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Anthony Hopkins – The World's Humblest Thespian

Anthony Hopkins

The World's Humblest Thespian

by Jay S. Jacobs

You don’t want to upset Anthony Hopkins, do you? Then, whatever you do, don’t ask him to recite a certain famous line of his. “They want me to do the fava bean speech all the time,” the acclaimed actor acknowledges, laughing. “If someone comes up and says, can you do the fava beans, I say…,” he mimes falling asleep and snoring.

It’s easy to understand. The line is one of the most famous in horror movies. However, for Hopkins, it is just a part of a role he played years ago. He’s really nothing at all like Hannibal Lecter. No, Anthony Hopkins is an actor. He portrays people for a living. It’s a job. He doesn’t really eat people with the aforementioned beans and a nice Chianti.

Still, Hopkins finds all of the acclaim he has received just a little perplexing. For example, he has now been knighted, but he doesn’t think of himself as Sir Anthony Hopkins. He’s just Anthony – although even this is not just how he’s known to his family, for his given name is Phillip Anthony Hopkins. However, his middle name is how he thinks of himself.

“[I’m] Anthony,” he says. “They put Phillip first and I don't know why they did that when I was born. My grandfather used to call me George. I don't know why. But kids do that. Their fathers call them Spike or Butch or Chief or something. My father used to call me Charlie and my grandfather used to call me George which is maybe why I have a personality disorder. [Call me] Anthony. Tony.”

This personality disorder has allowed Hopkins to slip into dozens of different characters in a career that spans decades. He has played such legendary real life personalities as Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso, Adolf Hitler, John Quincy Adams, Yitzhak Rabin, and Charles Dickens. He has taken on beloved literary roles such as Othello, Quasimodo, Zorro, Lt. William Bligh, Van Helsing, Daniel Webster, and Titus Andronicus. Hopkins has been in art-house smashes like The Remains of the Day, Amistad, Legends of the Fall and Howard’s End. He has done respected modern films such as The Edge, Proof, 84 Charing Cross Road, Meet Joe Black, and The Human Stain. He'll even do the odd big bucks blockbuster like Mission: Impossible 2, Bad Company, Magic, Alexander, The Mask of Zorro, and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

But somehow, all the diversity of work has been forced to take a back seat to his Oscar-winning role of Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins also played the role in a sequel (Hannibal) and a prequel (Red Dragon). While Hopkins is proud of the character and glad that it has struck a chord, he is ready to let go of the bad doctor. This means, no matter what Hollywood buzz says, Hopkins will not be doing narration for the next Hannibal film.

“No. That’s a total rumor.” So, he’s closing the door on the character? “Oh, yeah,” Hopkins says, assuredly. “He’s done forever.”

Hopkins relates much more to his latest role than his most famous one. In the movie The World’s Fastest Indian, he again takes on a real life role – that of Burt Munro. Munro was an eccentric, slightly crotchety but good-hearted older man in New Zealand who set out to break the world land speed record on a fifty year-old classic Indian motorcycle that Munro had revamped using homemade and household supplies. He was a man who knew no boundaries. He harbored people no ill will. He was a little odd, but he was also someone who related with people and did not judge them. “I think that Burt Munro is a lot like me,” Hopkins says.

Filming Burt Munro’s life was a career-long labor of love for screenwriter and director Roger Donaldson. One of Donaldson’s first films, back in the early 1970s, was Offerings to the Gods of Speed, a documentary on Munro and how he traveled across the world to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on his rickety old Indian bike. Donaldson had always wanted to revisit the fascinating character in a feature film, but his career took a life of its own – over the years he helmed such films as Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, No Way Out, Cocktail, Thirteen Days, Species and The Bounty in 1984 with future World’s Fastest Indian star Hopkins.

At the time, the director and star were young and brash, and they got on each other’s nerves. But two decades of time and experience made them ready to give working together another try.

“We met like three-four years ago at a party and we'd both mellowed out a bit and a lot of water had passed under the bridge, and I thought that maybe we'd work together again,” Hopkins says. “I think that as you get older you get sensible maybe and get a bit of perspective on things. I'd figured out some years ago that the director is in charge of the movie. That doesn't mean to say that every director is good or that every actor is good, but the director – that's his job – to run the movie. He's the boss. I remember on the first day that we were filming, and the wheel comes off of the trailer and Roger said, ‘Can we do another take?’ I said, yeah. ‘You sure?’ I said, yeah. And so, he did about fifteen takes. But he's a perfectionist and he wants to get it right, and I thought that since this was the program. I'll just go along with it.”

“Anthony is an awesome actor,” Donaldson says. “We made The Bounty together many years ago. We were ready to kill each other after that experience, as he may have told you already. But what I did know and what I did recognize is that he’s a genius actor. I realized that to do that part so convincingly, he gave an enormous amount of himself. He always gives an enormous amount of himself. To give that much, you know, on some characters, it’s hard to put the character to bed at the end of the day and then be Mr. Nice Guy.”

In fact, Hopkins looks back at his younger, more hot-headed days with a bit of bemusement. “Well, I don't regret [what I did.] That's the way that it was then and when you're younger you’ve got a lot of ideas and you're probably more insecure – all of those things. I work with young actors now and I see their insecurities, and I make fun of them. I don't make fun of them, but I make them laugh because I know exactly what they're going through. As you get older you think it's only a movie after all. It's not brain surgery.”

Hopkins and Donaldson had first discussed doing a biography of Ernest Hemingway called Papa, but it never got off the ground. Then Donaldson asked Hopkins to take a look at the Munro script that he had been working at on and off for three decades.

“There are some sorts of movies – like this movie – that don’t appeal to the studio system,” Donaldson acknowledges. “This film has spanned my whole career as a filmmaker, really. It started out as one of the first films I made as a documentary. The real guy just stuck with me. I could never forget this guy. When I started making feature films, which was a few years later, I just thought there was something about this character which would say a lot for me personally about my own experience of coming to America, as well as be a connection to a film and a character that I had met and come with on one of my first trips to America.”

Hopkins recalls, “Roger Donaldson sent me the DVD of the documentary and the script, and he said, ‘Watch the documentary first and then read the script and see what you think.’ So, I watched the documentary. I thought it was very good. I phoned him and he said, “Have you read the script?” I read the script the next day and I phoned him up and said, yeah, I’d like to do it.”

“As a result of getting back together on [the aborted Papa project], I said, hey, I’ve written this script that you may be interested in doing,” Donaldson agrees. “He read the script the same day as I remember and called me back and said he’d love to do it. Once he was on board, the whole movie became a reality… I don’t know any other actor who could have done with it what he’s done with it. For me he found the heart and soul of this character. He found the subtlety and the nuance of the character. He delivered my lines that I’d written in a way as though this character thought them up at the moment he’s saying them. As a director you realize you’re only as good as the people you cast in your movie. I was lucky to have Anthony in my film.”

In some ways, The World’s Fastest Indian is a few different films in one. The first third of the movie shows Burt in his native New Zealand, the odd neighbor who bugs his neighbors but is respected and liked for his single-minded obsession with inventing and speed. Hopkins tried to capture the vibe of Munro, but realized it was futile to try and be him.

“I don't look anything like the real Burt Munro,” Hopkins says. “I resisted doing a Rich Little, because if you do that you become a mimic. With an accent like this guy, a New Zealand accent… if you strive to get it absolutely accurate then it's not a performance. It's a mask. You may as well get a Munro mask. That's not what acting is about. That's my opinion. So, you just airbrush it in there. You just put a couple of pen strokes here and there. Roger on the set everyday would say, 'Tony, you've lost it a little bit this morning. Let’s watch those sounds.' But the New Zealand, South Ireland accent it was easier for me because Burt sounds a little bit Cornish or maybe Irish. So, it was easier than North Ireland is much more, I think, a much more pitched sound. It's a difficult sound to get.”

The middle section of the film becomes a fish-out-of-water road movie when the somewhat naïve Kiwi experiences the United States of the 1960s. Burt meets lots of strangers who are charmed by the man’s unassuming determination to succeed, a transvestite hotel clerk, a Hispanic car dealer, an Indian and an extremely friendly widow. Looking at this time of history with an outsider’s eyes, Munro is able to experience some of the highs and lows of the era – the sexual revolution, drugs, the Vietnam War – with a charming open-mindedness.

“This movie reflects very much my own experience of coming to America,” says director Roger Donaldson. “I remember when I first came here in 1968, I was a photographer and I wanted to see Haight-Asbury. I literally wanted to see Haight-Asbury. I stood on the corner and was very disappointed to see that I’d actually missed it by a few weeks. The hippies were not quite so out there in full force. But I did remember going to a very memorable concert up in Oregon somewhere that was a week before Woodstock. I don’t remember where exactly. I got up on stage with Ike and Tina Turner and got these amazing pictures at the height of their fame.”

“It’s a bit like me when I came to America,” agrees Hopkins. “I’m pretty wide-eyed, you know? I was taken by surprise by it. That’s how I’ve treated my whole life, actually, always being in a state of surprise. I moseyed onto this train called show business many years ago. I’m still doing it. So, it’s a pleasant journey. I felt like that when I came to New York thirty odd years ago. I was taken to The Algonquin, and I'd been living in England for years, and I wanted to come to America. I remember getting up in the morning at The Algonquin Hotel on September 13th, 1974. I went out on Fifth Avenue to get a newspaper. Just walking on Fifth Avenue I thought, I'm home. I had that feeling about it.”

“I did this road trip around America – and I’ve done a lot of them over the years,” Donaldson continues. “America is just a great country to drive. Everywhere you stop, there are always characters, there’s always interesting people and they’re interested in foreigners. It’s a very open, hospitable place; I’ve found America to be. I mean I’ve seen a few nasty things, too. A few people have done things like pulled guns on you and crazy shit like that. But they’re in the minority.”

Finally, the last section of The World’s Fastest Indian is a sports achievement film, in which our hero finally gets to face his challenge and fight all the odds to attain his best.

“That scene where Burt arrives at Bonneville, I had learned that speech,” Hopkins recalls. “Not that it's a huge moment being at Bonneville, because I’m not interested in speed records. That’s not my thing. But I remember doing that scene. It was a cold morning and Roger said action and I did it and I got quite emotional about it because it was similar to my own life.” Not only is Burt Munro a character like himself, Hopkins realizes, but he is also very much like his director.

“He has got a passion for motorbikes and cars and speed,” Hopkins says of Donaldson. “He’s an Aussie, you know, has a lot of physical courage. He's been up Everest and has been up around the Horn. He’s done all of those things. He's an adventurer and his work is like that. When you're on the set with him he's always got steady cams and he's improvising and he's always moving fast. He does do a lot of takes. I remember that one day there was a scene where I'm making a cup of tea before I have my heart attack and there was this tray on the table and I have to pick the tray up, and he goes, 'Okay, cut. Let’s go again. Action. Okay, cut.' So, I went around to the monitor, and he was sitting there like this, and a moment later said, 'What the hell are you looking at? I'm a perfectionist.' I said, really? Fifteen takes for this cup of tea. It’s honestly on the screen for about two seconds.

"But that’s the way he is. And I sort of laugh at him, I say you’re crazy. He says, ‘yeah, I know.’ I mean, I don't have that. I’m more of a Clint Eastwood guy. If a shot looks good enough, I'm like, 'That's good enough.' Sean Penn was telling me about Clint Eastwood, and he said Clint goes, 'Did you get the shot? Was it in focus? Good. Let’s move on.' I love that. But I liked Roger as well.”

Hopkins has a few films coming up, but he insists that he is not constantly working, no matter how it may appear. “I haven't made that many movies, but it just looks like that. I made All the Kings Men. This one I did well over a year ago. So that's taken about fifteen months. All the Kings Men won't come out until September and so that'll be two years. Proof took a long time coming out. But this year, I've done about three.” In the meantime, being a satisfied man in his own life, Hopkins has decided to play more good and positive characters like Burt Munro rather than the disturbed characters he has made a living at in the past. Well, for the most part…

“Actually,” he laughs, “my next film [currently called Fractured] is with Ryan Gosling and I play a man who kills his own wife. She's having an affair. It's not Hannibal Lecter, but this man is a little strange. He's on the surface very normal, very quiet, and he kills his wife because she's having an affair with a man. The cop who arrests him is the man she's been seeing, and it's a revenge thing. He sets up a test. This guy is involved in those Rube Goldberg machines, and he sets up for the lawyer… he designs the perfect murder but leaves one flaw. The law finally gets him.”

Another film he has worked on is Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) computer generated version of the epic Beowulf. It was a very different type of work for the actor – and honestly not a technique that he was all that fond of.

“There were buttons all over your head. It was a pain in the ass,” Hopkins says. “They put all these little dots over you. It’s funny, you’ve got no set. You stand there with a little helmet on. You really feel literally ridiculous. Then they film you. It's a very strange process. I don’t know why they do it that way. Why don’t they just film against a blue screen? But I guess it's the new thing. I think eventually they won't use actors. They're sneaking up on us to get rid of us.”

If that were to happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to Hopkins. Not to say that he doesn’t enjoy his work, however it was something that he just sort of fell into as a child.

“I couldn't figure out anything when I was in school. I became an actor because I didn't know what else to do academically. I wasn't good. I was just slow or different. I don’t know what it was. I remember kids in school who could understand math and all of that. We had one guy in school who was brilliant. He was like a genius. I don't know whatever happened to him. He ended up driving a truck somewhere, but he was brilliant in school – a good student. David Davis was his name. He was amazing. I hated him because he never did any homework. He just got it all the time. I couldn't do that because I don't have that kind of brain. We're all different. Some people are musicians. Some people are actors. Some people are accountants. Some people are agents. Some people are newspaper guys or drivers or whatever. We're all different.”

As a different man, Hopkins is always expanding, always testing himself. This goes to the arts as well. He may make a living as an actor, but he has been experimenting with other art forms for his personal gratification.

“I started off as a kid taking the piano and I wanted to be a musician. I say that in retrospect, I wanted to be a musician. I don't know how much I wanted to be, but I just wanted to be famous. Because I wanted to escape from what I felt was my limitation in life because I wasn't a good student. And I wanted to write music. I didn't know what I was doing. I never had the technique or the understanding of it. Academically I don't grasp things at all that well. But I've always played the piano and I can improvise on the piano. The problem is that I can't write down what I write. I can read music, but I can't write it down because I don't have knowledge. My wife Stella heard me and said, 'That's beautiful. Why don't you get some help?' So, I phoned up someone who she knew, through a friend of hers, who's a composer in his right and a musician. I went to his studio, and he gave me the freedom of his studio to use this synthesizer keyboard. We became good friends and he's got no ego at all. He's a composer and a really good one. He helped me with all the electronic stuff of the computers. I don't understand that, although I'm learning. I'm learning orchestration… And I built it up that way and I made the first big piece that I call 'Margam,' which is where I was born. It sounds pretty good, and it's being performed in San Antonio in May at the Symphony Orchestra down there.

“With painting it's the same. She's gotten me to do some paintings for this gallery in San Antonio again and so we're combining an art exhibition and this symphony. It sounds like a real ego trip, doesn't it? She said that she wanted me to do a hundred paintings for this little art gallery. A hundred paintings. So, I did these little beautiful pen drawings or pen paintings like, what are they called they're like felt pens, but different types and some parts are like felt brushes. So, I painted these landscapes and I do this and change colors and then she got me to do acrylics, and now I've done twenty five acrylics for the library thing. Then I'm going down to San Antonio on Thursday to see the orchestra. So, I figure that the thing is to not analyze it and people will say, 'Oh, you've got no technique and so therefore no perspective.' I think, to hell with it. They seem to like it and they want to buy them. And I think that it's all a happy design. I'm not saying that I'm Picasso or anything, but I do enjoy the freedom of free expression without knowing anything about it. I know a little bit, but not that much.”

It’s refreshing to see an actor who is so well-grounded. Despite all his acclaim, this humility also extends to his day job. Hopkins was recently named the greatest British actor ever at the legendary London Old Vic Theatre, beating out such legends as Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness.

“It's a source of puzzlement to me,” Hopkins has to admit. “I'm very pleased that they call me that. I've thought a lot lately about it, but I honestly don't know. I blush at it because I worked with Olivier. He's a great, great actor. I've seen guys like Alec Guinness. It was a lovely thing. It's great to be told that. But I remember I went out in this corridor, and I thought, ‘Well, I've got a few enemies in England now.’ Maybe I have an attitude which is open. I don't know what's happened to me over the last few years except that some things opened up. I suppose in the last ten years, and I don't know how to explain this, but personally I don't take any of it seriously. I really mean it. I don’t. I do my job. I do what I'm paid to do. I show up and I'm always prepared. Now I'm prepared by learning the text so well that when I show up, I'm relaxed and the performance sort of happens. Now whether that's good or bad I don't know. I've been in some stuff which was bad, and I've given some bad performances as well.

“Whatever I’m going to say is going to sound very egocentric and self-centered anyway and so I better shut up,” Hopkins smiles. “I got the Cecil B. DeMille award recently [at the Golden Globes]. It was a very pleasant award, and I was very pleased to get it. But I'm still there standing up there, 'Have they got the right person here?' I still do that.”

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: February 10, 2006.

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#1 © 2006. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2006. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. All rights reserved.

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