Anthony Hopkins Remembers It All

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Sir Anthony Hopkins had his breakthrough film role in 1968, as Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s power-hungry son in “The Lion in Winter.” Half a century and many roles later—among them Richard Nixon, Alfred Hitchcock, Pope Benedict XVI, King Lear (twice), John Quincy Adams, Pablo Picasso, and, of course, Hannibal Lecter—Hopkins is eighty-three and deep into his own lion-in-winter years. But he isn’t roaring. On Instagram, he treats his two and a half million followers to tossed-off bits of Chopin from his home in the Pacific Palisades, where he has been quarantining for the past year. He paints, reads, plays with his cat. Life seems mellow.

Onscreen, though, Hopkins can still whip up a tempest. In “The Father,” a new film directed by Florian Zeller, based on Zeller’s prize-winning French play, he stars as an old man in the throes of dementia, wrenched between belligerence and confusion as his daughter (Olivia Colman) struggles to care for and contain him. It’s one of Hopkins’s finest performances, by turns wrathful and befuddled, helpless and defiant. Zeller’s screenplay, adapted with Christopher Hampton, is a kind of labyrinth that plunges the viewer inside the father’s scrambled consciousness: characters suddenly vanish or change faces, settings shift, and we feel the disorientation along with him. As always, Hopkins is a master of onscreen cogitation; you can see his character turning over thoughts, or resisting the thoughts that come unbidden. He’s now at the forefront of the Academy’s Best Actor race, a year after he was nominated for “The Two Popes” and three decades after his Oscar-winning role in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Over Zoom last week, Hopkins appeared in front of a crowded bookshelf and asked that I call him Tony. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

How have you been spending the past year? Have you been able to work?

No. Well, I did one Zoom film. It’s very odd. It’s about a time machine, I think. But it was entertaining, and I had a lot of lines to learn. It keeps my brain fresh. I haven’t worked since “The Father,” and, in fact, I’ve been in lockdown for a whole year. But I did get the vaccination last week, and I’ve got another one coming. So I play the piano and I paint and I read a lot.

I understand that’s something you’ve done since childhood, play piano and compose?

Yes, I started as a kid. I was five. My mother made me go for music lessons, and I took to it. I attempt to do very difficult pieces by Rachmaninoff and Chopin and Scriabin. I have no ambitions to play at Carnegie Hall or anything like that, but I do it for my own pleasure. I have a Bösendorfer piano, and I hide away down in my basement so that I don’t disturb people. And I paint. My wife got me to paint some years ago, because she found some old drawings of mine. So now I sell my paintings, and there’s quite a market for them.

I’ll tell you something interesting, a discovery for me. Some years ago, Stan Winston, who had created all the monsters for “Jurassic Park,” came for a barbecue or something, and he went into the studio and he saw my paintings. He said, “Who did these?” I pulled a face and said, “I did.” He said, “Why are you pulling a face like that?” I said, “I have no training.” He said, “Don’t train. You’ve got it. Just paint.” I’ve found that’s a good philosophy in life. Don’t think too much about it. Just do it.

Your Instagram feed is so lighthearted and full of joy. How did that start? Did someone have to cajole you into it?

It started with Mark Wahlberg. I was working in Oxford on the Michael Bay film [“Transformers: The Last Knight”], and he said, “I want you to go on Twitter to tweet.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’m a bit dopey about that. So I did a message, and that’s how it started. My wife has encouraged me to do it, especially in these dire times. I mean, millions upon millions of people cannot move out of their environment. So I try to send cheerful messages. As screwed up as we are as human beings, we can find a way out of this. I do live with optimism.

In “The Father,” you play a man with advanced dementia. How did you understand what that would feel like and look like?

I’ve never experienced dementia in my own family. My father died of heart disease. My mother died of old age, actually, at eighty-nine. I’d only witnessed one moment of dementia, in a friend’s father-in-law. The family around him had to cope, had to be patient. They would try to answer his questions. They wouldn’t try to contradict him. He thought the Pacific Ocean was the Hudson River, and he thought his daughter was his wife. And I watched them saying, “It’s O.K., Pop.” They’d feed him television suppers, and he died very peacefully.

But, to get to a simpler answer: if you follow a superb screenplay, the language is a road map, and so you don’t have to act. I remember the first day with Olivia Colman, our first scene together, she comes into the room and says, “What’s going on? What happened?”—about the woman I fired. I say, “What do you mean, ‘What happened’?” So those lines, obviously they mean irritation or irascibility. And then you work with someone like Olivia, and it makes it so easy. Acting’s not required. And I think, because I’m eighty-three, I’m closer to that age, that dangerous age when it could happen. I hope to God it doesn’t. That’s why I play the piano and paint and learn poetry.

The script is so clever about thrusting the audience into these moments when the father doesn’t know where he is or who he’s talking to. There’s a devastating scene toward the beginning when the daughter, who was played by Olivia Colman in the first scene, suddenly reënters the apartment and is played by a different actress, Olivia Williams, and you see the certainty drain from the father’s face. Was there anything you had to do as an actor to establish some sense of what his reality was?

No. It appears in the moment when it happens. I go to the door, and another woman walks in. [Blanches with disbelief.] That’s all you need to do. The only thing I designed within my own head was: get over it fast. “Ah, you’ve got chicken?” Disguise it somehow, and smile.

Yes, in a way what he’s doing the entire movie is coping with his denial that he actually has this problem. There’s a scene at the end where he breaks down and regresses into childhood, calling for his mommy. It’s so upsetting and heartbreaking. You said that this was an easy movie to do, but that seems hard.

Let me put it this way: I’ve been doing it a long time now. And, as the years have gone by, I’ve found it easier to act. When you’re younger, you want to become “it.” We used to have a forum out here for young actors, and all I could say to them was, “Just keep it as simple as you can. But if you have to do Stanislavski on it, if you have to do Lee Strasberg, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.” I was trained in that way myself, in Method. As the years have gone by, I’ve incorporated into my skill set a fast means of doing it. That is, to keep it simple, keep it relaxed, and know the text. Once you learn the text, it’s like getting into a car after years of experience. It’s automatic.

I was given advice about that by two brilliant men, John Dexter, the great director, and Laurence Olivier. So there’s name-dropping for you. Olivier said, “Just keep it simple.” I was directed by Olivier twice. And, as I said, with Christopher Hampton, who adapted Florian’s play for the screenplay, it is a road map. Florian told me when we met, “The [character’s] name is Anthony.” He said he wrote it for me. And he put my actual birth date in. There’s a scene in the office with the doctor, where she says, “Date of birth?” I say, “Friday, the thirty-first of December, 1937.” As a little bit of character, I said, “Can I add ‘Friday’? Because I know the date.” I wanted to show the doctor, “I’m in perfect control. There’s nothing wrong with me. Friday. You got a problem with that?” That is a man who is in control—but, of course, he’s not. He’s been used to control all his life. He was an engineer, an exacting profession, with two daughters. His favorite has sadly been killed in a car crash, we assume. And he’s a bit of a tyrant. He’s not a bad man, he’s just been a tough old father, impatient and irascible, and now finally he’s losing control of it all. In the last scene, he says, “I’m losing all my leaves. Everything’s falling away.” And that must be a devastating tragedy.

It reminded me so much of King Lear, a role you’ve played twice, thirty years apart. Did that character inform this one at all?

Yes, in a way. I played it thirty years ago, when David Hare directed it at the National, and technically I was O.K. But I was still too young. I was eighty when I played King Lear the last time, so it was easy for me. I thought, I’m going to play him as a tough old soldier who has no love—or love embarrasses him. He doesn’t like his two [older] daughters. One daughter he loves, but he treats her as a boy. My backstory to that was that my wife died in childbirth giving birth to Cordelia. So I treat her like a young boy and I rough her up, instead of treating her like a young girl, but that was the only way I could show love to her. And then, when she says, “Nothing, my lord,” he thinks he’s free. “Right, I don’t need love.” But, in fact, it wrecks him, destroys him deep inside. And, at the end, he admits to himself, “I’ve been foolish all my life, because I’ve never loved.”

I’m a bit like that in my own life, because my father was a tough old guy. He was a baker, worked hard all his life. But he was a lonely man, and he was emotionally raw, especially in his weaker years.

So much of this movie is about the Olivia Colman character and the difficulty that she has caring for an older parent. Is that something that rang true to you as a son?

Yes. My father had a heart attack on Christmas, 1979. I was in London doing “The Elephant Man.” But he survived another year. He lingered on and he deteriorated. Round about the spring, he started losing his body. I would go to visit him in the hospital, and he was beginning to become comatose. He was becoming irascible as well, impatient—with me especially, because I was his only offspring. I used to sit with him and make him promises. You know, you make these empty promises: “When you get out of here, I’ll drive you from New York to Los Angeles.” Because he loved America; he wanted to travel. I went in there a few days later, and he had an old road map of America, and he was sitting on the side of his bed and looking at this road map. I knew he would never make it.

The morning after he died, I went in to collect his things, and I saw his bed already occupied by the next patient. I thought, That’s it. Life goes on. He’s gone. And I got his reading glasses, his pen, his map, his book, and I sat in the car and thought, God Almighty.

One thing that this role has in common with King Lear is that they both need to be played by an actor of a certain age, and they’re characters who are losing their faculties, but you need incredible stamina and skill to play those parts. Anyone who’s seen your work over the past few years, like “The Dresser” and “The Two Popes,” can see you’re at the top of your game. But I was curious if the process is the same for you in your eighties as it was, say, in your fifties, when you were doing “The Silence of the Lambs.” Have you come up against any sort of limitations of getting older, where you’ve had to adjust how you work?

Well, I can’t run now. My knees ache! When I was doing “Silence of the Lambs” I was in great shape. But I still am at eighty. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. Working on “The Lion in Winter,” Katharine Hepburn said to me, “Always look after your health. Without that, you’re gone.” It took me a few years to get it in through my thick skull, but I thought, Well, I’ve got one life.

I’m confident in my age. It’s no good saying, “Oh, by the time you play King Lear you’re too old to remember the lines.” You have to say, “I’ve got a perfect memory.” It’s a form of self-hypnosis. I knew I had all the muscle to play King Lear in my way, without playing him with self-pity. And “The Father,” the same. You have to have absolute confidence. I don’t mean arrogance, but confidence, as a tennis player has. And don’t try to compete, because acting’s not a competition. It’s about coöperation and being gentle and kind with other people.

Going back to your own father, you once described him this way: “Toward the end of his life, he used to drink, and he was unpredictable. Never violent, but sudden turns of rage and then deep depressions.” It sounds like he was a bit Lear-like, or like your character in “The Father.” Was that something you drew on, his volatility?

Well, he was certainly not a violent man. He drank, because everyone in Wales drinks. But he owned a pub and he used to drink a little too much. He worked hard. I remember he had pneumonia, and he would struggle through, sweating, making his living. At the end of his life, I remember the doctor saying, “Your father’s heart is enlarged through strain, years of strain.” He wasn’t always irascible; he had a great sense of humor. But his father was also tough. I was born just before the war, and afterward we went through the years of Depression and rationing, but my father was always fighting back. There’s a lot of my father in me as well, and my grandfather—his father—in Lear.

Was your father’s father a baker as well?

Yes, he was. He was a remarkable old man, and he won lots of silver cups—I’ve got them here—for making cakes and doughnuts. My father started in the baking business at the age of fourteen.

So why didn’t you become a baker?

God knows. I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t get anything right when I was a kid. At school, I was regarded as a bit of a dummy. But I stumbled into this business by accident. There was a scholarship to a local acting school. I’d never acted before. It was 1955. I left Cardiff’s College of Music & Drama, then I went into the Army. And, by 1967, I was at the National Theatre. Remarkable decades.

One of your early breaks was when you were Olivier’s understudy, in 1967, in Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death,” and you went on for Olivier. This sounds like some kind of actor fairy tale that couldn’t possibly be real. What happened?

I went to the Royal Academy. I came out in 1963, and then I went to the National Theatre. I was auditioned by Olivier. I was an arrogant and brash young man. I thought, I don’t want to hang around playing extras for the rest of my life in wrinkled tights, holding a spear. So I said to the casting director, “Who do you have to sleep with to get parts here?” And she said, “Tony, you’ve only just joined us.” And she grinned. I think she went to Olivier and said, “This young kid seems—” So they gave me a part in “Juno and the Paycock,” and he was directing. And then he gave me the part of Andrei in “Three Sisters.” And then he asked me to understudy.

I was far too young—much younger than him—but I sat in rehearsals and I learned his part. And then one day the stage manager, Diana Boddington, said, “Sir Laurence is in the hospital. You’re going on tonight.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” I knew somehow how to do it. I was a good mimic, I guess. They gave me a standing ovation. Four nights we did that, and I thought, How did that happen?

This era of British theatre—late sixties, early seventies—was an incredible time, the same scene that gave us Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, all these great actors. But you fled, essentially, and moved to Hollywood just as you were coming into your own as a Shakespearean thespian. You’ve said you didn’t fit into that scene. Why?

I think I dragged up from my past, from my schoolboy years, that I wasn’t bright enough to do anything. I had a kind of ruffian instinct about acting, but I wasn’t educated and I didn’t have the confidence. People said I was a Shakespearean actor. Well, I did the Scottish play, as they say, and I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I was impatient with directors, because, if you have doubts about yourself, somebody will pick up on it and they’ll attack you. They’ll see it as a weakness. I suffered that a little. The director talked to me like a child, and I would become volcanic with rage. And, I remember, it was in January, 1973, I was doing “The Misanthrope,” with John Dexter directing. John was a savage director, and he would pick on me as his whipping boy. One day I said, “Fuck you,” and I left. And I was warned, “You will never work again.” I said, “I don’t give a shit.” And I didn’t. I thought, I’m not going to be cowed by some screaming director.

I went off to do a film with Goldie Hawn called “The Girl from Petrovka,” and one day I went back to the hotel and my [now] ex-wife was on the phone. She said, “Somebody’s coming out to see you in Vienna tomorrow.” I said, “Who’s that, John Dexter?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Are they going to sue me?” She said, “No, they want you to do ‘Equus’ in New York.” So I met John the next day, and he said, “Why did you walk out?” I said, “ ’Cause you’re a bastard, that’s why.” And he said, “You’re a much better actor than you think you are. Stop all this nonsense.” So I went to New York, and it was the best of times and the worst of times, in a way. I was up to my ears in the booze and all that. Then I came out to Los Angeles in 1975, and I stayed here most of my life.

It’s funny to hear you describe yourself as a younger actor who was full of anger, because you seem so happy-go-lucky now.

It wasn’t so much anger. It was just being a young man. But, as the years have gone by, I’ve thought, Drop the act. There’s nothing to be angry about. You’re lucky to be alive. It was just insecurity, fear, ambition. Misplaced paranoia, probably. But when you’re young that’s what you have to accept. I see young kids these days, and they try to be cool, but you can see beneath the mask that they’re not cool. They’re as scared as anyone else is. To admit that we are afraid is a wonderful freedom. Everything is important, but, finally, nothing is important. It’s all smoke. I look back on my life and think, Was it all a dream? Everyone I know is dead now. My parents are gone, and I think, Did they really exist? I’m going into metaphysics, in a way—the solipsistic universe we live in. But I look back over my life and think, The past is incomprehensible. I don’t grasp it at all.

You recently marked forty-five years of sobriety. Was it difficult to give up drinking?

No. I’m not an evangelist—I know people who drink and they’re fine with it. They don’t have to destroy the furniture. I was not a good drinker. It wasn’t so much the amount; it was what it would do to my brain and my body. And to drive a car when you’re drunk is insanity—I could have killed somebody. So I thought, Stop it! And it was over and done with. I’m flabbergasted that I’m here and alive. I should have been dead many years ago.

I used to drink with all the old actors, because that’s what you did in those days. I went into the Salisbury Pub in London about fifteen years ago, where I used to drink, and I just stood in the doorway. And the barman said, “Hello, there! You’re Anthony Hopkins! Come in and drink!” I said, “I’ll have a tonic water.” And I looked at all the brass, a beautiful pub of all Victorian design. And he said, “Did you use to come here? All the famous actors would come in.” I said, “Yeah, they’re all dead now.” Many of them just burned out. They touched the rafters of life. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t have to go that far. My heroes were people like Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas was dead at the age of thirty-nine. What a glorious genius he was, but what an agonizing life as well.

I think there’s an idea that actors need to live in extreme emotional states, and people conflate that with drinking. But you said something once that was so intriguing: “I’m very happy I’m an alcoholic. It’s a great gift, because wherever I go the abyss follows me.”

That’s true! Wherever I move, I can’t go back. Because for me to do that would be deadly, would be suicide. It’s fun to move forward in life and think, Don’t look back, because there’s a big, gaping abyss behind you, and it’s called death. I remember that morning, a Monday morning, the twenty-ninth of December, 1975, I thought, choose life or death. It was like an awakening, and something in me said, It’s all over. Now you can start living. I mean, I didn’t become a saint. I was still an irascible badass. But that one ingredient had left me—that killer thing.

That sense of the abyss, I’m curious if that informs a role like Hannibal Lecter, who is obviously someone who lives with a certain kind of abyss.

Oh, I don’t know. When you have a 99.99-per-cent-perfect screenplay, you don’t have to do anything. “The Remains of the Day,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Father.” They’re pretty nigh perfect. When you learn that language you pack that into the suitcase of your brain, and those words inform your body. They move you around the set. I suppose it’s like playing the piano. If you play a piece of Chopin, you hear the notes sing, and you think, Where the hell is that coming from? It’s the same with acting, with Shakespeare. “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy.” You don’t have to act. It’s there for you, all written down. But we tend to make mincemeat of it by wondering what it all means.

So the part didn’t necessarily require you to dig into the depths of human evil so much as look at the screenplay, see how the words are laid out, and that is your guide to being Hannibal Lecter?

Yes. When my agent sent the script over to me thirty-odd years ago, I phoned him back and said, “This is a wonderful part. I don’t want to read anymore.” Jonathan Demme, the director, came to see me the next day in London. I said, “Is it for real? You want me to do it?” He said yes. I just knew how to play it. I remember reading the account of a notorious serial killer—Ted Bundy—and I thought, I don’t want to read any more of this stuff. It’s hideous. I didn’t want to make Hannibal Lecter a hero.

I remember Jonathan Demme saying on the first day—it was a Monday in January, 1990—“How do you want to be seen when Jodie comes down the corridor?” I said, “Standing in the middle of the cell.” He said, “Standing? You don’t want to be reading? Why?” I said, “Because I can smell her coming down the corridor.” John said, “You’re weird.” What he is, in a way, is a lover, because he’s impressed that this young, physically vulnerable woman comes to visit the monster. Lecter thinks, God, she’s courageous. But I’m going to take the mask off her now, so she can learn from me. He strips her down to make her a better person.

You had a very solid career as an actor before “The Silence of the Lambs,” but obviously that’s the movie that made you a superstar in your fifties. Looking back, was that a good point in your life to become that famous? Do you wish it had happened earlier?

Well, I don’t know what serendipity is, but I remember I was doing a play in London and went to see “Mississippi Burning,” with Gene Hackman. I thought, God, I’d love to be in a film like that. But I was resigned to stay in the British theatre. And it was later that afternoon that my agent sent that script over. So it was a coalescing point. I knew that it was a winner. We have maybe extrasensory perception about life; you know when you know. That’s been the process of my life ever since I was a little boy, when I left school.

The great liberation for me is to know that we are insignificant, that finally it’s all a dream within a dream. Look at this moment. The pandemic has got us worried, because we thought we knew everything. We don’t. We’re in the grips of an invisible little microbe. When we come through this, we’d better wake up and say, Stop it. Let’s get together, see what we can do as a community, instead of all this bitching and moaning and attacking everyone. It’s just a waste of time, waste of energy, waste of life.

When you did the first “Thor” movie, ten years ago—you’ve now been in three—you said that you read the script and wrote on it “N.A.R.,” for “No Acting Required.” What to you separates an N.A.R. role from an A.R. role? How do you know when there’s acting required?

I try to apply it to everything I do: no acting required. On “Thor,” you have Chris Hemsworth—who looks like Thor—and a director like Kenneth Branagh, who is so certain of what he wants. They put me in armor; they shoved a beard on me. Sit on the throne; shout a bit. If you’re sitting in front of a green screen, it’s pointless acting it. Gregory Peck was doing “Moby Dick,” and one of the props guys found his script on the set. He opened it up and Gregory Peck had written on a certain page, “N.A.R.”

Oh, you got it from Gregory Peck!

So he asked, “What does this mean, Mr. Peck?” He said [launching into a booming Peck impression], “No acting required. You just look at the sea, and that’s it!” And that’s true.


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