Alma Matters: Helen Mirren on Alfred Hitchcock's Best Gal

Toni Collette, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren in ‘Hitchcock’/Photo © Fox Searchlight
Toni Collette, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren in ‘Hitchcock’/Photo © Fox Searchlight

"My great sadness is that she was tiny," Helen Mirren begins of her role as Hitchcock's loyal wife of over fifty years. "Alma Reville was under five foot and this tiny, birdlike woman with this huge – big in every sense – guy, I just loved that image. She was the only one that could control him: this fierce, energetic, amazing little woman. And I couldn't do that because I'm not little. I couldn't even attempt to go there so I had to try and get it in another way, but my way in was the book her daughter wrote. Patricia Hitchcock wanted to call her book Alma Reville, but, of course, the publishers wound up calling it Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man. That was my main resource and I tried to get to Alma through what I learned in that book: her love of Hitch and her love of film."

And just like that, Pat Hitchcock opens the floodgates and the rest of the company is sounding off on their ancillary materials. The film's director, Sacha Gervasi, mentions tracking down Whitfield Cook's obscure novel Taxi to Dubrovnik as Danny Huston, who plays as the suave collaborator and emotional affair for Reville, pipes up, "That book is actually quite well known!" Jessica Biel's character Vera Miles famously shuns public life and wasn't interested in meeting, but Biel details tracking down Miles' grandson, whom she classifies as "very interested." When that gets a laugh, she turns almost as beet red as the Elie Saab suit she's poured into, quickly adding, "He's married and was very respectful." James D'Arcy, who plays "Psycho" lead Anthony Perkins, dredges up the entire post-Hitch "Psycho" franchise, even name-checking the 1990 TV movie "Psycho IV: The Beginning."

So much research is cited it seems less like a film set and more like a stack at the Library of Congress. Gervasi even dragged the poor, octogenarian script supervisor from "Psycho" on set and reduced him to tears, but it's finally Toni Collette, who plays Hitch's indefatigable right hand Peggy Robertson, who finally reins things in as Robertson was wont to do. "There was a lot of research put into the script itself,” Collette says. "So I just had the pleasure of a wonderful place to start with the script." Of course, she eventually admits there's little documentation on Robertson. "She gave up her life for him," Collette adds, "and she worked for many decades."

That screen credit reading "Based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello" that directly follows the one for screenwriter John J. McLaughlin: a case of collective audience vertigo? "You can read different biographies of Hitch," McLaughlin cautions, "and get completely different pictures. He was his own creation. He's a storyteller and would make a story for himself. And there are stories he'd tell that weren't true. Whatever image he projected wasn't necessarily who he was, but you try and capture something, the same feeling that comes across in his movies, because in his movies he can't hide the way he is. That's where you're going to get the real glimpse of his personality."

McLaughlin was also one of the writers on the Academy Award-winning film “Black Swan” and is currently adapting Bill Zehme's Carson the Magnificent into another vehicle for Anthony Hopkins. He’s a man quite at home muddling about in other people's lives behind closed doors. "You filter Hitch through your own experience," McLaughlin admits. "He talks to Alma very much the way my parents did. Did they really talk to each other that way? I'm sure his family would say no, but you never know what anyone is. It's a bad idea to just stick to letters that they wrote because you've written a letter and you don't necessarily talk like that, or necessarily believe what you wrote in that letter."

In Helen Mirren, whose bedroom chamber operas number more than anyone could count, including her Academy Award-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth II, McLaughlin might have just found his muse. Or at least a sparring partner. He says she worked with Gervasi very closely in creating Reville, but rarely had questions for him, possibly because he was only on set twice during production, not liking "being the only one without a job." But his tussles with Mirren prove how easily and unexpectedly that line between public and private can be reconstructed. "She just yelled at me," McLaughlin remembers. "In five minutes, I managed to piss her off five different ways. I worked for months with her husband, Taylor Hackford, but everything I would say, she would just yell at me."

That collaboration, a loose amalgam of Donald E. Westlake crime stories titled "Parker," opens early next year, but near term provides an illustration of the ease of reconstructing closed door conversation. McLaughlin remembers talking on the phone with Hackford about "Parker" while Mirren was driving and sometimes she would offer scene advice. "I'd say, 'That's really good,'" McLaughlin recounts, "but Taylor would say, 'John said he's gonna kick your ass if you try and get credit for that idea.' I'd scream, ‘Why are you telling her that? I didn't say that!'”

"God, that's terrible," Mirren says when the fear of a bad impression is relayed. "I know John through my husband very well and I never got that.” She pauses, then adds, "John probably thought I was the Queen. And I'm not."