Anthony Hopkins may very well be regarded as one of our greatest living actors, but that doesn’t mean he’s all that different from you and me. The 74-year-old, who insists you call him “Tony,” is, as it turns out, insecure about his day job. This, despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1993 following his Oscar-win for playing everyone’s favorite cannibal in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”
But really, considering his latest role, who can blame him? In Sacha Gervasi’s narrative feature debut “Hitchcock,” Hopkins embodies none other than Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most revered and scrutinized filmmakers of all time. And unlike most directors, Hitchcock spent just as much time in front of the camera as he did behind it — leaving not much room, on Hopkins’ part, for ‘interpretation.’
Taking place during the filming of one of Hitchcock’s most troubled productions “Psycho,” “Hitchcock” forgoes the standard biopic format to shed light on a side of the legendary director seldom heard about: his relationship to wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Hopkins called in to Indiewire last weekend from London to discuss playing the icon, and dished a little on his role in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming epic “Noah.” Fox Searchlight opens “Hitchcock” in select theaters this Friday.
The casting gods struck gold with this one.
Oh good, I’m so glad. I really am. I mean that with all sincerity; I was so paranoid about the movie after it was finished, I thought, “Oh, I’d better go live in the Antarctic.” I wasn’t sure what happened, you know. I saw it for the first time about three or four weeks ago — I hadn’t seen it with an audience, but I thought it was quite good. My insecurities were lifted. I’m glad, thank you.
You’ve played everyone from Picasso to Titus to Hitchcock — does any role scare or intimidate you in any way, prior to taking it on?
Nixon was one, though I was in Oliver Stone’s very capable hands.
I wouldn’t use the word ‘scared’ for my role as Hitchcock, but it was my most insecure. Taking on such a formidable, giant personality such as Hitchcock; he was one of the great geniuses of world cinema. Sheer genius. And I really appreciate him now. I was offered the part eight years ago — I didn’t want to put on weight and all that — but then I met with Sacha Gervasi. I was told that he’d never made a movie before that, except he’d made “Anvil,” and I’d liked his enthusiasm and I thought it was his lack of experience that made it worthwhile. But then we had to do the makeup and the wardrobe and all that, and we got a great a designer, Julie Weiss, and Howard Berger, and I thought “Well, the thing is… Now I hand my body over to those two makeup guys, Peter [Montagna] and Howard, and designer Julie Weiss.” She designed the fat suit and they designed the prosthetic. The trick was not to put too much prosthetic on, because it would hide me — I’m no Alfred Hitchcock, I’m Anthony Hopkins playing Hitchcock. The balance had to work and I think they sort of got it right.
I never looked at the screen or the playback once I’d finished a shot; I wouldn’t watch it, and Sacha would say, “Why don’t you watch it?” and I’d say, “No, I don’t want to.” I didn’t want to be scared off. I developed the voice by watching a lot of Hitchcock’s interviews and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” I’d watch it over and over, so I’d say [in Hitchcock voice]: “Good evening. The story you’re about to hear is going to be the most terrifying story you’ve ever experienced in your life.”
I’m smiling ear-to-ear right now.
Ha! The thing is, to get the technique — I’ve got a different chest and a different skull than Hitchcock, so you can’t really produce a mimicry. The thing is to just approximate it. I watched the way he enunciated his lines, I could also hear his East London accent under that; he was a Cockney. When he arrives in Hollywood, Hitchcock put on that very pompous, upper-class voice — but I could hear the London underneath, the way he would enunciate to cover his own sound. It made for an interesting combination. Once I got that tic, I thought, “Well, I think I’m secure now. I feel okay about it.” When it comes to playing someone like Hitchcock, how much research is too much? When does it start to get in the way?
Yes, you can do too much research. I like to do a lot of research but then I have to pull back, because the script is already written. I would say to Sacha, “I think we need something here.” I had an idea that the shower scene should be a complete context buildup to that moment, but then of course, the editor and the director, they know best. I would write in certain things that I wanted to say; I remember the morning there was a scene with Janet Leigh [played by Scarlett Johansson], she’s driving the mock up car with the back projection. I’m sitting there, as Hitchcock, telling her what she must feel like about stealing the money… I got the basic speech but I added to it, to make it more salacious. We got on the set that morning and, I didn’t say anything, but they started rehearsing and I said, “Well, why don’t we just shoot it?” And he said, “Do you want to shoot it?” And I said, “Yeah, just do a master shot.” They did a master shot on me — and I just let it all go, I put in the lines that I wanted, and he said, “Cut! Great, where did that come from?” I said, “I just made it up.” And, you know, I’d actually planned it. Sometimes you have to take the authority to put in what you feel may be lacking in the scripting.
That begs the question: had you ever worked under Hitchcock, do you think he would have responded well to your way of working?
I think so, because when you’re working with a master, with a director like that, you don’t have to act. I heard the story about a famous method actor who worked with Hitchcock on a film, and they did not get on. The actor didn’t like Hitchcock because the actor had no control; the actor wanted to talk about motivation, and Hitchcock said, “You’ll get motivation when you have finished the scene.” They didn’t get on well because Hitchcock said that the camera is the thing that directs the actor.
When you look at “Psycho,” you can see all these strange moments — the close-up, or cutting away at some point — that build an unease in the audience. There’s a scene with Martin Balsam when he goes into office with Tony Perkins, and he wants to look at the hotel register. They flip open the page and Hitchcock changes to a low angle of Tony Perkins leaning over… And you think, “Oh my god, this guy’s a killer. He looks like a great bird,” but just from that angle. Hitchcock understood what made people disturbed.
You’ve worked with some amazing filmmakers over the course of your career. Given all that you learned about Hitchcock in embodying him, are there any filmmakers you’ve worked with that you feel share a certain kinship with Hitchcock?
Jonathan Demme. Jonathan Demme is a very sharp editor of his movies. On “The Silence of the Lambs,” he gave me what he wanted to see. He gave me the freedom, but he understood the cutting edge of what he wanted to see on film. I knew there was something major occurring. I think Oliver Stone is the same, although Oliver Stone makes much more complicated films.
I think I would have enjoyed working with Hitchcock; I knew Anna Massey, she did “Frenzy” with him, and so I asked her, “What was he like?” and she said, “Oh, he’s just phenomenal. You go on set in the morning and you don’t have to act, you don’t do any work, he would just say: ‘I want you to stand there, and on the count of three, move away to the bookshelf and the camera will follow you.’” And he knew exactly how to frame it, you know.
Moving on to another great filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky, whose upcoming “Noah” marks his biggest production yet. How is he handling the scale?
He’s a great, great director. It was great to work with Russell Crowe, and I was only on it for three days. We have to do a reshoot of the rain scene; he was just terrific, and I was surprised because he gave me a lot of freedom. I think he’s just great. Surprisingly, he kept everything very simple… I had expected him to take millions of takes, but he only took a couple. They were long days, but he’s a great film director and I loved working with Russell Crowe… I had a great time on that, a wonderful time.