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When Anthony Perkins was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he was considered an unlikely candidate to play the murderous Norman Bates. At the time, the sweet-faced Perkins with boy-next-door good looks was being groomed by the studios to be a dreamboat matinee idol in the vein of James Dean. But by signing on to Psycho, Perkins changed the course of his career and forever bound his image to that of the tempestuous and tormented Norman Bates.
Beyond reprising the role for three lesser-known sequels, Perkins also was regularly cast to play intimidating or unhinged characters. But who was Perkins beyond his Psycho persona? This was the quandary that faced English actor James D'Arcy once he was cast to portray the mysterious actor in Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, which reveals what happened behind the scenes on Psycho's production, and how it impacted Hitch's personal life. You may recognize D'Arcy from his recent role in Cloud Atlas, in which he played the nuclear scientist Sixsmith, among a handful of other characters.
When I sat down with D'Arcy last weekend, I asked him about the challenges of playing Perkins, his thoughts on Psycho, and the influence of Hitchcock in his own movie-going tastes.
What interested you about playing Anthony Perkins?
He's someone that you think you know—or rather I thought I knew—but you have him confused with Norman Bates because it's such an iconic role. I feel like he and Norman Bates have become completely intertwined. You know what I mean? There is no Anthony Perkins; there's only Norman Bates. As a film lover, I've always enjoyed watching behind-the-scenes documentaries. And although this is not really about that—[Hitchcock]'s not a behind-the-scenes thing, it's much more a love story between Hitchcock and his wife—I love the little glimpses that you get at the making of this hugely iconic film.
It's also about the image of someone and who they are beyond that. Obviously most clearly with Hitchcock, but also you do a lot of interesting work to give an idea as to who Anthony Perkins was beyond Norman Bates.
Right. Well, he shared some qualities with that character he played. They were both kind of loners. Both sort of pretty shy people with a steely backbone. And then obviously beyond that there's his sexuality, which is only really just gently hinted at this film.
Very playfully in a very 1950s type of way.
Right, right, right. But the reality is it was illegal to be homosexual at that time, so it wasn't something that people were openly talking about. So he carried that sort of secret around about himself, although I don't know how secretive he really was. It's difficult to be sure. You know there's one biography about him, which I read, which is very informative, really helpful. And I watched a bunch of interviews with him but they were sort of less helpful because a lot of them were in '80s, and he was much, much older then, his voice sounded different. His physicality was different.
But in terms of trying to play him, those interviews were sort of unsuccessful because in those interviews he didn’t really sound like or move like the Anthony Perkins of 1959, which is all I needed to really look at. So I saw a bunch of interviews from that time—if you go on youtube you can look 'em up—most of them were in French. My French is okay, but again he had such an interesting delivery of sentences. Like he broke sentences up in a way that I've never really heard anybody else do subsequently. So that was harder to kind of get the grip with when you're listening to him in French. So I ended up watching [Psycho], particularly the scene where he makes a meal for Janet Leigh. Especially that scene.
Was there any scene from Psycho that you hoped you'd get a crack at?
No, I knew already that they were never going to recreate any actual scenes from Psycho. Although Scarlett and I did recreate one of the scenes when we were just mucking about on the set. Because one of the scenes [of Hitchcock] we've got the script for Psycho in our hands. So, we started reading the scene where she comes in and has a sandwich together as them. But it's not on film.
What was your first exposure to Hitchcock?
Oh really! How old were you when you saw Psycho?
Maybe 12 or 13.
What do you remember about watching it the first time?
I remember my friend sitting on top of me, not letting me leave the room. I mean I was desperate not to watch it, I didn't want to. I knew that it was a horror movie and I knew that it was going to scare me because my mum had told me that people had fainted in the cinema when it'd first come out and people had run screaming from the theater. I was pretty geared up for the idea that this was a pretty frightening film. And then it came on late at night on television and my friend insisted that we watch it. My memory is that I was on a couch lying down and he was literally sitting on top of me so that I couldn't leave the room. It's the only time I've seen Psycho through fully. I've never watched the whole film again subsequently.
And were you frightened by it?
Yeah. Terrified. Completely terrified.
So you were playing Anthony Perkins, playing Norman Bates. Did you decide for yourself why Norman kills Marion?
No. I never did. Ha! No, I never did. (Laughs). I never contemplated that question at all! Bad actor.
In Hitchcock it seem that Perkins had some tough moments during the production of Psycho, did you find any evidence of that or is it more something that works for the movie?
What I found and was surprised to discover is that Hitchcock was very collaborative with him. I had thought that Hitchcock was much more dictatorial. An actor stands there. You do this; you do that. And from what I have understood, that wasn't the case and Tony Perkins had a lot of ideas that Hitchcock was very amenable to. Like the candy corns is Tony Perkins idea, just to name one small tiny detail. You know, a lot of what he did, I think was not Hitchcock telling him what to do, which is how I would imagine Hitchcock would direct.
Having now played Perkins, have you a new appreciation for him and his work?
Not a new appreciation. No, I appreciated him pretty well before this project came into my life to be honest. I don't know that I had a new appreciation. One of the things that's really great about Psycho is that you have to put it into context. You know, it's 1960 and audiences did not expect that that sweet boy next door would be a serial killer.
Much less killing off the protagonist.
That's right, killing off the protagonist so early in the movie! The thing with modern day audiences, we expect it to be the sweet good-looking kid next door. We're not quite as naïve as 1960s audiences in that regard. So he had a lot of the work done for him simply on how he looked. He just looked like he couldn't possibly be the guy.
Which makes the final shot of him in Psycho so terrifying, just the close-up with the voiceover and that look in his eye.
Right, right and the flash of the skull.
Yeah! It's about the whole duality. It's terrifying to imagine that someone who seems so sweet could have that within them, and I think that Hitchcock plays so well with those dualities. Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film?
Well, that would probably be it. But let's honest, they're really all so good. I watched one at a cinema called the Aero in LA recently called Foreign Correspondent, which is a sort of 1940 second World War propaganda to be honest. Absolutely brilliant. Utterly brilliant. There's an airplane crash at the end of the film; it's as good as any plane crash I have ever watched.
I actually don't know that one, I'll have to look it up.
You'll have to go and see it. It's a really good movie. And that's one of the movies I'd never heard of!