Starring Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, HBO’s The Girl tells the unnerving story of the director’s obsessive relationship with his leading lady, during the making of The Birds and Marnie, with stunning and spot-on performances from its two leads. As Hitchcock became obsessed with the impossible dream of winning the real woman’s love, her rejection of his misguided attempts only added to his obsession, putting both their careers and personal lives in jeopardy.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Toby Jones talked about how he approached playing the iconic filmmaker, what most helped him in bringing the mysterious and eclectic man to life, the process of finding the right look, working with his co-star Sienna Miller, what a relief it was to get Tippi Hedren’s support of the film, if he’s curious to see Anthony Hopkins’ performance of Hitchcock, his first exposure to the filmmaker’s work, and why he thinks there’s such a fascination with what goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood. He also talked about his involvement in the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games franchises, and how lucky he feels to have the career that he has. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
TOBY JONES: Absolutely, 100%, there is. I think there’s panic when you get given such an invitation. It’s unturndownable. That’s the first thing. I was a fan of Hitchcock, but more importantly than that, he is such an inscrutable man, and a very carefully inscrutable man. He apparently was blank-faced with a calm and controlled presence. I was immediately anxious and thought, “How am I going to get behind that?” I had the really fascinating job of trying to locate what I thought was actually going on behind the public face, in this life, and locate what was going on in his relationships with the other actors, and how and where I was going to show it. There was a point when my job on Snow White and The Huntsman wasn’t going to allow me to do it. I was very upset, but there was also a massive amount of relief because I knew that, in order to play this part, I’d have to do so much work to get the voice and everything else. It was going to be a big undertaking that took me to some dark places. So, when they said it was not going to work out with the dates, I put all the books down. I was sad, but there was also an element of relief.
Did any of your research feel the most helpful, in finding your performance?
JONES: It was not the research, but the script. As he loses control towards the end, and is drinking more and further abusing the relationships he was already abusing, and there’s that moment when he’s driven home while he’s drunk and he talks about not being beautiful and how he’d give anything to be beautiful, was like gold dust, as an actor. That was the lynchpin for me. There were a lot of things that he did that, from a contemporary point of view, are unforgivable and appalling and cruel. Somewhere in this moment, you begin to see his love of beauty and his understanding of beauty, and you begin to see the pathos of his situation. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job properly, for all of the monstrous behavior, one doesn’t loathe him, at the end, but has mixed feelings about him. He was a genius and he was able to make these films that have stood the test of time, and he understood something within our soul because those films are compelling. There’s a feeling of guilt in this films, all the time, and hopefully that’s in the performance. As much as he knew what he was doing and understood it, there was also huge guilt and self-loathing.
JONES: The prosthetics were interesting because the artist was so good that they could just put a Hitchcock mask on me, but you don’t want to do that. You’re an actor playing Hitchcock, so it’s about how much of that you’re going to do. It’s Toby Jones playing Alfred Hitchcock, not Alfred Hitchcock. We all felt that his silhouette was crucial, so his nose and lips were crucial as well. We had to build it out a bit to get the silhouette. But, with my nose being so small within the proportion of my face, the first nose was too big. I felt like a nose on parade. So, you have all of these weird decisions to make about how you’re going to abstract the truth. The prosthetics were all fine, but it was very, very important to get the voice right. The voice is a clue to the speed with which people think, the way people think, what influences have worked on them, what the key influences have been in their life, and how they use silence or don’t use silence.
With all of the things you have to put her through in this film, what was it like to work with Sienna Miller?
JONES: Spoiler alert, but when I grope her, that’s a technical thing. It’s a respect thing, but we both know that I have to do it, so then you negotiate that. Like any good actress or actor, those are just practical questions. Weirdly, the four hours I spent in prosthetics every day was a very useful way of me distancing myself from her. I was just in isolation, and that transition, as much as it became quite exhausting, the longer it went on, was quite useful.
Was she pretty game then, as far as what you had to do?
JONES: Yeah. Everyone knows about Sienna because she has been in the public eye a lot. And anyone who’s worked with Sienna knows that she has an incredibly robust personality, a great sense of humor, and is a very positive person. The depiction of Tippi [Hedren] in this film is very similar. To me, it’s a fantastic performance, and she brings a lot of that experience to it, consciously or unconsciously. We see that, despite everything, she remains both fabulously beautiful, but alive, up for it and resilient.
Was it reassuring to find out that Tippi Hedren was so pleased with how this film turned out?
JONES: Absolutely! It’s always very strange to have your life dramatized because it never happens like that. Things will be different. I think we were very sensitive to that, as you would be, but at the end of the day, you have to make a drama that works and functions on its own terms. These things can never be 100% accurate. I think that goes back to the difference between morphing into Alfred Hitchcock or telling an idea of Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t believe I nailed Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a version of Alfred Hitchcock.
Did you ever wonder what he might have thought of this film?
JONES: I didn’t, but thinking about it now, it’s very interesting, what a self-publicist he was. How many directors are there that make themselves so publicly available, especially at that time. People knew who Hitchcock was. He put himself in his own film. He did a lot of marketing himself. He wasn’t shy about coming forward.
What do you look for, when you’re deciding what role you want to do next? Do you just consider yourself lucky to get to do such a variety of interesting roles?
JONES: There’s no question that one is lucky. There are many, many actors good actors. There are far more good actors than there are jobs for them, so it’s a big question of luck. On top of that, I’m very fortunate that I get asked to do very different kinds of roles and I realize how much I enjoy that. I enjoy the challenge of transformation. There are actors who play one character, or a certain kind of character, the whole of their lives. I really relish the opportunity to have the challenge to totally transform. But, there’s no question that I’m lucky, absolutely!
JONES: It feels great! My kids are big fans of The Hunger Games books, and they loved the first movie. It’s great that I’m in a job where they sometimes get an insight into that world. Not that they come to the set, and not that they’re interesting, at all, in me telling them stories about the set, but it’s fun that we’re both interesting in the same book, for different reasons.
Did you have the same type of experience with Harry Potter?
JONES: Harry Potter was a total surprise. I was naive and didn’t know. It was the second film and I really didn’t know anything about it, other than the first film was very successful. The phenomenon was very early on. Even today, I’m astonished at the amount of interest and enthusiasm that there is for those films. Not because they’re not good, but it’s very personal to people. It’s linked to people’s childhood. People have grown up with it. I feel honored to be a part of that massive group of characters.
Are you at all curious about Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock?
JONES: With Truman Capote, it was very odd because it was the same period in the character’s life. It was very different film, really, but the same period. Anthony’s film is all about Psycho, so it’s the period just before this. Honestly, I would say that, to be playing the same part as Anthony Hopkins, even though ours is on TV and his is a movie, it’s a huge honor to be considered able to play the same character as him. It’s not a comparison that I would make because he’s a supreme actor.
JONES: I do. Yes, he was all of these monstrous things, but I do feel protective about his inarticulacy. Like a lot of people who work in film, he’s obsessive. They lose touch with the real world, and they want to lose touch with the real world. They like living in this world, and they want to continue living in this world, but it makes their behavior remote, sometimes. So, I do feel protective of him. In order to play somebody, you have to feel sympathy for them.
What was your first exposure to Hitchcock’s films?
JONES: My dad is an actor and he showed me Psycho, when I was about 12. He said, “You’re going to love this,” and I did. I was absolutely gripped by it. When we were shooting The Girl in South Africa, I watched it again and I just scared the living daylights out of myself. I had forgotten how scary that film still is. It’s astonishing how he can still scare you. He understood, so well, the minimum you need to generate an affect in an audience.
With all the research you did, did it change your prior opinion about him, at all? Did anything most surprise you about him?
JONES: The first thing that did surprise me was his size. I always pictured him as being about six foot, but he was only a little bit taller than me. He was not a real tall man, and that was a big shock to me. I had this image of this big person. And that was also a relief because I didn’t have to worry about that part of it. And then, the mysteries and the enigma of his relationship with his wife was all new to me. And then, he had this very bank manager way of going to work and coming home from work, all the way through his career. That was all new to me, and so fascinating.
Why do you think it is that people have such a fascination with what went on behind the scenes with these movies and screen idols?
JONES: Because we know so much about people now, we can’t ever know those things about people [who are no longer here]. But, I question how much we really know about people. Actors with social media are able to put out a version of themselves, but there seem to be many more versions of people. I know, for a fact, that I’m a very different person on my own than I am with someone else. We are different with each other. These things are constantly adjusted. And that’s true of humans. That’s not just true of famous people. We’re interested by public personas and private personas, otherwise we wouldn’t put on with actors rambling on with the same kind of stuff, over and over again, saying variations of the same thing. I’m always amazed by how fascinated people still are by actors because it’s the same version of events that actors describe, all the time. It must be something to do with this public/private thing. What is the President like when he goes to the loo and washes his face, and he looks at himself in the mirror? Is it the same person? Does he feel the same vulnerabilities that we all feel.
The Girl premieres on HBO on October 20th.