Interview: Eva Marie Saint

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 18, 2010 5:20PM

2010_3_17northnorthwest_Poster.jpg Not like we ever need an excuse to watch North by Northwest again, but the presence of both Eva Marie Saint and Robert Osborne make our non-attendance at the Music Box's free screening on Tuesday, March 30 unthinkable. It's part of The TCM Classic Film Festival; the bulk of the festival takes place in LA (naturally) but Chicago is lucky enough to be part of the roadshow arm.

Last year The Reader named North by Northwest Best Film Made in Chicago, Ever, concluding that "nothing else shot in Chicago really approaches the classic status of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller, which includes scenes at the Ambassador East and Midway Airport." Central to the movie's charm is the chemistry between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant of course is his usual dapper self. He tosses off witty lines and double entendres as comfortably as he wears his stylish grey suit. But as Eve Kendall, the undercover secret agent, Saint is every bit his equal, projecting the kind of frosty blonde sexiness that makes even her sweater seem seductive.

We got to talk with Ms. Saint about Hitchcock, playing Superman's mom, and her stint on Moonlighting.

Chicagoist: I know that you don't really make a whole lot of personal appearances, so what convinced you to come all the way to Chicago for this screening?

Eva Marie Saint: Well, first of all Robert Osborne is going to be in charge of the little interview. And I adore him. I adore my husband and then I adore Robert Osborne. I think he's fantastic. That was part of it. And I love the idea of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

C: Has it been awhile since you've been to Chicago?

EMS: The last time I was there I made a movie, 1986, Nothing in Common, with Tom Hanks. And before that I was there in 1979 with First Monday in October with Hank Fonda.

C: When they were shooting North by Northwest, did you spend a lot of time here on location in Chicago?

EMS: No, it was mostly in the Ambassador Hotel.

C: Did you go to the Pump Room? I hear that was a must for anyone passing through Chicago.

EMS: Of course! Is it still there?

C: It's still there, although there's a rumor it might be closing soon.

EMS: Oh! Maybe I should hold a charity thing for it! I had several lunches with Hitch and Cary Grant there. I do believe that Hitch loved that room. We would just sort of hang out for dinners there. It was a very special room.

C: Pretty convenient since that's the hotel that's actually in the movie!

EMS: Yes! That's why we were there I guess. It was a beautiful hotel. I just love Chicago. Michigan Avenue. I don't think there's any thoroughfare or street quite like it in the whole United States. You probably take it for granted.

C: Well, it's true that my office is a few blocks away from Michigan Avenue so I see it every day.

EMS: Oh! Well. There are plenty of trees, and it's wide. So look at it again, see it through my eyes.

C: Most of the movie of course takes place on a train. Do you miss that form of travel?

EMS: You know, it's so strange. People still come up to me and say, "Gee, I've been on the trains and I've never met anyone like Cary Grant!"

C: It just seems like that story never could have taken place on an airplane, for example.

EMS: Oh listen, I've heard several stories about things that happen on planes. [laughs] Under those blankets. With strangers.

C: Traveling on a train with someone like that seems much more romantic.

EMS: Oh yes. My husband and I often talk about taking the train through the Rockies and California and other places.

C: I have to ask you, what was it like to kiss Cary Grant?

EMS: [laughs] I wish I could find an original, wonderful answer to that! Well, I mean what's wrong with it, right? Although I have to say--see, I have narrow feet. And I don't know if you remember but [when we kiss] we're choreographed to move sort of the way a train would move. Hitch wanted us to move that way. And--well, I shouldn't tell you this--

C: Go ahead!

EMS: Well, the thing I was most concerned about was that I wouldn't step on his feet and he wouldn't step on mine. It's not too romantic, but that's truth. But there was a young man on a ladder taking stills, and he was so involved in this scene that he fell off the ladder and we had to do it again. Which was okay. I was more relaxed then.

C: Did Hitch play any practical jokes on you during the shoot?

EMS: He was a prankster, wasn't he? I've read several books about him playing pranks. But no. He took very good care of me. One day I was having coffee on the set, just drinking coffee out of a styrofoam cup. And I was wearing the black dress with the red embossed roses. It was the day of the auction scene when there were a lot of extras around. And he came up to me and he said, "Eva Marie, you should not drink your coffee that way in front of all those people. Get Miss Saint a china cup and a china saucer for her coffee!" And they did, and he was absolutely right. Why would I just be walking around with a styrofoam cup? He just kept an eagle eye on everything. He really knew what he was going to shoot. He said that was when the movie was over, it was really edited. He didn't film anything he was not going to use. He had storyboards. Now, it wasn't confining. If there was a certain scene, "You sit here, Eva Marie; Cary, you sit here; James Mason, you sit here," you didn't feel like he was telling you what to do and where to do it. No. I went to the Actor's Studio. You do what the director asks you to do and then you fill in what you want to do.

C: But the kissing was very choreographed.

EMS: Oh yes. We weren't left on our own! God no.

C: Is it true that he insisted that you cut your hair for the part?

EMS: It's so funny, somebody asked me that and I don't even remember. My hair wasn't that long. I never had long, long hair. But they probably cut a couple of inches. They wanted that coiffed look. Sydney Guilaroff did the hair. The interesting thing to me is that to this day, women say to me, "Oh, that looks so natural, and I haven't been able to do that!" Of course not. It took hours and hours and hours to get the natural look. We had an agreement, Sydney and I, that during the lunch hour rather than have lunch he would put my hair up and keep it really nice.

C: It must really taken a lot of work to keep your hair looking nice when you running around the Mount Rushmore set.

EMS: There must have been a lot of spray. The set was so high. And I don't have a fear of heights. But I remember that at some point I took my heels off. No one had really thought about this, including myself. Me climbing in heels. We hadn't thought it through. Anyway, at one point I took my heels off and that was it. I climbed in my stocking feet.

C: Did Hitch also handpick your wardrobe for you?

EMS: Exactly. There were a few pieces done at M-G-M but he wasn't happy with the look. He had a specific look. Sexy Spy Lady. He took me to Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and the models went by, and the things that I liked--he would say, "Tell me only what you really like." And I loved the black dress with the roses, and some other things. And he said, "Wrap them up for Eva Marie." He never would have said that if he hadn't agreed with it. But he'd done his homework, I'm sure, and he didn't have the models come out in anything but what he would choose too. He was very meticulous about everything, and I loved that because that helped me prepare and work out who this sexy spy lady was. It all helps. It starts from the inside, but who wouldn't want to play Sexy Spy Lady? What actress wouldn't want to play that? But the look was so important.

C: You've played so many great roles over the years, but do you have any roles you regret turning down?

EMS: No. I really don't go back that way. I'm sure I turned things down because of the family--our children are grown up now, but when there were babies and kids around it was never a choice. The family always came first. That was one reason I didn't work more. I could not make more than one movie a year. That was it.

C: Was Superman Returns your most recent role?

EMS: Yes. I had such a good time! I kept saying to Bryan Singer, "I love doing this role and I love being in Australia--but why can't I fly too?" My favorite dream, and I'm sure a therapist would love tearing this apart, was always flying. For years and years I would go to sleep and I loved whenever I dreamt I was flying. I said to Bryan, "That's my favorite thing, flying, why can't my own son teach me how to do that? You know, fly over the farm?" And he said, "No, that won't work." I asked him that about once a week but I couldn't break him down.

C: Will we get to see you in another movie soon?

EMS: Well, there's something--and if it all works out, that would be great. My husband and I are doing Love Letters, the A. R. Gurney play. It's a beautiful, beautiful play. We'd love to do it in Chicago. We just did it in San Francisco and we've done it all over the country. But I'm happy to be coming to Chicago with North by Northwest, and then in Los Angeles they're having the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival from April 22-25 where everybody can see all these wonderful old movies.

C: Well, I just have one last question. It's totally random. My friend insisted I ask you. He wants to know what it was like playing Cybill Shepherd's mom on Moonlighting.

EMS: What's your friend's name?

C: Andy.

EMS: You tell Andy that I had such a good time on that show. It was only supposed to be one or two shots, and I had such a good time that they wrote in that whole thing about my husband having an affair. I think it went on for a couple of weeks. I don't remember actually. I loved working with her. I loved working with Bruce Willis. Tell him it was one of my happiest times doing television shows. I loved it. I haven't done series, I never wanted to do a series, but I always liked her work and we had such a good time.

C: You and Cybill Shepherd in the same room--so much style!

EMS: [laughs] She was so dear. Just tell Andy that we had a terrific time.