Anthony Hopkins plays the master of suspense in Hitchcock, in which the director reinvents both himself and horror films with Psycho, forever making the genre more respectable for A-listers. In the film, Hitch asks, “What if someone really good made a horror picture?” — and it’s a question that might well have been applied to several of the movies Hopkins himself has made over the years, given his penchant for genre fare, from The Silence of the Lambs and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Beowulf and Thor. (He’s currently having “a great time” on Thor: The Dark World, by the way.) Here, he chats with Vulture about being scared by Psycho for the first time, why he thinks the rival Hitchcock film on HBO was unnecessary, and Oscar buzz.
Do you remember the first time you saw Psycho?
When it first came out in Manchester on a wet September evening and I was knocked out by it. That was the most terrifying film I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe it: Where’s Janet Leigh? She’s got to come back. She’s the star of the movie! I thought she perhaps escaped from the trunk of the car. So I’ve been watching these films over the years, long before I knew I was going to play him.
Did you talk to anyone who worked with Hitchcock? What insights did they share?
I met Janet Leigh in New York, and then later in Hollywood at a function. She said, “Mr. Hitchcock was one of the funniest men I’ve ever worked with. My ex-husband Tony [Curtis] and I used to go to his house in Bel-Air, and we’d laugh ourselves sick, because he was so funny, so wicked, a great practical joker.” She said he wasn’t an easy man to get to know, but she got on with him.
And James, Jimmy Stewart, I met him on Christmas Day in 1981. I was invited to his house in Beverly Hills by Gloria, his wife. And he said in his most laconic way [in Jimmy Stewart’s voice], “He was the, uh, greatest, brilliant … he was just terrific. I loved being there with him. I never left the set. I was always on the set because I learned so much.” He said he was the most fascinating man he’d ever met, and he was so good to work with, and James Stewart learned a lot about acting from him. Hitchcock said to him when they were doing Rear Window [in Hitchcock’s voice], “Jimmy, I don’t want you to act at all. Just sit in the wheelchair and look.” And he said that was the greatest note he’d ever been given: “Don’t act. Just look.” And let the camera pick it all up, yeah.
What did you think about The Girl, with Toby Jones as Hitchcock?
That was about his obsession, his so-called obsession, with Tippi Hedren? I haven’t seen that, but I read the Donald Spoto book [The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, on which The Girl is based], which doesn’t go too deeply into that relationship, and some other books which were just scurrilous and, you know, saying that it was a perversion. I talked to Tippi Hedren, not about that, but I talked to her one day because I was keen to talk to people who had worked with Hitchcock, and she never mentioned that. She told me, “Good luck with the movie.”
I saw her presenting an award to Hitchcock, the AFI award, when Cary Grant and all those people were there. She made a speech and said something very nice. And when she was interviewed, she was always complimentary. She was a real lady about it. Whatever his obsession was, she didn’t want to dwell on it. Apparently, I hear, it hurt her because he did insist on her being [sexually] available to him, according to Donald Spoto, and he said she would never work again, and you know, this could all be apocryphal, but she didn’t work much after that and it did upset her career. So apparently he was obsessed with her, but whatever it was, I don’t think it’s necessary to put all that into a movie. Why do that, you know?
There’s a lot of Oscar buzz for your performance. Would it be ironic if you won, considering Hitchcock himself never won an Oscar? Would you in essence be winning for him?
Well, I hadn’t thought of that! [Laughs.] It’s funny. I don’t think it was a sin on the part of Hollywood that they didn’t give him an Oscar. The mentality hasn’t changed — greed and money and profit and all that. I think he was a great money-spinner for them, and they thought, Oh, yeah, Hitch is a great director, but he’s popular. It’s like popular music. People forget that Mozart wrote for commissions. There’s a thing in psychology where they think if it’s popular, it can’t be serious. I think that’s the initial thing in the collective consciousness. So he didn’t win because they never took him that seriously. Barney Balaban [at Paramount] was very hostile towards him for making Psycho because it was a threat to their security: Why would a great artist like that do something so junky? Of course, when it made the huge profits, Barney Balaban was the first to say, “We always knew it would work, Hitch.” That was going to be a scene in the film, but they cut that.
I could tell you something, talking about venality. Years ago, I knew a lawyer in Los Angeles, I won’t mention his name, but he was supposed to be my entertainment lawyer. Anyway, I went out to do The Silence of the Lambs, and my business manager at the time warned me, “Tony, you’re in a big hit, you’re going to get more friends now than you’ve ever known.” Okay. Later this afternoon, this lawyer phones me, “Hey, Tony, how are ya?” “I’m fine, thanks.” “When are you going to come back? When are we going to have lunch? I miss you!” I hadn’t spoken to him in four years, but the smell of success got to this guy. And that’s just typical human nature, you know? Greed, that’s all part of the human condition. And I think that’s what affected Hollywood with Hitchcock, because he made money so he couldn’t be that “serious” of a director. They wanted to give it to important, serious directors who had important, serious actors like Marlon Brando or whoever. Those are the showy things — you got to be intense and cry and gnash your teeth together to win an Oscar.
Speaking of Silence of the Lambs, there’s a Hannibal TV show being filmed right now, which is why Mads Mikkelsen didn’t join you on the set of Thor 2 after all. Any advice for him?
Good luck! The key is, when playing a crazy man like that, is to play the total opposite. Play him as totally sane. Play him as ordinary. Play it very innocently like [in Hannibal Lecter voice], “Good evening,” or “Good morning, Clarice.” Don’t try to be evil.