As Vera Miles in “Hitchcock,” Jessica Biel doesn’t get to demonstrate a lot of range — this isn’t the Hitchcock film that dwells on how the famed director tormented his actresses, particularly in Miles’ case, how he worked her to exhaustion. (For that, go no further than “The Girl” on HBO, which claims Hitch sexually harassed and physically abused Tippi Hedren while making “The Birds” and “Marnie.”) This version lets Miles off easy — if slightly bitter that Hitch was a control freak who wouldn’t forgive her getting pregnant before “Vertigo,” requiring her role to be recast with Kim Novak. Despite this, Biel thinks it was harder to be a serious actress in Hitchcock’s heyday, and sometimes even more so now.
“I don’t know if I could have made it back then,” Biel told The Playlist. “I feel like back then, you had to be a triple threat — acting, singing, dancing. And you had to go through all these changes in your appearance to be who they wanted you to look like. And the rehearsal process used to be so much bigger. Even when I first started out, you could rehearse for two weeks, three weeks, a month, and we don’t do that anymore. Now, you’re on your own, in your room, crossing your fingers, hoping you’re going to get it right.”
Although Biel doesn’t think actors today are given the time they might need — “to sit with the scenes, to talk about the back story” — she tries “to prepare as much as you can and even more.” For her upcoming psychological drama “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes,” Biel did a lot of research about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), since she wanted to understand the “enigma” that is her character. “The funny thing about movies is the second you wrap, that’s when you go, ‘Now I get it. Now I understand who this person is. Now I know,’ ” she said.
According to the script written by director Francesca Gregorini, after Biel’s character Linda loses her child, a therapist suggests that she put some of her maternal feelings into a lifelike doll, which she can carry around to help her through the grief process. But Linda goes overboard, since she’s feeling “the guilt and the shame and the societal pressures of, ‘What did you do wrong? You’re her mother. You let your baby die,’ ” the actress explained. “People judge you and yet you did nothing. It’s such a mindfuck to these parents.”
Linda breaks under the pressure, and can’t acknowledge that the doll is not her actual baby. “There’s a level of delusion there,” Biel said, “but I don’t think she’s crazy. She just hurts so bad that the mind just goes, ‘That’s enough. You’re not going to feel that anymore. This is your baby now.’ ” And because she thinks the baby is real, she hires a babysitter (Kaya Scodelario).
Unlike “Lars and the Real Girl,” which took a comedic approach to a character with a delusion that a doll was a real person, “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes” is a “darker take.” “I could be wrong, because I haven’t seen the final product,” Biel said, “and there are some funny moments, but it’s darker. It’s about a really psychologically damaged person, and how that woman manipulates a really fragile and emotional young girl with her interaction with this ‘baby.’ ”
Biel said she looked inwards for the character, finding her own guilt and shame “so I can infuse that into my work.” “I’m not even going to pretend that I can really understand what it would feel like to have that experience as a mother,” she said, “but I could just touch on that. It’s very complex. In her own way, she understands that this baby doesn’t exist in reality, and hasn’t existed. But she goes in and out of that, because it’s too painful to think it’s not real.”
One of Biel’s other upcoming movies, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” also deals with the subject of grief and loss, only this time it’s Biel who plays the deceased — the dearly departed wife of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who tries to move on without her. This doesn’t mean she’ll have limited screen time, however.
“She’s in the beginning, and very quickly, this tragic accident happens, but she keeps coming back into everybody’s psyche because people talk about the story how she and her husband met,” Biel said. “So we have a lot of flashbacks, because she’s in the mind of all these people, constantly.”
The story (or stories) kept growing, because Penny lied to everybody, telling different people different versions. “She’ll tell one person, ‘We met in the jungle, and I was following the gorillas,’ ” Biel said, “so people are like, ‘Did you hear about her following the gorillas?’ And someone else will go, ‘Oh, no, no, they met on a cruise ship. She fell overboard!’ And every time you hear a story, it’s kind of an interesting flashback.”
Biel said there might be some reshoots to embellish the flashbacks, or make the stories more realistic. “We might make it more like she just fibbed a little — maybe it wasn’t a cruise ship, maybe it was a train,” the actress said. “But each story she told somebody was just a little bit off.” The real story, as it turns out, is “the most normal, mundane, and banal” encounter, which perhaps is why Penny felt compelled to liven it up.
Originally, Penny — “this eccentric, crazy artist person” — was in the film a lot less, Biel said, which is what appealed to her, since she was also a producer on the project. But even with the extra scenes, “I can do this real easy,” she said, because it didn’t require a lot of heavy lifting. (Unlike, say, playing Viper in the next “Wolverine,” which she had to bow out of because “we weren’t able to make it work out, unfortunately. Scheduling conflicts! I know, I know — it would have been cool.”)
Still, Biel welcomes the challenge of more demanding work — producing for now, and perhaps directing down the line. She’s already got one short under her belt called “Sodales,” which she said was “cool” to do. “I enjoyed it a lot, so maybe I’ll do more!”
“Hitchcock” is now in theaters.