk.
And it was because of Alva that she encouraged him … and he never really thanked her until the final AFI Award that he received in whenever that was in 1979. He loved California life. I think he was a diplomat. He clashed with the studios, but I don’t think he ultimately expressed hostility, because they had given him a position in the American film industry — a big position — as they had given Charlie Chaplin.
But it was probably mystifying to him that he wasn’t really accepted. “If somebody is really popular, they can’t be that good.” I think it’s that psychology. “He’s very popular. He makes popular films. Therefore, we can’t take him seriously. Just give us the money.” So when he did [“Psycho”], it was a great time … that he actually beat the system. It must have amused him too.
How did you feel when you first saw yourself in full-makeup as Alfred Hitchcock?
I saw it in the mirror, as Howard Berger and Peter [Montagna, “Hitchcock’s” key prosthetic makeup artist] were putting the makeup on me. And I thought it was quite astonishing how they had designed it so I could begin the feel like Hitchcock. Stanislavski talks about the mask, that it doesn’t have to be all internal, that a piece of makeup or a shoe or a hat could make you feel different. The makeup certainly helped me and the big fat suit that Julie Weiss had done with the wardrobe and all that, the wonderful artist that she is.
It was relatively easy. I’d done all my preparation. I’d done all the homework I’d needed to do. I learned the script obsessively, as I tend to do. I made sure I was as secure with the vocal technique as I possibly could be. And then it up to the gods or whatever.
I certainly was not at my most secure, which is very good, because if you get too secure, you become lazy. So my insecurity drove down deeper and deeper into working harder and harder to become the guy. And that was all I could see it by. I felt vulnerable. And I felt quite moved by me but by Hitchcock himself.
There’s a scene outside the movie, when they play the Bernard Herrmann music. Alma had truthfully persuaded Hitchcock to use after Bernard Herrmann had suggested it … And he begrudgingly did say when they showed him the final shower scene with the music, he said, “Yes, it is getting better.” I think he was a very guarded, a very shy man. He didn’t want to express emotion. I think that’s what knocked inside of him, his obsession with the feminine side of himself, which was manifested him those beautiful blonde women [in his movies] who are inaccessible because really, it was deep inside of him. That was his ideal woman.
Hitchcock argued with the Motion Picture Association of America about the content of “Psycho.” Did you ever have to personally deal with censorship or controversial content in any of your movies?
Not being a director, I don’t have any argumentative power against the MPAA … I think he was such a powerful figure, such a powerful artist, he knew he’d get his way, although there was that chance that he could lose his house, lose everything financially. But he stuck to it. And this actually happened, because I remember something about an American working on “Psycho” what they called in those days “the exploitation factor,” which is publicity.
And he said that Hitchcock was such a genius at publicity. He was in New Jersey, and they had police escorts, and they had police stop people from going into the theater. It was a joke, but Hitchcock built up the tension so people had to get in and see the movie. He knew. He was 10 moves ahead of them. He knew what would pay.
And I don’t think he had any malice in him. “I’m going to get my revenge.” It amused him that [“Psycho”] made so much money. All the naysayers said [after “Psycho” was a success], “We always knew it would be a great movie. Fantastic. We always knew.” [Hopkins says in Hitchcock’s voice] “Yes, I’m sure you did.” He had that sly sense of humor.
Janet Leigh said that he was the most fun she’d ever had with any director. She’d go to his house for dinner … He’d play jokes on people. So all in all, people talk about his dark side. Well, that’s part of being alive and human. His obsessions with these beautiful women is probably just a projection artistic sense and feminine side — the anima and animus, which we all possess. And the feminine in me is the most creative side.
What do you think were some of the most unique aspects of Hitchcock as a director?
I’ve been watching his films over the years for my own entertainment, long before I knew I was going to play him. I think what’s really powerful about Hitchcock is the way he created an atmosphere in the scene. And I mean “atmosphere” literally, with light.
There’s a scene in “Vertigo” where he [the Jimmy Stewart character] goes to Barbara Bel Geddes’ apartment … And the apartment is flooded with San Francisco light, a beautiful morning. Then he goes to the junkyard to meet his friend, who set up the whole terrible deal with his wife, [played by] Kim Novak. And the way it’s lit, the furniture in the room, Hitchcock had this wonderful sense of what was real.
And then in “Psycho,” the office with Janet Leigh … that claustrophobic, dank, oppressive feeling, and that drunken guy coming in and offering money and flirting with her, you just sensed that something was not right. And Hitchcock said in an interview with a French filmmaker that what fascinated him about life was the unpredictable.
He felt that he always had to be in control because he was terrified of the unexpected. And I think that tapped straight into the human psyche. I think that’s what he does: He makes people uneasy, all of the time …
It’s very almost like Kubrick did in “The Shining,” when you know something terrible is going to happen, but you don’t know what. And Hitchcock’s obsession with that was that in reality, we go through life, we wake up the morning … go about our business, and then suddenly, life has changed on a turn of a dime.
In several interviews, he was asked, “What frightens you?” And he said, “Policemen frighten me, because when I was a boy, I did something naughty, and I was put in a police [pad] by my father.”
And he was asked, “What draws people to fear?” He said, “What is the first thing you do when you see a baby? You go, ‘Boo!’”
His sheer genius was that he was a great psychologist and a great romantic, trapped in that enormous body. And I think that made him a very lonely, soulful, hurt. And that’s what I found so enjoyable about playing him. He was a deeply hurt man.
How much do you think Hitchcock was responsible for changing the public perception of horror and violence?
I think it was more about the perception of unease, not so much horror. We all have a sense of unease about our lives. We all have. Anxiety is pervasive through the human race and in the animal kingdom as well. But he understood that.
[Henri-Georges] Clouzot made a movie called “Diabolique.” I saw it in 1955, just after it came out. And that was the first terrifying movie where the unspeakable is happening in front of you. The two women kill the husband, but he vanishes from the swimming pool … That was such a great movie, and I think Hitchcock was probably influenced by that as well, but he had already established a norm for the horror.
“The Lady Vanishes” is one of the films where he establishes the terror of somebody vanishing. “Rear Window” is another example … I’m sure he was influenced as well by German cinema but also by Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Who knows? Maybe he decided to do “Psycho” as a result of “Diabolique.” Maybe that’s why he did it. He did say, “I’m tired of making movies with big, overpaid stars,” although he liked them; he was great friends with Cary Grant and James Stewart. He wanted something with more grit in it, something that was more terrifying — terrifying about life …
[“Psycho”] was the most terrifying film I’d ever seen. I saw it in Manchester in 1960, on a wet September night. So they indelibly imprinted in me.
And the way Hitchcock designs his shots. He said, “You don’t need to worry about what the motivation is. My camera will tell you what to do.” And all he asked of his actors, he’d give them freedom, didn’t ask them to analyze it, speak your lines, but “stay within the frame of my camera.”
And I put that line in, “I’m just a man hiding in a corner with a camera,” which I think sends a shiver up people’s spines, because he’s a man. He’s a voyeur, as we are voyeurs going to the movies.
Out of all of the Hitchcock films you’ve seen, which is your favorite scene and why?
“Vertigo” is one of my all-time favorites. I think it’s the haunting music of Bernard Herrmann. James Stewart’s romantic obsession for this young woman, who’s a mystery — a beautiful, blond, inaccessible woman. He falls madly in love with her, and she’s killed halfway through the film. She just falls out of window or commits suicide.
And she reappears on the streets of San Francisco, that scene particularly, when he follows her across the street to the hotel. That late-afternoon light on a San Francisco street … and he asks her, “Can I take you to dinner?” And as he goes out, she turns toward the camera, and you see the whole plot, and you’re let in on the secret that this a set-up. [The character played by] James Stewart is the victim …
That’s the kind of mystical genius of Hitchcock had. And now the film has become the top No. 1 film of all time [in the 2012 BFI Sight and Sound Poll]. The critics destroyed [“Vertigo”] when it came out. They said it was rubbish. So Hitchcock’s genius lives on, many years after his death.
I felt honored to play him. I was very nervous because I felt, “I can’t do justice to him.” I was very moved that I was given the part to play. It’s had a profound effect on me, I think. Ideas are still coming back to me about the movie, about Hitchcock.
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