Sir Anthony Hopkins discusses becoming the master of suspense
In Hitchcock, England’s greatest acting knight plays its greatest filmmaking one, as Sir Anthony Hopkins takes on Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
With a blend of expertly applied prosthetics – from the Oscar-winning make-up artist Howard Berger – and his own well-honed acting skills, Hopkins transforms into the iconic director of such classics as North By Northwest and Psycho.
It’s the shocks and struggles of making Psycho that form the basis for this film, directed by fellow Brit Sacha Gervasi and co-starring Dame Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville.
Hopkins is, of course, one of the best actors in the world – with a career that stretches back to the London stage in the 1960s – and he made his own iconic contribution to horror with his Oscar-winning performance as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs (1991).
He opens up about insecurity, the Master of Suspense and how he rarely watches his work…
What was your first reaction when you were asked to play Hitchcock?
That was nine years ago. Two producers came up to me, Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette, and they got in touch with my agent and I read a version of the script and I said, “Yeah, okay.” There was a director who seemed to be interested and I met that director and it all drifted away. Then it kept coming back. Early last year, I think it was, I met this director called Sacha Gervasi and he seemed to have a lot of enthusiasm about it and then Tom Pollock [former head of Universal Studios] said, “Would you be interested?” and I said, “Yeah, okay.” Sacha Gervasi seemed to have a lot of passion and enthusiasm for it and so I said, “Count me in.” It’s been a long time coming.
Sacha is an interesting bloke…
Extraordinary, isn’t he? Quite an extraordinary man. Never done a feature. Prior to this movie he’d done Anvil! [the award-winning documentary about the Canadian heavy metal band]. I’m stunned by the way he did this – he’s obviously a very bright, clever young guy.
He seems so assured…
He has an endless passion and enthusiasm and a sense of sheer enjoyment, I think, and that’s why I really enjoyed working with him. I had one of the best times in a long time. And it’s a great cast: Dame Helen Mirren; Danny Huston is an incredible actor; James D’Arcy, who plays Anthony Perkins. And another actor, Michael Wincott, who plays Ed Gein, the dark nemesis, the inspiration for Psycho. A wonderful actor, Michael Wincott, he’s terrific in it. I really enjoyed it.
How did you find working with Helen?
She was wonderful to work with. I’m doing another movie with her right now called Red 2. I saw her this afternoon. She’s wonderful to work with. I’d met her a couple of times, as actors do, I said “Hello” and that was it. But we met last year, this year – My God, it’s all run into one long continuum – and that was it. Really enjoyed it: really, really enjoyed. She was just terrific as Alma Hitchcock. Really terrific.
Sacha said he saw a parallel between this and Anvil! as both films are about a couple who drive each other mad but can’t live without each other…
I never thought of that. That was an incredible movie, wasn’t it? I haven’t seen Hitchcock, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it in looping and all that. I was afraid to look at it. But I hear it’s quite good.
Do you watch your work?
They’ve got these playback monitors onset and I wouldn’t look at them because I don’t want to see, because I don’t want to hear, I didn’t want to examine too closely. I just want the courage to jump in and do it. I haven’t seen it but I hear it’s good.
Does the character being a real, famous person make it more intimidating to play?
It’s scary. It’s a balance. I’m a good mimic, but… Stanislavski [the legendary Russian theatre director/actor/teacher] said you can’t become a character. You have to indicate and give an impression of it, I guess, and it’s all a balance. It was a little unnerving. But there’s nothing you can do about it to overcome it. You just use those insecurities and those drives.
What do you make of Hitchcock?
I’ve only really become totally appreciative of him now, although as a kid I saw Rear Window, and then North by Northwest and Vertigo, which I thought was a phenomenal film. And I saw Psycho in 1960. I was in Manchester.
I’ve started to watch them all over again. In fact I watched two yesterday: Vertigo, just for the sheer enjoyment of it, and Rear Window. And I thought what an extraordinary man he was. There’s a word bandied around in Hollywood and in the acting profession about artists, but I think he was a true artist in the broadest sense: as a writer and a philosopher. The wittiness of Rear Window and the romance of Vertigo and the terror and darkness of Psycho. He was quite an extraordinary man. A man who was deeply insecure and frightened.
We all get scared, it seems…
I was talking about insecurities with this producer, who seems very assured, but we were talking about insecurities and, “If we didn’t have them, where would we be?” I mentioned to him a certain very famous director who seems to have such a great life. I was talking to this friend of this director many years ago and I said, “He seems to be so happy.” And he said, “Have you looked at his fingernails? He’s terrified. He’s anxious all the time!” And I said, “Really? That makes me feel so much better.” We live in our own self-centred world thinking we’re the only ones who are nervous. Everyone is scared I guess. Everyone is. If we were so sure of ourselves we’d be boring.
Hitchcock famously said, “Actors are cattle…”
I saw that interview. He said, “I didn’t say actors were cattle. I said they should be treated like cattle.” He had a great sense of humour. He said to one actress, Madeleine Carroll, they were lighting and she said, “This is my best side” and he said, “My dear, you’re sitting on your best side.” He would say to actors who’d ask what they should do: “I don’t know: you’re the actor, you sort it out.” Apparently he left actors alone. He really liked Perkins. He really respected Anthony Perkins. Janet Leigh, he was enchanted by her, very much left them alone. Perkins came up with this idea to be always eating candy as Norman Bates and Hitchcock said, “That’s fine. Do it.” He trusted actors to do what they could do. Didn’t want them to overdo it. He didn’t like method actors at all, couldn’t stand them. He said to two actors, “I just point the camera. You just walk from left to right – that’s all you need to do.” And he was right, I think. He didn’t mess about.
It seems that you’d enjoy that approach…
“Where do you want me to stand? Where do you want me to go?” I worked with Ken Branagh two years ago on Thor. He was very good like that. “Where do you want me to stand?” “There. Now walk there.” “Alright.” I don’t mind that. Because Ken knows his stuff. He’s been a director and an actor and a wonderful actor and a wonderful director. Very simple. We don’t have to discuss it and talk about the motivation and all that stuff. Just do it.
On set, you seemed to have a good time working with Scarlett…
Yeah. We were having a bit of fun with it. It’s not brain surgery.
She’s well-cast in this…
Yeah. Very peculiar because she would suddenly be Scarlett Johansson with her hair on and all that and then they’d say “Action!” and her face would just change and she’d become Janet Leigh. Maybe it was a smile or something. Quite remarkable. It was a wonderful cast, with Toni Collette and Danny Huston and everyone. I thought it was quite something. I really enjoyed working with them. It was a short period. It wasn’t a long, long shoot. It wasn’t a big budget movie, but I really enjoyed it.
And you filmed it in what is now your home city, Los Angeles…
Everything seems to be going to other countries to make films now. I did say, when they were thinking of going to Canada or somewhere, “No Los Angeles – no me.” They said, “Do you mean that?” I said, “Yeah. Here we are in the perfect place: where the movie takes place. If you want to go to New Orleans, get another actor.”
Was there a moment when playing Hitchcock that you thought, “I’ve got him”?
That really comes and goes. It’s like when you’re working in the theatre, rehearsing on a play and you can’t get it. And then suddenly you pick something up: a prop or something or some odd thing. Then something gets you and, “That’s it. That’s it.” With Hitchcock I’d just sort of hope for the best. Some mornings would feel good and some mornings wouldn’t feel so good. Just strive to make it work. Or not strive, just let go. Stanislavski said the same thing, “Some days you make it, some days you don’t.” But you can’t stop the show and say, “I’m sorry I don’t feel it today.” You just get on with it. Pure technique.
How useful or distracting are the prosthetics?
I thought Howard Berger did a phenomenal job. He wanted to get the right balance, so we kept it as minimal as possible, down from the chin. Otherwise you disappear with it, become a waxwork museum. You have to make the choices and we did a number of tests, to get right the skin tone, the eyes and this, that and the other. All I did was shave my head and dye the remainder of my hair round the side, which was pretty ugly. I couldn’t go to the monitors and watch it. I just do the best I can and not worry about it. Reports came back that they were happy with it – so good!
HITCHCOCK IS OUT JUNE 17 ON BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX