Before Anthony Hopkins unveils his interpretation of the iconic filmmaker in the upcoming Fox Searchlight film “Hitchcock,” Toby Jones will offer up his in “The Girl,” which premieres on HBO Saturday, October 20, at 9 pm. Directed by Julian Jarrold (“Becoming Jane,” “Brideshead Revisited”) and written by Gwyneth Hughes (“Miss Austen Regrets”), “The Girl” draws from actress Tippi Hedren’s accounts of working with Alfred Hitchcock on “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
It’s a portrait of the artist as predatory and controlling, both on set and off — Jones plays Hitch as obsessive, self-loathing and increasingly fixated on his latest blonde (Sienna Miller as Hedren), one he plucked from the relative obscurity of the modeling world in order to have more power to shape her career. It’s a dark take on the famed director, though one that’s not without sympathy. Jones finds in his take on Hitchcock loneliness and tragedy — he’s a man who’s able to control every element of his films but not the world outside.
Indiewire spoke with Jones about the Hitchcock role, the challenges of playing real people and what it feels like to end up once again in one of two rival biopics about the same man (see: Truman Capote in “Infamous” and “Capote”).
Hitchcock is such a familiar screen presence, and “The Girl” makes it clear he’s someone who’s very aware of his own physicality. What can you tell me about the prosthetics involved in the role and recreating the look of the man?
We could never get it much shorter than four hours, in terms of putting on the jowl that hung down under my chin, and then putting the skin makeup on. Then it was a fat suit and then a little dental piece that I would put in after all of that, then I’d go and do a vocal warm-up. That process, all in all, took about four hours, which sounds appalling — and it was appalling to begin with — but you can make anything a habit. I grew to quite like it in a way, as a sort of transitional period.
A more interesting way to discuss it would be where the transition came from… You’re constantly looking at footage and listening to a voice and trying to work out [the character] from the rhythms, speech and the certain dialect. Hitchcock’s got a very interesting voice; it’s a very controlled, measured rhythm that’s quite slow and, in that sense, also felt quite controlling in its pace. He retained something from his childhood, that London sound, as well as adopting some of the L.A. sounds… All of this helps you create the character. He’s a pretty rich character, and I think that he did have a very strong sense of his own image: this suit that he tended to wear like a uniform, his hair never ruffled. That’s useful to play with.
When playing a real person like Hitchcock, I’d imagine there’s some awareness of wanting to avoid doing an impersonation instead of playing a role.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve played real characters before and people always bring up this word “impersonation,” and I’m never entirely sure what it means. You’re playing a character in a drama who happens to be based on someone who existed. It’s never going to be that person, but it’s based on someone well-known, and you want to create enough of that person for it not to be a distraction. They know you’re not Alfred Hitchcock, but you need to be enough Alfred Hitchcock for them not to be bothered by it. That’s a reassuring thing.
The other huge reassuring thing when you’re playing a real person is that no one knows what people are like — no one really knows what Alfred Hitchcock is like. Any scene in this film is not a matter of public record, it’s all from Gwyneth [Hughes]’s imagination and based on a lot of research. It’s reassuring when you’re playing a real person: There is no authorized version.
The title of the film, “The Girl” — which is also what Hitchcock calls Tippi Hedren several times throughout the film — suggests a certain replaceability. And that’s often how Hitchcock’s blondes are looked at — as variations on a theme or this idea that gripped him. What do you think set his relationship with Hedren apart? The film suggests that it was not like his relationships with others actresses.
I suspect — based on reading about Hitchcock — that prior to Tippi Hedren, he was used to, in his leading ladies, working with trained experienced actresses who could handle themselves in this very male environment of a film set. They understood film culture, the banter. Grace Kelly apparently had a fairly rich sense of humor herself, and she could meet Hitchcock head on. Now Hedren, from what I understand, was much less experienced in that world of making dramatic movies.
She was a model and she obviously had dealt with unwanted male attention, but she hadn’t really dealt with the kind of personality that Hitchcock was before. I think that’s what makes this unique. And what was extraordinary for Hitchcock was that he met in her the sort of resistance of a civilian. She was a very independent woman who wasn’t prepared to tolerate the kind of abuse that perhaps other actresses would’ve understood was their job to tolerate. This is all speculation, really — this is all a question for Tippi.
Watching the film, it did seem to me in some ways to be about the dark side of the director as an auteur — that everyone else is there as a tool to help you make your vision. And the way Hitchcock treats Hedren is an extreme version of that idea, an attempt to mold his perfect leading lady.
I think that one of the things that attracts me to the world of film, even now — in a very different, post-feminist world of making film — is that film is an obsessive medium. It’s a very expensive medium, and it tends to attract people who don’t mind working around the clock to achieve very high standards, and they know their future employment in the world depends on that. It tends to attract people who don’t mind working anti-social hours, working with other obsessive people in inconvenient places and in an inconvenient time zone.
Film, by definition, often encourages a certain level of lack of compromise. I think that what you see in Tippi’s home life is her attempt to try and maintain a normality which is unusual in that world. That said, I think there’s also something very specific about Hitchcock’s genius. She’s getting a tutorial from someone who understands and has made it his business to understand the very nuts and bolts of every aspect of filmmaking — what specific shots need and what he actually requires of acting. Acting is a technical thing — it requires certain looks for the story to be told. It’s not a huge, massive performance he’s requiring, you know.
A colleague of mine described “The Girl” as a sort of horror movie and I was wondering if you saw it as such. While not unsympathetic, the portrayal of Hitchcock is as a type of monster.
Yeah, I think that it felt to me sometimes a psychological thriller more than horror, but weirdly it seems to key into certain… At one point the costume woman talks about me being like a toad: “Don’t you love him? I think of him as a prince trapped in a toad’s body.” There is a fairytale element and a little bit of a “Beauty and the Beast” going on. When you get a film about a man and a woman exclusively there’s a quasi-love story going on as well. It’s questionable whether Hitchcock falls in love with Tippi. Similarly, there’s an element of Tippi being bewitched by Hitchcock. There’s a sort of twisted love story somewhere — they can’t quite get to the bottom of what their relationship is.
How do you see his relationship with his wife Alma [played by Imelda Staunton] in the film? She does seem to be the closest thing to a collaborator that he has, and she is portrayed as the one who first brings his attention to Hedren.
From what I understand, that’s what the other Hitchcock film may cover. [“The Girl”] doesn’t feel very concerned with planning the nuts and bolts of their relationship, but I do think it’s true from the biography that they had a mutual respect between them on a professional level. She was an editor, so it wasn’t someone who was just at home, passively accepting what he did. He used her critical eye and he sought her approval, somewhat.
The big question mark that the film plays with is to what extent everything is designed to make the film better and to what extent she herself puts up with it to make the film better… It goes wrong. That experiment goes wrong somehow. But I think the way that Imelda plays it — she has a very independent mind, her character has made a lot of compromises and is holding onto those compromises and trying to make sense of them as the film goes on.
That idea’s an interesting one — that everyone’s enabling this predatory relationship in hopes of making the film better. Have you seen an echo of that in any films that you’ve worked on yourself — tensions that are put up with in order to have the film be finished?
It’s a very interesting question, because immediately you want to say, “No, that doesn’t happen.” But I’m sure Sienna would go, “Yes, that does happen.” It is true that what happens on film is that, in some way, the world off-camera begins to mirror the world on-camera because of the kind of tunnel that people go into to make a film. It’s very hard to separate — the actors start unconsciously treating each other in similar ways and the director is totally preoccupied in what he’s doing to the exclusion of all else.
Everything becomes about that bit of space that is in front of the camera, this charged space and, really, whatever it takes to get what we need in front of that camera. I think as time and money get restricted, the pressure on that often means that there’s a certain pragmatism that creeps in, of just, “Well, whatever it takes.” I’ve certainly been around that more than once. One might say that it happens on most jobs, that there comes a point in the film where feelings are secondary to getting the thing in the can.
You mention the other Hitchcock film that’s premiering soon, and you also had “Infamous,” in which you were in a similar situation — starring in one of two films about Truman Capote that came out around the same time. Obviously the films are shot separately and performances stand alone, but what’s it like knowing that inevitably comparisons are going to take place?
Do I wander around feeling like a cursed actor? I don’t. In the case of Capote, that was a really strange situation — I still haven’t quite understood how two films could come together that were about exactly the same thing. Whereas I think the Hitchcock thing is that there’s a Hitchcock centenary going on. Hitchcock is in people’s heads — certainly in England, where this project originated, there was the reissuing of a lot of Hitchcock’s films, which are in cinemas at the moment. So one can understand how that happened… And they are dealing with different aspects of his life.
The first time, with Capote, it was just mysterious. I’d never played the lead in a movie before. That was the most important thing, and I didn’t really think about that. I know Anthony Hopkins, I’ve worked with him — he’s an absolutely fantastic actor, and one would prefer not to be compared with Anthony Hopkins. At the same time, it’s a fantastic opportunity for both films — they deal with different areas of the same person’s life. It will be fun for people to compare the films. You know, I’m not as great an actor as Anthony Hopkins — he’s had a huge, illustrious career, and he’s earned the epithet “great.” I’m a long way off having achieved what he’s achieved. For me to be compared with him is an honor.
Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film, or one that speaks to you in particular?
It’s a really hard question to answer because I do know his films quite well and it’s very hard to select one. I’ve recently been watching them with my kids and it’s amazing how many of them capture their imagination — it’s a huge testament to his genius. It’s a boring answer to say “Psycho,” but it’s a truly chilling film. I really loved that. But I think “Shadow of a Doubt” is a really good film about childhood and adventure… It’s a scary film about irresponsibility and, as a parent, it’s a good film.