James D'Arcy has played a string of dashing characters over the last decade and a half, including a handsome Brit in Master and Commander, King Edward VIII in Madonna's W.E., and six different characters in the recent Cloud Atlas. Now he's embodying Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock, which hits theaters on Friday. The actor, 37, spoke with Details about the pros and cons of prosthetics, the death of the gay-role taboo, and the enduring finesse of the English star.
DETAILS: Working on Hitchcock, did you ever find yourself wondering whether you were channeling Anthony Perkins or Norman Bates?
JAMES D'ARCY: There were a lot of similarities, actually. I read a book called Split Image, which was a biography written about Tony Perkins, and he was a real loner, somewhat awkward and shy, yet he had this steely backbone. So, I'm not suggesting for a second that Tony Perkins was a serial killer, but there were certainly some aspects of [his and Norman's] personalities that were very much the same. I watched a couple of films [Perkins] made around that time, and he's pretty similar in all of them. He's kind of thin and gangly, and he has that shy quality and boyish charm. It's interesting because, at the time, the studios were trying to make him into the next James Dean, and I struggle to see how that was ever going to work. Then, of course, the role in Psycho came along and completely defined him forever. But I never thought I was playing Norman Bates. It was always clear I was playing Tony Perkins.
DETAILS: Your transformation here is very different from what you underwent when making Cloud Atlas, in which you play an elderly man and a Korean archivist. Was it a relief to need little to no makeup?
JAMES D'ARCY: Well, the old-age makeup was extraordinary and inspiring. I'd look in the mirror and I couldn't see where the makeup stopped and I started. But then you have the technical issue of trying to act through prosthetics, because you move your face and the prosthetics don't necessarily move the same way, or even at all, sometimes. With that much silicon on your face, you can feel very alienated; your skin isn't breathable and you're having a very "other" experience, like you're there but you're not there. Yeah, it was nice, on this film, to not have to sit in makeup for four hours.
DETAILS: Did you empathize with Anthony Hopkins, who's carrying around a whole lot of prosthetics as Alfred Hitchcock?
JAMES D'ARCY: Absolutely. I really felt for him. It sounds ridiculous, but, literally, your skin is not connected to the air, so it feels like you're wearing a mask. I heard that Gary Oldman went a bit crazy when he was doing Bram Stoker's Dracula, as did other people on Star Trek films and stuff like that.
DETAILS: Both Hitchcock and Cloud Atlas have you playing a gay character. Is there any dusty stigma left these days for an actor approaching such roles?
JAMES D'ARCY: No. It never even occurred to me, actually. I knew that Tony Perkins was certainly gay for a percentage of his life, and then he went on and got married and had two kids, so I don't know what happened later. But at the time of shooting Psycho, I think he was pretty clearly gay. But that had nothing to do with what I had to do in terms of acting the role. As for the stuff in Cloud Atlas, I only had one scene with Ben [Whishaw] when his character's alive, and you just try to play it for real. Here are two people in love. There you go. And there's no question of anybody saying, "No, you shouldn't do it." Those days are gone.
DETAILS: Madonna directed you as King Edward VIII. What surprised you most about her? Any common misconceptions?
JAMES D'ARCY: She's funnier than I thought she might be. She's got a very, very dry sense of humor. And I don't think many people would be surprised to hear this, but she is the most prepared person I've ever met. I mean, she had read everything about Wallis [Simpson] and King Edward. She knew everything. It was extraordinary, the attention to detail. That's not much of a misconception--when you think of her, you do think of someone who works incredibly hard and is quite focused and driven. But while some people might find her intimidating, I just found it really inspiring.
DETAILS: Though it's largely a dramedy, Hitchcock sees you back in the realm of horror, which you're pretty familiar with, having starred in films like An American Haunting and Exorcist: The Beginning. Does the genre appeal to you?
JAMES D'ARCY: No, I don't watch horror movies. [Laughs.] I'm not into them at all. I mean, I've done a few, yes, but, for instance, I've only watched Psycho once, and that was when I was 13 years old.
DETAILS: You're part of a grand tradition of British stars with an innate ability to class up a project. Is there a secret to it?
JAMES D'ARCY: Oh, I don't know! [Laughs.] I just love the movies. I get so excited about being involved in this art form I've worshipped my whole life. I think it's a pretty noble profession at its best, and I want to honor that.
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @AddisonDeTwitt.