Fox Searchlight "Hitchcock"

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.

"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.

Fox Searchlight "Hithcock"
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.