Though it's now considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterworks, Psycho was initially deemed a risky prospect by everyone in Hollywood, even Hitch's most ardent supporters like his wife Alma Reville and his devoted assistant Peggy Robertson. The struggle to get Psycho made is the focus of the new film Hitchcock, but at its throbbing heart are the two women who helped this genius filmmaker make the best out of Hitch's films and his iconic image.
Toni Collette tackled the role of Peggy Robertson, who served as Hitchcock's personal assistant through four decades and scores of films and television productions. While she is known to have been Hitch's right hand woman and dedicated defender, little else is certain about her or her role in the makings of his films. This offered a unique challenge to Collette, who had much fewer historical resources on which to base her character than the rest of the cast. But by focusing on what kind of person Peggy must have been to be able to handle 40 years of Hitchcock's reputed bad behavior and wicked humor, Collette created a portrait of Robertson that shows her to be sharp, collected, and ready for anything.
Talking with the bright and cheerful Collette last weekend in a posh New York hotel, we discussed Peggy, her relationship with Hitch, as well as what it was like working with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren. And of course, we weighed in on the still vibrant work of Hitchcock.
I was surprised that despite being titled Hitchcock, the film is largely about the women who influenced his works, not only his iconic Hitchcock blondes, but also those behind the scenes, Alma and Peggy. What was most important for you to get across about Peggy Robertson?
Well, the real Peggy worked with Hitchcock for over four decades. I just found it interesting that here was a very astute, strong, capable, stoic woman who serves as a kind of second rock for Hitch. There's Alma and Peggy; they're kind of in the same pool in a way. But she also kind of gave up her life for him. It's kind of an odd contradiction in a way. I just wanted their relationship to be real. Yes, it is about the contrast of the fantasy blondes in his life and these supportive, real women in his life. And I just love the fact that she didn't take any crap from him, you know?
How were you able to research her? Because it seems like she was largely in the shadows.
There was very little. There were a few photos and one interview with her when she was probably in her 50s. So a lot of it was good writing and imagination. [Laughs]
It's clear from your portrayal that Peggy is so a part of the Hitchcocks lives that she has an easy shorthand of them. A glance or a gesture gets across a great deal of information.
That's good to hear! [Laughs.]
How did you, Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins develop this sense of camaraderie for the film?
We had one very short morning of rehearsing with Sacha and we just talked about it and tried to imbue it with a sense of reality. For me, the first film I ever made [The Efficiency Expert]—I was 17 years old in Australia—and Anthony was the lead in the movie and I was a baby. Being able to work with him again so many years later in a way helped for me, because I felt like I had some knowledge of him. Although to be honest, every time that he turned up on set I didn't see him as Tony, I saw him as Hitchcock because he had to get in to early to be made up. And it was so shocking at the end of the day sometimes he would rip off his prosthetics and I'd be like, "Oh my god, your eyes are actually crystal clear blue! Who are you?" [Laughs.]
I'd really love to see photos of him ripping the prosthetics off.
I think there are a few, but you may not see them. But [Mirren and Hopkins] they're both fine actors that I admire, and that's an actor's job to make it feel real and I had a lot of fun doing that with them.
I imagine it could be intimidating working with someone with a reputation as prestigious as Hopkins', was it more or less intimidating when he seems like Hitchcock?
Well, Hitchcock, I'm seeing him through Peggy's eyes, and she's someone who rolls her eyes at him and knows every little idiosyncratic quirk, so I don't think she's taken by what seems to be quite a domineering, controlling, moody, insecure man.
And she also seems aware of his weaknesses.
Yeah, but she's also incredibly protective. So I think she's aware of the flaws and the greatness, and takes it all in her stride.
Having worked with him for so long, do you believe Peggy shared Hitch's sense of macabre humor or just understood it?
I think she probably oscillated between the two, but I don't think any of them really, initially were supportive of his idea to adapt Psycho into a film. I think they were shocked and thought it may have been a folly until they realized how obsessed he was. And then you get on the train because that's the job. I think they were all aware of him as a whole person and that's why they were so—um—easy in a way.
What was your first exposure to Hitchcock?
I think I was aware of the shower scene [from Psycho]. In terms of pop culture it's such a known kind of image and the music is also very familiar. So perhaps as a teenager? I remember doing this kind of thing [gesturing iconic stabbing motion, then laughs warmly.] Then throughout my life I've kind of taken his films in. Yeah, it's interesting with Psycho, because—obviously making the film I watched it again—and I found Tony Perkins performance—and other people disagree—but I found it really, really contemporary. I mean, it could have been in a film now. But they are all so—I love how stylized they are, and how beautiful they are to look at. And Hitch was kind of a rebel, kind of a rock star. Even the way he promoted his movies, he just thought outside the box and that's always inspirational.
Do you have a favorite Hitchcock movie?
I love the voyeurism of Rear Window.
Do you remember the first time you saw Psycho?
I can't remember when it was. It might have been in my early twenties—I don't know if I was in my teens or twenties—life is chugging along! My memory is going to shit.
I think it's hard to pick out that movie, like I can't remember a time before I knew the ending, and I don't remember the first time I saw the movie. But I watched it again yesterday and was shocked at how differently I saw it.
How you remembered it to how you see it now?
Well, also how I experienced it. Like you said about Anthony Perkins, I feel if that movie had come out now, there'd be tumblr pages dedicated to how dreamy he is.
Yeah yeah yeah, totally.
Which makes it even more disturbing.
I agree I think the fact that somebody can be so monstrous and so fragile; it was a really great performance. It was good casting I guess. I don't know how involved Hitch was as a director, where he says, "I don't know, you do it." So I don't know how much of it was the actor and how much was the script. I mean, you never know do you. It's always a combination.
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