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When people talk about the “Hitchcock blondes” — the women whom blonde fetishist Alfred Hitchcock tended to cast as his leading ladies — the names most frequently mentioned are Grace Kelly (Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief), Kim Novak (Vertigo), Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie), Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps and Secret Agent), Doris Day (The Man Who Knew Too Much), Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Janet Leigh (Psycho).
Far too often forgotten is Vera Miles, whose beauty and talents so impressed “Hitch” — who was seeking a “replacement” for Kelly after she became engaged and retired from acting — that he signed her to a five-year personal/exclusive contract. Things began smoothly enough (her first starring role for him was in The Wrong Man), but then she became pregnant (preventing her from playing the lead role in Vertigo), the temerity of which he never forgave and sadistically sought to punish after she returned to work (relegated to a dowdy supporting part in Psycho, ironically the role for which she is most widely remembered).
Miles, who is now 82 and reportedly in good health, has been reclusive for years, and is portrayed with gusto in the new film Hitchcock by an actress of beauty and talent that is at least equal to her own: Jessica Biel.
Biel, who turned 30 in March and married Justin Timberlake back in October, made her name as a teenager on the popular television series 7th Heaven, on which she was a regular from 1997 to 2003. In the years since then, she has struggled to find a firm footing in the world of film. Some would say that her striking looks have limited the range of parts that she has been offered. Others would say that she has not always made the best decisions about which projects to take on, having starred in plenty of commercial shlock like the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Blade: Trinity (2004), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007), Valentine’s Day (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) and the Total Recall remake (2012).
She says that many of the more curious choices were borne out of a desire to break away from the clean-cut sort of character that she’d played for years on TV. “I needed to do something just completely opposite,” she says. “I needed to do that for myself.” Consequently, she continues, “I was looking for something violent, I was looking for something dark, and scary, and sexy.” She adds, “My ego was huge.”
But, it must be noted, over the last few years Biel has also been a part of several ambitious projects that showcase her deep and genuine desire and promise to be a serious actress. The back-to-back films that caused many to re-evaluate her were The Illusionist (2006), which she called “still my favorite film I’ve ever done,” and Home of the Brave (2006). After those projects, she recalls, “People were believing me in a little more. I feel like I was gaining a little bit more cred.” They were followed not longer thereafter by the similarly acclaimed East Virtue (2008), and now Hitchcock.
As you can hear her discuss in the video of our conversation at the top of this post, the opportunity to play Miles greatly excited her. She was initially more interested in playing Leigh, but, after hearing that Scarlett Johansson was eyeing the part, she reread the script, and the Miles character “just jumped off the page.” She remembers thinking, “There might be some real opportunity here, because she is an enigma, she is a bit of a mystery. And maybe it’s not necessarily ‘safer’ for me to explore this, but… I was more curious about her.”
Biel read for the part opposite Anthony Hopkins, who had already been cast as Hitch. Director Sacha Gervasi then asked to come back and read with him one more time, which she did only after getting her hair and makeup to look as Miles had during the making of Psycho. Afterwards, she was offered the part and “was so thrilled.” She found that she was unable to gain insight about the character from — or even connect with — Miles, but that Miles’ grandson, an actor and family historian, was very happy to meet with her to discuss his grandmother. When Biel shared this anecdote at the film’s press conference it prompted laughter from the press corps — “Of course he was!” But Biel says the information gleaned from that meeting proved invaluable and offered her “a way in” to the character.
Now, having completed Hitchcock, Biel faces the same sort of question that Miles faced after completing Psycho: “What sort of a career, if any, do I wish to have going forward?” It will be very interesting to see what she decides.
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