Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds,” was in Chicago with Ben Mankiewicz, host of “Turner Classic Movies,” on March 27, 2012, for a special screening of “The Birds.” We chatted at the Ritz Carlton on an unusually warm day by Chicago weather standards. At 82 years of age, she remains strikingly beautiful with a sweet personality to match. She talked about her demanding role as Melanie Daniels, her birds in flight tattoo, the gold pin that Hitchcock gave her, and her upcoming role in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.”
Sarah Adamson: I’m chatting with the lovely and beautiful actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying 1963 classic movie “The Birds,” which also earned her a Golden Globe. Welcome to Chicago!
Tippi Hedren: Thank you! I’m so delighted to be in Chicago. I really love Chicago. I feel very fortunate that it’s not too windy today. My hotel room looks over the lake and is extremely beautiful.
SA: That’s so nice to hear. You’re in Chicago for a special screening of “The Birds” that’s part of TCM’s 10-city Road to Hollywood tour with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.
TH: Yes, we are.
SA: I’m going to start with Tippi as I have some burning questions about “The Birds.” As I understand, this was your first film with lines. And of course, you were very young. Could you tell me how you got the part?
TH: I had just moved to California and received a call from Universal asking if I was the girl in the commercial for a pet milk product. He said, “There is a producer interested in you.” I said, “Who?” He said, “Well, come over, and we will talk about it. That was Friday, October 13, 1961. He wouldn’t tell me who it was. All weekend I had to wonder, “Who is this man?” Nobody would tell me on Monday who it was either. Tuesday, I was asked to go to an agency, MCA. It was then that the agent said, “Alfred Hitchcock wants to sign you to a contract. If you agree with the terms and sign the contract, we will go to the studio and meet him.” I was contracted before I even met him. It’s a fairy tale.
SA: Can you tell me about a gold pin that director Alfred Hitchcock gave you?
TH: Yes! We did a very, very extensive screen test, really extensive – scenes from “Rebecca,” “Notorious,” and “To Catch a Thief.” Edith Head did my clothes. Martin Balsam was flown in to be my leading man. I thought all these actors get to do this. After that was over, they invited me to Chasen’s Restaurant, where I was presented with a very beautifully wrapped box and in it was a gold and seed pearl pin of three birds in flight. He [Hitchcock] said, “I want you to play Melanie Daniels in the birds.” It was a fantastic story.
SA: That’s exciting. Do you have any idea why he may have given you that pin?
TH: I think he liked to do things that were a little unique.
SA: I’ve seen the pin online. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Now, your daughter, Melanie Griffith, she has a really cool tattoo of Antonio on her arm.
TH: Yes, she does. It says ‘Antonio,’ and it’s huge! I have a tattoo!
SA: That’s what I was going to ask you about! Can you tell us about your tattoo?
TH: Sure, I’ll even show it to you.
SA: Is it a replica of the pin?
TH: Yes, it is, but I can’t see it (on her upper back). So, it’s kind of silly, but if I hold a mirror up, I can see it reflected.
SA: No, I don’t think it’s silly. I think it says something about your relationship with the movie and your experience. You must really love the film.
TH: I think because it was a life-changing time for me. I figure if you’re going to have a tattoo, have it mean something.
SA: I love that attitude!
SA: What was Hitchcock’s directing style with you? I know it was different from other actresses.
TH: It was different for me because “The Birds” was my first film. I had done photo shoots and six commercials, which gives you a good technical background, but that doesn’t help you break down a script and become another person. Hitchcock was not only my director, but he was my drama coach.
SA: That’s great! He was very helpful to you.
TH: Indeed, he was.
SA: Great. Well, I have to ask about that upstairs bedroom scene where the birds attack you. Were you harmed in that?
TH: A little…they threw real birds at me for a week. It became very, very difficult.
BM: She’s underplaying it. She was harmed.
SA: Go ahead, Ben. Jump right in there!
BM: You were harmed. You recovered, but you were harmed.
TH: Yes, actually, I was (laughs). I did recover.
SA: You should have gotten another pin for that one!
TH: I should have gotten a million dollars for that one (laughs).
SA: You should have! Well, the scene is terrifying, and you do look terrified, and you probably were.
TH: I was, yes, absolutely!
SA: What is your favorite line from the film that you recite?
TH: “I’d rather go through life jumping into fountains naked.”
SA: I like that one. That fits well with your tattoo (laughs).
SA: Ben, any comments on that?
BM: I didn’t realize she was quoting from the film. That just sounds like Tippi.
TH: Oh, thanks!
SA: Do you have a favorite line in the film, Ben?
BM: I don’t think in terms of that, I’m more about the scenes. When do you say that? (He says to Tippi.)
TH: I said it after we had had dinner. I’m in the Aston Martin mad, and Rod Taylor insinuates that I’m a reckless debutante and that I really don’t have much purpose in life. So, she gets back at him.
SA: Ben, what’s your favorite scene?
BM: I like the scene with Tippi and Suzanne Pleshette sort of where there is tension, but there is a subtle degree of handing over, too. She’s sort of relinquishing in that scene. It’s a good scene.
TH: I do, too. It is a wonderful scene.
SA: What scene did you enjoy? You’re in nearly every one.
TH: Yeah, there aren’t many moments when I’m not in the scenes. After I was hurt, after going up into that room and the birds were all over me, I was totally exhausted, and the doctor said I had to have a week off. Hitchcock said, “She can’t. She’s the only thing we have to shoot.” The doctor said, “What are you trying to do, kill her?” (Laughs)
SA: Well, that shows you’re very strong – you went on. I can’t even imagine. How do you feel about this movie after it’s gained such a place in cinema history?
TH: I think it’s the luckiest thing that could happen to any actor. How fabulous to have almost everyone in the world see one of your movies? It really is astounding. The movie has a life of its own. The real movie buffs are showing these films that are becoming classic. They keep showing them to their kids, so there is a life that belongs to this movie that’s just fabulous.
SA: They’re using them in colleges and high schools to learn from his techniques and yours. You were very, very good in this movie. I loved you in it.
SA: This is a crazy question, too. The two dogs that Hitchcock walks out with…
TH: That’s one of my trivia questions when I’m doing Q & A…who are the two dogs? They belonged to Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. They were Sealyhams, which is a rare breed. They were very cute, and they acted absolutely. They did their whole thing perfectly.
BM: I may be totally off on the years and everything, but I think his dog had just been hit by a car not long before that…maybe more than a year. They bought these two after his dog ran into the street.
SA: I have a few more questions about “The Birds,” and then I want to go into a movie you’re going to be in. I was just in San Francisco with my son near the wharf, and these seagulls just started going after our lunch (laughs). When do you see birds do you get worried?
TH: No, I don’t. In fact, I enjoy them tremendously. I recognize their intelligence level. I believe that every being on this planet is brilliant. Whether it is the little ant that drives you crazy and brings in all the others and the scouts figure it out, he goes back to the queen, and she sends all the armies out. I find that fascinating, whether it is the ant or the elephant, or the whale. They all have a job to do, and they’re brilliant in their job, and so are the birds.
SA: That’s a great attitude. I’m glad you’re not frightened of them. “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” directed by Billy Bob Thornton. I met Marshall Allman, he’s in the movie with you, and I believe you’re related (in the movie). I was looking at the credits in the film. Is that not true? Does he play your son?
SA: And how did the filming of that go?
TH: It was great, and I love Billy Bob Thornton. I absolutely love him, and I’ll tell you why. When I first got on the set, Billy and I were chatting, and he walked off into the room where all the cameras were, and he didn’t come back to give me direction. I thought that was odd. The DP (Director of Photography) said, “Hey, Tippi, you know we don’t rehearse.” I went, “Yes, how incredible!” He’s a director who has hired people that he thinks have an idea of the character, and he wants to see that first before he makes any changes. Have you ever heard of that? I don’t know many directors who do that.
BM: So he didn’t rehearse at all?
TH: No, we went right into it. We filmed the rehearsals.
BM: (Clint) Eastwood is like that. We’d run a take, and he’s like, “Let’s go. You guys are professionals. I wouldn’t have hired you.”
TH: It is empowering.
BM: I was at an event with Billy Bob Thornton for that movie, and I talked to him afterward because he’s a friend of my cousin’s, and I mentioned that I knew you, and he gushed. You were the only person he wanted.
SA: I want to thank you both so much for chatting with me today.
TH: I’m delighted. It’s my pleasure.
BM: Yes, thank you as well.
Sarah Knight Adamson ©April 4, 2012