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.