Tippi Hedren Interview #2

Tippi Hedren in Acton, CA poses for Twenty Seven and a Half Photography

Actress Tippi Hedren’s story is fascinating, unique and complex even by Hollywood’s standards. Paradoxically, Hedren is known best for four different things: 1) starring in The Birds, 2) being Melanie Griffith’s mom, 3) working to save the big cats with her organization, Shambala, and 4) standing up to director Alfred Hitchcock. Chris Neumer sits down with Hedren to learn more.

by Chris Neumer

CHRIS NEUMER: I enjoyed our last interview because we touched on a couple of things with which I was absolutely fascinated. We touched on the getting into character and how if you have a headache in your life, you can get away from that in character. You also mentioned that you had no real acting experience other than commercials before you struck it big and you said you had no experience with creating a character.

TIPPI HEDREN: Correct.

CHRIS NEUMER: And then because you are a wealth of knowledge, you continued talking and I didn’t get a chance to hear your take on it. What is your process of creating a character?

TIPPI HEDREN: First of all I read the script. If it comes from a book, I read the book, maybe even a couple of times. When the script comes out, I read the script over and over and over and try to get a semblance of that character. Of course, the character that I play is the most important one for me. The relationships that you have with other characters and what in your character makes that relationship interesting is the most important.

CHRIS NEUMER: You were also talking about the sort of one-day nature of commercials prior to working on your big films. You had said how it was a change of pace when you are shooting out of order. Was there anything in the back of your mind that you went into your first film with in the attempt to create this sense of progression but being shot out of order?

TIPPI HEDREN: The most important thing is knowing the script really, really well and almost preparing your entire performance before you step foot on the set for the beginning scene whether it’s in the middle, three-quarters through, whatever. You can get some sort of idea of your performance before that so that it all flows and makes sense. The director has to be very much aware of that whole performance too. That’s why Hitchcock always said, “The day I set foot on set, the first day, the film is finished.” And it was, as far as he was concerned, which was very interesting.

CHRIS NEUMER: (sarcastically) And no way did this ever show through in the final product ever. It never showed, ever, ever, never. You’d never see lower production values ever in his films.

TIPPI HEDREN: (laughs) No, never. That’s one of the reasons that he started right from scratch making movies. He learned from the bottom up which is the best way to accomplish anything of greatness. Knowing how everything works. It’s like what I do here. I started not knowing a thing about the personality of a lion or a tiger and now it’s 36 years later and we’re still learning.

CHRIS NEUMER: I think it’s when you finally say, “Alright that’s it. I’m done learning,” that’s when things should shut down.

TIPPI HEDREN: Then you should shut down.

CHRIS NEUMER: Another thing I found interesting was … when I was first pitched on you I thought, “Yeah, something might be interesting” and I talked to you and the story got bigger. I started thinking about it and the story got larger. I started going through it in my head and I know we had talked previously about how… I think I said previously that your story couldn’t be told without thinking about the progression of your life. I realized that in a weird chain of events you are best known for 3 or 4 things: you are in The Birds, you are Melanie Griffith’s mom, you have your preserve here and you are well known for your story with Hitchcock. I thought , “Here’s a woman who is best known for 4 things. It seems like an anathema. You can’t be best known for 4 things and yet here we are. I figured I’d do the easy thing which is to ask you. Are you an enigma? I’d be talking to people and tell them I talked to actress Tippi Hedren. They would ask if you are still acting. I would say, “Oh, on and off.” They thought you had a wild life preserve. I told them you did that too. I realized I couldn’t put a label to you.

TIPPI HEDREN: I like that.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s unique and it’s remarkable but it’s like trying to write about the movie Adaptation. You look at it and you don’t know what to say. This sort of contradiction that you have no label and yet you are this miraculous role model for so many people, how does that work? I figured I would ask you.

TIPPI HEDREN: Well, I wish I could answer that in some clear sort of method. The only thing that I find that I can do and handle this balancing act that I’m doing and whatever you do, you take it on yourself … you invite all of these things in. Melanie was the gift, but other than that, I have invited the acting thing, the modeling, the animals. I invited them into my life and I also invited the mission which I am on.

CHRIS NEUMER: Now is this a mission in the sense of here on the preserve or is it a sort of life mission of doing good?

TIPPI HEDREN: It is a life mission of trying to stop the breeding of these animals in the United States to be sold as pets. I find it horribly offensive that these animals should be treated like that. I have had the wonderful capabilities of meeting people in Washington. Sometimes I look at my life when I was a teenager and the doors that were opened to me at that time and I walked through. Then there’s another door that opens and I walk through it. I don’t walk through that door saying, “This is what I want to do or this is what I want to be.” I am open to the options.

CHRIS NEUMER: That is a very unique feature. And I forgot to include model as one of the things that you are best known for. I don’t know if this is something I am not looking hard enough for, but you really don’t see people who have success as models, success as actresses who go on to have success.

TIPPI HEDREN: I feel that there is some sort of hand moving my life along for me to accomplish. Maybe I’m not even finished. I don’t know that.

CHRIS NEUMER: Doubtful.

TIPPI HEDREN: Once I get the bill passed that I’m working on and I’m not going to quit until it is because I feel that it is that important. These beings are much too magnificent to be born to live in some squalid cage somewhere to be gawked at.

CHRIS NEUMER: Or protecting drug stashes.

TIPPI HEDREN: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: How did you first get involved … I look here and I see your cats and I see your preserve; I can’t see anything without a tiger print of some sort. Why cats? Why not dogs or rhinos?

TIPPI HEDREN: (laughs) That happened when we decided to do a film about the animals in the wild. It was because of that house on the game preserve that the pride of lions moved into it. Aside from that, almost everyone is fascinated by the big cat. They are mystifying, they’re beautiful and highly dangerous. All of those things are very seductive. I suppose that’s why people like to think that they could have them as a pet if they could master the beast.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s why I have a polar bear.

TIPPI HEDREN: (laughs) Good choice, perfect.

CHRIS NEUMER: We had also talked previously about a quote you had: you said that if you were going to act you should either be independently wealthy or have a fallback plan. I had mentioned that when I spoke to Morgan Freeman, he said, “Never have a fallback plan.” Of course it’s easy for him to say because he is very successful, but it got me thinking since these are two diametrically opposed points of view. Whom do you listen to for advice as a young actor?

TIPPI HEDREN: I think that might depend on your degree of how badly you want to be an actor. If you have no business sense, you will just put all of your eggs in one basket and you will study and you will learn. You will go to every movie, you will go to every play, you will make that your focus and your only focus. If you make it, great. If you do enough to keep yourself in a home and a bed and clothes and that’s all, that’s okay. You are doing what you want to do. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. If you want more, if you have other interests, it seems to me to develop those interests in a way that you can make them a money-making venture.

CHRIS NEUMER: What do you mean by that? You are talking now about the fallback plan that you can use to …

TIPPI HEDREN: Yes, because when you look at the percentage of actors who are just barely making it, most of them are waitressing and waitering, that kind of thing. They do that primarily and then they try to get into good restaurants where they can meet people… I don’t know how often that comes to fruition. I don’t know how often that happens.

CHRIS NEUMER: As often as I go out with Julia Roberts, I think. Maybe a little less, I’m not sure. Getting back to the original question, you are an actor, how do you determine what advice you should follow? I’m an up and coming actor. How do I determine who I should listen to? Do I listen to you? Of course. Do I listen to Morgan? Well, you know.

TIPPI HEDREN: Absolutely and I can see both points of view. Absolutely I can. The difference is that I was brought up and maybe Morgan Freeman was too, I don’t know how old he is, but …

CHRIS NEUMER: 68 or 70 I think.

TIPPI HEDREN: Well, that’s me. I was living in the depression years and even though you are a child, things get to you. You learn and you absorb whether you realize it or not. It was very hard for my parents to keep everything going. They had two daughters.

CHRIS NEUMER: And that sticks with you?

TIPPI HEDREN: Yeah and even though they never laid anything heavy about how difficult it was for them, everybody had a tough time in the thirties. I think a lot of that wears through. So you kind of think, “Okay, I would like to do this, but what if that doesn’t work. Then what do I do?” I think it depends on your business acumen, what are your concerns about your future. How are you going to arrive at where you want to be in the future which means your old age and all of that.

CHRIS NEUMER: If you were to look at this from a very broad standpoint, not just specifically on this issue, but in general… I realized when you were talking about going up to somebody at a table… I’ve heard people say that they always carry their script with them so that they can hand it to someone if they meet them. And then I’ve had people say that they never do that because not only is it unsolicited but the people are like, “Thanks a lot.”

TIPPI HEDREN: It’s a terrible imposition. It just depends on what you want out of your life. If all I wanted to be was an actress, I would go with Morgan Freeman’s advice. Stick to it. Just go on that path and just do that regardless of whether you became Sir Laurence Olivia or Julia Roberts. A lot of that is the luck of the draw too. A lot of that is the magic that is up there on the screen that nobody can define.

CHRIS NEUMER: I think it was Sid Sheinberg, the guy who green-lit E.T., who said if he had green lit 12 other movies sort of randomly, that they would probably have made just as much money, if not more than the movies he green-lit that year.

TIPPI HEDREN: It has a lot to do with your business sense.

CHRIS NEUMER: A sort of drive as well.

TIPPI HEDREN: A lot of drive! There are a lot of actors who have a tremendous amount of drive. They will go to every class, they read everything.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do those actually work?

TIPPI HEDREN: Not necessarily, no.

CHRIS NEUMER: You have to have ‘it’, you can’t teach it.

TIPPI HEDREN: That’s right.

CHRIS NEUMER: And some people have ‘it’ without actually having it which is actually a unique situation that you don’t see very often. This is going back to the enigma that is Tippi; you had said “if you only wanted to be an actress”, but it seems that you want to be more than an actress. Is that true?

TIPPI HEDREN: Yes, because I believe that I have a number of interests.

CHRIS NEUMER: That I think is the difference.

TIPPI HEDREN: I find that I really like doing a number of things. I overdo it, I get myself into all kinds of trouble because of time. I find that the thing that I do is the thing that has a deadline that is coming up the soonest. While I’m heading for that deadline, I might just stop and go into the room I have that is sort of a creative room that I can do all kinds of different projects. I can just do that for a couple of hours. Some of these things that you do with your hands, you can think about and you can free yourself.

CHRIS NEUMER: Oh yeah.

TIPPI HEDREN: I often say that I’m going to have the phrase, “I ran out of time” on my tombstone because there’s a lot that I want to do and I feel that I’m not going to have time to do it. I need to write more books. I wrote one that was published in 1985 by Simon and Shuster.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was the one with you on the cover with the lion?

TIPPI HEDREN: Yes, but I know that I have other books in me and I’d like to do it except I know that writing a book takes a tremendous amount of time.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes, that’s something I know all too well.

TIPPI HEDREN: I’m sure you do. You’re a very prolific writer.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m wondering whether that impulse that you have a lot of things that you want to accomplish is something that we see a lot in today’s entertainment world. People are sort of sick of Bono talking about starvation in Africa which is interesting in its own right, but I’m just wondering if that’s something that is present. You know Audrey Hepburn was an ambassador to the U.N. and she actually did stuff. It wasn’t just a figure-head position so we can have photo shoots of her. She did stuff.

TIPPI HEDREN: I did too along those lines.

CHRIS NEUMER: Then you see the parallels I’m drawing. Outside of Bono and maybe occasionally Robin Williams. Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal for comic relief, you don’t see that much. You don’t see people who strive to… Paris Hilton sings too. She doesn’t just act, she sings. You don’t see anyone striving to do something outside of the world like that.

TIPPI HEDREN: Outside of their own personal advancement.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah. I understand that certain people give anonymous donations.

TIPPI HEDREN: Sure. If I had a lot of money, I would do that too. I wish I did.

CHRIS NEUMER: But there is a difference. You are investing your time where anyone can write a check. You invest your time and in a certain sense that is worth more than just money. You don’t see a lot of people investing their time.

TIPPI HEDREN: No you don’t.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do you have any idea to what that might be attributed?

TIPPI HEDREN: I think some of us are given a gift of wanting to do things and having a sense of, “What am I on this planet for? There must be a reason.”

CHRIS NEUMER: For Tom Cruise it’s making Mission Impossible movies and talking down anti-depressants. For you it’s making the world a better place.

TIPPI HEDREN: I try to. I make some effort.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was impressed after our first interview… as I said I’m not usually blown away or really impressed by a person, but you’ve hit me. My hat is off to you. I’m in awe of what you do. My first thought was and this is why the article kept getting bigger in my head; why the hell aren’t more people out there showing Tippi and saying, “Look at what this woman is doing, look at what she’s overcome and look at where she is now.” Show people this. If you want to have it sort of a Hollywood thing where people are like, “Look at what she is doing”, great. Even if it is something like the Discovery channel or Animal Planet showing, “Look, here you are.” I wanted to ask you if people talk to you about getting out there or do you have a … not like a publicity type of thing, but is there a sense that your story could help others in a sort of mentor capacity?

TIPPI HEDREN: I think so, sure. We have a documentary on Animal Planet. I don’t know if you have seen it. It’s a little outdated now. It was done in 2000. I was working on a bill that didn’t go anywhere because the congressman from Texas who was head of the committee at the Department of Agriculture said, “This isn’t good for the state of Texas.” Texas has more tigers living in people’s back yards than exist in the country of India. There are more breeders and more canned hunts.

CHRIS NEUMER: Really! Well who are we to judge, right?

TIPPI HEDREN: Right, they should be their own country anyway. That documentary was done just when I was going to Washington to introduce that bill. Bo Derek and Melanie and Kermit the Frog went with me to do a press conference about the issue. That was very cool. It was an attention getter. Kermit got a lot of publicity.

CHRIS NEUMER: He always does, the green bastard. What is your current relationship with… not the big machine that is Hollywood, but in the more general sense, what is your current relationship with the film world?

TIPPI HEDREN: I don’t go to the parties. I don’t do the things that I really should like stop in to see directors or casting people. I’ve never done that. I always wonder why I’m not more involved in it, but I find that I have other issues that I feel are really, really important.

CHRIS NEUMER: Is it something that you would like to get more involved in or that you would like to see them take a more active interest in proactively seeking you out?

TIPPI HEDREN: Well, I think about that often and I can’t really come up with an idea. I think I would like to do more films, but I am very much awar3 of the fact that there aren’t that many roles for you as you age, which is kind of depressing.

CHRIS NEUMER: There might be roles, but the roles that are there are not the best roles.

TIPPI HEDREN: No, and the last three that I’ve done, I’ve died in all of them; two of them because I’m ill and the other one I’m such a bad character that I get shot in the back. She was an interesting character. Very strange woman, a schizophrenic.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s got to be interesting getting into that character. I have two more questions for you one of which is your history of acting is very intimately connected with Hitchcock. I was realizing that Hitchcock has his legacy of being the greatest director ever or second greatest director ever depending on your feelings on Steven Spielberg, but the man, the person is definitely not in the top 10 or 15 of humanitarians of all time. If we are packing people up to send to a far away planet to give them the best of earth, we’re not putting him on that ship. So I figured I’d ask you what you think the legacy of Hitchcock should be. Do you think that we should just avoid talking about how he was a complicated, somewhat disturbed man and just push that aside and just focus on the films?

TIPPI HEDREN: You’ve got two really interesting … the fact that he was an absolute genius in telling a story that frightened people. People do love to be frightened and he realized that at a very young age. You also have Hitchcock the man, who was living in that strange body he had…

CHRIS NEUMER: To scare people, just like his films.

TIPPI HEDREN: For him to live in that house, that strange body–and I truly believe that he felt in his own mind that he was as handsome as Cary Grant or he would have liked to have been. I mean who wouldn’t.

CHRIS NEUMER: Maybe George Clooney.

TIPPI HEDREN: I agree with that. The strangeness of his parents to him is another story also. You take all of these things and put them into one man and you have a very, very complicated person. He constantly thought of himself as being very simple. When you get to know him, it’s such an absurd statement for him to make.

CHRIS NEUMER: And it’s certainly not based on reality.

TIPPI HEDREN: Not at all, but what a mind he had… To be able to lock into situations that he could pull out at a moments … reading a story. What would grasp him in his mind about, “Oh, this would be a great story to tell” or “This is one of the characteristics that I want to give to one of the characters.” He could pull anything from reading about it, seeing something, whatever and he would file it away and be able to put it to use. He had a computer in his brain that was awesome.

CHRIS NEUMER: Some corrupt software in there somewhere though.

TIPPI HEDREN: Absolutely and he wasn’t particularly a kind person either.

CHRIS NEUMER: The story I heard about him trapping his daughter on top of the ferris wheel for two hours in pitch black when he found out that she was afraid of heights… It’s one thing when you find out that I don’t like rats and you send me a box of rats. That’s one thing because maybe if you squinted really hard, that could be funny. The thing with the ferris wheel is just downright mean.

TIPPI HEDREN: That was horrible, mean, cruel.

More Like This

Chris Neumer's Twitter