Served up Rare
by LAWRENCE GROBEL
One of my favorite actors is Anthony Hopkins. Sir Anthony Hopkins. He has displayed extraordinary versatility in the range of roles he’s taken, from the decent, eccentric New Zealander whose dream it was to break a motorcycle speed limit on the Bonaventure flats in Nevada (The World’s Fastest Indian) to the repressed and reserved butler in The Remains of the Day to the representation of pure evil in his three Hannibal Lecter films (The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon). Hopkins has given us performances that have chilled and thrilled and captivated us for all the years he has been acting. He’s played such controversial real-life characters as William Bligh in The Bounty, Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, John Quincy Adams in Amistad, Yitzhak Rabin in Victory at Entebbe, Pablo Picasso in Surviving Picasso, Adolph Hitler in The Bunker and Richard Bruno Hauptman in The Lindbergh Kidnapping. More recently he appeared in The Human Stain, based on Philip Roth’s novel; Oliver Stone’s Alexander; Proof, based on the play by David Auburn; the remake of All the King’s Men; Emilio Estevez’s Bobby; and Fracture, costarring Ryan Gosling.
He’s been nominated for six Golden Globes, four Emmys, and four Academy Awards. He won two of the Emmys (for Hitler and Hauptman) and one Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs. Unlike some of his contentious peers like Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, who refused their Oscars on principles Hopkins never understood, Hopkins considered winning his Oscar as a greater achievement than being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1993.
“Getting the Oscar was a great moment for me,” he has said. “It changed my life because it knocked a lot of myself down inside of me. Not crippling self-doubts, but doubts that I wanted to be rid of. I think praise is a very good thing to have in one’s life. It’s better than a kick in the ass.”
I got to know Hopkins just after he was knighted and presented with his Oscar for playing Lecter. His on-screen time in Silence of the Lambs was twenty-seven minutes, yet his presence was so pervasive that his award was for Best Actor, rather than Supporting Actor. I met him at hotels in Beverly Hills and in Santa Monica and we spent long hours discussing his personal and professional life. He was fascinating to talk to, full of energy and opinions. I must admit, having seen him as Hitler and as Hannibal the Cannibal, I approached him with some trepidation. I really didn’t know what to expect. He was friendly, but a bit wary at the time. He really wasn’t all that fond of being interrogated. It’s one thing to talk to a reporter about a current movie or art project, but quite another when that reporter wants to dig deeper, get more personal, and try to lift the lid to get beneath the often well-honed surface. Hopkins surprised me with his candor about his childhood, which he was willing to discuss in heartbreaking detail.
“I was an idiot at school,” he said. “I didn’t know what time of day it was. We lived in the rural part of an industrial steel-working town. And when I first went to school, I was in a completely alien environment. I can remember the smell of stale milk, drinking straws and wet coats, and sitting there absolutely petrified. And that fear stayed with me all through my childhood. That gnawing anxiety that I was freaky, that I wasn’t really fitting in anywhere. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I couldn’t achieve anything, and I couldn’t accomplish anything. I wasn’t popular at all. I never played with any of the other kids, didn’t have any friends. I wanted to be left alone right through my school years.”
Just as surprising was what he had to say about actors and acting. “What’s so special about being an actor?” he said. “Actors are nothing. Actors are of no consequence. Most actors are pretty simple-minded people who just think they’re complicated.”
But that was in the early nineties, before Hopkins had married for the third time and mellowed a bit. In 2004 I interviewed him again when he was promoting Proof. I asked if he was no longer restless. “No,” he answered. “I’m happily married now, and I’ve changed a lot. I don’t want to sit in a trailer and work long hours anymore. I play the piano. Read. I’m painting with acrylics now. I have a small show of my work in San Antonio. Go to restaurants and let my wife do the ordering. I very much stay at home. Which is good.”
I wondered if he had read any books about mathematicians, to prepare for the role of a brilliant mathematician in Proof. “No,” Hopkins said, “but I’m a pianist, so I do have an attraction to math, even if I don’t understand it. I’m slightly obsessed with numbers and dates. I can work out, mathematically, certain dates. Today’s the 28th of June, a Tuesday. There’s also a 28th of June on a Tuesday in 1955, exactly fifty years ago. I can work out what dates fall on what days through the ages. I worked this out in Chicago. My wife was asking me, “Are you counting on your fingers?” I can remember dates of years throughout my whole life, and what day they fell out on, what I was doing. So I suppose I have locked in my brain somewhere a mathematical talent. I don’t use it because I don’t need it.”
When Hopkins was a boy, he once wrote to Humphrey Bogart, asking for an autograph. Bogart sent him a photograph. He once asked and received an autograph from his fellow Welshman, actor Richard Burton. The third actor he wrote to for an autograph was Charlie Chaplin, who sent one to him. “They were prized from the time I had them until I lost them,” Hopkins recalled. And he’s never forgotten what it feels like to want someone’s autograph. “When people stand in line at a premiere,” he says, “I try to sign as many as I can.”
Hopkins has a confident, beautiful signature. When I asked him to sign a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which Hopkins made memorable as the butler Stevens, Hopkins wrote: “Dear Larry, I think we should take breakfast in the drawing room. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins).” In James P. O’Donnell’s The Bunker, he inscribed it in character, using the same initials as Adolph Hitler: “All orders must be obeyed without question at all. A H” And when I handed him my copy of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, he wrote: “Next time we meet Larry will be in England for a few dinners of raw liver fava beans and chianti. So until then—pleasant dreams. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).”
Just from these inscriptions one can see that Hopkins is a playful, confident, complex person. And yet, when it comes to acting, the pragmatist in him always made it sound simple: learn your lines, show up, get on with it. But was it really that easy?
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “The hardest part is putting off the procrastination. I take the script and sit down with a bunch of pencils and markers and go through it very thoroughly until I feel relaxed inside, that I know what I’m doing. I turn up prepared. That’s what I do. I learn the script. Then I go through the preparation, the wardrobe, and I know where I am and what I’m going to do. But once they start rewriting on set, I say no. ‘No, no. I’ve done my preparation, don’t start rewriting it now. I’ll have to take another three weeks off.’ I always make sure that the rewrites come in time so I can learn them. I worked on a film once with Chris Rock [Bad Company]. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, would rewrite stuff. I said to him one day, “Why do you do this? To torture us? I just want to let you know when you send me these new pages I throw them in the trash.” People were shocked: “You talk to Jerry Bruckheimer that way?” Yeah, screw it. If he sends me pages on the day we’re shooting, they go in the trash can.”
When I saw him more recently, he was filming Slipstream, a small movie blending fiction and nonfiction, reality and illusion, which he wrote, was directing, starring in and had composed the music for. He seemed happy and self-satisfied. He loved being so totally immersed in all facets of moviemaking. And he was preparing for a showing of his art work in a gallery in Texas. He showed me his drawings, which were small and well done, mostly of landscapes and flowers. He said he used photographic paper, which gave them their shine. He drew with a kind of Sharpie pen, with various colors. He said his last exhibit had sold out.
He spoke about how he felt invigorated doing his art, composing music, making a personal film. “Everyone has genius within him,” he said. “It just has to be explored.” And then he confessed to changing his attitude about his profession. “I used to always put down actors and acting, but I realize now that when I said that, I was protecting myself, saying it before someone else could say it and hurt me.”
Hopkins turns seventy in December, 2007. It’s taken him a long time, but he’s finally beginning to mellow.