At 86, Tippi Hedren has lived truly and unexpectedly. The model-turned–Hitchcock blond–turned–animal rights activist recently released Tippi: A Memoir by Tippi Hedren ($28.99, William Morrow), and the book has made headlines for detailing Hitchcock’s notorious obsession with and harassment of the then-fledgling actress during the filming of The Birds and Marnie.
But there’s so much more to her story than rebuffing the pathetic advances of a sad genius. Hedren’s story is told, rather casually, as a series of adventures strung together by this curious, resilient woman. It covers everything from her role in helping entwine manicures with Vietnamese-American culture to the filming of Roar, one of the most gonzo and dangerous shoots in film history, which sent many humans to the doctor (including a young Jan de Bont, the film's DP). She’s the matriarch of a mini film dynasty as mother to Melanie Griffith and grandmother to Dakota Johnson. And for someone who got famous for being attacked by animals onscreen, she certainly does love them now. Her animal activism will perhaps resonate as the most enduring part of her legacy, and the history of the highs and lows of Shambala — her large preserve in Soledad Canyon — and how she took it off the hands of a baby-faced Steve Martin occupies a majority of this story.
I called Hedren last week — the Wednesday after Election Day — to talk about cats large and small, Hitchcock and Chaplin, and how to survive in a world that is often actively trying to destroy you.
How are you?
I'm fine. How are you?
How are you feeling about everything?
Well, you do everything you can. And what happens? You deal with it. That's all.
I imagine in your long career and life there have been a lot of peaks and valleys, ups and downs, whatever you want to call them. There were a lot of gut punches I didn't see coming or didn't know about. So I feel like something like this election isn't a new thing for you.
Not at all. I've been voting for years.
Does this remind you of any other time, politically or otherwise?
I don't discuss politics. I just do what I feel in my heart is right. But otherwise, I don't discuss politics. It's an unending series of, you know, I've got too much on my plate [with the release of the book].
One thing that struck me as interesting is that before you were charmed by large cats, you were in these two well-known Hitchcock films — The Birds and Marnie — and both of those films are so animal-centric, obviously. Do you think that's coincidental that animals have been such a big part of your work and life?
Well, I think everybody has the opportunity to be aware of animals. Some of us become very, very much involved with them and trying to understand them and keep them safe. You know, I'm so against hunting, obviously. Any kind of cruelty to animals — they are thinking, feeling beings and have every right to be on our planet, safely. I will live out my life protecting them.
I read a scary statistic from  that since the animal preservation movement really kicked off — like, in the '70s — we have lost half of the world's animal population.
Oh, absolutely. If we don't stop the encroaching civilization — which I don't know how we stop that — poaching and hunting and treating them poorly. We have to teach our children to respect our animals and not to hunt them. It's demonic to kill these animals and put them up on a wall or a rug on the floor. It's hideous.
I never understood hunting.
We have the capability of being informed on so many issues that there's no reason to teach a child how to kill. How to murder, actually. It is murder. These are innocent beings. To walk up with a huge rifle and blow them away is obscene and cruel, and I think it teaches the wrong type of message.
Do you think it just comes from ignorance?
Well, I think a lot of it is that. And there are psychopaths who feel nothing. It doesn't bother them. Our jails are filled with psychopaths who have killed people and don't feel anything. I think being able to hunt an animal and kill it is very psychopathically ill.
I was wondering if you could talk about trying to get Hitchcock and Chaplin together?
I believe I am the only actress who worked with both Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. While I was shooting The Countess of Hong Kong in England, Hitchcock came over to London with his wife. They were promoting something or whatever it was. I had a meeting with them. And I said, “Hitch, wouldn't it be awesome to get you and Charlie together and be photographed together? I think the world would love to see these two cinematic geniuses together.” He looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?” I just looked at him and said, “Oh, I don't know, Hitch. Never mind.” He didn't get it. So that never happened.
Did either of them ever talk about the other?
No, I think they were on a par with each for popularity. Obviously there was no friendship there. [laughs]
Another crazy piece of history that you were involved in was being a part of the Vietnamese-American nail industry's inception.
Oh, I think that was one of the most important things I ever did. Many, many years ago I was asked by Dr. Barry Ward — [of] an organization called Food for the Hungry that went around the world trying to help people — he got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to go on a trip to Asia with them. I not only said yes but Food for the Hungry became a very important part of my life. I worked with them and traveled around the world for years to help people who were decimated by flood, war, whatever. It was an amazing time for me to be of help. After the Vietnam war, Food for the Hungry rented a place in Weimar, California, which is in the Sacramento area, in an abandoned tuberculosis sanitarium. It was a perfect setup for these refugees. We went up there and tried to find sponsors for them. We brought in people to teach them a trade and do whatever we could to help them through the transition into American life. There was a group of women that I really enjoyed being with and we were trying to find jobs for.
And all of them were fascinated by my fingernails, which were long and beautifully manicured. This is something I've done since I was 14 years old. Maybe I could get my manicurist up here to teach them how to do the Juliette manicure?
I called her and she said “yes” and came up once a week and gave them a lesson. They'd practice on each other and on me. We had a wonderful time. When we were finished with the lessons, we went to get them their beauty licenses. And they all passed, and then off they went into the world and it became a really common thing to see Vietnamese-owned nail shops. Some of their husbands helped them open shops. It turned out to be helpful for them.
In many ways it seems like you were a victim during several dramatic moments of your career. You literally had things falling on your head on set that sent you to the hospital with serious injuries.
You mean the gallons of water? [laughs]
Yes. And the fact that Hitchcock was harassing you on set.
Well, that has been legion since man and woman have been on the earth. It doesn't matter what vocations you go into, but you have to deal with situations like that. Practically every woman has had to deal with those situations. It's demeaning. And it's boring. I take it as something that you just have to stop immediately.
Just stop it. That's how I've tried to live my life. I mean, Alfred Hitchcock wasn't the first one to pull that card on me. So I'm good at stopping it. I'm really good at it.
I think we're living in an era where it's a little safer to be speaking up on some of these harassment and assault issues. What would you tell some kid who just got off the bus in L.A. — how would you advise them not to be taken advantage of?
Just stop it before it starts. From the first signs of it, it should be negative, negative, negative. NO. NO. NO.
So if there's a bad situation, get out immediately?
Yeah, if you have to quit the job, quit the job.
On a completely different subject, what about cats? How many small cats do you have now?
I have one house cat. Years and years ago I adopted a litter of six kittens. So, I thought, “I'm going to name them after my leading men.” So I had Rod Taylor and Sean Connery and Marlon Brando and on down the line. After about 18 years, a couple of them went away. I opened the door one day, and a cat came into the room and said, “Hold that door open. I'm going to come live in there now.” And I said, “OK, come on in, Johnny Depp.”
So now, I only have Johnny Depp with me [as far as small cats]. He won't let any other cats in.
No, it isn't. I'd love to have more cats. [Laughs.] He said, “I'm the only one for you.” He's the only child. I love him. He's smart and funny and understands English.
Tippi Hedren will be signing copies at Vroman's Bookstore on Monday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. and at Santa Monica Library on Saturday, Dec. 15, from 3 to 5 p.m.