I'm fairly certain it's a fact that a film is instantly made better with Helen Mirren in its cast. I have no documentation to prove this, but it just feels right. She's one of those rare actresses who has remained relevant for decades. She's won pretty much every major award for stage, screen and television acting, and she can play spinstress as convincingly as she can play sexy, and she seems game to try out anything she hasn't done before.
Look at the roles: Victoria in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY; Morgana in EXCALIBUR; Georgina in THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER; Jane Tennison in the long-running PRIME SUSPECT series; Queen Charlotte in THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE; Mrs. Tingle in TEACHING MRS. TINGLE; Mrs. Wilson in GOSFORD PARK; Chris in CALENDAR GIRLS; Queen Elizabeth II in THE QUEEN (for which she won an Oscar); and back to playing a woman named Victoria in RED.
This week, Mirren gets to sink her teeth into one of the filmdom's great unsung heroes, Alma Reville (better known as Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock) in HITCHCOCK. Reville had a strong hand in every aspects of Hitchcock's films, especially when it came to writing and editing, and HITCHCOCK brings that truth to light used the couple's difficult experience making PSYCHO as its framework. Mirren's good friend Anthony Hopkins plays the master of suspense, finally putting to end the sad fact that the two have never worked together before (the two again appear together in the still-shooting RED 2). Her take on Reville is part creative giant and part dutiful wife who put aside her dreams of her own career for the genius she saw in her husband, despite his occasion lapses into fantasy when it came to his blonde leading ladies.
I spoke with Mirren recently about her first exposure to Hitchcock and PSYCHO, as well as her take on the Hitchcock marriage. It's not an especially long interview, but I think we cover some good ground. Please enjoy my talk with Dame Helen Mirren…
Helen Mirren: Hello, Steve.
Capone: Hello, Helen. How are you?
HM: I’m good, thank you. How are you?
Capone: Very good, thanks. Okay, I guess since we have a limited bit of time, I’m just going to jump right in. What is your personal history with the films of Alfred Hitchcock and with PYSCHO in particular?
HM: I remember PSYCHO opening, and my dad coming home and saying, “There’s this movie that everybody's going to see, and I felt I had to go and see it,” and he goes, “It was the most terrifying film I have ever seen in my life.” He didn’t describe the shower scene to me, but he described the scene where they're going down the stairs and the light is swinging, and I remember him describing this scene to me, so when I eventually saw the film I felt like I’d seen it already, but I hadn’t. It was just my father’s description. So, I remember it opening in that sense. I didn’t read about it or go and see it or anything, but my dad, who never went to the cinema, if it made him go to the cinema it must have had a massive, explosive affect on the public, in Britain anyway.
Capone: Before getting involved with this film, were you at all familiar with Alma and then her role in Hitchcock's films and career?
HM: Not at all. I was completely unaware, and it’s so interesting now with history being investigated more and more, many of these women are coming out of the shadows. But no, I knew nothing about Alma or her contribution. I didn’t even know that Hitchcock was married, you know? Let alone how important… I should have known--shame on me--but I’m not that much of a movie buff. It was very, very gratifying to find out that kind of piece of information.
And she was fully recognized by Hitchcock, incidentally. It wasn’t as if it was some sort of guilty secret. He didn’t give her credit on the screen, but there was no credit really to be given, because I think she had a finger in so many pies. I’m sure she looked at the costumes and said “No, that doesn’t work. It should be that.” The hair, the editing, the script, she had a finger in so many pies it would sort of be impossible to credit her, but Hitch did credit her personally, absolutely.
Capone: That was one of the big revelations in watching the film. I’ve read enough biographies on Hitchcock to know that she had a big hand in the writing, but I was surprised to see how much of a hand she had in, like you said, every aspect of every film. It almost makes you wish that she had at some point gotten the chance to make her own films, because she clearly was capable.
HM: Yeah, but you know what? I think if she had made her own film, it probably would have been a sort of substandard Hitchcock movie, because I think the power of Alma was in that partnership. I think they both made each other better, and if you took one away from the other, maybe they wouldn’t have been so good alone as they were together. It was the togetherness of them, the partnership, the collaboration that worked.
Capone: Just in terms of the marriage, how did you think that she could maintain herself with all of these fixations on these starlets that he had?
HM: I think that’s really exaggerated.
Capone: But that's a major point of emphasis in this film.
HM: Yes, I mean a lot of that comes from one particular book, The Donald Spoto book [there are actually two by this author, both making this claim: "The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock" and "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies"], and other people say, “You know what? That wasn’t the deal.” I think the nature of a filmmaker is voyeuristic, and I’ve seen it happen. Because a film director--with a male actor or a female actor--has to look at that face, they have to study it, they have to kind of love it, because they have to want to put it up on the screen in the first place. They have to be inspired by it. So there is kind of a love relationship very often between a director and his or her male or female star. It goes with the territory.
I don’t think Hitch was any different in that direction. I think there was a style of woman that he loved, you know, as they say the "ice blonde,” but there was elegance. He liked elegant women. Alma always dressed very elegantly, very retrained and elegant. That was the style that he liked. I think this obsession is exaggerated, and there’s not a whiff of it in the daughter’s [Patricia Hitchcock's] book ["Hitchcock, Piece by Piece"]--that was my source. And one has got to believe her to a certain extent. Sure, maybe she’s white washing or she has a wish-fulfillment element to her book, but it’s the horse’s mouth. She said, “My dad was actually very ordinary at home. We led a very ordinary life. He would come home. Mom would cook dinner. We would sit around talking. He was very funny, and there was a lot of laughter in the house. He loved to eat.” He was much more obsessed about food than he was about women, I would suspect. Food and wine.vGood wine and food, that was his real obsession. [laughs]
Capone: Well the movie doesn’t downplay that either.
HM: No, it doesn’t.
Capone: I know you said you’re not much of a movie buff, but the idea that you got to watch them recreate these scenes from PSYCHO, how fun was that? That must have been tremendous.
HM: Yes, and just recreate or be a part of the recreation of the Hollywood of that era. Really, really fun, and I was so thrilled that we shot it in Los Angeles, because so often nowadays, because of tax credits and so forth, film companies want to shoot in New Mexico or in New Orleans or in New York. But Tony Hopkins very rightfully said, “If we are not shooting it in Los Angeles, I’m not going to do the movie.” And he was absolutely right, because to shoot in the city that all of this happened, in the movie capitol of the world, that’s where it needed to be, and that was brilliant. To drive that car in through the gates at Paramount Studios, and those gates are still the same, and I’m very romantically excited by the history of Hollywood. I love all of that. To a Brit, it’s so exciting and romantic.
Capone: And you don’t have to build new sets to make it look authentic either.
HM: No, absolutely, and we shot in a little old studio that hasn’t changed at all that was actually the Desilu Studios, and the studios were built in that era. It looks like the various bits of architecture are still there from that era. So that was great.
Capone: I’m curious if you had a chance to see Imelda Staunton’s take on Alma [in the HBO movie THE GIRL, about the making of THE BIRDS].
HM: Oh no, but you know I said to Sasha [Gervasi, director], when he was asking me to play the role, I said, “You know, there’s one person who's perfect for this role, and it’s not me, it’s Imelda Staunton.” It's funny, I didn't know she was going to play it then. But I kept saying, you should ask Imelda. She looks right. She’s the right person, but you know for whatever reason they wanted me to do it. [Laughs] I’m sure she’s absolutely fantastic, but I haven’t seen it.
Capone: Had you and Anthony Hopkins worked together before? Because it really looks like you guys are having a blast.
HM: No, we had never worked together, but it’s been on our dance card. It’s like “Save the last dance for me.” [Laughs] We’ve just had our dance together, which was just really great, and we discovered that, yes, we do dance well together.
Capone: And you managed to drag him into RED 2 it sounds like.
HM:  laughsWell I don’t know about that, but that was just coincidental, I think. It’s fantastic though. I get to play another scene with him.
Capone: Well that’s great. Helen, thank you so much for taking the time out.